My Personal Journey to Judaism

In The Society, Thought by Yaffa Batya DaCosta

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I was raised in a nominally Catholic family in New Bedford, MA. At the age of 7 or 8, I heard the priest say, from the pulpit, that the Jews were Christ-killers, and I had an immediate visceral reaction in my gut. I wanted to leave the Church at the age of 16, but my parents said I had to do as they wanted me to do until 18 years of age, and then I could do whatever I wanted to do. After my 18th birthday 1965, I formally left the Catholic Church and religion and never looked back. That was also the year of the 2nd Vatican Council and “Nostra Aetate” – but for me it was too little and too late (thank GD). From then on, I was a devoted “agnostic”. While my older brother had became an atheist. For 20 years I did not step foot in a Catholic church, and during my college years I took courses in comparative religion, and read books like Hal Lindsey’s “Late, Great Planet Earth”. In that book he made a statement that said of all the prophets in the world (including Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, etc.) the only ones with a 100% track record were the Biblical prophets. So this thought intrigued me and I started to study the Christian so-called Old Testament with a focus on the Biblical Prophets. Exactly 20 years later I was in a Catholic Church for the wedding of a good friend, and while there feeling edgy and uncomfortable, I thought about it and realized that it had been a full 20 years since I had attended anything in a Christian Church.

In the year 1985, 20 years after leaving the Christian Church, which was the year my father died from complications related to Alzheimer’s, I had gotten very sick and I had almost died. I had started to pray to GD (to me it was simply talking to this entity in my mind) and based on my reading the stories in the Bible I could only address this entity as “the GD of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. In 1992 I decided to go to Israel on a Holy Land tour, and I chose a Hal Lindsey tour because I felt he was an excellent Bible teacher and he would be able to make the places in Israel come alive with stories from the Bible. Now as women go, I am not much of a crying type of person. I had developed into a stoic, like my father, and took most things in the world with calm acceptance and not too emotionally. The plane landed at Ben Gurion airport, and we walked down the stairs (there was no terminal like there is now). When my feet hit the tarmac, I began to weep uncontrollably and I had no understanding of why. I had traveled somewhat before this trip – but no where on earth was I affected as much as in Israel. The people, the language, the culture, the food, the atmosphere – everything affected me very deeply and I didn’t understand why.

I returned to Israel on my own, by myself, without knowing a soul there, in 1993 for Pesach. I stayed at what was then called the Sheraton Plaza (across from the Great Synagogue) on King George Street, and celebrated the Passover Seder in a public ceremony. I returned later that same year, on my own and by myself, for Sukkot. I came back again in 1994 for Shavuot. Each visit lasted from 10-14 days. During this trip in ‘94, I remember being at the Kotel, and speaking to GD in my mind, and troubled because I wanted to learn more (especially about Judaism) but I didn’t know how to go about it. I knew that if I went to any Rabbi, they would ask me if I wanted to convert, and I’d have to answer in all honestly that I didn’t know if I wanted that. I just wanted to learn! Being that I was a professional educator and group facilitator in the business world, the idea came to me “if you want to study, you’ll teach”. So that year I returned home, and started a weekly study group with a handful of people in Warwick R.I. (just outside of Providence) right after Rosh HaShanah of that year. I had bought a Stone Edition of the Chumash. And each week we would read the portion of the week, and the commentaries and discuss. We held these discussion groups of the weekly parasha for an entire year.

At this time I was also going to Christian conferences in Boston and other places, and had a booth in the exhibit area that was pro-Israel. The Israeli flag would be hung on the wall behind me, and I would have a small T.V. there running videos about tourism to Israel, and had books on the table to buy about Israel, and about the “theology of contempt” and anti-Semitism of the Christian world. I also had a Davidic Harp (from the Harraris) on display and I would play the harp loudly, and draw a large crowd, and educate about the Harp of King David. I met many pro-Israel Christians at those conferences and had not a few arguments with some of the anti-Semitic ones.

One of the people I had met at these conferences was a man who owned several Christian Radio stations in New England. Later I developed an idea for a live talk radio broadcast that would educate about the Five Books of Moses from a Jewish perspective, trying to promote peace and understanding between Christians and Jews. So one day I called up this man in the radio broadcasting business, and asked if I could obtain his advice about my ideas for this live talk radio show. I had written a 5-6 page proposal about it. He said yes and invited me to come see him at his office to discuss. He quickly read through the proposal, said he liked the idea very much and said I could do the broadcast on two of his radio stations. He wanted me to begin the broadcast during the time I had scheduled myself for my 5th trip to Israel. So he suggested that I pre-tape the first two broadcasts, and announce on air that the program would be a live call-in radio show as soon as I returned from my trip. That’s exactly what we did.

During my trip to Israel in 1995 (10 years after I had started to talk to GD) during Tisha B’av, I was introduced to a man from the World Jewish Congress. An acquaintance of mine apparently thought I might have some Jewish ancestry, but he did not tell me this. He simply encouraged me to meet with this man from the WJC. During that meeting, the man asked me why I was in Israel on this trip. He said that people coming in the summer time was rare, and the holy day being observed was not a happy one, but a very somber one. I said I understood, and that is exactly why I wanted to come. I said that I wanted to mourn at the Kotel for the destruction of both Temples and for all the terrible things that had happened to the Jewish people, to “your people” I said to him, for the past 2,000 years. He said “but why?” and I said I didn’t know. So he asked about my father’s ancestry. And then he asked about my mother’s ancestry. I told him my mother’s family had come to the USA from the Portuguese colony of the Azores Islands, and his reply was “AHA!” I said “AHA?” That’s when he explained to me all about the story of the Portuguese Jews. See, I had always heard that the Inquisition was a “Spanish Inquisition”, and I had never heard that there was a Portuguese side of the story.

This man was the first person to explain to me that in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, about half of them went over the border into Portugal. And 5 years later, the Portuguese King Manuel wanted to marry the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. So they told him, if he wanted to marry their daughter he would have to get rid of his Jews (in Portugal) like they did (in Spain). So, he issued an expulsion edict in 1497, giving the Jews of Portugal 10 months to leave the country. But at the end of the 10 months, those who were still in the country were gathered into the Plazas, and en mass converted against their will by the sprinkling of holy water into the air. They were given a few years grace period, and after that a very brutal active Inquisition existed in Portugal for anyone secretly practicing Judaism. It was called Judaizing and was considered to be a heresy within the Catholic Church. This active inquisition lasted for 350 years (16th, 17th, 18th and half of the 19th centuries). My great grandmother was born in the Azores towards the middle of the 19th century, right at the end of this active Inquisition.

{{{ Note: In my family, my great grandmother never went to Church in America, we were raised with great fear of “outsiders” and were told there was no such thing as “friends” – and to trust no one outside of the family. We were also not allowed to eat anywhere except at my mother’s table, or that of cousins in my mother’s family. Meat was soaked in a salt brine, we had to check raw eggs for a spot of blood, blood clots and blood veins in cooked chicken were not to be eaten at all, pork was said to be “unclean”, all mirrors were covered in a house of mourning, spring cleaning was done every year to “remove every crumb” from the house, etc. But we never knew, and were never told, anything about Jewish customs and traditions and we didn’t know any Jewish people. }}}

I was, of course, stunned with all of this new information. I asked this man at the WJC how could I continue to learn more about all this. And he said I was living in a great part of the country, near Brown University (in Rhode Island) where there existed a professor and a scholar about this history of Spanish and Portuguese Jews and Crypto-Judaism. I contacted this scholar upon my return, and even interviewed him for my radio broadcast. He also directed me to resources on the Internet about the Crypto-Jews, and after reading lots of material I finally had some questions that I could ask my mother. And she confirmed many family customs and traditions that, unbeknownst to us, were Jewish customs and traditions (many of which were from Oral Law not Written Law).

One of the most impactful things that happened was at my mother’s birthday party that September of 1995, where she had most of her side of the family present. Now my mother’s grandmother was the person who had come to the USA circa 1915 (yes, 100 years ago this year) with one son and six daughters, her eldest daughter was married already and she was my mother’s mother. So my great grandmother’s son’s grandson was my 2nd cousin. And during my mother’s birthday party, I took that 2nd cousin aside, and I said to him (trying to be very gentle and discreet) … “Joe, did you know that OUR great grandmother might have been Jewish?” He said, “well yeah!” And I said “well yeah?” And he said that in his family, she was known as “Judios” – which is how we say Jewish in Portuguese. So apparently, on the male line, the Jewish identity was passed down. Whereas on the female line, the customs and traditions were passed down but at some point the Jewish identity had stopped being passed down verbally.

So that fall, of 1995, I had begun in earnest to research the customs and traditions in my mother’s family. My mother was very dubious about my newfound interest in this thing called Judaism, but later she happily attended Pesach Seders with me and always enjoyed Friday night dinners. Friday nights I would do all the cooking for us and then light Shabbat candles and find a way to warm cooked food for Saturday lunches. One week, early on during my family research, a friend of mine (also researching his family customs and traditions) called and told me his aunt said that the women would soak a turkey in a salt brine. I shared that news with my mother, and she said that in her family the women soaked all the meat in a salt brine. And I said “BINGO!” She said “What do you mean, BINGO?” Then I explained to her about the Jewish custom of kashering meat, to remove blood. And Friday night of that very week (for the first time) she asked me if I had any extra candles, so that she could light.

Over the next few years, I met many Rabbis and started to more formally learn and practice Judaism. I really didn’t know if it would be proper to call myself a “Jew”, so I referred to myself as a “practicing Hebrew” during those early years. And it was fascinating to see the reaction of people. For my Christian friends and acquaintances, it was all about “beliefs”, so they would ask me if I believed in you know who as messiah and/or as GD, etc. and so forth. For my Jewish friends and acquaintances, it was all about my lifestyle and “practices”. So they would ask me if I observed Shabbat, ate Kosher, observed the holy days, etc. But by the end of 1995, I had decided to take my mother’s family name of daCosta. I announced this publicly on the radio broadcast and at a lecture I gave at the University of Mass at South Dartmouth (with my mother sitting in the front row, beaming with pride). I also announced that I was going to move to Dallas TX in Jan of 1996 to work with the descendants of the Anousim (Crypto-Jews) in the American southwest (which I did, trying to help others to research their roots). I also had moved the radio broadcast to a Christian talk radio station in Dallas, TX and it was on air for about a year. I also met, in 1996, Vendyl Jones (due to the radio broadcast I was doing and a mutual acquaintance Professor Dr. James Tabor). And later, that year, I began to teach Torah to Bnei Noach at the Vendyl Jones Research Institute. All this time I was still doing research and searching of my own Jewish Roots.

I continued my learning Torah/Mitzvot in Dallas TX and I also had an mtDNA test done with www.familytreeDNA.com. My older brother has a PhD in high energy physics, and he said to me, “Don’t talk to me about this unless you can show me the science”. He was the one who told me about mtDNA. And after 4 years of learning and practicing in a Jewish community, I finally found an Orthodox Rabbi and Beit Din in NYC that would accept me as a descendant from the Crypto-Jews (a.k.a. Anousim). I presented to them the following evidences: 1) all the family customs and traditions passed down in my mother’s family, by the women, 2) country of origin my mother’s ancestors in the Azores, 3) names in my mother’s family and 4) mtDNA results (which was considered supplemental) and all of which the Beit Din accepted. In 2000 I went into their NYC mikveh “bli bracha” (i.e. without the blessing of a convert), as a demonstration of my commitment to Judaism and to living according to Torah and halacha. And the Beit Din gave me a “return certificate” … that is according to the letter by HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu (of blessed memory) as documented by him with a sample “return certificate” to be used for returning descendants of the Anousim. These documents are still available today on the Internet.

I made aliya to Israel on that same “return certificate” in 2004. And I married in a religious ceremony in 2008 in Jerusalem, as approved by the Beit Din of Jerusalem. I’ve worked with other people, who have this ancestry of the Spanish & Portuguese Crypto-Jews, for the past 15+ years as a coach and advisor and helping them to find communities where they can learn and grow in Torah and halacha on their own path of “return” or conversion to Judaism. I have also coached them to help them regarding the trauma from terrible experiences some of them have had with Jewish people, in not accepting them as Jews, and in saying horrible and hurtful things to them (e.g. that your ancestors MUST have been mamzerim). I will update this story later, on Facebook, with the 2 erroneous myths that, unfortunately, some Jewish people have about the Crypto-Jews. And it seems these myths prevent them from being more accepting and compassionate to the people of this/my ancestry.


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