When Genie Milgrom opened the bottom drawer in her mother’s Miami kitchen, she sank to the floor in tears. She held in her hands hundreds of pieces of paper, each one more yellowed than the next, each one penned in a different ink. Among recipes for overnight stews and Maimonides Cake — and a striking absence of pork or lard — Milgrom had documentation for what she had sensed all along. Her family of devout Catholics from Cuba were conversos.
Milgrom’s story — and the stories of the estimated millions of others like her — go back to the Iberian Peninsula. Once home to a thriving community of Sephardic Jews that birthed luminaries like Jewish philosophers Moses Maimonides and Don Isaac Abravanel, the year 1391 brought violent anti-Semitic riots throughout Spain’s major cities and with it, the largest mass Catholic conversion in Jewish history. While not the first time Jews had elected baptism over burning, the unprecedented volume of converts in 1391 emerged for the first time as a distinct group: the conversos. Though the term carried negative social implications — that one was an “insincere” Christian — and civilians abused and tormented them, conversos still achieved positions of status throughout Spain and were able to mingle with the general population. Some were even able to maintain relationships with other Jews in Spain and abroad.
Everything changed in 1492. Spain’s Edict of Expulsion, ordering all Jews out of Spain, caused the converso population to swell, and with Portugal’s parallel order to convert or die five years later, the number of conversos ballooned. With the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, the royal government declared all conversos suspect for “Judaizing,” or retaining Jewish practices and beliefs.
As Miriam Bodian notes in Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (Indiana University Press, 1997), by the end of the 15th century, conversos had plunged from a group on the margins to an underground class. Isolated from the Sephardic Jews who had fled or chosen martyrdom, they revised Jewish traditions or gave them unorthodox significance. Purim, for instance, was elevated by conversos from a minor holiday to a serious celebration centering around Queen Esther (renamed Santa Esterica), the heroine who saved the Jewish people, a feat only achieved by concealing her true Jewish identity. Still, the conversos remained despised by Christians, and many fled; by the 17th century, conversos could be found scattered throughout Europe and the Americas.
Milgrom, who was born in Cuba and now lives in Miami, uncovered her mother’s cache of recipes in 2013. Milgrom had converted to Judaism in 1991, following a spiritual intuition and her own fascination with the Jewish religion. She explains it simply: “I always felt Jewish.”
A pharmacist by day, Milgrom’s genealogical search became a second full-time job. She began making regular trips to Spain and Portugal to dig through Inquisition archives, hoping to trace a maternal lineage that would prove her Catholic family had, at one time, been Jewish. Eventually, Milgrom was able to trace her family back 15 generations to the village of Fermoselle, on the Spanish-Portuguese border. In 2012, she self-published her first book, My 15 Grandmothers, to share her story.
It was only after this expansive — and expensive — search that Milgrom discovered the recipes. “I remember the shock,” she says. “It had been so difficult to find everything in the archives, but my mother had the recipes all along,” Milgrom says. “She could have gotten rid of them — and she didn’t.”
Beyond the ingredients confirming Milgrom’s Jewish ancestry, the recipes also allowed her to better trace her family’s own diaspora. “Some recipes started out with just flour, olive oil, and sugar, but then a similar recipe would add rum,” Milgrom says, “so I knew my family had moved to Cuba. Then the same recipe would add fig liqueur, which I knew my family used in Costa Rica.” The new findings gave way to another book, Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers (2019).
Since her first book was published, Milgrom has made a name for herself among genealogists and in Jewish communities throughout the world. In 2015, she spoke at the Knesset Caucus in Israel, and this year she presented at the March AIPAC conference in Washington, DC. She fields several hundred emails, texts, and Facebook messages a month from people all over the world who suspect they have converso lineage, and she makes an effort to answer each one. Milgrom also spearheads a new initiative, The Converso Genealogy Project, which seeks to digitize Spain and Portugal’s Inquisition records.
“Conversos come out of the woodwork,” Milgrom explains. “But you don’t notice them, because they’re searching alone. It will be one person from each family. And when you have one here and one there, they add up to thousands — but you don’t hear them, and you don’t see them.”
Milgrom’s efforts help quantify the number of people around the world today searching for their Jewish ancestry. Facebook groups dedicated to converso genealogy abound; conferences convene those on the search for their Jewish DNA. Milgrom says the internet has been instrumental in providing people with a space to keep searching. “Imagine you’re sitting alone in Ecuador or Machu Picchu,” she says. “You feel a stirring inside. You can’t identify it. But now you can go online and see people talking about it.”
University of Washington professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies Ana Gómez-Bravo received many requests for help after she published a recipe collection called The Converso Cookbook. Interest in this heritage may also have been spurred by Spain and Portugal’s extension of citizenship in 2015 to those who can claim Jewish ancestry.
In Seattle, local Sephardic synagogue Congregation Ezra Bessaroth became a resource for those seeking official letters confirming their lineage. According to Simon Benzaquen, the synagogue’s interim rabbi, Ezra Bessaroth issued over 200 official letters over the past year, before the window closed on the citizenship opportunity in October. Recently, Spain’s justice ministry reported that it received over 132,000 applications since 2015.
Although the deadline to apply for Spanish or Portuguese citizenship has passed, Gómez-Bravo expects that people will keep searching, because the American experience engenders a unique need to uncover your roots.
“In Spain, your mother is from this town, and your father is from the neighboring town,” she says. “But in America, it’s different. There’s a mystery woven into the history of people in this country, because it’s a country of immigrants. A lot of people understand they come from somewhere else.”
In many ways, the plight of the conversos continues to the present day. As a group, they defy the cultural categories favored by Jews and non-Jews alike. Popular discourse often shrouds the converso community in the mystery of their so-called “inexplicable” traditions; as a consequence, their history becomes the stuff of myths, divorced from individual struggle.
Gómez-Bravo’s research, which explores food as an identity bridge between Sephardic Jews and present-day Spain, is a step in explaining the unexplained. When families like Milgrom’s made recipes the way their grandmothers did, they created an uninterrupted tradition. “There’s never really been a break in their culture,” says Gómez-Bravo. “They’ve carried these traditions with them.”
Other times, converso stories are scrutinized and dismissed as cases of mistaken identity. It is unlikely, for instance, that lighting candlesticks is evidence of a converso lineage, as early Sephardic rabbinic literature specifies the use of wicks in oil. However, verification of converso lineage is within reach — if only Spain and Portugal would make publicly available its Inquisition records.
To this day, they are not digitized and lie behind layers of bureaucratic red tape, only accessible in person — a reality that poses a financial barrier to many doing their own research. But it’s no wonder: While the records contain valuable genealogical information, they also detail the torture inflicted on the countries’ Jews. “Whenever I’ve met with an archivist, everyone is very polite — I get offered coffee 53 times — but nothing happens,” Milgrom says.
Four days before Rosh Hashanah this year, Milgrom flew to Portugal to meet with the director of the archive and a representative of the Ministry of Culture. For the first time, she believes she made inroads urging Portugal to digitize its Inquisition records. If she’s successful, she hopes Spain will follow suit.
“My kids say, Mom, stop. Be normal. Go on a cruise. But this might be our last shot,” Milgrom says. “If these records are digitized, it will change the face of converso history. This is a gamechanger for the Jewish people.”