'Lost Jews' Of Colombia Say They've Found Their Roots Raised as Christians, they say their ancestors were Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain more than 500 years ago; they now practice Orthodox Judaism. Similar cases have turned up in other countries in recent years.

'Lost Jews' Of Colombia Say They've Found Their Roots

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/167714541/167740708" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We have a story now about people the world over who were raised as Christians but have discovered Jewish roots and are returning to Judaism. Their ancestors were Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain more than 500 years ago. They fled the Inquisition to remote places, including the rugged north of Colombia, a country usually associated with fervent Catholicism. NPR's Juan Forero reports now from one community that is embracing its Jewish heritage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: At the small whitewashed synagogue in Bello, a working-class town next to Medellin, dozens of men and women chant prayers in Hebrew.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: This could be Brooklyn or Jerusalem. The men wear skullcaps and prayer shawls. The women cover their heads and wear long dresses to their knees. Until a few years ago, they were evangelical Christians. But they have converted, becoming Orthodox Jews, pious and committed to their religion. Their metamorphosis came after they became convinced that their ancestors had been Jews who settled this region of high mountains and picturesque towns.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Hundreds of years ago, on the Iberian Peninsula, Jews converted to Christianity to cloak their real identities. Known as Marranos or Anusim, they sought refuge in places like India, northeastern Brazil and the American Southwest. They also came here, to Colombia, a country not known for its Jewish culture. Today, only about 7,000 Jews live here, spread across six cities. Michael Freund directs Shavei Israel, a group in Jerusalem that helps hidden Jewish communities, like the one here in Bello.

MICHAEL FREUND: These people, the Anusim, would inevitably flee to those locations - they were usually among the first to do so - in an effort to get as far away from the Inquisition as possible.

FORERO: Here in Colombia , the converted Jews founded towns and gave them biblical names, like Jerico and Belen. And some of the given names they handed down point to a Jewish past, like Moises and Ruben, Lia and Rebecca. With the years, they assimilated and their historical consciousness subsided, but not everyone, says Freund.

FREUND: There are still people there who cling to the remnants of that memory and cling to what is left of that identity and now want to make it their own.

FORERO: Ezra Rodriguez is one of those who sought to connect with his past. Though initially an evangelical, he'd long wondered about Jewish ancestors.

EZRA RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: My grandparents had unusual customs even though they called themselves Catholic, Rodriguez says. They refused to eat pork, for instance. His grandfather would also wear a hat at all times, even in church. And in the countryside where they were from, there were other signs of Judaism, like the ponchos farmers wore with their untied four corners. They're nearly indistinguishable from the prayer shawls worn by devout Jewish men. There were also old homes that contained mikvehs, baths used by Jews for ritual cleansings. These days in Bello, it's not hard to decipher the Jewish influence, the new Orthodox Jewish influence. Men in skullcaps stroll the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: There's an afternoon Hebrew preschool and a kosher bakery. It's run by Shlomo Cano. He used to be Rene Cano when he was a Christian, but he visited Israel. He'd also played saxophone in a band that had performed Jewish songs for Medellin's traditional Jewish community. And so little by little, he'd started to feel the pull of Judaism.

SHLOMO CANO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He explains it as a spark, which led him to a new religion that made him feel comfortable. These days, he and his family pray daily. On a recent afternoon, his wife Galit leads the chants.

GALIT CANO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: They're working hard to raise their small children, Baruj and Gabriela, as observant Jews. Cano says it all feels right to him.

CANO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: We've discovered our roots, he says, and we refuse to disappear. Juan Forero, NPR News.


And we'll have more ALL THINGS CONSIDERED right after this.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.