In Search of My Father — And My Jewish Ancestry

I already wanted to convert to Judaism. Then I found his last name in an archive about crypto Jews in New Mexico.

I know very little about my father. No one ever talked about him and I didn’t ask my mother many questions, so he remained a mystery. All I had of my absent father was a name and an old photo and so few pieces of information that I cherished each one, locking them up tightly in my memory: He was a man I had no memory of, whose feet I inherited, who was allergic to shellfish, who had liked to laugh.

I had an overactive imagination, so rather than a disappointment or a villain, he could be whoever I wanted him to be.

When I first became interested in Judaism, I wondered — distantly — if maybe his family had been Jewish, somewhere back through the generations. I knew it wouldn’t matter; I had read that Judaism passed matrilineally, so even if my father’s side was Jewish, I still wouldn’t be. But it would be something.

At 13, this felt important. I clung to the idea. After all, no one could prove me wrong.

When I was 29, I finally reached out to a rabbi to ask if I could attend services. When I first met with the rabbi I asked about conversion, telling her all about the books I’d read, how I had wanted to convert back when I was 13 and my Catholic middle school tasked me with reading “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok and unknowingly awoke something inside me, how I was worried about giving up Christmas, how Judaism made sense to me in a way Christianity never really had, how I had for years tried to make Christianity fit but it didn’t. How I wanted to try, to learn, to maybe convert — and was that okay? Was that allowed?

And then I added that, well, I didn’t know for sure, but I’d read about people who converted and then found out that they’d, back generations, had Jewish ancestry. So maybe I had Jewish ancestry somewhere, too. My background was Mexican on both sides but I knew about conversos, crypto Jews, and maybe, maybe… My rabbi listened, and told me that yes, I could meet with her and ask questions and begin the conversion process — “But you don’t have to have Jewish ancestry,” she’d said.

So why did it feel like I had to?

I was in Albuquerque scanning pages of research when I came across a name I never expected to see in an archive: my father’s name. Or, his surname. The name I’d been born with, before my mother changed it, the Mexican surname that was just strange enough that I had never encountered it. There it was, on this document I was scanning onto a thumb drive, in a folder in a box in an archive, about crypto Jews in New Mexico. I was interested in the history of the Sephardim, but I had not expected to find my father here.

I had spent a lifetime looking for him and he appeared just when I stopped.

At that point, I had been attending Jewish services for a few months and had traveled to New Mexico with a pocket Torah and candles, for when I would join Zoom Shabbat services back in my hometown,  despite the time difference. I wasn’t Jewish yet, but I aspired, and it felt possible, like something I could actually become.

After finding my father’s surname in the archives I went back to my Airbnb and spent hours on I typed in the bits of information I knew — his name, two of his three siblings’ names, the city they were from. I was never more aware of how little I knew than I was on that day, reading through documents and trying to determine if these people were his relatives.

I had not, until that day, known his parents’ names. My grandparents.

I was determined. I would trace my father back to these people in colonial New Mexico, these conversos in Santa Fe. I would find a link between his family and the Sephardim of old. It wouldn’t suddenly make me Jewish, it wouldn’t erase my need to convert, but it would mean something.

Even with my premium Ancestry account, I very quickly hit a wall. It is easy to hit a wall when researching Mexican relatives, I knew. I had begun tracing ancestry on my mother’s side and had had much more success, but even there I had come to a point where I could go no further. So many old records had been taken by white people who didn’t speak Spanish. My ancestors’ names were misspelled, dates of birth missing. Naming conventions made it difficult to determine who was who. I finally caved and called my mom. Mentioned seeing my father’s name in the archive. Asked what names she remembered from his family.

“I only remember his mom’s side of the family being around,” she said. “I think his dad was adopted? Or raised by an uncle? I’m not even sure that his name was the name he was born with.”

I deflated. The one link I had, this Spanish surname on a list of known conversos, might not even be real. Had I descended from this familial line, or had the name been given to my father’s father out of convenience? Who was he, and where was he from? Who was I?

All my life, I have looked over my shoulder, searched crowds for my father. When I was younger, I held onto the dream that he was amazing, that he was magical, that he would return. As an adult, I have learned that he was an alcoholic with a drug problem. As for his family, they are still a mystery to me.

Now, on the eve of my conversion, I have to learn to be content with the not knowing. Perhaps I do have Sephardic roots. Perhaps my ancestors were Jewish, long ago and far away. It is just as likely, if not likelier, that my people were always Christian. I have to learn to be okay with that.

Perhaps because of the illegitimacy of my birth, I crave a sort of legitimacy. I want to feel secure, to feel rooted, to feel as though I belong. For years I sought this security in details, as though knowing my father’s blood type or which recessive genes I might have inherited from him would be able to tell me, definitively, who I was or might become.

There will always be this hole, this gap in my knowledge. There will forever be things I will not know or cannot be certain about. I can be certain only in the truth that my rabbi shared all those months ago: I can become Jewish without having Jewish ancestry. It’s okay to want to become Jewish without having any proof of Jewish background, any link to Jewish relatives. I can still be Jewish. I can choose who I am.

As I write this, I am days away from my conversion. I will get to choose my own name. I will get to choose my name, and I will be given the names of my Jewish parents, of Abraham and Sarah. I, who have never had a father to claim me, will join the house of Israel.

Madison Ciaffone

Madison Ciaffone (she/her) is a Mexican-American Jewish convert from California. She lives in New England with her husband and pets, enjoys writing and baking, and is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up.

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