15 Grandmothers and a Hidden Jewish Legacy: The Story of Genie Milgrom

October 2, 2013

7 min read

Jewish Legacy

Return, O Israel, unto the LORD thy God; for thou hast stumbled in thine iniquity. Take with you words, and return unto the LORD; say unto Him: ‘Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips. (Hosea 14:2-3)

Jewish Legacy
Genie Milgrom. (Photo: Vemio/Screen Shot)

The rabbi didn’t know what to make of Genie Milgrom. She had placed on the table before him reams of documentation going back hundreds of years, all demonstrating what she hoped would be incontrovertible proof that her family’s ancestors in Spain were Bnei Anousim, (descendants of Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism at the time of the Inquisition and who are often referred to by historians by the derogatory term Marranos). In those documents Milgrom had traced a firm matrilineal record going back an impressive 15 generations. Her goal: to be declared Jewish by birth.

There was only one hitch: Milgrom, who grew up Catholic, was already Jewish: long before she chanced upon evidence that her family may have had Jewish roots, she had become interested in Judaism on her own and had converted in an Orthodox ceremony in Miami 20 years previously. Since then, she had been living a strictly observant lifestyle.

“What do you want me to do?” the rabbi asked Milgrom, sincere but perplexed, after spending several hours reviewing her documents. “I can’t make you any more Jewish than you already are!”

But Milgrom was insistent – it’s a trait that took her from a prim and proper Catholic schoolgirl to becoming an international businesswoman and ultimately the go-to person for hundreds of other Bnei Anousim seeking to trace their Jewish lineage back hundreds of years.

The outcome of the story: it took a few more years and even more documentation, uncovered in the wee hours of the night by a tireless Milgrom in the Portuguese national archives in Lisbon, but she got what she so fervently sought: proof of her Jewish lineage, eventually going back an astounding 22 generations, and formal confirmation from several key rabbinical authorities.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves

Genie Milgrom grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family with no inkling of her hidden Jewish past. Her grandparents emigrated from Spain, first to Havana, Cuba, and then, after Castro’s take-over, to Miami, Florida, when Milgrom was 5-years-old. She describes herself as “the perfect model Catholic child, complete with saddle shoes, Irish kilt-style uniforms, mass every morning with prayers in Latin.” And yet, she says, “I never fit in. I went through the motions, I prayed the loudest, but deep inside, I knew something was wrong.”

When she was 7, she attended a summer camp where she met her first Jewish friend. “I was drawn to her like a firefly to light,” Milgrom says. “She fascinated me and I stuck to her like glue.” During the school year, Milgrom sought out any connection she could find to Jews and Judaism. “It was inexplicable,” she adds. “It made no sense, but I felt more at home with the occasional Jew I met than I did inside a church.”

A very bright child, Milgrom enrolled in a Catholic university when she was just 16. There, she befriended the only other girl her age on campus – who happened to be Jewish. “What was a Jewish girl doing in that school?” Milgrom wonders. “There are no coincidences in life.”

Milgrom spent hours with her new friend, trying to glean the smallest details “about religion, Shabbat, anything I could.” She took classes in theology and paid special attention to the Jewish topics.

But then it all stopped. Milgrom married just a year after school began, at age 17, had two children, and began working in the family business. It was another 16 years before she had a moment to breathe. But when she did, it was Judaism that once again filled her heart.

“I began to devour volumes of Jewish books,” she says, “on the holidays, marriage, Shabbat, philosophy – anything I could get my hands on.” Moreover, she started visiting synagogues for the first time and created what she calls “a new life on the side.”

Her thirst for Judaism, however, resulted in an irreparable rift in her marriage, and she and her husband eventually divorced. This freed Milgrom to dive into Judaism even deeper. After some 5 years of formal study, she converted to Judaism through the Orthodox Beit Din in Miami. Shortly thereafter, she met the man who would become her husband. He had been raised in a large religious family in Antwerp, Belgium, and had moved to Miami for work. Milgrom finally found what she was seeking for so long: a fulfilling Jewish life and a loving community.

And then the entire story of how she got to that point was dramatically flipped on its head.

It was a Friday morning and the telephone rang. Milgrom’s mother was on the line. “Your grandmother has passed away,” she said. Milgrom asked her mother to please hold the burial until Sunday, rather than do it on the Sabbath when Milgrom could not attend, but her mother was insistent. “In our family tradition, we must do the burial immediately!”

This struck Milgrom as strange. The tradition of burying someone as soon as possible is not a Catholic one, but a Jewish custom.

The day after the funeral, Milgrom’s mother produced a box that Milgrom’s grandmother had specified be delivered to her granddaughter only upon her death. Milgrom opened the box and her jaw dropped: inside was a Star of David earring and a five-fingered hamsa pendant. “At that moment, I said to myself ‘holy moley!’” Milgrom recalls. “My grandmother must have been a Marrano.”

Other memories suddenly began to make sense. When her grandmother would make dough for bread or dessert, she would always separate out a small piece, and put it in the back of the oven to burn. This is the Jewish tradition of taking challah. “My grandmother also always taught me to check for blood in eggs,” she says, another Jewish law.

With these clues beckoning, Milgrom began a search that would last more than a decade to trace back her Jewish roots. Particularly important would be showing that all of her grandmothers were Bnei Anousim, because Judaism is based on matrilineal descent.

It was slow going at first. There was an old family tree, but it only went back to 1790. Still, it was intriguing that family members seemed to be marrying only other relatives from the same village – that might be a way of preserving hidden Jewish heritage, Milgrom thought. She hired a researcher to scour the archives in Spain looking for birth and death certificates. “I told him I don’t want brothers and sisters, only grandmothers,” Milgrom says. “He would scan what he found at night and send them to me by email. I’d make a full bibliography on every name he found, with five references on each, showing that these were names used by Marranos. Eventually I had circumstantial evidence going back hundreds of years.”

The results of her research are now the subject of a book “My 15 Grandmothers,” published in 2012.

At this point, Milgrom flew to Israel and met with staff at Israel Returns, including Educational Director Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum. “Rabbi Birnbaum was very impressed. He told me that I’d done some wonderful genealogy work, but to truly prove my Jewish roots, I needed an actual Inquisition record with the family name on it.”

Not deterred, Milgrom hired another researcher in Spain who she charged with the new task, but the elusive Inquisition document was not to be found. “I almost passed out and died. I’d been working on this for years,” Milgrom says. “I can feel it – I’m Jewish in my soul, so how can this be?”

Milgrom decided she had to take things into her own hands. She and her husband got on a plane and flew to Spain to visit Fermoselle, the medieval village where Milgrom’s family was from. Fermoselle is located in the Castile and Leon region of Spain, not far from the town of Zamora, and situated along the Duero River that forms a natural divide between Spain from Portugal. “That’s when I realized it,” Milgrom says, still excited today over that discovery from several years ago. “The Inquisition records I was looking for weren’t in Spain. They must be in Portugal!”

Milgrom fired up the GPS on her phone and the couple sped off to Lisbon to pour through the national archives. Fortunately, all of the Inquisition records had recently been digitized. “I started plugging in family names and one after another, Inquisition records began appearing,” she says breathlessly. “We found 40 records all showing maternal lineage, going back 22 generations.” When the family tree was done, she had an astonishing 8,597 names recorded on her mother’s side.

Milgrom returned to Israel with the new documents and left it with a prominent rabbinical court, which has dealt with questions of Bnei Anousim lineage in the past. “It took them two and a half years to translate everything from medieval Spanish and Portuguese to Hebrew,” she says, “but in the end, I got a beautiful letter saying that, while I came to Judaism one way, through conversion, I was in fact born Jewish. ‘G-d works in mysterious ways,’ the letter added.”

Milgrom remains in touch with Rabbi Birnbaum and Israel Returns’ Chairman Michael Freund, along with staff working with Bnei Anousim. “They were always there for me to answer my questions,” she says. “They never turned me away. More importantly, they shone the light that enabled me to eventually complete this work.”

Milgrom now spends her spare time speaking to other Bnei Anousim around the world about how to successfully conduct genealogical research. Milgrom’s fluent Spanish often takes her to South America and Europe for business and she maintains an ever busy calendar of engagements; in the past year, she’s had bookings in Argentina, Ecuador, and Spain, in addition to her home state of Florida. “I try to bring awareness and encouragement to people like myself,” she says.

In July of this year, Milgrom visited Zamora, not for work but as a featured speaker at a conference on the Jewish history of the region. The event was attended by more than 180 people, 40 of whom were scholars, dignitaries and journalists, including Dr. Abraham Haim, president of the Cultural Council of the Sephardic Community in Jerusalem; Dr. Avi Gross of Ben Gurion University, and Dr. Ruth Behar from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

She is well positioned to continue as a role model for the increasing numbers of Bnei Anousim seeking to reconnect with their heritage. Milgrom is currently the president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami and is executive vice-president for the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies.

While she is delighted by the outcome of her many years of research, she jokes that perhaps it should have been easier, even obvious, to prove her 500 year connection. “By tenacity alone they should have known I was a Jew!”


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