Six months ago, I had the privilege to be part of a group of three rabbis for the conversion of 114 people in Managua, Nicaragua. Most of these people can trace their Jewish ancestry since the Inquisition in Spain.
In 1492, on Tisha b’Av, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella proclaimed that all Jews in Spain had to either leave Spain (leaving their assets behind), convert to Christianity, or die. Many Jews opted to convert, but in fact practiced Judaism in secret, which prompted the Inquisition. If a convert family was found guilty of Judaizing, they were condemned to be burned at the stake. Of course many families came to America to escape the Inquisition not knowing that it would follow. As a result, even in the New World, these families kept their Judaism secret. This is the reason they are called “Crypto-Jews”, or B’nai Anusim in Hebrew.
After 500 years, most of the descendants are not aware of their Jewish ancestry, but lately, many have been curious and have decided to “return” to Judaism through a conversion process. Moshe Henriquez, the leader of a synagogue in Managua who converted six months ago, is a Crypto-Jew and his ancestor is called Moses Cohen Henriques, a Jewish pirate!
Moses Cohen Henriques started life as a secret Jew living under the Inquisition in his native Portugal. One of the most prominent merchants in Lisbon, he was discovered to be a practicing Jew in 1605 and publicly tortured, along with 150 other hidden Jews. This experience apparently led Cohen to decide to work against Spain and Portugal, the hosts of the brutal Inquisition.
After escaping to Amsterdam, Cohen seemingly became a secret agent for the Dutch navy, and made his way to the New World, settling in Jamaica, which was then a haven for Jews. He worked on behalf of the Netherlands to attack Spanish ships and frustrate Spain’s colonial designs in the New World.
Cohen teamed up with one of the most feared pirates of the time, Sir Henry Morgan, with the tacit backing of both the Dutch and British governments. In 1628, along with Dutch folk hero Admiral Piet Pieterszoon Hein, Cohen captured a Spanish treasure fleet off the coast of Cuba. It was the largest theft in the history of the Spanish fleet.
Cohen gave up piracy in old age when Sir Henry Morgan became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, and pardoned his longtime friend. The two lived out their days in Jamaica, their pirate ways behind them for good.
Not everyone in Managua has such colorful ancestry, but their story is still fascinating. Igor Tiffer is a successful horse breeder and trainer. His grandfather escaped from Germany at the beginning of the war and settled in Managua. He eventually married an Indian woman, but kept Jewish traditions alive. Now, Igor, the grandson who is married with two beautiful girls wanted to bring Judaism back in his family. Six months ago, he, his wife and daughters underwent conversion and they are now a passionate Jewish family. His last name, Tiffer, come from Kabbalistic term “Tiferet”, meaning “harmony”.
This past Chanukah, I was invited to return to Managua as two couples were getting married. One of the couples was previously married but wished to have a Jewish wedding with a Ketubah following their conversion. The evening was magical as they looked at each other’s eyes while getting married –again.
The second wedding was a young couple. They had fallen in love as they were studying for their conversion. I was close to them during the conversion process, we had many lively and interesting conversations. The Jewish community that emerged from the conversions six months ago all came for this wedding. A room full of new Jews, who knew how to pray Mincha perfectly well, and who danced for hours to Jewish music, singing along because they know all the songs by heart. I went there to perform weddings and to teach, but they are the ones who can teach the world about inspiration, passion and love of Judaism.