Seeking discretion in forbidding mountains, the converted Jewish families here adopted surnames, many of them from the heavily Catholic Basque country of Spain, said Enrique Serrano, a professor at Bogota’s Rosario University who has studied colonial-era Spanish records. Names such as Uribe and Echeverry, Botero and Restrepo, were “bought,” Serrano said, along with certificates that instantly gave the converts a Catholic family history.
They also took on a form of Catholicism that was greatly ostentatious, he said, with each family in each town ensuring that at least one son became a priest.
Clues in customs
Still, families couldn’t fully let go of the past, said Memo Anjel, a professor at the Pontifical Bolivarian University in Medellin. He said Antioquia, more than other regions, is filled with towns with biblical names or those that come from the Holy Land, such as Belen and Jerico. Anjel said there is also a proliferation of given names that are unusual in other parts of Colombia.
“They are people who call themselves Catholic but have names like Isaac, Ruben, Moises, Israel, Gabriel,” Anjel said. “And then there are also the women’s names — Ruth, Lia, Clara, Martha, Rebecca.”
There are also tantalizing clues in the customs found in the countryside.
The light ponchos worn by farmers, which feature four untied corners that appear like tassels, are nearly indistinguishable from the prayer shawls worn by observant Jewish men. Some of the haciendas feature conspicuous baths in patios, which scholars say may have first been designed as mikvahs for ritual cleansings.
The residents of old homes have also discovered mezuzas. These are tiny scrolls inscribed with verses, which are put in cases that are attached to doorways, as is common in the homes of Jews the world over.
The converts here in Bello also speak of the unassuming rituals of older family members that they now believe demonstrate a Jewish heritage.
“Before I converted, when I began to study Judaism and Jewish traditions, I began to notice those things in my family,” said Ezra Rodriguez, 33, as his son, Yoetzel, 4, scampered about an apartment decorated with pictures of Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
His grandfather always covered his head, even in church, saying that not doing so showed disrespect. Rodriguez also said his grandparents wore their finest clothing on Saturday, not Sunday.
And he recalled how as a boy he’d laugh at his grandfather’s given name — Luis Maria, which honors the Virgin Mary.
“He would come in close and say in a whisper, ‘We had to give ourselves such names,’ ” Rodriguez recounted.
Despite the belief that they have Jewish roots, the Bello community had to formally convert, with a rabbi from Miami, Moshe Ohana, arriving to officiate. The men underwent ritual circumcision, and the whole community began a long process of intense instruction.
The group now has a 120-year-old Torah, which Villegas said was written in Amsterdam. A kosher bakery opened, and kosher meat arrives from a butcher in the capital, Bogota. There is a Hebrew preschool, which operates every afternoon.
And the synagogue, which segregates men from women as is common for Orthodox Jews, is filled daily with the sounds of Hebrew songs and prayers.
“It’s about showing dedication, lots of dedication, to study the prayers, learn to read Hebrew,¨said Meyer Sanchez, 37. “You have to sacrifice other things, like time with your wife, time with your family, and other things you may like, video games and music.”
Among the most fervent leaders in the community is Shlomo Cano, 34, a supervisor in a motorcycle assembly plant.
Cano, whose name had been Rene, said his metamorphosis began little by little. A musician, he began to play Jewish music when his band had been invited to play for Medellin’s established Jewish community. He also went to Israel.
He has since delved into the Talmud and is fast expanding his Hebrew vocabulary to recite Hebrew prayers and sing Hebrew songs.
Cano keeps kosher — he and his wife, Galit, run the community’s kosher bakery — and his family prays daily at the synagogue.
“You’re Jewish because you want to be Jewish, because you feel it, because you love it,” he said. “Now I can’t live without it.”