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Family Discovery Redux: More Intrigue From My Ancestry

Family Discovery Redux: More Intrigue From My Ancestry

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I think I’ve discovered all our secrets. That’s what I say each time I uncover something new in my ongoing search to trace my family’s roots. Each time, I’m startled to find something else hiding behind a seemingly closed door.

When I received a recent email from theI think I’ve discovered all our secrets widow of a distant French cousin, I had absolutely no idea how the information it contained would turn my life upside-down. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

First, let me introduce myself. My name is Esther Malka, and as I related in my previous story “Discovering My Jewish Roots,” I was born into what appeared to be a typical middle-class Protestant family in the Illinois town of Moline.

Until I was 12 and became best friends with a Jewish girl who had moved to our town, I had never met a Jewish person in my life!

During my first visit to Lena’s home, something felt “shaken up” inside of me. I was inexplicably drawn to my new friend’s people and way of life. A stirring of my soul occurred as soon as I set foot in her home. It’s a mystery to me even today why this home—culturally Jewish, though not traditionally observantaffected me to such an extent.

I can recall my first sleepover at Lena’s house. The entire evening, I could feel something going on inside me that I couldn’t explain; it prevented me from sleeping. The next morning, Lena and I made our way to public school, and as I sat in class, I had the strange feeling that she and I were the only two Jewish girls there.

Obviously, something unusual and mystical had happened deep inside of me, which only later in life could I even attempt to understand. My neshamah, Jewish soul—my connection to my people and to G‑d—was awakening.

Lena recognized that something out of the ordinary was happening in my constant thirst to know more about her heritage, and she willingly taught me what she knew. On my own, I absorbed what more I could, including how to read Hebrew and learning about the Jewish holidays.

What drew me to the Jewish people? It was the kindness I saw in Lena’s home and among the people at synagogue. I would encounter Jewish kindness wherever I turned, from that day on. Orphaned of my mother as a baby, I was particularly gratified by Lena’s mother’s show of unconditional love and acceptance; this literally drew me towards the Jewish people.

Fast-forward to college in Wisconsin, where I encountered Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin at our campus and became interested in Shabbat, kashruth and performing mitzvot.

I eventually converted to Judaism. One happy day found me standing before an Orthodox beit din (“court of law”) for my conversion ceremony.

After moving to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a year spent learning in the Mechina program at Bais Rivka, I was blessed to be able to start a home and family of my own. A Jewish family!

That was 44 years ago, and I bless G‑d every minute for the great kindness He has bestowed on us.

During the last few years, my children and I began to suspect that we might have Jewish roots. When people heard my story, they insisted that I must be descended from Jews.

But how was this possible? Could it be that my great-grandmother, Emilie Pellissier, who came from the south of France near the Spanish border, had Judeo-Spanish ancestry? This nagging thought was relegated to the back of our minds until about a year ago (as I relate in my previous story, “Discovering My Jewish Roots”), when we finally decided to do something about it. We were spurred on by the acquaintance of several descendants of Anusim (Jews who were forced to hide their identity during the Spanish Inquisition) who recently converted to Judaism.

After signing on to a genealogy website, where French family members who had access to many family documents had already entered much information on our family tree, my daughter and I discovered to our great surprise that my great-grandmother, Emilie, was indeed descended from Catalan Spanish Jews who had escaped to France in the 1500s. They remained hidden in the small village of Dieulefit in the mountain foothills, living as Huguenots, having taken on the lifestyle of the French Protestant people who had helped them and many fleeing Spanish Jews like them.

Needless to say, my life turned upside-down with this discovery. But more amazing surprises were to come!

For an entire year, until recently, when I had tried to trace my great-grandmother maternal side (from Switzerland), I was unable to go back further than one generation. This appeared to be due to a lack of Swiss records on the genealogy site. After numerous attempts, I resigned myself to the idea that I wouldn’t be able to trace that side of the family. Gam zu letova. I accepted this as for the good.

Then came the day several weeks ago whenI received an email out of the blue I received an email out of the blue from Danielle, the above-mentioned widow of a distant French cousin from whom we had already learned much of our genealogical information.

Danielle has been constructing a family tree of her late husband’s relatives, the Romans (my great-grandmother’s grandmother’s family).When she learned that I couldn’t trace my great-grandmother Emilie’s mother’s side, she sent me a link to a document located in a French archive that contains a clear line of that branch of our family. It was replete with my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s names going all the way back to Portugal—to their ancestor the Portuguese Duke of Beja, who had fallen in love with, and subsequently married, a Jewish converso woman, Yolanda Gomes. His son Antonio did so as well.

When I entered all this new data into our family’s tree online, I was able to trace the family further. I discovered, to my shock and disbelief, that the Duke of Beja was descended from none other than King Manuel, a Portuguese monarch who had allowed the fleeing Jews expelled by Spain into his country. He subsequently refused to let them leave Portugal, where they eventually fell prey to the Inquisition there; thousands were cruelly killed, including members of the Roman family.

When the full import of this discovery hit, I felt dizzy. I was a descendant of Anusim in one branch of the family, and at the same time, part of another branch from a king who had persecuted them in the extreme!

I didn’t know how to digest the new knowledge. I walked around in a daze, my only comfort the realization that when I converted, I became a new person, no longer considered to be descended from these ancestors.

Another point that occurred to me was that upon learning of this connection between a people who had oppressed the Jews—and those who were oppressed—that ultimately, good and evil are both creations of G‑d. Although evil stands for everything G‑d is opposed to, He Himself created it to serve His Divine plan.

After reflecting on these latest developments, and allowing my brain and heart to assimilate the news, I came to another realization, which showed me much meaning can be learned from this whole story of the Portuguese Duke who married the Jewish forced convert. By marrying a Jewish woman, a member of the downtrodden race, the Duke of Beja unwittingly cast his lot with those persecuted ones.

And I, not knowing any of this, did the same 44 years ago.

One of the questions asked by a beit din to a potential convert is: “Why do you want to be Jewish? Don’t you know that the Jews have been killed and persecuted throughout the ages, just for being Jewish? Why do you want to belong to such a persecuted people?”

My answer was that I wished, nonetheless, to cast my lot with them—those who have the true knowledge of how to serve the Creator in the highest way, through performing His 613 commandments. I wanted to serve G‑d in the highest way.

I knew that even though the Jews have been persecuted, we have survived, whereas those who have persecuted us throughout the ages have vanished. The mighty Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms that caused untold suffering to the Jewish people, my people, no longer exist.

In the Passover Haggadah, we read: “In every generation, they try to wipe us out, but HaKadosh Baruch Hu, our G‑d, saves us from their hands.”

Although this latest discovery of myEven though the Jews have been persecuted, we have survived family’s ancestry was initially disturbing, I’m supremely gratified that I chose to join the ranks of the Jewish nation, which, although oppressed for thousands of years, will once again be reinstated to our rightful place with the coming of Moshiach.

At that time, G‑d will vanquish all evil, and it will be readily apparent that everything comes from Him alone. On that day, as it states in the Aleinu prayer, “G‑d will be One and His Name One!”

May it come soon!

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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