Monday, March 9, 2009

Jewish ties found in Latino play

Play brings Latinos' Jewish ties out of hiding
by Kerry Lengel - Mar. 8, 2009 The Arizona Republic

Born in the U.S. of Spanish and Portuguese descent, Joseph Garcia's cultural heritage is diverse - even more diverse than he knew while growing up in Panama.

He was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy, but when the priests couldn't answer his questions about the tenets of the faith, he walked away from his religion at age 13.

He still believed in God, though, and, as an adult, he began studying Hebrew so he could better understand the Bible. At a family wedding, he told his great-uncle that the language was coming easily to him, almost as if he were a Jew.

"And he said, 'Well, we are Jews,' " Garcia recalls. "I had no idea. You could have knocked me over with a feather."

His family was descended from conversos, Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition five centuries ago. Many such families preserved their Sephardic Jewish traditions in secret, passing them on to some, but not all, of their children. Known as crypto-Jews - hidden Jews - they can be found both in Spain and Latin America, as well as here in the Southwest, especially New Mexico.

Crypto-Jews are the subject of a new play, "Parted Waters," commissioned by the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company for a world-premiere production this month.

The story is about three generations of New Mexico Latinos. The grandfather finds spiritual sustenance in his secret religion, while his son refuses to acknowledge it. The youngest of the three has no idea of his hidden heritage until a conflict in the family brings it out.

Playwright Robert Benjamin, who lives in Los Alamos, N.M., did extensive research on crypto-Judaism in his state.

"What surprised me was how much of a spectrum there is of experiences," he says. "There are people who embrace it, there are people for whom it is a curiosity, and other people for whom it is a life-changing experience" to discover something so unexpected about their family history.

The central theme is identity, Benjamin says.

"The point I try to make is that people need to think about their cultural identity and make choices," he says. "It's not necessarily a given."

Daniel Schay, who is directing the production, says he likes the fact that the setup of the plot is unusual but that it has a broader resonance.

"They have a unique problem," he says. "It's not often you find everyday characters dealing with a hidden cultural heritage."

At the same time, the double identity of being Jewish and Latino is just a more complicated variation of the story of a nation of immigrants.

"The real question is, 'What does it mean to be an American?' How do you preserve your spice in the melting pot, and that's true whether you're Jewish or Hispanic or whatever."

Arizona Jewish Theatre's artistic director, Janet Arnold, commissioned the play because she found the topic personally fascinating and because it was an opportunity to reach out to Latinos, an audience that doesn't often see itself represented on Valley stages. In crypto-Judaism, Arnold says, she sees an opportunity to build bridges between communities.

It's a bridge embodied by Garcia, who is rabbi of Avdey Torah Hayah, a synagogue for Spanish-speaking Jews in Chandler. Taking a cue from his mother, he has changed the pronunciation of his name, going by Yosef Garcia.

"When I hear a name like that," Arnolds says, "it just warms the cockles of my heart."

Reach the reporter at or 602-444-4896.

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