A few weeks before America eats Thanksgiving dinner each year, another harvest festival is celebrated: the Jewish holiday Sukkoth. The Hebrew word translates to "feast of tabernacles," in honor of the temporary, tentlike rooms that families and synagogues build to observe the holiday. An American sukkah (the singular form of sukkoth) looks like a cross between a toolshed and the crisper drawer in your refrigerator. It's usually made of plywood, and the roof is decked with tree branches hung with apples, oranges and bananas.
Most Jews ooh and aah at the sight of a bit of fruit dangling on strings in autumn. But most of them haven't seen a sukkah like the one that gets built every year on Stiles Street in the Harrisburg neighborhood just north of downtown. There, a congregation hangs so much fruit that it makes the whole sanctuary dark. Besides the usual brown-bag fare, there are mangoes, papayas, pears, pineapples, coconuts, grapes and even watermelons. Not to mention other harvest bounty like fat poblano chiles and peanuts, strung together in long peanut-shell lines, the lines fastened in dozens of rows to make dense peanut curtains. It's a sukkah to beat all sukkoth. And the congregation is quite different from most. As members enact the ancient rites of the Old Testament, they also worship the biggest hero of the New Testament: Jesus Christ.
Loretta Levi discovered the congregation on Stiles Street almost ten years ago. A teacher of English as a second language in Houston public schools, she went to her Bellaire synagogue, Brith Shalom, one evening. She noticed six Hispanic-looking men on the back row, waiting to hear a concert of Sephardic music. "Sephardic" refers to descendants of Inquisition-era Jews of Spain and Portugal who were expelled from Iberia in the 15th century because they refused to become Catholics. Many Sephardic Jews fled to countries like Turkey and Greece. They took their Don Quixote-era language with them and mixed it with whatever was spoken in their newly adopted countries. Today, that language is called Ladino, and it still sounds very much like Spanish. Levi's parents were Sephardic Jews from Greece who survived the holocaust and ended up in Houston. She had come to the concert to get closer to her roots.
Levi looked at the dark-skinned Mexican men and wondered if they were workers at Brith Shalom -- janitors, perhaps. But when she spoke Spanish with them, they told her they belonged to a congregation on Stiles Street called the Iglesia de Dios Israelita, Church of God Israelite. The men said they thought their church had Jewish roots. For instance, they celebrated the day of rest on Saturday, not Sunday. They kept some dietary laws that Jews call kosher -- they did not eat pork, shellfish and other foods forbidden in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Further, they celebrated Passover instead of Easter -- and also Sukkoth.
Levi was puzzled. But she already knew that in the Southwest, many Hispanics had been coming forward and claiming they were descendants of "crypto-Jews," Jews who converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition but who secretly continued to practice Judaism.
In fact, many of the thousands of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted did secretly hold on to their old religion, especially when they came to the New World as colonizers. In northern Mexico near Monterrey, several members of the prominent Carbajal family were burned at the stake in the 1500s after they confessed to being covert Jews. During the same period, the area that is now South Texas probably was home to many people who embraced Catholicism after giving up their Jewish faith, as well as to others who practiced Judaism on the sly. This second group often lit Sabbath candles on Friday nights, in secret rooms, and recited Jewish prayers. They ate tortillas during Passover, since tortillas have no yeast. They circumcised their sons.
Until recently, historians believed that crypto-Judaism died out within a few generations after the forced conversions, and that its beliefs and rituals had completely disappeared by the early 1700s. But by the time Levi met the Iglesia de Dios Israelita congregants, a new movement was afoot in the Southwest. Many Mexican-Americans were starting to claim that their great-grandparents, grandparents and even parents had kept the crypto-Jewish faith of their forefathers, even into the 20th century. Adults were recalling childhood memories of elders doing strange things such as shunning pork, lighting candles in the garage on Friday night and baking bread without yeast in the spring. Some remembered prayers that mentioned Moses, and dying relatives whose last words to the family were "Children, we are really Israelites."
Levi put the Iglesia de Dios Israelita members in touch with one of those people with such memories, a young man named Ramón Salas. He is from New Mexico, where people claiming to be crypto-Jews have become especially vocal and organized since the late 1980s. Back then, Salas began talking about a frequently recited Spanish-language prayer in his family that said, "May God and the law of Moses protect us." Salas soon came to believe that he was descended from crypto-Jews who fled Mexico for the New Mexico wilderness in the 1500s, to get as far away as possible from the claws of the Inquisition.
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."
The real explanation for the Iglesia de Dios Israelita's origins is probably much simpler than the theories of either Levi or Márquez, though no less intriguing. Details were unearthed a few years ago by Judith Neulander, now an associate at Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. In the early 1990s, Neulander started researching claims by people like Ramón Salas. She wanted to understand why Hispanic Christians like his family practiced Old Testament rituals and recited prayers about the "law of Moses." What she found suggested that instead of being crypto-Jews, a lot of Hispanics in Mexico and the Southwest may actually be crypto-Protestants.
Researching the records of evangelical sects in America, Neulander discovered the Seventh Day Adventists, who celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, avoid pork and observe many other Old Testament practices. Adventists' roots go back before the Civil War. In 1865 the church split into Adventists and a group that came to be known as the Church of God Seventh Day. Both the Adventists and the Church of God were fervently awaiting the Second Coming of Christ. But according to their theology, the Messiah would not return until Jews throughout the world gathered to welcome him.
The problem, of course, was that Jews are about as interested in gathering to welcome Jesus as they are in hunting for the Easter Bunny. So Adventists and Church of God Seventh Day members decided they were the true Jews -- Israelites of the spirit. When Christ came back, they would inherit Zion; meanwhile, Jews who didn't welcome Jesus would go up in flames. Adventist and Church of God leaders also thought it would be wise to proselytize Jews from the Ten Lost Tribes, since it would probably be easy to lead these confused souls back to Christ. Latinos, it was decided, were a Lost Tribe. So missionaries fanned across the Southwest and deep into Mexico. They told dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking, mostly Catholic people that they were "true Jews" who must adhere to the Old Testament so Christ could return to earth.
Some of the missionaries were themselves Hispanics, and Neulander found their names in old records of the Church of God Seventh Day and Adventists. She also found evidence suggesting that the Mexican professor who published newspapers claiming to be a crypto-Jew -- the man the El Paso rabbi wrote about in 1915 -- was actually working with the Adventists in Mexico as early as 1889. Evangelical, "Jews of the spirit"-style Christianity seems to have deep roots in Mexico. As it turns out, the Iglesia de Dios Israelita apparently developed there from a split in the Church of God Seventh Day over the question of circumcision (Seventh Day followers favored it; the Israelitas didn't).
Neulander thinks that from the turn of the century through World War II, a lot of Mexican-Americans in the United States were experimenting with Old Testament-inflected Protestantism. But those who chose the Church of God Seventh Day were abandoned by the church's Anglo leaders, who decided that Hispanics were too dark-skinned to be "true Jews." So the leaders left Mexico to its own devices and abandoned U.S. areas such as Texas and New Mexico altogether. It must have been difficult for the congregations to function without pastors. And as Pastor Márquez noted, it's hard not to celebrate Christmas, especially when you're a Christian and everyone else is going to mass and calling you crazy. Given such ostracism, many people might have kept kosher quietly, and not explained to the kids why their prayers mentioned Moses. Now the old folks are dead, or they don't want to talk (except for a mysterious deathbed declaration here and there). Meanwhile, the younger generation is getting gray hair, and along with it, weird childhood memories.
Fred Garcia has recollections. A 56-year-old telescopic-lens specialist who was raised in Houston, he believes that crypto-Judaism lurks in the family tree. Garcia's mother was born in northern Mexico but raised in La Porte. She was Methodist; her whole family converted in 1918. Garcia remembers that his grandfather used to wear a skullcap, similar to those used by observant Jewish men. In addition, Garcia's grandfather and uncles were circumcised, even though most Mexican men of their generation were not. At six foot one, Garcia is taller than most Mexican-American men. His skin is lighter, too. He has dark curly hair and a big nose. In school in Houston, he says, "The teachers used to think I was Jewish."
Garcia wasn't thinking about any of this until he started researching his genealogy because of a land grant dispute between his family and the government. Trying to show that his kin retained generations-old title to a piece of land in Texas, he became involved in the early 1980s with the Hispanic Genealogy Society, a Houston-based national organization of people investigating their roots in Spain and Portugal. Soon Garcia was comparing notes with other Texans in the group about common ancestors who had lived in Iberia hundreds of years ago.
Many of those ancestors were Jews. That's not surprising -- historians estimate that before the Inquisition, as many as 200,000 Jews lived in Spain. Further, anyone who takes his or her family tree back 20 generations will come up with more than a million direct ancestors. This means that Mexican-Americans, unless they come from an indigenous group that stayed isolated, probably have some Jewish roots.
Some Houston Hispanics are beginning to explore these roots. Some simply find it fascinating that Latinos have so many cultural forebears: Spanish Catholics, gypsies, Native Americans, blacks, Arabs -- and now, Jews. Others are exploring unconscious traces that colonial-era crypto-Jews may have left on modern-day Latino culture in the Southwest. They wonder, for example, if Sephardic dietary habits -- such as a preference for goat meat over beef -- influenced today's Chicano palate. Others, like Fred Garcia, suspect stronger and more recent influences in their own families.
Are these musings based on nothing more than faded memories from a Protestant rather than Jewish past? Ultimately it may be impossible to make blanket generalizations. But the mere fact that the question is being asked suggests interesting developments between Latinos and Jews.
Take the Stiles Street congregation. Whether or not his church really has historical roots in Judaism, Pastor Pedro Márquez led a contingent of his congregants across town to Brith Shalom, to explore possible connections. In the process, his Christian Latino group listened to Jewish music, met the rabbi and made friends with Loretta Levi. And Levi (who has since moved to Georgia) also ended up crossing town. She spent months of Saturdays teaching Hebrew and a bit of Jewish culture to children at the Iglesia de Dios Israelita; as a result, she spent a lot of time with evangelical Christians.
Meanwhile, Fred Garcia -- who had met only two Jews in his entire life -- visited the Jewish Community Center on Braeswood, where he was impressed at how people there "have features like Mexicans," he says. "My wife says I should take our kids over so they can meet their 'cousins.' " And the most recent conference of the Hispanic Genealogical Society, held this fall at the Galleria, included a field trip to the Holocaust Museum Houston.
Contemporary crypto-Judaism may be real, or it may be romance. It could even contain theological traces of anti-Semitism. Yet ironically, it may be bringing two peoples together who seldom feel much in common. The effects so far are quite modest: Most local Jews won't be meeting Spanish-speaking "Israelites" anytime soon, and vice versa. But if you're ever at a supermarket in southwest Houston and see Latinos hanging around the Jewish food section, don't jump to conclusions. They might be domestics shopping for someone in Meyerland. Or they might be members of the Iglesia de Dios Israelita. Pastor Márquez and his congregation spend a lot of time traveling to stores like Rice Food Market, a long way from Stiles Street. But what else can you do when Passover comes and you need matzo to worship Jesus?
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.