Before Passover begins at nightfall on Monday, Rabbi Yosef Garcia expects those of his small crypto-Jewish congregation will purchase new clothes and dishes, according to custom.
Most of his congregation of about 50 will gather that night in Garcia’s Chandler home, where the Avdey Torah Hayah has been meeting since September 2005. The practices, rituals and understanding of Judaism are new to many of his group because they are still emerging from their Catholic and Christian backgrounds, some from fairly recent discoveries of their Jewish roots.
“The crypto Jew is just now starting to learn that they are Jewish,” Garcia said. “A lot of Jews have been hiding in the Catholic Church for about 500 years.” Interestingly, many are Hispanic baby boomers doing genealogy and often learning from grandparents about their hidden, or “crypto,” roots in Judaism and then choosing to live as Jews.
Some of their lost history stems from the repression of Jews and Muslims during the Spanish Inquisition (1478 to 1834) when Spanish Catholic monarchs sought to root out secret Jews among those who had converted to Catholicism and had many “conversos” burned at the stake. The repression extended to the New World, where some crypto Jews practiced their Shabbats, or Sabbaths, in secret, including lighting candles on Friday nights in shuttered rooms. Often, descendants in succeeding generations became oblivious to a family religious history.
“They are individuals who are just basically searching out their genealogy, and they go, ‘Oh, my gosh, we are from Spain or Portugal.’ ... And, gosh, they come to find out they are Jews,” Garcia said.
“They basically have been growing up all their lives as Catholics and are now faced with the dilemma that they are not Catholics but that they are Jewish,” he said.
They not only want to experience Judaism, Garcia said, but they want to know what it means to be Jewish and participate in the Seder and Passover. For some, it is all new.
Garcia, a rabbi for 14 years who served 10 years in a crypto-Jewish congregation in Portland, Ore., has been going to homes of members to show them what they need to do to make their households kosher for Passover. Observant Jews are instructed to rid their homes of all foods with leavening agents, like yeast, before Passover starts. The rabbi said he finds people discarding the wrong foods.
“I have had to go around to everyone’s house and inspect their houses and say, ‘This is what we throw away and this is what we don’t throw away.’ ”
Some Jews, in purging all leaven from their homes, sell it to a neighbor or friend, who holds the food, and resells it to them after Passover. “Hispanic Jews will either give it away or donate it somewhere,” Garcia said. “But they don’t adhere to the Ashkenazi (custom) where you put it in some place and sell it to a neighbor and then buy it back for a dollar.”
Though his congregation identifies itself as Sephardic (of Spanish and Portuguese origin) and crypto Jewish, and services are in Spanish, Garcia incorporates some of the more common Ashkenazic traditions of Jewry from those who emigrated from Germany and Eastern Europe.
His message to his members at Passover is “first of all, that they are Jews, and second that they are Hispanic. Even though they have grown up in Central America or Mexico of South America, they are Jews by blood. They just happened to have lived in these countries, but that as Jews, we need to follow all the things that the Torah tells us that we need to follow.”
Major Jewish traditions — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — vary in their customs and observances of holidays like Passover, and one of the newest, Humanistic Judaism, is selective in its celebration of the ancient Israelites’ journey out of slavery in Egypt known.
“We don’t see Passover as an event that emanates out of a 40-year trek through the desert, following Moses,” said Jack Silver, certified ceremonial leader, or madrich, for Or Adam Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. It meets at Barness Family East Valley Jewish Community Center in Chandler, with major holiday services elsewhere.
“That is a great Jewish story, but there is no evidence that it actually occurred,” he said.
Described as “a nontheistic alternative in contemporary Jewish life,” Humanistic Judaism combine a celebration of Jewish culture and identity with an adherence to humanistic values and ideas.
“We see it as an opportunity to celebrate freedom,” said Silver, who is in rabbinical training. His group regards the Passover as the Exodus story blended with pagan spring traditions including one marking the slaughter of the lamb and another holiday celebrating the first crop of wheat. Humanistic Jews are not expected to keep kosher rules for Passover “because we feel all those laws were man-made, and it is up to each person’s own decision about how they want to experience these events,” Silver said.
Or Adam plans a Passover Seder on Tuesday at Chaparral Suites Resort in Scottsdale, open to the public. Participants will use a distinct Haggadah, the Jewish Seder booklet with legends and expressions, that includes the “legendary tale of the exodus from Egypt and the story of the modern exodus of Jewish people” from places of persecution, said Silver.
He noted that his congregation has grown to more than 80 families. They include people whose families never affiliated with a synagogue and one-time observant Jews.
Also attending are intercultural and intermarried families “who find Humanistic Judaism as a comfortable way to raise their children, or identify as Jews and ... to express their Judaism and feel part of the Jewish people and part of the Jewish community.”
“We will include, in the Haggadah, some memories of something in the present time that needs to be addressed and not forgotten, such as the famine and the killing of people in Darfur,” Silver said. “We look upon those as part of the traditional Seder.
“People would sip wine to remember the curses that were supposedly brought upon the Egyptians, but we will also include some of the current events and these sort of curses that befall people,” he said.
The nuts and bolts of Passover
The spring Jewish holiday or Passover, or Pesach, begins at nightfall Monday and runs through April 10. The “festival of freedom” recalls events around 1440 B.C., when Moses is said to have led the Israelites out of centuries of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, as told in the 12th chapter of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible.
A central story is how the Jews sprinkled lamb’s blood on their doorways so the angel of death would pass over their homes, sparing their firstborn sons but killing firstborn Egyptian males as part of a wave of plagues that were wrought on Egypt. Pharaoh ordered Moses to take his people and leave Egypt, an exodus recalled in the miraculous parting of the Red Sea to give the Israelites an escape route.
In the rush to leave their homes, the Bible says, the Jews fled with hastily made bread without a leavening agent. That led to the Passover tradition of eating matzo. The sharing in the Seder meal, or Passover feast, is carried out on the first two nights of Passover, when participants retell the Exodus story, using the Haggadah booklet, with cups of wine, and sharing five or six symbolic elements of the Seder meal, which includes horseradish, a lamb’s shank bone, charoset (apple, nuts and cinnamon), a roasted egg, vegetables dipped in salt water and lettuce, with matzo on the side.
Jews keep their homes kosher by removing all evidence of chametz, or leavened foods, before the holiday. Growing in popularity are Passover travel, cruises and resort stays in which kosher practices are kept and Jewishthemed programs, education and recreation are offered.