I Knew It My Heart: A #LessonLearned from Alexandra Rosas

Even her shirt sounds Jewish!

Way back in December, I asked Alexandra Rosas of Good Day, Regular People the question in a tweet. “Are you Jewish?” And while she said she responded that she wasn’t, she told me bits of the story featured below.

I knew I had to have her share it here.

Those of you who follow Alexandra know she is normally pee-in-your-pants funny. This piece is special because it reveals another side of her writing repertoire.

Alexandra is the oversensitive mother of three who, in a surreal twist of life, found herself named as BlogHer ’11′s Voice of The Year for Humor. She has been a mother since 1994, which means she hasn’t been right about anything since. Besides trying to go unnoticed in her small town, she fills her days blogging of the sweet and the funny at her humor site Good Day, Regular People. Alexandra claims to be socially awkward and that the Internet was created for her — but I don’t buy it.

Folks can read her blog, follow her on Twitter at @GDRPempress. Or if you do the Facebook thing, you can find her here.

Now! Pay attention! Because this is history and personal narrative rolled into a ball of fabulousness!

Click on the teacher’s arm to see other people who have written in the #LessonsLearned series.

• • •

I Knew It, My Heart

In the seventh grade, one of my favorite places to spend the weekends was my friend Lisa Seraphim’s house. Everything felt so instantly familiar there, especially the things her mother would do.

Lisa and I would help her mother clean up and cook. I’d watch as she’d sweep the kitchen floor from the corners first, and then gather the dust into the center of the room. I’d look at her mother and say with astonishment, “That’s how my grandmother taught me how to do it too!”

Her mother would start dinner and the first step was to always rinse the meat, being sure to remove all the nerves before soaking it in salt water. Just like home, I’d think to myself. In the mornings, as we’d crack eggs for breakfast, her mother would instruct us to throw out any eggs that had blood spots in them. “My grandmother tells me the same thing,” I’d answer politely. Just like home, even though Lisa’s home was Jewish, and mine was Colombian.

Mrs. Seraphim would cook with garlic, cumin, olive oil, and tomatoes. Always tomatoes, like my Spanish grandmother’s dishes. The meals at Lisa’s house were identical to the meals at my house; I never had to worry about whether or not I would like what she would serve.

Lisa had younger brothers, the same as I did, with long, curly hair. They had to wait until the boys were at least three years old before they could cut their hair. My family had done the same thing with my brothers.

I never thought much about all the similarities between my family and Lisa’s. I was attracted to them and felt comfortable in the things that the Seraphim’s did. Beyond that, I never thought further.

Did I think it odd that Lisa was Jewish and I was a Catholic that had come from South America, yet we had too much in common to be a coincidence? I didn’t. It wasn’t until years later, while in a college World Religions Class that my mouth and eyes opened in an aha moment when the professor began to cover The Spanish Inquisition and told us about the Jews that escaped from Spain to avoid persecution and found safety in The Canary Islands. I felt dizzy in my chair.

State flag of the Autonomous Community of the ...

State flag of the Autonomous Community of the Canary Islands (source: Wikipedia)

My grandmother’s family had come from The Canary Islands.

My grandmother rinsed the meat from the butcher to free it of any blood, my grandmother lit candles in a closed off room on Friday nights, my grandmother would not buy fish without scales.

This was before the days of home computers, so I spent that night after class poring over the books in the campus library. There were books on this subject! The group of Jews that had gone to live in secret were known as Crypto-Jews. I found a list of questions called “Fifteenth Century Spain and Crypto-Jewish Customs.”

As I raced through the questions, answering yes to over half of them, my mind couldn’t believe it. Does your family fast during la semana santa? Yes. Does your family celebrate El Dia Puro? Yes. Does your family clean the house on Fridays during the day? Yes. Are biblical names common in your family?

Every other uncle in my family was named Moises.

But the next bit of information I found made me clap my hand over my mouth to keep quiet. There was a list of eight, ONLY eight, Crypto-Judaic family surnames from The Canary Islands. I read through it holding my breath.

My grandmother’s maiden name was on it.

Was I a descendant of Crypto-Jews? I’ll never know; sadly, my grandmother has been gone twenty-five years now (we clipped locks of her curls, and wrapped them in tissue paper). I prefer to think of this information as the reason why I have always been drawn to and had an affinity for the Jewish friends in my life. It’s as if my heart already knew.

Have you ever heard of Crypto-Jews? Tell me something fantastic about your ethnic background? If you could be of a different ethnicity, what do you wish you could be?

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60 responses to “I Knew It My Heart: A #LessonLearned from Alexandra Rosas

  1. Wow. That’s some story. I had never heard of Crypto-Jews per se, but I had heard of Jews who converted and changed their names to escape the Inquisition. Very interesting post, Alexandra.

    My own background is not nearly as interesting, but it does have a ripple. My father is Jewish and my mother was born and raised Catholic. My mother converted to Judaism before my parents were married (and before I was born), but because it was not an Orthodox conversion (only Conservative, at best), Orthodox Jews do not recognize it. One is born Jewish by being born to a Jewish mother; the father’s religion, to the Orthodox, is irrelevant. Hence, according to the Orthodox, I was not born to a Jewish mother, and am not Jewish myself. Yet I was raised Jewish – Hebrew school, Bar Mitzvah, getting dragged to minyan – you name it. So I’m kind of in Jewish limbo.

  2. I love Alexandra and I loved this post. She’s entirely too humble, and although she needs no help showing off her fabulousness, I thank you for doing so as well. ;)

    I’m Polish and my grandma is a very devout Catholic. However, I am not religious at all, something I will never reveal to her. We did have many traditions such as leaving an empty place at the table at Easter, oplatek, etc. for the holidays and many traditional foods, a few of which only me and my mom know how to make (a feat, considering my grandma has six kids and more than 60 grand and great-grand kids.)

    I always thought I should be Jewish, if only because of my beliefs and the fact I have a big nose ;)

  3. What a cool heritage!! I bet you could find out more information through ancestry.com….Family investigation can be very exciting. It makes a mysterious past for Regular People!

  4. My ancestors are from the small (VERY small) Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, where everyone who goes to Europe stops to have lunch. Even though it’s small, we have the passport from 1846 allowing my great-great-grandfather to bring his family, including my great-grandfather, and a rifle to protect his family to the USA. We know the town where he was born and the town where they lived. (My brother has been to both.) They traveled to Belgium and traveled by ship from Antwerp to New York City and then took the train to upstate New York to find farm land and begin a new life, speaking only their native Luxembourgish and French. Somehow they learned German (the lingua franca of the area) and English and made a go of it, had 8 children, 6 of whom lived to adulthood. I’m proud of my unique heritage.

    • Unique, and WOW. You’re allowed to bring a gun. What did they expect over here? Interesting story, and makes me want to ask you: do you have children? Is this story noted/written down for them? I have, since preparing this for Renee, made a copy for each of my boys.

      I am so grateful that Renee’s tweet out to me made what I knew, the call to document.

  5. We have a family book that traces our Dutch family back to the mid 1400′s. I am in the book, appearing 500 years later. Is it an accident that my family migrated/ escaped from Spain to Holland in the 1400′s? No, my maiden name is de Kanter (Dutch spelling) from the original Canter/Cantere. Fabulous post. I can just imagine how fast your mind was running and how powerful that ah-ha night in the library had to have been. Thank you for sharing.

    • Your story is fascinating as well. I often wish in my heart that I had the means to find out all about our lineage. But, with records being kept by hand in churches that no longer exist, I’m sure chunks are missing. That is so sad, someone — who I came from — just a broken link.

      Oh, well, at least I have this story written down now. I can’t think Renee enough, and her intuition, that pushed her to ask me. I really am grateful.

  6. You make your guest posters feel so proud to be here, how do you do that?

    Thank you, Renee, this story took a while to crop down: it was three pages long!

    My grandmother’s maiden name is Franco, which is one of the eight names listed on those who came from the Canary Islands. To this day, I remember the chills I felt when I ran down the printed names with my index finger and saw FRANCO, 5th way down.

    Incredible.

    But amazingly explains why I always felt so welcome in the homes of my Jewish friends, just as you’ve done to make me feel welcome here.

    Thank you for all you’ve done to make this post just perfect right here. Where it, too, is right at home.

    xo

    • You know I LOVED this story the moment you shared it with me. I’m so glad you working on it and pared it down to its most gorgeous and essential parts. It is such a special story. Thank you for sharing your words today with everyone.

      I’m so glad that you have given your children copies of this story so they can wonder.

      We are all so interconnected. Truly.

      Your story speaks to that, no?

  7. Alright, your facinating tale has inspired me darling! I haven’t a clue about my family–I know there’s some German in there but I have a French name and am the only one in my possee with red hair and green eyes. Hmmmm…..there may be a mailman back in the list but I’m going to attempt to dig. If there be skeletons, I’ll be a-posting…

    • Chantel, anything you find, I’d be interesting in reading. We are first generation Americans, my husband and I. It’s difficult to begin a family research project that way, but if you’ve got some clues here in the states: who knows what you’d turn up. Maybe there’s a famous cook from the Buckingham Palace in there??? (a ginger, to be sure.)

      xo

  8. Oh my goodness. Now I am going to have to do some research.

    You see, shortly before my Abuelo passed away, he was telling my brother about some of our heritage. Somewhere in the lineage, we have a great great (not sure how many) grandparent who was from Africa (I don’t know where). We also have one from the Canary Islands. And now that I think about it, there are a few Abrahams in the family.

    Wow. How cool is that?

    My mother’s side of the family is Italian (specifically Sicilian and Napolitano) and then her mother’s family goes back to practically the Mayflower.

    I don’t know that I would pick anything different, since I have such a variety already! :)

  9. Alexandra, that is AMAZING!

    I’m Chinese, 3rd generation in Malaysia. There is a picture of my paternal great-grandfather at my grandmother’s house – it’s black and white, and he had a pigtail, very common among the men in China over 100 years ago. He had a long beard. He was a scholar, a very important social standing in those days. An old lady, a family friend (who has since passed on) actually knew him, and told me that I looked like him, sans the pigtail and beard. That astounded me, and has stayed with me since I was that innocent little girl, marveling over the fact that we even had a picture of this man, who lived in a different century from me.

    • A, I would LOVE a post on this. Absolutely love. Can you scan the picture and put it up on your blog?

      This is so fascinating…get it on the internet, and print your story out for your boys to have forever.

      I know, without the prompt from Renee, this story of mine here would have remained in my head. And gone nowhere else.

      I was waiting for it to be published here, but after today, I’m going to submit this to the Center for Crypto-Jew Studies I found online. They look for Crypto-Jew stories, and already have 500 on file. The reading I’ve been doing there is something I can’t get enough of.

      I hope you do do a post, A. I sincerely mean that. It would be a treat to your American audience.

  10. THis is so interesting! I love this stuff. My family always jokes that my mother is part Spanish because she and her mom would get so olive in the summer, and my mom was constantly being mistaken for her Spanish friend. My mother’s ancestors all came from Ireland, so we joke that something must have gone down during the Spanish Inquisition! There is no way she (and my grandmother) have/had 100% Irish skin!

    • Listen to this (now my geekness is going to show) I am dark. Like milk in coffee dark. That picture above is of my skin in WINTER. My hair is almost black, my eyes are pitch black.

      I was positive from whenever on that any children I’d ever have would be DARK.

      But oh and now it gets thick: my 3 boys are LIGHT WITH dark blonde hair and blue eyes, green eyes. NARY A dark haired child with brown eyes. Not even hazel.

      So, I went back to my genetics books: Mendel’s study on brown dominating in all cases EXCEPT when both sides of the DNA contributors have blue/green in background. MEANING: I have blue or green eyes in my family history.

      I asked my mother about this. We are Colombian. She paused,”ohhh…..yeeees. There was your great great aunt Tulipa. We called her the movie star because she was so blonde. And had the bluest eyes.”

      WTH? In the hills of Colombia? A BLONDE? And no one questioned it?

      Stay tuned for part II. The digging begins……..

  11. Many years ago (before Ancestry.com) my uncle did extensive genealogy research on my father’s family. He traced our lineage back to 16th century Scotland. The trail ended with a boy named Tommy Tannehill. As the story goes, my great, great, great (something like 12 greats…) grandparents found a child wandering near their home, and took him in.

    His surname was given because they found him on a “high hill” near their home.

    The story my uncle spent years learning is now out there with the click of a button.

    http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~geneal/src/Tannehill/tannehil.html

    I am descended from Tommy Tannehill’s youngest son, William.

  12. I LOVE THIS.

    And I love how it’s preserved. Off to see it now. And thank you, for letting us know.

    This is exciting to me.

  13. I’ve always wanted a story like this one. My ancestors came from Scandinavia and the British Isles. So now my husband and I celebrate holidays from all different places to try and add spice. We don’t celebrate the same ones every year so this “tradition” may not continue with future generations…

    • Marianne, are there older still surviving relatives that you can interview, take notes, anything to trip or give a hint as to where your roots begin?

      Try it, the elderly are such an important link in this chain.

      I hope you do find something out from a great aunt, a 2nd cousin, someone who is still here to connect past to present. Thank you so much for stopping, and the kind words.

  14. What a super-duper interesting post! I’ve never heard of Crypto-Jews before. Thank you for a new gem of knowledge today!

    My heritage is rather dull. My relatives were German immigrants who settled in WV and MD in the 1870s and worked mostly as farmers, though one of my decendants was a dentist in Baltimore, MD in the early 1900s. I think this must be why I enjoy klunky, starchy foods so much, and additionally, why I have such great teeth! :)

  15. This was a fascinating piece of your history to share, Alexandra ~ I’ve been reading your posts at Tiki for a long time and had no idea.

    My own background is somewhat vague. My paternal grandmother was born and raised in Mexico – with reddish/blond hair, blue eyes and the maiden name Gold. There was definitely speculation that her roots were Jewish but she was raised a Christian (although in a fringe sect for sure). My paternal grandfather (originally from Denmark) moved to Mexico, met and married her and they raised four children (including my father) in Monterrey.

    They moved to the US when my dad was 10. I grew up eating authentic Mexican cuisine and hearing my father and his siblings and parents speaking Spanish (their first language). And yet. We all have blue eyes and the last name Christianson.

    So. You can imagine when I was growing up how often I heard the phrase, “You don’t look Mexican.” And I suppose that since my grandfathers were from Sweden and Denmark that I am more Scandinavian than anything.

    But I sometimes wonder what it means to “be” anything…we’re all from so many places, so many influences. And my religious upbringing is somewhat unusual – something I’ve considered blogging about before but have refrained from doing. Maybe someday.

    Either way, you’ve inspired me here to delve into some complicated feelings. So thank you, Empress.

    And thanks to Renee for sharing you with us today.
    With much love.

    • Oh, my good friend, Julie. I met Renee through you, thank you.

      I want you to post on your upbringing. I have known so many moms that did…well, aren’t around for their children, and they never expected that to be the case.

      We never know. All the reason to write down and keep what we know online, or out there, or on paper…our kids need a sense of who they are to feel tethered. To feel proud, unique, a mental fingerprint.

      Giving them our history, makes them less nebulous to themselves.

      It’s what I think, anyway.

      I hope you do post on this, Julie.

  16. Amazing, and beautiful story, welcome to the tribe.

    I never knew them as Crypto-Jews, but as Morannos. At least that’s what they taught us in school, and all the songs…

    I taught in a Sephardic school, Franco, is a common Sephardic name, and Spain is under the Sephardic domain (versus Ashkenaz).

  17. Wow, this story gave me chills! How exciting to uncover such a huge part of your history while sitting in a classroom! I think one of the more interesting things I ever heard about my family was that we’re related to Dwight Eisenhower on my mother’s side. If I knew more, I’d be glad to tell you, LOL

    And darn you, Renee – have you introduced me to ANOTHER blog I need to follow?! I’m going to have to quit my day job soon. (Which would be fine with me, if I could just get someone to pay the mortage…)

    • We never know what we find until something unexpected just speaks to us, and leaves us questioning.

      For me, I always wondered, “Why does my family do such Jewish things?” Since we lived in a neighborhood with a large synagogue a few blocks away, we had plenty of children in school and across the street that were Jewish.

      And I always felt right at home around them. Always.

  18. This story is just amazing to me. What a fantastic bit of history and mystery all rolled into one. Thank you!

  19. Thank you so much. I couldn’t believe it myself as it unrolled before my eyes. The moment that I saw my abuela’s maiden name on the list of cryptojew surnames on the island: Franco.

    Holy wow, but I gasped.

    It made me gasp. And my brain, in a few seconds time, understood all the customs I had grown up with.

  20. That was very interesting! I’ve never heard of crypto Jews….I assumed you were talking about Sephardic Jews. Could they be similar? I’ll be checking. Thank you for sharing such a personal story and I wish you could have talked to your grandmother about it!

  21. everything after the * is the relation to VP Aaron Burr

    Jehu II 1625 *Aaron Burr’s Great-Grandfather
    Daniel Burr 1660 *Aaron Burr’s Grandfather
    Peter Burr I 1699 *Aaron Burr’s Uncle
    Peter Burr II 1727 * 1st Cousin
    James 1776 * 1st Cousin once removed
    James Harrison 1802 * 1st Cousin twice removed
    Robert Brown 1845 * 1st Cousin 3x removed
    Montgomery Slemons Burr,1892 my great grandfather * 1st Cousin 4x removed
    Robert Burr, born 1932 my grandfather * 1st Cousin 5x removed
    John Burr, 1960 my father * 1st Cousin 6x removed
    Jeanine Burr, 1981 self * 1st Cousin 7x removed

  22. I have never heard of Crypto-Jews.

    There is only one thing fabulous in my family history, and I am not supposed to know it.

    If I were another ethnicity, wouldn’t I just find myself hungering for what I see in another?

  23. Ethnic anecdote. My father’s father was a jockey in Rome. The purse for the jockey in this particular race was a ticket to America. That’s how dad’s side got here pre WW 1.

  24. Wow. My entire family loved this story. It would make a great book for kids. So interesting….

  25. My grandmother was a Greek girl who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in NYC. She always showed the utmost respect for others’ religions when not many around her did. It is one of the legacies I am most proud of.

  26. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    Everybody has a horse thief or something somewhere in their family tree :)

    My wife and I were working on putting together a family genealogy not long after we’d married. My mother had died just after our wedding, so we were talking to her younger sister to get her side of the family straightened out, when Aunt Audrey told us, “You’ve got your mother’s name wrong.”

    Stop and think about this. Do you know what your mother’s name is? I was certain I knew what my mother’s name was. I looked at Aunt Audrey like she was some sort of lunatic. She went on, “Her name wasn’t Elizabeth, it was Emily Elizabeth. She hated Emily, and refused to use it.”

    At that point a there was a click between my ears. I’d asked Mom what her middle name was. She told me she didn’t have one. When my cousin got engaged to a girl named Emily, mom commented, “Nice girl, shame about her name,” which I thought was really odd.

    Yes, I didn’t know my mother’s name.

    For anyone interested in looking up their roots, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka The Mormons have a lot of free tools. When they originally put their FamilySearch website online, it became one of the most visited sites on the web overnight.

    https://familysearch.org/

    There is also a fantastic software package for keeping your family records:

    http://store.lds.org/images/estore/downloads/PAF5EnglishSetup.exe

    That’s a direct download link – yes, it really is free. They also have online courses, and many of their churches have genealogy research information and help available onsite.

    While they’d love it if you got interested and joined up, it isn’t a requirement. I know about this because I’m a Mormon.

    So feel free to check out the freebies on the FamilySearch site.

    Wayne

    • What a fabulous story, Wayne! I love that you didn’t know your mother’s name. I didn’t know my grandmother’s name. Everyone called her Tilly her whole life. Turns out, she hated it! She was just easy-going and non-confrontational. Her really name was Telia. Can you imagine? ;-)

      • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

        That took a couple of minutes. So your Grandmother was loved :)

        I love baby name generators. There are a writer’s best friend. Without them every other character in my stories would end up being named Fred.

        Wayne

  27. Great topic, I’ve always been fascinated about Crypto Jews and their progeny. A great book on the subject of Crypto Jews. is The Mezzuzah in Madonna’s Foot.

  28. Okay, this? Is fascinating. I have never heard of Crypto-Jews before but I will bring it up this year at Passover (perfect timing for this post).

    Thanks, Alexandra!

    PS: In the rare occasions that I do dust, I have always done it the same way, too. XOXO

  29. This was such an interesting post! I had never heard of Crypto-Jews before.

    I love genealogy and have researched both my side and my husband’s side for us and our kids. One year, Gio’s mom gave me access to all the “family documents” she had and I was able to get copies of all of them and compiled “starter genealogy books” for each of his 5 sisters and our 2 girls as Christmas gifts. And, about 6 years ago, while researching Gio’s family roots, I was led to the Ellis Island records site. There, I found photos of the ships his grandparents had sailed on when they came over from Italy and their original entry records which provided an amazing wealth of information. I ordered copies of the photos and the records for both Gio and his father and had them framed. His father learned things about his parents he had never known and choked up as he read through. I was so touched by his emotion.

    Excited to pop over to Alexandra’s site….

  30. Pingback: #LessonsLearned: Guest Posts for 2012 « Lessons From Teachers and Twits

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