Found — the lost Sephardim of Texas

We meet the family keeping a 500-year-old tradition alive


By Daniel Kalder, September 17, 2009
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Daniel Ramos with his wife Michelle and two of his children. He is descended from Jewish refugees from Spain

Daniel Ramos with his wife Michelle and two of his children. He is descended from Jewish refugees from Spain

The American West was built by settlers carving a life in the New World. Over a century later, that pioneering spirit survives in the form of 39-year-old Daniel Ramos. But rather than pushing open a new frontier, Ramos is blazing a trail back to a very old world, reconnecting with his identity as Anusim, one of the lost Jews of Texas.

Jews first arrived in the New World following the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Known in Hebrew as Anusim (“forced ones”), these immigrants were ostensibly Catholic converts, although it was widely suspected that they still practised Judaism. Many Anusim fled to areas in northern Mexico and the American south-west, then under Spanish rule, where anti-Jewish laws had been temporarily suspended to attract settlers to a harsh land.

They survived via intermarriage as an ethnic group, passing down what customs they could remember, although religious practice was lost. In recent years however, a small minority have returned to Judaism, among them Ramos, an-ex navy officer from south Texas who works as a database analyst in Austin.

“I learned I was Anusim aged 12, at a family reunion,” he says. “Prior to that I knew my family was originally from Spain — the family tree showed we had been here since the early 1500s — but I just thought of myself as a Texan.”

When Ramos joined the navy at the age of 20, he had the opportunity to attend a synagogue and immediately felt at home. In 1995 military service brought him to Israel. “I sailed into Haifa and went all around the country. It was quite an emotional experience, especially when I went to the Kotel. I began to realise how strange it was to be there after so long…”

In 1999 he met his future wife, Michelle, at a wedding. Michelle, a distant cousin, had been raised Catholic but has now learned that she too is Anusim. Strange memories from her childhood began to make sense.

“When my grandmother died, we covered the mirrors in the house,” she says. “I discovered this was a Jewish custom. Also, my father had told me that my grandparents had promised him to a childless aunt and changed their minds just before he was born. He thought he hadn’t been wanted, which breaks your heart. Then we read a book about the customs of various Sephardic groups which explained that this was a Spanish-Portuguese custom — after having a boy and girl, the family would pledge their next child to a childless sibling so they, too, could fulfil the commandment to have children.”

While their 2003 marriage was a joint Protestant–Catholic ceremony, the couple decided afterwards that they would practise Judaism, formally converting at a Reform synagogue in Austin. However, Ramos was uncomfortable with what he saw as the synagogue’s anti-Israel stance and — as the father of two sons — the “horrible” assimilation rate among Reform Jews. He came to believe that his conversion ceremony was invalid as it had not properly followed the halachah.

In 2007 he switched to an Orthodox synagogue, and at the Beth Din in Houston last year, he and Michelle finally completed the long journey back to Judaism after a 500-year estrangement: “Although the ceremony is called a conversion, it was recognised by the Beth Din as a return,” says Ramos.

As much as he is fascinated by the Anusim’s past, he regards the future as far more important. “What’s important is what I do now. In Hebrew it’s called teshuvah, repentance. For me this includes studying — I study the Talmud for an hour every morning. I volunteer with a charity called Shuva Israel, working to support Israel. And then it’s important that I raise my kids right.

“The old communities of the Anusim are breaking up. They will forget they were ever Jews — I am of the last generation that will remember. My ancestors did whatever was necessary to stay alive, some of it I don’t agree with. Now after so many generations when the Anusim did not meet our obligations, I’m meeting mine.”

    Last updated: 2:38pm, November 23 2010