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The authorities would probably call the 30 U.S. citizens who scoured the Negev last week Christian tourists. But the members of the group think of themselves as American Marranos, and they are determined to return to the faith they say their ancestors were forced to renounce and strike root in Israel.

Like Del and Helen Sanchez, who headed the group, most of the tourists grew up going to church on Sunday. Only recently did most of them discover what they call their "Jewish roots."

And the trip to the Negev was the first step in a quest to realize the prophecy in Obadiah 1:20, stating that "the captives of Jerusalem, who are in Sepharad [Spain], will possess the cities of the Negev." The group was looking at places to settle as Jews in Israel.

Like all the other members of the group, the Sanchezes believe that their ancestors were in fact Spanish and Portuguese Jews who escaped the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century to flee the Spanish Inquisition. Soon after arriving, some of these Jews found themselves once again under the rule of the Spanish conquistadors, who set up colonies in the Americas.

According to Sanchez's theory, these Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism to escape persecution. And like their Marrano relatives in the old country, the American Jews living under Spanish rule continued to practice Judaism in secret.

Although Helen's family went to church on Sunday, she says they "always knew that Catholicism was forced upon them." According to Helen, her family adopted unusual habits like not working on Saturday, thereby observing the Jewish day of rest. They also let all the blood drain from slaughtered livestock, which corresponds with kosher slaughter.

Helen says her family spoke about being descended from Marranos, but she says this was not something they would openly talk about. Her husband Del says his family dealt with the same issue in a very similar way.

"It was a secret that passed from mother to daughter and was kept by the women of our family," says Del, who said he learned of his Marrano roots only 11 years ago, from his father. Del says his father learned of this from his niece.

"The women didn't tell the men about this because they were afraid they might get drunk and tell someone about it," Del says. "In retrospect, I understand that expressions we used in the family which we thought were just broken Spanish were in fact Judeo-Spanish," he says, referring to the dialect based on old Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews.

After discovering this, Del and Helen have devoted themselves to bringing other U.S. Jews who regard themselves as descendants of American Marranos closer to their roots. The couple, who live in San Antonio, Texas, say they have retraced their lineage as far back as the 12th century. Del has written nine books on the subject, and has a TV program in a local channel about it.

He travels with Helen around the U.S., mostly in New Mexico and Texas, trying to convince people from Hispanic backgrounds to take a deeper look at their ancestry and see whether they have any Jewish forefathers.

For Del, this is no metaphor. He says he has taken a DNA analysis, which shows that his genetic profile matches that of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. According to Del, there are many others like him.

"We're talking about potentially staggering numbers. Historians estimate that 10 to 15 percent of all the people of Hispanic backgrounds in North America descend from Spanish Jews. The U.S. alone has 40 million Hispanic people."

To further demonstrate the validity of their theory, Del and Helen have documented old cemeteries across the southwest United States with graves and headstones featuring Jewish names and motifs.

But Del says that despite the evidence, the Israeli and Jewish establishment has treated him with skepticism. "Israel is taking in non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union along with Ethiopian Falashmura and Indian people claiming to be Jewish," he says. "How come it won't accept us - the descendants of proper Jews who have gone through the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition?"