Few people realize that there is a whole community of hidden Jews in Puerto Rico who can trace their ancestry back to the Conversos in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Can you imagine being brought up as a Christian and finding out that the family you never met and the quiet secret your family was hiding was that you were really a Jew and your family was descendants of Conversos from the 1400s?
Devorah Esther Ivel Colon was brought up as a Christian but was always looking for answers to her questions since she was a young girl. The Christian answers didn’t make sense to her. They said bad things happen because you are sinning. They taught that you have to believe more. If she kept asking, she was treated like a heretic. They would say to her, “Why are you asking so much?” She tried to go to the Christian savior but it left her feeling unanswered. She shared that “she was brought up in a strict environment, but she had this nagging feeling that couldn’t go away. Inside, there was this blank space that was never filled. She was always asking why. It was ironic that at the same time that she was asking about religion, she was also asking about her family. “Why don’t I know about anyone past my grandmother?” Her relatives would respond, “We can’t tell you.”
She also noticed that her mother and aunt (her mother’s sister) had different names. At one point, she even wondered if her family was part of a witness protection program. She saw how her family dynamic was different. She felt that something was not right. Her cousins had the same questions, and her brothers did, too. “We all knew nothing about our roots.”
When asked how she discovered Judaism, she shared how she felt something had to make sense and be true in life. She went on a mission to find the truth. She left it to Hashem and He revealed the hidden truths to her. Amazingly, Devorah Esther was introduced to Judaism through dreams. She shared how she kept fighting it, but her Jewish neshamah just popped out. “I couldn’t ignore that Yoshka was not it.” She shared how it was scary in the beginning because she had a Christian identity and she jeopardized losing everything. “I had much better answers now that made sense to me.”
She pointed out that with Torah you apply what you learn and it transforms you. This is not the case with Christianity. Christians want to be better people, but there is no system to transform them. “It’s all smoke and mirrors, very superficial with no real depth. It all falls apart.”
Her mother had a Converso background. She was living a dual life. She learned how to stay silent. That didn’t work for Devorah Esther. She couldn’t stay silent.
In Devorah Esther’s book, The Last Anusah, she shares her journey to discovering her Jewish roots and dramatic trip to Puerto Rico where she learned the truth about her family and then the incredible journey she took to Spain where she found her ancestors’ roots and that Christopher Columbus was her 14th great-grandfather. She shares how some members of her family have come back to Judaism but not her immediate family. However, she noted that when she officially converted and went to the mikvah, her mother told her, “You vindicated us.” Her grandmother also shared how happy she was that Devorah Esther did this.
She describes how for the people living in Puerto Rico it’s like a prison they can’t escape. It is still an ongoing story of the Conversos living this dual secret life. She pointed out the chilling fact that the Office of the Inquisition is still open. “These people are forced.” The word “anusim” means forced. She described how victims of abuse often have to prove that they were violated and Conversos have to prove who they are. “People don’t know this is going on. Hashem’s children are suffering.”
She describes in her book that after she visited Puerto Rico, she decided to visit Spain. “Hashem was leading me there.” She describes how she was in a home that once belonged to Jews and was confiscated by the Office of the Inquisition. It was a place that also held a tribunal room. “I almost dropped the phone. Just outside the trial room there was a list of names. They were names of people who had been burned by the Inquisition. Three family names keep repeating. Two of the three were names that belong to my family” (The Last Anusah). In Seville, she was greeted by the name of the bloodline her family had spent centuries trying to preserve: Cristobal Colon.
She explained that when Hurricane Maria happened, this forced people in Puerto Rico to move to the mainland where they could be free. This was a good result of the disaster. Her goal in writing her book, The Last Anusah, and with her blog, Gimel Dalet 777, is to let people know that there are hidden Jews out there who have kept the traditions and they need our help. “They have a real connection. Puerto Rico is filled with people with this type of background.”
She shared how Rabbi Daniel Glatstein was giving a lecture in Spain and he mentioned the Abrabanel and two other family names that are on her family tree. “There are people out there who we hope will be discovered. Am Yisrael needs to say we didn’t forget you and we will help you come back.” She shared how they still performed milah and women covered their hair and prayed in the house, and men went every night to pray. In Christianity, the women go to pray, not the men. Also, there were hidden mikvaos there.
Devorah Esther imparted, “Finding these hidden Jews shows the redemption is close.” In the book, Devorah Esther describes a sight she saw in Seville, Spain. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, standing before me, were the remains of an old synagogue that was now used as a Catholic church. There, above the door, was an inscription in Latin: This truly is the gateway to heaven. This is what Hashem wanted me to see… The fountain, the courtyard, and even the church. It hit me at that moment: I had seen this place before. This was a carbon copy of the church in my family’s town that had been built in Puerto Rico… It was as if Hashem was showing me that my family, like countless other Anusim families all over the world, has never forgotten Hashem, and Hashem has never forgotten them, but perhaps we had forgotten them. Perhaps it was time we remembered” (The Last Anusah).
Devorah Esther Ivel Colon resides in Connecticut with her husband. They have two grown sons. In addition to her blog and her book, she also teaches classes about Judaism on YouTube. Her current class is on Pirkei Avos.
By Susie Garber