Exit Ramp: A serendipitous visit to the crypto-Jews of Cartagena

Exit Ramp: A serendipitous visit to the crypto-Jews of Cartagena

I reached out to shake the rabbi’s hand. He gave me a friendly smile but kept his hand from touching mine. In his culture, women and men who are not close relations don’t touch. I had not forgotten; I actually never knew.

My husband and I were on the last day of our trip to Cartagena, the port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. When I was planning what was to be a short trip, I had researched synagogues and Jewish sites, as I always do when setting out for any new destination. In this case, I knew that the Jewish community in this part of Colombia is minuscule.

We hired a taxi to take us to the addresses I had found on the internet. No luck. The driver could not find the synagogues, and the staff at our hotel were unable to help.

And then, serendipity — we met Harry. In the hotel lobby, a man, about 80, was standing with a plastic bag whose contents were readily visible. They included a faded tallis and an old pair of tefillin.

He must have seen my gaze, and then he recognized that we, too, were Jews. My husband’s Camp Ramah cap and my star of David necklace were all the clues he needed.

He asked us if we wanted to join him on a visit to a synagogue. We instantly threw off our original plans, and a moment later we were seated in a huge SUV with a driver who seemingly knew his way around, headed to the Sephardic Israelite Center of Cartagena. 

This was a synagogue unlike the ones we attend in West Orange and Herzliya. This was a small congregation whose members were all crypto-Jews, also known as b’nei anusim — people who secretly carried out Jewish practices through the generations, often while professing another faith, and who often did not even know that the rituals they performed were Jewish in origin. Years earlier we had schlepped for many hours to see a synagogue in northern Portugal whose members were crypto-Jews and who had kept their kehillah alive for over 500 years. The Portuguese government had at last allowed them to build an actual congregational home, a synagogue perched on a mountain top in a neighborhood that is entirely Jewish.

And now, in Cartagena, we were visiting another synagogue that had been brought to life in spite of enormous odds. 

We pulled up to the building and traversed a rocky path alongside a swampy, mosquito-infested pond. What did this entry mean? Would the synagogue itself be some sort of hovel? 

We were met outside by Rabbi Joaquin Montoya. He escorted us inside to the immaculate and familiar synagogue interior. Orthodox in tradition, its mechitza divided the men’s section from the women’s behind it. There was an abundance of siddurim, Chumashim, and other religious texts.

Montoya is a medical doctor who has given up his profession to lead Cartagena’s crypto-Jews, who number about 50. He also serves as mohel and shochet, and provides kosher meat for the tiny community.

As a boy the rabbi did not know of his Jewish origins and attended a Catholic church. But he had clues. On Saturdays his parents wouldn’t let him go out to play with the other kids in the neighborhood. He never understood what was special about Saturdays, but he quickly learned that it was a day different from others. And on Friday nights his mother always lit candles.

His childhood home had two sinks, one for dairy and one for meat products. His grandmother became furious with him one day when he put a plate that had held a meat sandwich into the dairy sink.

And he didn’t know why the meat in his house was soaked until there was no blood left.

Both of his parents had grown up with these same traditions. Neither knew anything about Judaism; they just knew that these were things they did. Remarkably, Montoya’s wife grew up in a household with similar practices.

He is now endeavoring to discover more crypto-Jews in Cartagena and to make Jewish marriages for his four children.

Our new friend Harry handed the rabbi his plastic bag. The tallis and tefillin had belonged to Harry’s father, and it was in this place that Harry wanted them to end their journey. The ritual items’ journey had begun in Poland, carried them across the ocean to the United States, and now to their next home among the crypto-Jews of Cartagena.

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