Category Archives: Uncategorized

Linda Chavez Discovers Her Converso Roots

For those interested in genealogy, the past few years has been great for a number of reasons. The large genealogy sites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org have grown by leaps and bounds. Ancestry.com just recently announced passing 10 Billion records on their site. FamilySearch volunteers index millions of new names every month, in many languages and from many countries across the globe. Many smaller niche sites have also popped up, and the Internet as a whole as connected people across the globe in way never before possible.

The 1940 Census, released less than two months ago is now over 40% indexed and whereas earlier censuses took years to complete and were usually available first on for-pay sites, the 1940 Census will be finished in a few short months and will be available for free from the start. Sites working on the 1940 census, as mentioned in my earlier post on the subject, including the 1940 Census Community Project, FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com.

In the US, there have been three seasons of the genealogy-focused TV show Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC, and PBS also has a series called Finding Your Roots (with Henry Louis Gates Jr.). In the UK Who Do You Think You Are? is already in its eigth series, and the show has other versions around the globe, including in Israel (Mi Ata Hoshev She’ata).

Linda Chavez

Last night an episode of Finding Your Roots aired featuring Linda Chavez. Chavez is probably most famous as almost being the first Hispanic woman to serve as US Labor Secretary under George W. Bush, before she withdrew her nomination. More recently she’s a syndicated columnist and the Chairman of Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that deals with issues of race and ethnicity in the public arena.

Linda Chavez’s family has lived in the New Mexico area for hundreds of years, and was always Catholic as far as she knew. A simple question she asked about a funny habit her grandmother had where she turned a statue towards the wall led her to discovering her family included conversos, or Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism in 15th and 16th century Spain. Many conversos fled to the new world, ending up in Mexico and the nearby US states, including New Mexico. Albuquerque, the capital of New Mexico, even has a page on the city’s web site explaining conversos and their history in the city.

There is even evidence that Chistopher Columbus himself, who sailed on behalf of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, the same monarchs that forced Jews to convert, and in the same year that the inquisition began, was from a Jewish family that secretly converted. See this CNN article, Was Christopher Columbus secretly a Jew?, written by Charles Garcia.

The topic of conversos living in the American Southwest was also covered in detail in Jeff Wheelright’s recent book The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA. The book discusses, among other topics, how families in isolated communities in Colorado and New Mexico discovered their likely Jewish ancestry through the inheritance of a cancer gene that is most common among Jews.

As I’ve been writing this post, the full show was just posted on PBS’ website, and I’ve embedded it below if you’re interested in watching the show.

Watch Adrian Grenier, Michelle Rodriguez, and Linda Chavez on PBS. See more from Finding Your Roots.

In addition, for those interested, Linda Chavez also wrote about her experience in researching her family history as part of the show in a Boston Herald article titled Nourishing our ‘Roots’.

Grave of the ‘Unknown’ Soldier

Yom HaZikaron Ceremony (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tonight begins Yom HaZikaron in Israel, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers. As with most Jewish holidays, the ‘day’ begins at sundown the night before and ends at sundown the following day. Tomorrow night begins Yom HaAzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

It’s always struck me as incredibly emotional to have a country’s Memorial Day lead directly into its Independence Day. This has a lot to do with Israel having had a mandatory draft, for men and women, for its entire existence. Just about anyone who grew up in Israel, or moved here young enough to have served in the army, has friends and/or family that were killed while serving in the Israeli army. In some ways one can compare the attitude of memorial day in Israel to that of memorial day in communities in the US that have large military connections. It’s unfortunate, by true, that in many areas of the US, Memorial Day is considered just another day off from work. It’s hard to think that way in a small country like Israel where everyone knows someone who was killed.

On Yom HaZikaron, all Israeli TV stations either broadcast a memorial symbol like a burning candle, or broadcast programming that respects the reverence of the day. Only the kids channels and foreign channels broadcast normally.

Another fascinating thing that happens on Memorial Day in Israel is that a 2 minute siren is sounded around the entire country, at which time people stop what they’re doing and listen. Car actually pull over on the highway and wait for the siren to finish. The first time I was driving on a major highway at the time of the siren, I had no idea why everyone was pulling over. Other driving knew to pull over even before the siren started, and I didn’t realize why everyone was pulling over until the siren sounded. Here’s a Youtube video of this very interesting experience:

So what does any of this have to do with genealogy? Well, I was just reading a fascinating article from one of Israel’s main newspapers, Haaretz, titled Identifying the unknown soldiers from Independence War. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once proclaimed that Israel did not have a grave for unknown soldiers like other countries. The point was that he intended to insure that there was never a need for such a memorial – that every soldier would be known.

The article describes the efforts the Israeli Army goes to to identify ‘unknown soldiers’ from various wars, including now doing DNA testing when necessary to confirm the identity of soldiers who, due to the circumstances of the war, were buried without proper identification.

Somehow after last week’s Holocaust-related posts (on Yom HaShoah, also last week, Israeli TV stations also do not broadcast normal programming) it seemed appropriate to mention this article which points out that many of the ‘unknown soldiers’ in Israel were Holocaust survivors who arrived in Israel just in time to fight and die for the nascent State of Israel. Many Jews arrived from Europe with no family or friends who knew them in Israel, and when they died fighting had no one to insure they were properly memorialized. The Israeli army’s Eitan unit, which handles the investigations into unknown soldiers, identified the graves of fourteen soldiers from the 1948 War of Independence between 2009 and 2010, and nine out of those fourteen soldiers were Holocaust survivors

While a sad topic, it is somehow clear how fitting Israel’s scheduling of Independence Day the day after Memorial Day is, when you realize how the initial soldiers in Israel’s War of Independence died fighting to insure the country was not snuffed out before it even began. All the more reason it seems critically important that those soldiers who have no memorial today are identified, found and have proper memorials set up.

Update: Someone posted a video taken in the open marketplace in downtown Jerusalem yesterday on Yom HaZikaron which I think is worth seeing. The video shows the hustle and bustle of the open marketplace and about a minute in to the video the siren begins…