A slice of life on the Mexican border

This is one of those amazing stories that screams Geraldo Rivera: Uncovering a long lost Jewish community, with a 500-year history, on the Texas -Mexico border.

But it came our way thanks to Dr. Ethan Schuman, who has a dental practice in Creve Coeur and trained under local mohel Rabbi Michael Rovinsky, director of the Jewish Student Union. Schuman and Rabbi Rovinsky figure prominently into the story, but more on their roles later.

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Anat Cohen at The Sheldon

As Schuman explains, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century large numbers of Jews were tortured, burned at the stake or exiled because of their faith. A vast number of these surviving Jews chose to live outwardly as Catholics but behind closed doors secretly observed many Jewish rituals. They became known as Marranos, Conversos, Crypto Jews or Anusim (meaning “forced” in Hebrew). Large groups of them fled Spain and Portugal in search of more tolerant regimes. They mostly went to Northern Africa and eastward to the welcoming Turkish Empire and Balkans.

Some cast off their Catholic identity when they left the Iberian Peninsula and others kept up the outward Christian behaviors. Remarkably some Anusim, while losing their Jewish identity over the centuries, still maintained some Jewish observances despite viewing themselves as Christians. In fact, some do not even recognize their Jewish roots but know that their family has observed certain unusual customs passed down from one generation to the next. To this day, many light Shabbat candles in closets, basements and attics due to a forgotten past.

Today, there is a 300-member community of Anusim living in Northern Mexico and recently a number of members decided to fully return to the Jewish fold.

Inasmuch as their lineage cannot be verified through the span of five centuries, full conversions had to be performed. The lengthy process was done under the aegis of Dallas Rabbi Binyamin Terenyo with the participation of Rabbi Elyahu Ben Chaim of New York. Rabbi Terenyo has been in Dallas for a decade and has devoted himself to reaching out to the many expatriate Israelis there. The final step in the conversion process for the men was a bris. That’s where Rabbi Rovinsky and Schuman come in, having volunteered their time and talents to perform this great mitzvah last month.

The surgical procedures were performed in the offices of Dallas pediatrician and mohel Dr. Shelley Weiss. The five patients and their extended families came to the office to savor the moment. The men were put under local anesthesia, though Schuman said that unlike a newborn circumcision, where there isn’t much tissue involved, there was quite a lot of bleeding with these men. “It was good to have four hands for the process,” he added.

Schuman said there was great joy and hearty mazel tovs as each patient completed the procedure. Some said they had been waiting 20 years for this moment. Rabbi Rovinsky was moved to comment, “although I have performed hundreds of adult circumcisions, there was something unique, almost magical, at these converts. The intense simcha that radiated from these men was almost blinding. How they sang ancient Ladino and Spanish songs that were passed down from their ancestors as we performed the britot sent shivers down my spine.”

After the procedures were completed everyone returned to Rabbi Terenyo’s house/congregation where the celebrations continued. Prayers were sung, le’cyaims were consumed and everyone danced in honor of the new Jews — even the patients, said Schuman, adding that these five men and their families are in the process of relocating to Dallas so that they can live near a synagogue.

Bracing for mikvah decision

Good thing “Ugly Betty” isn’t Jewish. That’s because a new Jewish legal ruling by an old sage may prevent religious women from having straight teeth, according to a recent report in JTA.

Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, 99, the leader of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community announced recently his new halachic ruling that women who wear braces cannot have a kosher immersion in a ritual bath.

Jewish law requires that women immerse fully naked in a mikvah in order to resume physical intimacy with their husbands after the menstruation period. No “partitions” between the woman’s body and the water — including nail polish and even fingernail dirt — are permitted.

Elyashiv ruled that braces are considered a “partition” between a woman’s body and the mikvah waters. Ynet reported that orthodontists and dentists in Israel’s Haredi community already have begun advertising removable braces.

Israeli TV to adapt ‘The Office’

Many Jewish publications and Internet sites are reporting that the popular NBC sitcom “The Office” will be made into an Israeli version. The British-originated show created by Ricky Gervais already has American, Russian and French versions.

Characters in the Israeli version, called “Super Office,” will include an intellectual Arab, an Ethiopian Israeli and an Orthodox Jewish woman. The show will be set in Yahud, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Actor Avi Meshulam is said to be playing the Gervais character, David Brent, in the Israeli version, which does not yet have a premiere date. “I am thrilled and amazed that Israel is making ‘The Office’ with local writers, directors and actors,” Gervais was quoted as saying. “I mean, who ever heard of Jewish entertainers?”