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His belief became so strong that he traveled to Spain to research his ancestry and participate in a documentary about crypto-Jews that was widely aired on National Public Radio. He would also convert to Judaism. And in his late twenties, he would undergo bar mitzvah, the coming-of-age ceremony usually performed on 13-year-old Jewish boys.
Levi had Salas contact Iglesia de Dios Israelita member Pedro Márquez, a pleasant-faced, well-spoken immigrant from Puebla, Mexico. Márquez is the pastor of the Stiles Street church, where his grandfather and father also were members.
In an interview, Márquez spoke about what it's like to grow up observing Jewish holidays in a predominantly Christian culture. "When I was a child in school in Mexico, teachers would ask students to raise their hands if they were Catholics. Everyone did except me," he says. "We didn't celebrate Christmas. People used to say we were crazy. Being in the church was hard. It can still be hard today here in Houston, especially trying to hold a job without having to work on Saturday, our day of rest. Many church members have their own businesses so they can set their own hours."
Having an auto body shop gives Márquez the freedom to lead about 60 adults and children on Stiles Street. They meet in an old clapboard Sunday-go-to-meeting structure, complete with high ceilings, battered pews and a nearby railroad track. The church has been in this faded but cozy Latino neighborhood for about 25 years, and its members are almost all from Mexico or Central America. Outside, a big sign is painted with the Hebrew words Shema Yisroel Adonay Elohenu -- "Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God" -- the start of the most important prayer in Jewish liturgy. Inside, a sanctuary glows with a neon-blue six-pointed Star of David. A Ten Commandments-shaped tablet with Hebrew letters contains names on its left side, in Spanish, of the Twelve Tribes of Israel: Judá, Rubén, Gad, Manases, Levy and so on. The names are marked by more Stars of David. Everything looks entirely Jewish -- except for the right side of the Commandments tablet. There, 12 more names are listed: Tomás, Simón and the other Spanish versions of the Apostles of Christ. At services held every Friday night and all day Saturday, the congregation is as likely to sing "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem, as the hymn "Jesus Needs You."
When Ramón Salas heard about such practices, he told Loretta Levi that this Stiles Street church could definitely be a crypto-Jewish remnant. Soon Levi and another Brith Shalom member, accompanied by Pastor Márquez, were en route to church headquarters in Mexico. (Some 400 Iglesia de Dios Israelita churches exist in that country, as well as many others in Central America, and several in Chicago, Brooklyn, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities. Besides Márquez's church, Houston has two newer congregations, also in Latino neighborhoods.)
Jews from the United States have made contact before with those believed to be crypto-Jews south of the border. As early as 1915, a rabbi in El Paso wrote an article for a Jewish magazine about Mexico City university professor Francisco Rivas, who was publishing a newspaper claiming he was descended from hidden Jews. And in the 1930s, several Jewish leaders from Arkansas, St. Louis and other U.S. cities organized a committee to help what they called the Indian Jews of Mexico.
Those Indians lived in a poor Mexico City neighborhood and a dusty little town not far away called Venta Prieta. Their congregations looked remarkably like today's church on Stiles Street. They told the U.S. committee they were descended from crypto-Jewish men who fled Iberia for colonial Mexico, married indigenous women and raised their children as secret Jews. Somehow, the U.S. committee was told, their beliefs were passed from generation to generation despite hundreds of years of persecution and secrecy. Even before the holocaust, Jews had suffered a seemingly endless history of crusades, expulsions, pogroms and other atrocities. But now news was coming from Mexico about co-religionists who had kept the faith against horrific odds.
Before he went to Mexico, Pedro Márquez could not get an answer from an elderly minister of the Iglesia de Dios Israelita about how that church had started. On the Mexico trip, a church official told Levi the origins might date back to crypto-Jews who left Spain in 1492. Levi later promoted the theory in an article she wrote for a small but prestigious academic publication, the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review. Interviewed recently, Pedro Márquez seemed uncomfortable with the idea that the Iglesia may have crypto-Jewish roots. He preferred to speculate on a Jewish connection that still has roots in Christianity. "Going far back in time," he said, "there was a group of Jews who followed a rabbi named Jesus. This group first arose during the time when Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans." As a Jew who became a Christian and then preached to gentiles, Paul was among the best-traveled of Jesus' apostles. "Maybe Paul managed to get to Spain," Márquez said. "Maybe we go back to Paul."