Coming Back to Judaism

by Sonya Loya

I was born to Catholic parents in Alpine, Texas, in 1960, and I was raised as a Roman Catholic in the remote mountains of Ruidoso, New Mexico. I never felt a connection to Catholicism, however, and after becoming increasingly alienated from it I left the church formally when I was 18.

I had always been drawn to Judaism, and in 1996 I started practicing on my own, basing my actions on any information I could find. I did not know how to light Shabbat candles – or did I? I remembered lighting candles with my maternal grandmother when I was a child, but then I did not know that it was a Jewish practice.

In 1999 I went to a messianic conference in Glorietta, New Mexico. The conference was for Christians who believe in Jesus as the messiah but follow some Jewish practices; I went because I thought that it had something to do with Judaism. The many Hispanics wearing tallitot and kippot made me wonder if they also were checking this Jewish thing out. The service was all in Hebrew, and something interesting happened to me when I heard the prayer Mi Chamochah. The words came out of my mouth as if I had sung them my whole life. How could this be, I wondered. I had never heard those words before and I did not know any Hebrew.

A woman began asking about my family – what our last names were, what our traditions were, and so on. Annoyed, I asked why she was asking so many questions. She answered, “I think you are descended from marranos.” Marrano means pig; I knew that much but no more. I asked her to repeat herself and she did, so I asked if she was calling me a pig. “Those are fighting words,” I thought. “No, no, marrano is a historical term,” she said. “From what you have told me, it sounds like your family was Jewish. That’s why you are here. That’s why you are drawn to Judaism.” She told me about a Vatican website that listed more than 10,000 names from its archives, all victims of the Spanish Inquisition. The website also included a vague letter of apology.

I looked at the website, and it spurred my interest in genealogy. I asked my parents for a complete list of family names, going back to my great great grandparents, and I found that all the names on my family’s list appeared on the Vatican list as well.

For the first time in my life, I had some reason for my love for Jews and Judaism.

Since 1999, when it first released the website, the Vatican has kept adding names from its archives. There are now more than 40,000 names from the many places around the world where the Catholic church authorized the Inquisition.

In 2004 I opened Bat-Tzion Hebrew Learning Center in Ruidoso. That center, which closed in 2010, was a place where people like me, born Catholic, who were leaving the church and feeling a pull to Judaism, could transition from Jesus to God; where they could learn Jewish history and how to perform basic Jewish rituals, to celebrate holidays, and to prepare for conversion. Before it opened, I went to my parents’ home to ask for their blessing.

It was that night that my father let me read him a verse from Isaiah 58:6-14. That’s the haftarah we read on Yom Kippur morning; those were the words by which I was living. “Is this not the fast I have chosen for you, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bring the outcast into your house,” I read. I knew that it was time for me to repair a breach in my family that had lasted for many generations. I did not know exactly what the verses meant, but my instinct told me it was something I had to follow. After I read them, my father gave me his blessing – and then he told me that he had known since he was 6 years old that he was a Jew.

Amazed, I asked him why he was telling me this now. After all, I’d been telling him that I thought we were Jewish for a long time, and he had kept silent. He shrugged his shoulders and said “I was told that we were Catholic now, and that we had to keep being Jewish secret.” And he had kept it secret to that day; he had told this truth only to my mother and to me.

It was Dr. Stanley Hordes who helped me understand why my father had kept his secret for so long. Dr. Hordes, a former New Mexico state historian, teaches history at the state university in Albuquerque. He is one of the founders of the Society for Crypto- Judaism Studies and the author of To the Ends of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico.

The first Jews to come to New Mexico had fled the Inquisition, but it followed them to the New World; it did not end formally until 1912, when New Mexico became a state. All my grandparents had been born by then. My dad was born in 1938. A few of his uncles were in the U.S. Army during World War II, and they helped liberate the concentration camps. When they came home they told my great grandmother that it still was not safe to be a Jew.

My father’s uncles described some of the horrors they had seen and that they had recognized our family names in the camps. Then, to keep the family safe, they swore my father, who was still a boy, to secrecy about their Jewish roots.

Dr. Hordes asked me if my parents would be willing to take a DNA test. They were. The day I got the results from my dad’s DNA test, Dr. Hordes gave me some information on my last name. Loya is a town in the diocese of Pamplona, which is in the Spanish province of Navarre. There was a Jewish community there that was known to have many people who claimed to be Levites, and it had many artists. My father’s DNA had several markers common to Levites.

Two days later a friend who did not know about my family research sent me The Glass Makers, a book by Samuel Kurinsky about Jews and this craft (or art). I am a glassmaker. Somehow the pieces of my puzzle were coming together.

When I met Rabbi Stephen A. Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, Texas, my connections to the Jewish community became even stronger, as we realized that we had the same vision and hopes for b’nai anousim – the descendants of forced converts. (B’nai anousim is a much less insulting term than marranos.) We joined forces, and I completed my conversion and became a Conservative Jew on Chanukah 2005.

When I planned the first anousim conference at Bat-Tzion I never dreamed that eight years later we would be holding the annual conference in Israel, but we did. Rabbi Leon fulfilled a long-held dream when he took a group of anousim to the Kotel for Tisha b’Av, a day that he feels should honor the victims of the Spanish Inquisition.

During that conference, I found more information about my family at Beth Hatefutsoth, the diaspora museum in Tel Aviv. During the 17th century, I learned, Meir de Loya was a prominent rabbi in Marrakech, Morocco; Isaac de Loya, who died in 1711, was chief rabbi and head of the rabbinical court in Marrakech; and during the 19th century Judah Ben Mordekhay de Loya was a rabbi in Marrakech as well. I also found 15 Loya families in Tel Aviv, and I learned that there is an ancient synagogue in Tiberius named Loya.

name in my family is Robles – my maternal great grandmother was Sipriana Robles. A few years ago I found Inquisition records about Juan Robles, who was one of eight glassmakers the Inquisition burned to death in Spain in 1535. I hope that one day I will connect all the dots in my family tree.

This year I remarried. Our wedding was held at a Sephardic courtyard in Jerusalem’s Old City. It gave me a sense of justice and was very healing to my soul as we set up our chuppah in front of the picture of Ferdinand and Isabella that hangs on the museum wall. We are still here, and they are not.

Sonya Loya lives in New Mexico, where she is an artist, reflexologist, aroma therapist, educator for Road Scholars, columnist for the Jewish Link, and an activist for the anousim movement.

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