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How I Discovered My Jewish Roots

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I was born into what appeared to be a typical non-Jewish American family, in a small town in Illinois. My father's side was English; my mother's, French.

My mother passed away when I was almost two, and I was raised by my stepmother. No one in my family adhered to anyNo one in my family adhered to any religious beliefs religious beliefs. Then, when I was 13, G‑d, my loving Father, caused a series of events to happen in my life that would lead me to discover who I really was.

The first thing He did was to send me a Jewish friend, Lena, who moved to our town. The moment I walked into her home, something awoke in my soul. I started to feel an inexplicable thirst for knowledge of anything about my friend's people.

When my great-aunt, my grandmother's sister-in-law, heard I had a Jewish friend and was interested in Judaism, she gave me a book as a present. It was historical fiction, the story of a family of crypto-Jews who fled Portugal and settled in Newport, Rhode Island, joining the Sephardic community there in the 1700s.

I was fascinated. As I read, I imagined that my family, too, had a secret Jewish heritage like the people in the book I was reading. Perhaps the trunk I had seen in my grandmother’s guest room contained secret documents revealing our true identity!

My Jewish friend, Lena, recognized this insatiable thirst for knowledge. She gave me her materials from Hebrew school and even her own prayerbook, and she taught me everything she knew about Judaism (which wasn't much). I went with her to shul on Friday nights, even though my stepmother wasn’t pleased.

Around this time, my maternal grandmother and her sister sent for me to come visit them in New Jersey. They sat me down at the table and told me that their mother's family, who were French, from an area called Languedoc Province near the Spanish border, were Huguenots—a Protestant group that was very persecuted, "just like the Jews were." She also mentioned that their last name, Pellissier, was spelled "Pellicer" in Spanish, but didn't explain the significance of that (I’m not sure that she herself knew of any significance).

I didn't understand why my grandmother and great-aunt specially called me to come visit just so I could learn about the Huguenot connection. I guess they felt it was important to tell me about my family history, now that I was old enough—and before anything should happen to them, since they were both elderly. I had no inkling of any significance, but I held on to this knowledge.

Fast-forward to college. My insatiable quest for learning about anything Jewish led me to join the local Jewish student group, which met once a week to hear stories and sing Jewish songs, and hopefully learn something Jewish. As part of the Jewish student group, I went along with everyone else to the house of a Chabad rabbi for Shabbat. Experiencing Shabbat and kashrut and other Jewish concepts for the first time, my soul really woke up! I wanted this!

But once I made the decision to lead an observant Jewish life, I didn’t know whom to turn to for help with conversion. Thankfully, my loving Father, who has always orchestrated my life for the good, sent me messengers who set me on the right path.

I went on to attend a summer retreat organized by Machon Chana. By this time, I was observing all the mitzvahs that I knew about, and there was no going back. I knew this was how I wanted to live my life. I had "come home"—this was who I really was!

The cook there at the retreat was a lady who had just converted to Judaism. She became my friend and told me her whole story, her journey to Judaism, describing the conversion process. When I heard this, I realized what I had to do—I had to convert and become a real Jew. I approached the rabbis at the retreat, informing them that I wasn't really Jewish but that I wanted to convert. Could they help?

The author with the girls of Machon Chana in 1972, right before her conversion
The author with the girls of Machon Chana in 1972, right before her conversion

 

After consulting with a rav (a rabbi who makes halachic decisions), the rabbis were told to form a Bet Din (a court of rabbis) and convert me. This took place on the second day of the Hebrew month of Elul in 1972.There was no going back. This was how I wanted to live my life.

The rest is history—I got married and started a family, and we moved to Tucson, Arizona, where we raised our children.

But people kept telling me I looked Jewish, and after hearing my story, they told me I must be descended from Jews. I heard this again and again. I thought back to the book I had read as a child about crypto-Jews, and I wondered if perhaps my French great-grandmother’s family had been connected to Spain. But it sounded like fantasy.

Then I read a historical novel about a village of crypto-Jews (Anusim) in Catalonia, Spain, who had all kinds of strange customs, but didn't know they were from Jews.

Reading this, something shook me up inside. I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. I started wondering if my French ancestors could have been Jewish, really, and if they had lived for hundreds of years in Languedoc Province, or even before that, in neighboring Catalonia, observing and passing down strange customs like these. Customs that never made it down to me . . .

Since then, I've encountered several Hispanic people who have converted to Judaism, and I’ve read numerous articles describing a phenomenon that is occurring now in the world—a "mass awakening" and stepping forward of the Bnei Anusim, who are reclaiming their heritage as Jews.

This is nothing short of incredible! G‑d Himself is waking all these souls up to rejoin the Jewish people. I cried tears of awe and mystery at the orchestration of the One Above!

This year, two Hispanic women came into my life, Bnei Anusim on their journey back to their Jewish roots. They had grown up with grandmothers who kept strange customs, such as lighting candles in the closet Friday night, not eating pork and not mixing meat and milk. At middle age, both these women found out the significance of these customs—they were descended from crypto-Jews who hid their Jewish identity from the Inquisitors. This got me thinking—it was time to try to unravel the mystery of my own family's past by researching my genealogy.

I began reading up on the crypto-Jews of Languedoc Province, and I was astounded to learn that the Spanish crypto-Jews who fled across the Pyrenees Range into France had to continue to remain in hiding, since France didn't want them either. Many decided to disguise themselves as Huguenots, and in this way, blend in with the existing populace.

I discovered that the southern French Huguenots considered themselves to be descended from the Jewish tribes of Reuben and Benjamin. They welcomed the crypto-Jews and helped them settle in their neighborhoods. Because of this, the Anusim decided it was beneficial to masquerade as Huguenots instead of Catholics. They adopted Huguenot names, mode of dress and vocations, and eventually they also intermarried with them. I remembered how my grandmother had emphasized that we were descended from Huguenots!

Shortly after, my daughter Brucha and I began researching our family genealogy, and discovered my own great-grandmother's name, Pellissier (Pellicer), on a list of Jews of Girona who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism following massacres in Catalonia in 1391. We were shocked! No wonder I had had a déjà vu feeling when reading about the Anusim of Catalonia!

We learned that my ancestors had lived inThey seemed to have a drive to preserve the family the same little village in the Languedoc area of southern France for at least 200 years, from 1560 till 1860! In many instances, they married within the village, and even within the family. They may have become Huguenots, but they seemed to have had a drive to preserve the family. And what was the name of this village? Dieulefit, which means “G‑d made it.” G‑d orchestrated this series of event to bring me back to Him!

Another fascinating tidbit we discovered: The people of the village of Dieulefit saved 1,500 Jews who sought refuge there during World War II. The citizens not only hid the Jews and provided them with forged documents, but also found them jobs for the duration of their stay in Dieulefit.

After making these discoveries, I experienced an incredible feeling of awe for the One Above. After 500 years of hiding, and even totally forgetting we were Jews, our family of Pellicer, forced to convert at swordpoint, had come home, back to our true heritage.

No one told me I was descended from Jews. There were no strange traditions that were passed down in my family. The power of the soul itself—a spark of the Divine—brought me back to my people.