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.

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’.

Tying together my last two posts

Two posts earlier, I launched into a discussion on the future of eBooks based on my interest in reading the book Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel, and if it made sense at this stage to get it as an eBook, or whether I should order it by mail.

My last post was about how we are connected to our relatives, both physically (objectively) and how we perceive ourselves to be related. How close is a first cousin once removed compared to a second cousin? Can we come up with an objective measure of such relatedness, or are such measures inherently subjective?

Now an article published yesterday contains an excerpt of the book mentioned in the first post that goes into detail on the topic I brought up in my second post. The article, published in Salon, is called Why do we care about our ancestors? and discusses how our perception of our ancestry in many ways helps define our perception of ourselves. An interesting read, it makes me look forward to reading the full book when it arrives.

Perceptions of Relationship

In a project I’m working on I have been giving some thought to how we relate to others, but also how we perceive we relate to others. These are not necessarily the same. Certainly it’s possible to be closer socially with cousins that are more distantly related than other cousins, but that’s a choice. What I am thinking about is how we actually perceive we are related to others, and are we right? How would we judge that in any case?

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the traditional ‘cousin calculator’ chart, such the the one below (click to enlarge):

Traditional Cousin Calculator Chart

For those of you unfamiliar with how a cousin calculator works, you take two people and determine their common ancestor. You move in one direction (i.e. along the top) from the common ancestor until you reach the relationship of the first person to the common ancestor. You then move in the other direction (i.e. down along the side) until you reach the relationship of the second person to the common ancestor. The box where those two lines merge is the relationship between the two people. For example, if you are the great-grandchild and someone else is the grandchild of a common ancestor, you move along the top to the third column for great-grandchild, and down to the second row for the grandchild, and the box that is in the 3rd column and the second row is 1st Cousin, Once Removed.

If you take a close look, you’ll notice I’ve color-coded the chart how I think we normally perceive relationships. Essentially, our sibling and parents are one degree away, our nieces/nephews and 1st cousins are two degrees away, and so forth. A second cousin is generally perceived as one degree further away from us than a first cousin. A first cousin, once removed is, at least to me, in the same category as a second cousin, and that’s what this chart shows.

Now how can we actually determine how closely we’re related? One simple method is by how much DNA we share. If we add in the percentage of DNA present between any two relatives to the chart it looks a bit different (click to enlarge):

DNA Cousin Calculator Chart

Note in the above chart that I’ve changed the color coding to match the percentages of shared DNA. The colors no long take a box shape around the common ancestor, but instead move out in the straight line. What we can see by looking at the numbers is that actually the degree of relationship is moving twice as fast as we perceived before. From a first cousin to a second cousin, the amount of shared DNA is one quarter, not one half. We perceive the second cousin as being twice as distant a relative as a first cousin, but from the perspective of DNA, they are actually four times as distant!

I know one of my 5th cousins, and we share just 0.049% DNA. That’s a half of a tenth of a percent. Not very much. Anyways, this was just an attempt to create some kind of objective view of family relationships. Of course, nothing having to do with family is really objective, right?

The Fate of the Sabbatarians

I don’t often link to other articles online, but I read an article today that struck me as fascinating, well-researched, well-written, and which has many implications for those interested in Jewish genealogy.

The article, by Shay Fogelman in Haaretz, is titled Discovering Europe’s non-Jews who kept the faith and it discusses the fascinating history of the Sabbatarian community of Transylvania (Szekler Sabbatarians). The Sabbatarians were a community founded in the late 1500s by a Christian nobleman who, fascinated by the Bible and other Jewish writings, adopted many customs of Jews such as keeping the Sabbath (thus the name Sabbatarians) and keeping kosher, etc. He spread his beliefs to his court, which slowly adopted his beliefs, but it was his adopted son and successor who really spread this new belief-system by translating Jewish prayerbooks into Hungarian for the use of his followers. They were not Jews, they were not Christians, and that created no shortage of problems for them.

Bozodujfalu, center of the Sabbatarian community

In many ways they were persecuted even more than the Jewish community in the same region, because the Christian churches which dominated the region viewed Sabbatarians not as Jews, but as Christian heretics. By 1635 when they were forced to convert to one of the four major Christian sects in the region by the government, they counted their members at 20,000 people. Driven underground the religion persisted in hiding for hundreds of years, pretending to be Christian but intermarrying either amongst themselves or occasionally with the local Jewish community. In the mid-1800s with the emancipation of the Jews, the Sabbatarian community came out of hiding (although they were still persecuted as heretics) and half of the community converted en-masse to Judaism. The community, now half Jewish, continued to pray together in the same Synagogue as before.

When WWII started and the Nuremberg laws came into force, the Hungarians who controlled the region, and the Germans who eventually took over, were not sure what to do with the Sabbatarians. At first they considered them Jews, but after protests (including by local Christian clergy) some were exempted from the racial laws that sent the Jews into ghettos and eventually to the death camps. Some who were given the opportunity to leave the ghetto remained there as they decided they would rather share the fate of the Jews (if that was what God willed). Very little of the community seems to have survived the war, although some descendants of the community still live in the area, and even in Israel.

The story is interesting from a genealogical point of view because of the history of the community. While the mass-conversion of half the community occurred within a time-period that is well documented, the previous two centuries of the community is not well-documented, and the interaction between the Sabbatarians and the Jewish community is not well known. If members of the community intermarried into the Jewish community (presumably converting to Judaism beforehand), then that is in many ways reverse intermarriage compared to the much-more-common-at-the-time marrying out of the community. It would be extremely rare at that time to find large numbers of a non-Jewish community marrying into the Jewish community.

How is this influx of the local population into the Jewish population reflected the DNA of the Jewish population? If intermarriage really started in the 16th century, the number of descendants could in fact make up a large minority segment of the Jewish population from that area. What are the predominant haplogroups of Sabbatarians? Do those haplogroups exist in any large percentage in the Ashkenazi Jewish community? Some haplogroups such as Q1b1, which is a minority among Ashkenazi Jews (5%), but which is almost all Jewish, have been theorized by some to be a remnant of the Khazarian mass-conversion (the only other large-scale conversion since biblical times that I can think of), but perhaps the Q1b1 haplogroup derives from the Sabbatarian community? or another mass-conversion which we don’t know about?

It would also be interesting to document the connections between the two halves of the Sabbatarian community after the mass conversion in the 19th century – presumably there was intermingling between the two halves after the conversion (they still prayed together after all).

From the article in Haaretz it seems those Jewish descendants of the Sabbatarians identified by the author may not be interested in researching this history. We may therefore never know the full story of the Sabbatarians, and what their influence on the make-up of the Jewish people today is (perhaps significant, perhaps inconsequential).

In any case, I recommend reading Shay Fogelman’s excellent article and learning about this little-known non-Jewish sect which followed many Jewish laws (although not circumcision among others).

Out of curiosity, how many of you had heard of these Sabbatarians (Szekler Sabbatarians) before this post? If so, where did you hear about them?

Volunteer Opportunity at the JDC

Back in May, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC, or simply the “Joint”) launched an online archive web site called Our Shared Legacy which contained scanned documents from the JDC archives with over 500,000 names. Those documents included lists and cards that showed how the JDC helped Jewish refugees during and after the Holocaust to immigrate to various countries around the world (in addition to other relief efforts, including before WWII). See my article from the launch in May for more information on the online archive itself.

Since May the JDC has continued to scan and index more files from their physical archives and add them to the archive web site. In order to assist in getting these records up quicker, the JDC is looking for volunteer indexers who can contribute a day or half-day per week in time, in the JDC offices in either New York City or Jerusalem, to help with the indexing effort.

This is a really great opportunity if you’d like to help make these genealogically significant records available online. The JDC has really created a unique resource, going far beyond what most similar organizations have provided online. It is particularly impressive that they have made all of the high-resolution images available to download on their web site. If you live in or near New York City or Jerusalem and you’d like to help make these records available to people online, this is a great way to give back to the genealogical community and the Jewish community as a whole.

The full request for volunteers follows. Contact Naomi Barth at the e-mail address below if you’re interested in volunteering. Let her know you heard about it here.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is seeking Indexing Project Volunteers for an exciting opportunity to help with a forward- thinking archive endeavor to index historic lists. The volunteer will have the opportunity to engage with primary source material regarding The Joint’s work since 1914.

This project is perfect for those with an interest in genealogy, Jewish or general history, transnational migration, the non-profit sector, library science or archival work.

Position Requires:
• Interest in history and the treasures of the JDC archives
• Working as a reliable team player
• General computer skills
• Foreign language skills helpful but not necessary

A full day or half day per-week time commitment is required. Volunteer work must be completed on site at JDC’s NY or Jerusalem offices. All training and supervision will be provided.

Please send inquiries to:
[email protected]
Indexing Project Coordinator

Please enter “JDC Archives Indexing Project Volunteer” in the subject line.