In Medellín, Jewish converts try to leave the Inquisition, and Colombia’s civil war, behind
A pair of beggars position themselves on the front steps of the cathedral for the end of mass. One wears a big Star of David, the other a humble wooden crucifix. As churchgoers file out, the beggar with the cross is given a steady stream of alms, while the beggar with the Star of David is ignored or even spat upon. The priest looks at the two of them and says, “Hey, Jew, you should move to the synagogue. You’ll have better luck with your own kind.”
The beggar with the Star of David looks at the other beggar, who is eagerly counting his money, and says to him, “Hey, Moshe! Did you hear that?”
This joke is told by 31-year-old Ezrah Rodriguez Agudelo, a convert to Judaism and a member of a Sephardic community in Bello, a neighborhood on the northern end of Medellín, the capital of Colombia’s Antioquia region, which was possibly home to a number of converso, or Marrano, colonizers fleeing the Inquisition. A former evangelical Christian, Rodriguez, dark-skinned and as spindly as a sparrow, has learned to laugh at the Jewish stereotypes. Yet the joke, which he tells in Spanish, is not just about the relationship of Jews and money. It is also a Marrano joke about the benefits of pretending not to be Jewish.
I first learned about the Bello converts through a three-part report on Colombian television news, and I traveled to Medellín to see how an evangelical megachurch called the Centro de Terapia Integral Para la Familia, or the Center for Integral Family Therapy, has morphed into a Hebrew-speaking, Sephardic, Orthodox Jewish community complete with daycare, a Hebrew school, a self-managed kosher market, and claims to an ancestry that makes them more returnees than converts. What I didn’t know was how this journey would uncover, little by little, not only a hidden past, but intricate, far-reaching ties to the more recent history of Colombia’s terrible and bloody civil war.
Shlomo Cano Muriel, the Bello Sephardic community’s “chief of communications,” tells me to meet him at his metalworking shop, which is in a small warehouse just off the metro line, and he leads me upstairs to his spare office. He probes my dormant Judaism, my Ukrainian-Polish heritage, and my seven years living in Colombia. We are soon joined by Abel Villegas, a 64-year-old, freckled-faced, blue-eyed former high-school Spanish teacher, now a carpenter who helps out around the shop. When Abel lifts his baseball cap to reveal a kippah, his eyebrows lift with it. He eventually explains that he is the father of the community leader, the former evangelical pastor Juan Carlos Villegas, whose Hebrew name is Elad.
Just then, a worker comes into the office wearing safety glasses and a cap with the Star of David. Cano invites me to join them for Shabbat and to spend time with the community of 17 converted families, plus a hundred more in training, who make up a not-insignificant percentage of the estimated 7,000 Jews living in Colombia today. Whatever inquisition court his group has set up to vet solicitors, I have apparently passed.
Medellín is the inverse of a shining city on the hill. Tucked in the Aburrá Valley, with its boxy slums rising up the slopes on either side of skyscrapers like a pair of great, poised Hokusai waves, it is sunken, humid, vibrant green and brick brown, and perpetually in bloom. Pilgrims visit former drug lord Pablo Escobar’s grave to lay wreaths. The statue known as Our Lady of the Assassins, the patron of killers, sees a constant stream of supplicants at her chapel. The locals, known as paisas, a shortening of paisanos, or people of the same country, are well known across Colombia to be intenso in everything they do.
On a Saturday, I take the city’s spotless metro line eight stops north, up the valley floor, and walk 10 short blocks to the synagogue where the Bello converts have gathered for Shabbat. Their temple is a rented, nondescript three-story brick building, clean and well ventilated with fans and windows.
Boaz Fariñas Eisenberg, a 34-year-old Venezuelan with a sparse beard, and Moshe Gomez, 62, the honorary president of the community I’ve come to see, had met me at the Bello metro stop the night before and shown me around the former rural village that has been absorbed by the northward creep of Medellín. The square central plaza, like everywhere in Colombia, was a lively park surrounded by a Catholic church, town hall, and a barricaded national police station.
Bello is home to a working class of shop owners and low-level professionals. Gomez, for example, is a retired train engineer on the now-defunct Santa Marta line. Eliay Madrigal, another of the converts, has worked in the national tax office for more than 30 years. He wears an Israeli flag as a lapel pin.
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