Ear­li­er this week, Doreen Car­va­jal wrote about try­ing to recov­er her fam­i­ly’s secret iden­ti­ty and how to unlock and pre­serve mem­o­ries. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Ear­li­er this sum­mer, I min­gled among a group of ama­teur and pro­fes­sion­al geneal­o­gists at an inter­na­tion­al Paris con­fer­ence explor­ing the study of Jew­ish roots. A fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion emerged: is the his­to­ry of all our ances­tors some­how a part of us? Does genet­ic mem­o­ry exist?

There are sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies explor­ing what we inher­it in unex­pect­ed ways through epi­ge­net­ics, a chem­i­cal net­work in our cells that con­trols genes, switch­ing them on and off. At the core of this field is the notion that genes have a mem­o­ry and that the lives of our great grand­par­ents – what they breathed, saw and ate – can direct­ly affect us decades lat­er. Ongo­ing stud­ies in Swe­den are exam­in­ing sta­tis­tics about famine and abun­dant har­vests to deter­mine the impact on the health of descen­dants four gen­er­a­tions lat­er. Researchers, for instance, found a sta­tis­ti­cal link between the increased longevi­ty of the descen­dants of pater­nal grand­fa­thers who had lived through a peri­od of famine while young.

I’m intrigued by the notion that gen­er­a­tions pass on par­tic­u­lar sur­vival skills and, per­haps, an uncon­scious sense of iden­ti­ty that stands the test of cen­turies. In the case of my own Catholic Car­va­jal fam­i­ly, I won­der what prompt­ed them to guard the secret of their Sephardic Jew­ish iden­ti­ty for gen­er­a­tions long after the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion that prompt­ed them to flee to Cos­ta Rica in Cen­tral America.

In the 1990’s, Jerusalem psy­chother­a­pist Dina War­di worked with chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors and devel­oped the the­o­ry that sur­vivor par­ents typ­i­cal­ly des­ig­nat­ed cer­tain chil­dren as memo­r­i­al can­dles” who took on the mis­sion of serv­ing as a link to pre­serve the past and con­nect the future. The chil­dren of sur­vivors who active­ly strug­gled against the Nazis, she found, had a strong com­pul­sive ambi­tion to achieve.

A sim­i­lar strat­e­gy exist­ed among the Anusim, Hebrew for the forced ones who con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty to sur­vive dur­ing the Inqui­si­tion. Usu­al­ly elder women took the role of pass­ing on infor­ma­tion about their secret iden­ti­ty to par­tic­u­lar younger fam­i­ly mem­bers. In our fam­i­ly, the his­to­ri­an was my great Aunt Luz – which means light in Spanish.

At one sem­i­nar on geneal­o­gy, a speak­er, Jon­i­na Duk­er, talked about a phe­nom­e­non of the blood calls” among Anusim to describe how they find their way back to the main­stream of Jew­ish people.

Recent­ly, a Spaniard named Fer­nan­do Car­va­jal Ace­bal con­tact­ed me from Madrid after read­ing some­thing I had writ­ten and spot­ting our shared Sephardic Jew­ish name, Car­va­jal. He tried to explain the feel­ing that he said has lin­gered with him since he was a young Catholic. His moth­er told him he start­ed insist­ing he was Jew­ish when he was about six years old.

Nobody trans­mit­ted this feel­ing to me,” he told me. I could have felt I was a Mus­lim, but I always felt pro­found­ly that I was Jew­ish. I would say this inti­mate feel­ing is almost genet­ic, an emo­tion that tells me, yes, you are a Catholic, but do not for­get that you are Jew­ish. I have a deep Chris­t­ian faith and I pray every day. I do not know the Jew­ish rites, their cus­toms, or roots. But it does not stop me from feel­ing Jewish.”

Vis­it Doreen Car­va­jal’s offi­cial web­site here.

Doreen Car­va­jal’s first book, The For­get­ting Riv­er, is about her search to recov­er her Catholic fam­i­ly’s hid­den Sephardic Jew­ish roots in a mys­ti­cal white pueblo on Spain’s south­ern fron­tier in Andalusia.