The Jerusalem Post

Kol Nidre: A light of Jewish survival for 600 years - opinion

 MILLIONS OF Inquisition-era documents are waiting to be unearthed. The writer’s current mission is their digitization.  (photo credit: GENIE MILGROM)
MILLIONS OF Inquisition-era documents are waiting to be unearthed. The writer’s current mission is their digitization.
(photo credit: GENIE MILGROM)

For me, descending directly from the generations that had to make vows to another religion in order to survive, Kol Nidre became a beacon of light during a very dark time.

I returned to the Jewish people over 30 years ago, having taken a 600-year route as a descendant of pre-Inquisition Jews.

My family had gone underground in Spain in 1391, as massacres of Jews spread across the country. They pretended to be Roman Catholic for 22 generations, with the women being the main practitioners of what became, over time, an underground form of Judaism. Men and women were frequently caught and either received harsh penalties or were burned to death. It was not until the late 1700s that the inquisitors determined that all the descendants of converts were finally good Catholics. The many generations of women that I was able to trace may have stopped the overt practice of Judaism but continued to pass down Jewish customs which were taught to me several hundred years later.

In what began a period of huge upheaval in my family, I became a part of the Jewish people once again.

As I started to learn the prayers from “alef to taf,” it was a whole new world for me. The melodies and music of the services reached inside my soul. Yet it was not until my first High Holy Days that the words and the tunes would actually shake me to my core. I had converted to Judaism but did not yet know that I actually descended from a long line of Jews; so the strong and deep feelings had no logical explanation.


I had felt Jewish for so many years that when I researched my family for a decade and found that I was Jewish all along, many things began to fall into place. In that first year that I knew for a fact that I had been born Jewish as I stood up for Kol Nidre. Holding the siddur in my hands, I had an incredible feeling deep inside me that my ancestors had prayed in this same way, saying this same prayer, for hundreds of years, and reading the words I was reading now.

The notes to Louis Lewandowsky’s version of Kol Nidre, taken from “Todah W’Simrah”, Louis Lewandowsky (credit: E. BOTE & G. BOCK. 1876 – THE NATIONAL LIBRARY)
The notes to Louis Lewandowsky’s version of Kol Nidre, taken from “Todah W’Simrah”, Louis Lewandowsky (credit: E. BOTE & G. BOCK. 1876 – THE NATIONAL LIBRARY)

I understood that the vows they had made were absolved and new vows made each year. This led me to wonder, and then wish, fervently, that each year their previous vows made to the Church would have been canceled and become null and void, as the prayer stated. This was so powerful that, after that first Yom Kippur, I began to research the prayer and learned a lot more than I had intended.

I was surprised to learn that there are many varying opinions as to its origin. Yet interestingly enough, most stated that this was not a prayer at all, but a legal statement annulling vows and promises and that it was used widely by crypto-Jews during the persecution of the Inquisition.

Other opinions place it at different parts of our history but for me, descending directly from the generations that had to make vows to another religion in order to survive, Kol Nidre became a beacon of light during a very dark time.

Hope renewed, I pray even harder on Yom Kippur and believe that as I say the words, my ancestors surround me and are listening and beaming with joy that their vows have been canceled once and for all.


After I officially became part of the Jewish people – spurred on by a feeling I had always had of not belonging to my official, external religious environment – I began to investigate my own lineage via Inquisition trials and sentences, known as procesos, finally discovering an unbroken maternal line going back 22 generations.

This took me over 12 years and it was no easy task. I clearly understood that unless these Inquisition records were fully digitized and up on the Internet, the work and cost of doing their own research would be prohibitive for most people. It was at that juncture that I began my mission to achieve the mass global digitalization of these procesos.

Many historians concur that the approximate number of Jews present in Spain before 1492 was 300,000, but there is no exact and accurate number that anyone can offer. Of the 300,000, the consensus seems to be that 100,000 left in 1492 for the Ottoman Empire and other lands, 100,000 stayed behind and went underground to practice their religion while pretending to be Catholics, and 100,000 assimilated and were lost to the Jewish people.

The reality is that no one really knows. 

My five minutes with Pope Francis

I had the most amazing honor to meet with Pope Francis in his private library at Vatican City in June of this year. The private audience was organized by Rabbi Avi and Rebbetsin Nehama Tawil, directors of the European Jewish Community Centre in Brussels. I was accompanied by my husband Michael Milgrom, and several members of the European Jewish Community.

For over eight years, I have been working tirelessly to have the Inquisition proceedings and judgments, known as procesos, digitized. Although many procesos are available to those who are physically able to visit repositories around the world, they are not available online for those interested in following the pre-Inquisition genealogies of the Bnei Anousim (descendants of the crypto-Jews), as well as those of the Sephardim who left Spain at the time of the Expulsion in 1492. Inside each proceso, there are clear genealogies given by those arrested for practicing Judaism underground. The Inquisitors would trace the genealogies and arrest the extended families living elsewhere.

I have been successful in having procesos digitized in several countries, including Portugal, yet other countries such as Spain, Mexico, and Canary Islands have been resistant to opening this up to the public. Spain and Mexico are considered to be highly important in tracing the Diaspora of the many Jewish families that lived in hiding during the Inquisition. I have been relentless, but the governments and archive directors have been stronger in not allowing this project to go forward. It is clear that this is an ugly history but it is our history to own.

Visiting the pope to make this request brought me full circle. As we were led through endless and never-before-seen corridors in his private quarters, I was awed by the fact that in a few minutes, I would be face-to-face with one of the most influential personalities in the world. There were eight of us and as we walked in, there were Vatican cameras – and the pope, standing and smiling, waiting to shake our hands. My own hand was shaking as I knew that this was a truly historic moment for the Jewish people if I was able to accomplish what I had come to the Vatican to request.

During my audience with the pope, I was able to clearly explain the historical significance of the digitization, as well as the present struggles in each country. The pope was enthusiastic to help and assigned a papal emissary to work hand-in-hand with me to obtain positive results. I have since been in touch with him on numerous occasions via Zoom and I am now working with three different archivists within the Vatican to obtain all the records from the special archives that I am requesting.

This was a truly significant and historical moment, and a giant step along the way to regain the identities of those whose lineages were lost during the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition.

It’s been a long road

It took me many years to find my maternal lineage, and finally, when I was able to begin to work on my father’s I realized that it was even wider-reaching than my mother’s.

My dad always told me that he had a strong Jewish lineage, and it was much more evident than my mother’s. I worked on Mom’s for years to prove a full maternal Jewish lineage in Spain and Portugal; but what I uncovered with Dad was that his lineage included Jews brought before the Inquisition in the Canary Islands; Cadiz, Spain; and Cartagena, Colombia.

I also uncovered my ancestor Don Juan Sigler de Espinosa, who had been the page of Leopold V, duke of Austria. Don Juan’s palazzo in Cordoba, Spain, is today known as the Casa de La Juderia or “House of the Jewish Quarter.”

I stayed there during the filming of part of the documentary about my journey to discover my ancestry, Between the Stone and the Flower: The Duality of the Conversos, due to be released next year, and was thrilled to find myself in my actual ancestral home. The Espinosa family’s journey was a long one, and the family name survived as far as my paternal great-grandmother Nicolasa Sigler de Espinosa, in Cuba.

Don Juan’s home is adorned on the outside with two peacocks, a symbol I have now reclaimed as my family emblem, and that can be found all over Cordoba.

I am proud that the 28 generations of paternal great-grandparents I was able to trace point to a strong Jewish past, and I believe it is their tenacity that has brought me to be who I am today. After all the genealogical and theoretical work was done, I realized that I needed to impart my knowledge to the thousands of people who are still searching to reclaim their Jewish roots: The Bnei Anousim who do not have the resources to do as I have done – and I also felt it was time to give back since my ancestors had opened up my family tree for me.

Hence, the project to digitize Inquisition documents all over the world began, in the hopes that all those wanting to search as I had, would be able to. I have worked on this project since 2016 and it led to my recent visit with Pope Francis in the Vatican.

Not only did I work on digitizing the Inquisition records but I personally digitized and uploaded over 80,000 entries of obscure manuals in order to help others follow their diasporas. These can be accessed for free on my website On Youtube, I have posted many of my tutorials on how to navigate websites, and suggest other useful links for this type of search.

I even financed the digitization of a collection of documents that reflect Jewish life in pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal, so that those digitized records could be available to the world. There is no end to finding the myriad documents that point to a Jewish lineage, however, we are now much closer than I was able to get in the past, when I was trying to find my own ancestors, as more archives are opened and made public

Certificate of Sephardic Ancestry

My research eventually led me to what was to become the other side of my work, and that is with the organization Kulanu in the United States.

As director of the Bnei Anousim in Latin America, I travel to various countries with my husband, the learned Michael Milgrom, where we get mikvaot built and both teach on topics related to kashrut, to Pirkei Avot, and to the weekly parsha – in several languages.

We just returned from the first bar-mitzvah that took place in a Bnei Anousim community we work with in Guatemala. Young Iosef Flores will become part of the second generation to work towards taking these communities from “emerging” to “existing.”

There is still much work to be done, such as building a cemetery in El Salvador for the Bnei Anousim and finally getting all documents digitized, but with my husband Michael by my side, I will succeed, God willing.

After some time working with Bnei Anousim around the world, I came to understand that even though they had converted or returned fully with their genealogies, they were still often shunned by the traditional Jewish communities in Latin America and elsewhere.

In many communities they were not allowed to buy kosher meat, or get a circumcision, or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I would visit community after community who had been shomer (observant) Shabbat for years and still, their children were denied a local Jewish education. My heart broke with each and every story I was told by those suffering the most.

It was this that drove me to create the Certificate of Sephardic Ancestry program along with director of the ASF Institute of Jewish Experience Drora Arussy and director of Reconectar Ashley Perry. Both Drora and Ashley live in Israel and work daily on bringing recognition to these communities, and I work from the other end in Latin America as director of Bnei Anousim for the Organization Kulanu.

We felt that if they could prove to a panel we created that their ancestry pointed to Sephardic roots and customs, we would be able to issue this certificate, which is a cultural recognition only. The certificate is not a halachic one, nor can it be used to apply for any citizenship. It is a document that shows that someone has reviewed their information, which no one has ever wanted to even glance at in the past.

The pride with which they hold this token certificate, – and the tears that are shed while telling us how amazing it makes them feel – has made this program wildly successful in our eyes.

The certificate website has full access to my genealogy data base at no cost at and the site provides help for those searching for answers.

I am very proud to see others standing tall. 

The program is available at this

Family footsteps doc to premiere

A documentary film about my story by filmmaker Roberto Otero, titled Between the Stone and the Flower: The Duality of the Conversos, is slated to premiere in 2024, when it will be screened at film festivals. He has been able to capture unique moments and the essence of my entire being.  

The documentary, tracing my family’s full journey, from being Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity all the way until my personal return to my Jewish roots, was filmed in six countries with a full crew following my footsteps as I searched for the breadcrumbs left by my ancestors.

It was a most moving journey into caves and hidden mikvaot, and deep into Inquisition cells, retracing my family. Research for the film was carried out in locations that connected with my crypto-Jewish lineage: Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Canary Islands, Cartagena, Colombia, Costa Rica, France, and Key West and Miami.

See trailer at

The writer is author of My 15 Grandmothers, How I found My 15 Grandmothers, Pyre to Fire, and Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers, which have been translated into Spanish, Yiddish and Farsi; past president of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies at Colorado State University, past president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Miami; and current director of the Bnei Anousim in Latin America.