LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now we go to Miami, where an old recipe book uncovered a secret family history. Here's NPR's Greg Allen on how one Cuban family found their Jewish roots.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Genie Milgrom is a Cuban American who came to Miami with her family when she was 5. Several years ago, when her mom became ill, Milgrom went through her things and found a collection of recipes that had been handed down from generation to generation.
GENIE MILGROM: This was the recipes as I found them. Hold on.
ALLEN: Milgrom has a big personality, short black hair, a permanent smile. And she's constantly in motion. At her home in Miami, she pulls from a shelf some of the recipes.
MILGROM: You can see, I mean, old handwritings in little...
MILGROM: ...Snippets of paper. So this was just, you know, pages and pages and hundreds of these.
ALLEN: Many written on yellowed paper in faded ink.
MILGROM: This is one of the most famous of the recipes inside the ones I found. So it's designed to look like a pork chop, but it's really made of bread and milk.
ALLEN: They're called chuletas, Spanish for pork chop. But instead of pork, they're basically French toast that's been dressed up with tomato jam and pimentos.
MILGROM: And it was the kind of thing that the crypto-Jews had to be eating to disguise to their neighbors and to the people that worked for them that they were eating pork because that's very strong in the kosher laws. You do not eat pork. So they would make something like this, and then they would burn a pork chop in the fire. And the house would smell like pork chops, and they would look like they were eating pork chops.
ALLEN: Those recipes helped confirm something she'd long suspected - that she was descended from what's known as crypto-Jews, Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism more than 500 years ago during the Inquisition. Milgrom was raised a devout Catholic, attended Catholic schools and a Catholic university. But throughout her life, she says...
MILGROM: I have always felt Jewish. Whether it's epigenetics, it's in my head, it's in my brain, it's in my soul - you know, not getting religious about this, whatever it is, I am where I belong right now.
ALLEN: So she converted. Years later, a turning point came when her grandmother died. After the burial, Milgrom says her mother gave her a box her grandmother wanted her to have.
MILGROM: And I opened the box, and it was an earring with a Star of David in it and a hamsa, which is an artifact that we wear that's like the hand of God. That is what started me deep into searching my genealogy because in death, she sent me the message, we were Jews.
ALLEN: Milgrom has written several books about her journey - the first, "My 15 Grandmothers." Her latest is a cookbook, "Recipes Of My 15 Grandmothers." Her research took her to her family's village, Fermoselle, on the border between Spain and Portugal. There, working with local historians, she found evidence that until the Inquisition, the town had been Jewish. But it was in the Inquisition records housed in Lisbon that she found what she was looking for. In the 16th and 17th generations on her mother's side, the records showed her grandmothers were Jewish.
MILGROM: I finally succeeded in going back 22 generations.
ALLEN: And that takes you back how far - what year?
MILGROM: 1405 on my maternal lineage, and I went back to 1110 on my paternal lineage.
ALLEN: The records, Milgrom says, show 45 of her relatives were actually burned at the stake for being Jews. It's a reminder why her family hid their Jewish customs and, centuries later, were still reluctant to talk about them. Milgrom, however, does talk and has traveled around the world speaking about what it means to be a crypto-Jew.
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MILGROM: Thank you so much. It is really a pleasure to be speaking in my hometown.
ALLEN: At the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach, she was introduced by Tudor Parfitt, a professor of Jewish studies at Florida International University. Parfitt says especially in Latin America, there's a growing number of people who believe they have Jewish ancestry.
TUDOR PARFITT: Genie's a very good example of the phenomenon, but the phenomenon is very widespread and involves perhaps hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
ALLEN: There are communities with crypto-Judaic roots throughout Latin America. Milgrom, who's active on social media, says she receives between 200 and 400 emails every month from people around the world who are investigating their Jewish roots. Not everyone wants to convert to Judaism, she says. Many just want to know their family's history.
MILGROM: To me, this is not really too much about changing the religion, just kind of righting a historical wrong and being able to say, OK, my ancestors were Jewish, and a lot of people are proud of that.
ALLEN: Finding your Jewish roots is difficult, Milgrom says, because so much of crypto-Jewish history was deliberately erased, often by the families themselves. That's why the recipes are so special.
MILGROM: When I saw them, I said, you know what? If these grandmothers carry these things around for centuries, then it's my duty to honor the fact that they found that it was a treasure to save.
ALLEN: In addition to her new cookbook, Genie Milgrom is part of a group working to digitize the records of Inquisition tribunals in Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Peru and other countries - records that will help uncover five centuries of suppressed Jewish history.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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