U.S. Latins Celebrate Long-Hidden Jewish Roots; Geraldo Rivera, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Brett Rattner are among them
By Julie Sobel
They call themselves Jewbans, Mexi-Jews, Jewminicans or Kosher-Ricans. They can be found eating guacamole on matzo on Passover or drinking kosher tequila on Cinco de Mayo. Their ranks include Geraldo Rivera, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Brett Rattner.
Latin American Jews number some 500,000, but traditionally flew under the radar, in part because of discrimination and even persecution woes in an overwhelmingly Catholic region.
But U.S.-based Latin Americans with Jewish roots are more pronouncedly celebrating their heritage of late. Though they lack a superstar spokesman like black Jew Funnaye Capers (aka “Obama’s Rabbi”), they are building a cohesive social, religious, and even fashion community.
Los Angeles-based Ariana Lopez started the first clothing line aimed at Latino Jews with her label “Jewtina,” splashing that name in sparkly silver lettering across her shirts. She says the perception that all Latinos are Catholics can make Latin Jews feel ostracized. She means her T-shirts to build pride and community.
“You’d want to buy something to embrace your Jewish faith, but it was always Yiddish,” said Lopez, who of course comes from Jewish stock herself. She decided to raise awareness that strong ethnic identities can coexist.
Lopez’s 16-year-old daughter, Breanna, models the T-shirts, and is the company’s creative director. “Kids were like ‘That’s so cool, you’re Jewish and Latina,’” Lopez said.
Lopez’s company then created Jewtino for men, featuring shirts with flags from various Latin countries.
But Lopez calls Simon Guindi Cohen “the epitome of Jewtino.” He’s the 25-year-old director of Judios Latinos, a social group for young Latin Jews in New York City.
Guindi Cohen is a third-generation Mexican Jew who moved to the United States a decade ago. At a recent Israeli Independence celebration hosted by Jewish groups on the USS Intrepid, Guindi Cohen and his entourage wore green T-shirts with the phrase “Peace and Love” in Hebrew and English, featuring a yellow Star of David with a peace sign inside. Except for a few Spanish accents, his group didn’t stand out from the throngs of Gen Y Jews packed onto the boat.
Guindi Cohen revived a rather inactive Judios Latinos with a Uruguayan-Jewish friend, “so we could renew the whole Latino Jewish community,” he said. “We are basically rejuvenating it.”
Their main vehicle is Facebook (1,315 members strong), through which they organize monthly events and raise money. Their website, still under construction, states simply: “We are working on a new website. Pero como buenos Latinos, ’tamos tardes.” (But like good Latinos, we’re late.) Guindi Cohen’s day job is running “Spenglish,” his new high-end Latin American-accented clothing company.
“The cool thing is that every Latin country has a different culture,” said Guindi Cohen, who is from Syrian Jewish stock. “So my experience in Mexico on Passover and Rosh Hashanah combined traditional Syrian cuisines with some Mexican spices.” The group planned a Latin-Jewish Cinco de Mayo party.
“It spices it up,” said Guindi Cohen, who stresses the need to keep re-branding Judaism, since many Latin Jews don’t embrace their Jewish heritage. “It’s a very passive community,” at least in the United States, he added. “We’re trying to change that, and it’s working pretty good.”
Spanish Jews first migrated to Latin America during the Inquisition, when the Spanish government began persecuting its large Sephardic Jewish population. Many who weren’t killed became conversos, converting to Christianity to survive. Some of these conversos would secretly hold onto their Jewish heritage, and convert back, even generations later.
Several Spanish Jews sailed on Christopher Columbus’ maiden voyage to America. Later, Eastern European refugees fleeing pogroms, and Middle Eastern Jews leaving after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, arrived. Today the largest Latin Jewish communities are in Brazil and Argentina.
Over the centuries, some Latino Jews emigrated to the United States, bolstered by the large number of Cuban Jews who emigrated to the U.S. after Castro came to power in 1959.
In 1996, Dell Sanchez, the founder and CEO of an educational television station in San Antonio, learned a family secret. His 77-year-old father told him that a Jewish family in Mexico had given his grandfather up for adoption. This information had been passed discretely down through the generations.
His wife of 45 years, born Helen Martinez, had long ago told him that she had Jewish roots on her mother’s side.
“I joke, had it been “Martinezstein” I might have believed you,” he said. But once he found out that he, too, had Jewish roots, he began to research his family history.
Sanchez and his wife founded the Alliyah Sephardic Center, which seeks to reconnect Latino/Sephardic Jews with their history, and to encourage trips and ultimately emigration to Israel (Alliyah means returning to Israel and becoming a citizen).
Sanchez has emerged as a leader in educating Latinos on investigating and reclaiming their Jewish identities. Through DNA testing, his group has helped over 100 Latin Americans find out whether they have Jewish roots.
He tells about a Jewish family in Mexico who travels six hours to be at Sanchez’s synagogue Saturday morning, then returns to Mexico on Sunday. The swine flu outbreak hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm.
“What’s wrong, are you loco? Are you crazy?” people have asked Sanchez of Alliyah, which he and his family plan to do as well. “I guess we all are kind of loco in terms of the passion, the commitment.”