For ten years, veteran documentary filmmaker Joseph Lovett has been working on a project close to his heart, Children of the Inquisition, which tells the stories of descendants of Jews who fled Spain and Portugal in 1492—some of whom remained practicing Jews, others who are only now discovering their lineage.
“It’s something that I always found fascinating,” said Lovett, who grew up Jewish in Providence, Rhode Island. His rabbi had gone to Madrid in 1958 and when he asked about Jews and Judaism, no one would talk to him. “The shadow of the Inquisition still reigned.”
Many years later, visiting Spain during the commemoration of Columbus’s quincentennial, Lovett noticed that “there suddenly was so much interest in the Jewish diaspora and the expulsion,” he said. “I realized this story has never been told.”
Lovett—who has made films on such diverse topics as AIDS in South Africa, global warming, and blindness—has been working on this story, self-financed, in between other projects. The film follows Jews who have bloodlines going back to Spain and Portugal, as well as people who have only recently discovered their Jewish roots as the progeny anusim (conversos).
Excerpts from the work-in-progress were screened this week—fittingly—at Congregation Shearith Israel, New York City’s first Jewish congregation, established in 1654 by 23 Sephardim who fled Recife, Brazil. Over 200 people attended, many lining the walls.
“I never realized that it would have such resonance,” said Lovett.
The director and three of the interviewees from the film spoke, including José Barreiro, son of Catholic-Spanish parents, who has been on a quest to learn more about his Jewish ancestry. While DNA testing proved that he has a 46 percent match to Jewish DNA, for him, the connection is not about genetics. “So much of what I think of identity is from within,” he says in the film. “It’s in your heart, it’s in your spirit.”
Lovett, Barreiro and others were introduced by Rabbi Shalom Morris, the educational director of the synagogue. “Still today, people of Portuguese and Spanish descent are coming out of the woodwork,” he said. Two years ago, after getting numerous phone calls from people inquiring about Judaism after discovering a long lost connection, Rabbi Morris started a Facebook group—coincidentally also called Children of the Inquisition—which over 100 people from Brazil, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the U.S. have since joined.
Lovett is continuing work on the film, and many of the interviews are already posted on the website. Though he has already traveled to El Paso, home of a congregation of former anusim who have become Jewish, and to Jamaica, he has plans to travel with his crew to Turkey, Morocco, and to Spain to shoot in the Spanish archives where Doreen Carvajal, New York Times reporter and author of The Forgetting River, discovered the Inquisition trial testimony of her ancestors. Lovett is hoping to raise $80,000 through Indiegogo for his next set of interviews. Based on the turnout at Shearith Israel, he shouldn’t have a problem.
Jessica Siegel is a freelance writer with an interest in the history of the Sephardic diaspora. She is working on a book about the Jewish community in Suriname.