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History Revealed: Discovering My Jewish Roots

History Revealed: Discovering My Jewish Roots

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The author’s children when they were young.
The author’s children when they were young.

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 2, and I was raised by my stepmother. No one in my family adhered to any 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.No one in my family adhered to any religious beliefs

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, R.I., 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 to 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 kosher 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 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 beit din (court of rabbis) and convert me. This took place on the second day of the Hebrew month of Elul in 1972.

The There was no going back. This was how I wanted to live my life.rest is history—I got married and started a family, and we moved to Tucson, Ariz., 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 on 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 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 They seemed to have a drive to preserve the familylearned that my ancestors had lived in the same little village in the Languedoc area of southern France for at least 300 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 events 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 of 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.

Note: In isolation, clues of Jewish heritage such as family names, repressed practices, and even DNA testing are not sufficient to establish a person’s Jewish identity. People who feel the Jewishness of their roots drawing them toward Judaism must undergo conversion via a recognized Orthodox beit din (ecclesiastical court) in order to establish themselves as members of the Jewish nation.

Esther Margaretten is a registered nurse who is very grateful to be able to live near her grandchildren in Los Angeles.
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Brucha Brooklyn April 9, 2017

Hi Jaclyn I'm Esther's daughter Brucha. Thank you for your comment. I thought I'd try to clarify something, hopefully it will help you feel better and maybe others too.
With Hashem's help here goes:
While Orthodox Jews are often bashed as not being inclusive enough, the reality is that Orthodox Jews are simply following the guidelines passed down from G-d to Moses and then on through the generations, as to whom is a Jew according to Halacha. And if we deviate from G-D's word then our Judaism becomes a worthless manmade religion and is no longer real or enduring.
So, according to Jewish law-Halacha- anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. Also, anyone who converts with an Orthodox Bais Din is Jewish. (This simply demands a sincere acceptance to live a full Torah observant life, obviously some studying and practice to be able to do so, a bris for men, and Mikva for both men and women). Anyone who wasn't born Jewish according to Halacha is welcome to become Jewish! Reply

Jaclyn Barnes Jerusalem March 6, 2017

Wonderful story how you discovered your Judaism.But there are more Jews in this world even though,there not recognized.By the Orthodox this makes me very sad because they are G-ds children to.

I hope that you stay happy in your new life. Reply

Brucha Weisberger Brooklyn April 9, 2017
in response to Jaclyn Barnes:

It's Brucha again. Character limits didn't let me express myself fully...I just wanted to try to crystallize that when the Rabbis don't accept as Jewish someone who doesn't have clear proof of matrilineal descent, they aren't trying to exclude anyone, but simply to uphold G-d's word as to who is Jewish. The proof is that anyone deemed not Jewish can become Jewish if only they have the sincere desire. Once converted properly this individual will have full Jewish status, as does my mother, and us, her kids, and our children.
I hope this helped you and can help others.
Chag Sameach! Reply

Brucha Weisberger Brooklyn January 12, 2017

Amazing!!!! Keep going and be strong. Hopefully you will end up pulling other family members along with you as they see the fulfillment that you get from closeness to HaShem and the Torah. Reply

Daniel January 11, 2017

Thank you for those kind words. I began with contacting some aunts in my father's side who are still living and an uncle in my mother's side who gave me more info. Apparently We are Descendents of Bnei Anusim of Spain.Ive done extensive research. I was astonished to hear that the antisemitism in spain comtinued even until the 1890s Which forced my grand parents to move from Spain to Puerto Rico and they Dropped their name of Bonin,Peretz and Albert but kept their spanish sir names to hide it. I did start to attend my local Chabad Center, I started with my Mezuzahs, Torah studies and I flew to Israel 3 times last year to learn more about my heratage. I must say this has been a wonderful bitter sweet journey as some family members have told me better to leave dead bones in their place. But I said Apparently Hashem has awakened something much bigger than me of which I can not resist so I Continue. Im enjoying Torah studies and learning more. Reply

Brucha Weisberger Brooklyn January 10, 2017

I also want to add that a good way to start checking out your Jewish heritage is by going to a family for a Shabbat dinner. There is a site called Shabbat.com, where you can get invites to Shabbat meals near you!! I happen to be a Shabbat meal hostess on the site, if anyone lives in Brooklyn and wants to come for a Shabbat meal and meet my family, find us on Shabbat.com!! Reply

Brucha Weisberger Brooklyn January 10, 2017

Hi Daniel, (and Carole, I just read your comment from back in July!), and all other descendants of Jews out there. Come back!!
I'm Brucha Weisberger, Mrs. Esther Margaretten's oldest daughter. I'm so grateful to my mother for taking the life-changing step she took when she was 19, and coming back to her People. It's only because of that choice, that I was born Jewish, raised with a rich Jewish education, and have my wonderful husband (born Jewish), and 11 amazing children!!
Our oldest daughter just got married 6 weeks ago. There is so much joy, fulfillment, meaning, purpose, family and continuity in a religious Jewish life. To me, it's the best gift you can give yourself and your generations, to get in touch with your Jewish heritage which was so cruelly and forcefully torn from your ancestors. Think of their pain at losing it, and their efforts to preserve it, sometimes at the cost of their lives. If they'd know that their child has the chance to reclaim it, surely they'd beg him to. Reply

Esther Margaretten January 10, 2017

Shalom Daniel, if your mother thinks that your family is Jewish, and you feel you want to sort this out, chabad.org has Rabbis who can help you with that. Good luck to you!
Esther Margaretten Reply

Daniel 33076 January 9, 2017

Bnei Anusim I enjoyed your article. I had a similar but unusual experience. My family knew that we were descended from spanish Jewry however, it was considered a dark secret. Our ancestors aborred the persecution and decided to drop their Catalonian name of Bonnin on my fathers side and Peretz on my moms side. They intermarried family members and even my mom would say yes we are jews but dont flaunt it. As a kid I thought that was strange especially since my parents were born in Puerto Rico but my parents never liked to talk about the island and my mom would tell us boys to never marry a spanish woman. She didnt even like spanish music. Imagine the confusion. Right before my dad died, he called my 7th brother in his room and confessed he was ashamed his father and grandfather kept the secret. After he died, mom spilled the beans. So what do I do with that info now. Confused. Reply

Carole Forsman Omaha, NE July 17, 2016

Jewish Roots I'm glad you found your way back and to hear of this "mass awakening" as I was seeing this myself. There appears to be a movement among many Christian Pastors now towards bringing Christianity back to it's authentic Jewish roots. I also noticed, researching my Jewish roots, an odd thing where it appears many a Christian whose families appear to have Jewish roots ended up marrying another Christian from a family with Jewish roots. My own story of finding my Jewish roots is too long for this post, but also step-by-step guided by G-d. In May I discovered I am descended apparently from the Tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Manasseh. Ephraim, Issachar and Levi. I thought most of my Jewish roots came from my German Jewish maternal 3rd Great-Grandfather whose parents are both buried in the Jewish cemetery in Ladenburg, Germany, but it appears I am connected more through my maternal Danish roots. Unfortunately, my path to take regarding my Jewish roots has not been fully revealed to me yet. Reply

Esther Margaretten July 15, 2016

From Esther Margaretten I'm so thrilled at the comments posted about my article, that show I'm not alone- as I originally thought- in being a descendant from Huguenots from the Languedoc in France, who found her way back to Hashem. I'd love to hear from any of you who are similarly descended from Anusim or Huguenots! So exciting!
Chabad.org says that if you send any emails to me, to them (Chabad.org) they will forward them to me! Kol tuv, with all brachot, Esther Reply

Denise Weiss Carnegie July 14, 2016

Fascinating story Judaism lies deep within us, as can be seen by this story. There must be many others with similar stories. Let's hope they find their way back too. Reply

Valerie Stull Clear Lake, Washington July 14, 2016

I'm on facebook messenger if anyone has info they're willing to share My mother's, mother's mother was from the Black Sea/Odessa area of Russia. Grandma said it was a Russian Jew community. Reply

Noa Hanna Ramos NW4 2RE July 14, 2016

Girona Maybe you will be happy to learn that Chabad just opened a Library in the Jewish Quarter of Girona (El Call as it's called in Catalan)a place where Jewish descendants can meet now to learn and pray close to the Jewish Museum. I'm a converted from Girona also, I didn't find my roots yet, but I'm completely sure that there is somewhere a link that I didn't find. Reply

Bel Condon Greenville, SC July 14, 2016

Discovering my Jewish roots We have a similar story, from the same place and same experiences.

Thanks Reply

Chanah Maraj Loxahatchee July 14, 2016

Converted mishpochah. I was converted 10 years ago and truly identify with the feelings of Esther Margaretten. Ever since I began this conversion journey more than 18 years ago I have always felt that I must be a decendent of one of the 10 lost tribes. I am busy caring for my husband of 48+ years, who also converted together with me, but if I ever have the time before Maschiach comes, I would certainly pursue my heratige. If not, I am sure I will know then. Reply

Ligia Maria Schwan Batista July 14, 2016

This fantastic story confirms that we are our ancestors life nowadays. The lives they had lived are within us somehow, somewhere, deep inside of our being. We don't know from where or whom we come but G-d knows. Reply

S Uk July 14, 2016

drawn with love I truly emphasise with this wonderful account. I have been studying the words of the Torah alone and no one who could effectively guide me locally. Miraculously I discovered ChaBaD and the Rebbe, may HaShem bless his memory, then everything began to flow naturally.

The change in myself, thinking and action has been amazing. I do not desire anything different and my thirst for knowledge is like a gazelle in the desert.

HaShem has a divine plan and no one will be left either behind or alone.

Thank you for recounting this wonderful experience of a lost family now reunited with HaShem. Reply

Chasity Knoxville, TN via chabadknoxville.org July 13, 2016

This story resonated so much with my soul! I know that I am Jewish although nothing in my upbringing taught me this. Around 2001-2002, my spirit was stirred and I have been searching ever since. I, too, am descended from French Hugenots of the last name Ruble on my mother's side- I have always wondered if that name had a connection to Reuven. So fascinating to read about your connection to the Hugenots as well. Connecting to my Jewish roots is like coming home. It beckons me in a way I cannot explain except to those who also know. Thank you for sharing this. It inspires and draws me even more! Reply

Anonymous July 11, 2016

Incredible story. So amazing. Reply