One year a Jewish family was invited to our family’s big drunken romp known as Christmas Eve, and we served ham. I was too young to feel awkward, but the kids made a big fuss and the parents shut them up, quietly assuring them it was OK this time. They ate it. And once in NYC I got lost in Brooklyn and walked through a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood on a Saturday. The orthodox ones grow long hair at the temples and wear funny clothes. It was surreal. I caught a lot of stares, like I was the weird one. There are a few areas in St. Louis where many Jews live, but it wasn’t where I lived, so that’s about the extent of this Missouri boy’s experience. Many ignorant Americans like me may not know that Jews comprise a significant part of Latin America as well.
The United States has the largest population of Jews after Israel. If you look at the regions with significant Jewish populations, four are in Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile (in that order). Besides South Africa, Latin America is the only region outside typical gringo havens with significant Jewish populations. Whether fleeing the Spanish Inquisition or the Nazis, not all Jews went to North America. Many came to Latin America, and many Latin people have Jewish ancestors. I had a student with the surname, Ruth. I don’t know if she was Jewish in the religious sense, but she surely had Jewish ethnicity/race. I think most of the Jews in Colombia assimilated, converting to Catholicism, and mixed in with the general population. So most probably don’t even know they have Jewish blood.
At ~4,000, the Jewish population in Colombia isn’t big enough to be “significant,” but there are Colombian Jews, concentrated in Bogota. The first Jews came to Colombia from Spain in the 1500s to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Marranos were the Spanish Jews who publicly proclaimed Catholicism but secretly remained loyal to Judaism. A few hundred of these folks got tired of the charade and relocated to Colombia. That group in Colombia was mostly killed off in the 1600s.
A second wave of Jews came to Colombia in the 20th century to escape Hitler and Nazi Germany. Research shows most of these were Sephardi and Ashkenazi immigrants, but I’ve also read many of the Bogota Jews were French. So the Jewish community in Bogota and greater Colombia has been around for over 60 years. However, according to this article, they’re largely leaving Colombia for Miami or Israel. Read an in-depth piece on the Jewish community in Bogota. Here’s a list of synagogues in Bogota.
When The Mick was in Colombian prison, his best friend Tachuela, an assassin, was contracted to kill a Colombian Jew who had been conspiring with a kidnapping gang to target wealthy Jewish families whom he had information about.
On Carrera 11 at Calle 94, in the heart of Bogota affluence, stands this statue – a dedication to the state of Israel:
Famous Colombian Jews
Rogelio Salmona – architect of many of Bogota’s most distinguished landmarks
Isaac Lee Possin – media mogul (Univision)
Germán Efromovich – Avianca / Taca airlines chairman, owner
Jaime Gilinski Bacal – banker
Jorge Isaacs – author
Read more about the history of Jews in Latin America.
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