My wife is Colombian, and from our research (initially going off a hunch she may have some Jewish blood because he paternal grandmother looked rather Jewish), it appears there were a healthy amount of conversos (and their descendants) who ended up migrating to the Antioquia region of Colombia (where that part of her family is from). I don't know how that compares to other reasons of Colombia, let alone the rest of Spain's former colonies, but it's a plausible explanation with exploring.
"See for comparison this story about Brazilian narco-gangsters who convert to Christianity to escape retribution. If they just left their gangs, the gangs would view it as a betrayal and kill them; if they leave because they convert, that’s a known quantity and they’re okay. I’m not saying all the Latin Americans converting to weird religions are trying to get out of gangs, but some of them might be trying to get out of a society that’s gotten stuck in a bad equilibrium, and religion is an accepted way of doing that."
On the other hand, https://theconversation.com/evangelical-gangs-in-rio-de-janeiro-wage-holy-war-on-afro-brazilian-faiths-128679 . People. Are. Complicated.
Dear Scott, not about this article, but I'm posting here since I think there's a good chance you'll see it: please write a new standalone version of your culture as cellular automata theory. It's a great idea, but many of my left leaning acquaintances won't read it because they dislike the larger thesis of the piece. https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/04/22/right-is-the-new-left/
Hmm, I read something about a complicated way for a non-Jew to immigrate to Israel through aliyah if they convert to Judaism properly enough (and maybe keep it up for a while, I can't remember the details). Given that Colombia has much lower standard of living than Israel, might that be part of the answer? I mean, even if what I read was wrong, if I got this misconception some Colombians could've as well.
"(Orthodox Judaism is about the least-hip and least Latin-American-culture-compatible religion imaginable)"
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though - it gives your religion the air of a mystical, unsullied tradition, untouched by wordly matters.
CS Lewis wrote about the shock some new Christians have when they attend church, and it's at a shabby building full of local randos dressed in weird clothes. "So...this is Christianity, huh? I expected something a little more special."
I attended church at a building that had recently been a casino. You could see square outlines on the carpet where poker machines had sat for years. It was kind of neat (and led to jokes about how the pastor had missed a trick for increasing the offering), but still, Cathédrale Notre-Dame it wasn't.
I could easily imagine a strange, out-of-kilter faith catching fire in a place where it doesn't belong, simply because it's so different to the local fare.
May everyone find the strange *orthodox* community that suits them best! If you are going to join a community, best believe it is the true orthodox community and everyone else is the heretic.
It's worth pointing out that Mormons have a similar narrative about their faith being the "original" and uncorrupted form. The basic idea is that the religion as Jesus established it was corrupted and lost shortly after his death, and Joseph Smith (through direct revelation from God) restored it back to its original form. This narrative is taught very early on to potential converts.
Mormons even consider themselves part of the "house of Israel", and have a ceremony in which the person's "lineage" is revealed (i.e., which of the twelve tribes they belong to).
So it seems very plausible that the two religions appeal for similar reasons.
I have a pretty hard time believing that in an open market place of communities people are going to really try hard to find one that suits them best. I think most people are just gonna end up sticking around wherever they were born and doing whatever they’re familiar with whether or not it suits them well or not
I grew up in a tiny little town in Kansas and for whatever reason I’ve got the bug in me that makes me seek other places but most people I know from there don’t
I haves tayed in touch with several of them and it doesn’t exactly seem like they’re flourishing but they’re also not especially inclined to do anything else because that’s what they know
With a group of intently religious people though you have folks who are already wired to seek a deeper truth and some kind of spiritual order so it’s not so crazy that a compelling personality could convert them at scale
I don’t know that it generalized to secular folks
The connection to religion-as-route-out-of-gangs is good—religion can be a new kind of citizenship, and _sometimes_ the people around you agree with you that you've placed yourself under a new sovereign. I think a lot of people want to find a way to be in the world but not of the world. Being deliberate about this choice can look judgemental and make others defensive, unless they can explain it away as a crazy part of your new (known) faith.
Are you familiar with the Italian village who converted to Judaism... and believed that they were the only Jews in the world? https://primolevicenter.org/printed-matter/the-jews-of-san-nicandro/
>>To the best of my knowledge his was the only case of unmediated conversion to Judaism on the part of a village prophet in Italy or elsewhere in Europe; he seems to have believed that the post-biblical Jews were extinct and certainly in 1928-30 he was unaware that any could be found in Italy. In a sense he drew the strength of his prophetic vocation from the belief that God himself, by the dreams and visions in which he spoke, had given him the mission to bring ‘the Laws of the One God’ not just to the folk of San Nicandro, but back to a world that had forgotten them.
A group in Uganda beat them to it by 100 years. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abayudaya
The Kabbalistic flavored Orthodox Judaism may have been a much better fit for former Pentecostals. There is much more of a focus on personal spiritual experiences and interfacing with the divine.
This doesn't surprise me. Pretty much all of Latin America is Catholic with some pre-colonization religions tossed in (or sometimes surviving wholesale). But pre-colonization religions are associated with the Native Peoples. Many countries don't associate themselves with them in the same way the average American doesn't think of themselves as a Native American even if they have some blood.
The traditional battle lines are thus secularists/atheists (who don't claim any religion in particular) against Catholics. But there's always been groups of people who are uncomfortable with Catholicism but also secularism or atheism. A few of them turn to native religions, often as a form of extreme nationalism. But more commonly they turned to adjacent religions, especially if they have more internationalist leanings. This is especially in some countries where secularism are associated with rather extremist ideologies. An outright atheist in Colombia might get some side eyes about being a Communist.
Protestantism is the most popular but Judaism fits the bill. I suspect it probably fits roughly the same cultural niche. This is helped by the presence of Evangelicals and Jews on various trade routes. Plus Protestantism and Judaism have cultural presence. Every Latin American has at least a vague sense that Protestantism and Judaism exist even if they don't really have the strong feelings a 17th century Spaniard would have about them.
Plus there's some degree of cultural rebellion. Jews (and to a lesser extent Protestants) are in the weird position in Latin America. Spain and their colonies were really, really successful at quashing the Reformation and expelling the Jews. Hating Jews and Protestants is thus "normal" but also associated with the Ancien Regime. And no one in Latin America or even Spain is that interested in defending the pre-revolutionary monarchy anymore.
So yeah, tl;dr:
1.) Culturally rebellious that violates taboos no one is stringently enforcing anymore.
2.) Ambiguous enough that it doesn't precommit them to the existing Latin American cultural battle lines
3.) Gives them access to international networks of coreligionists.
I think there is something distinct about converting to Orthodox Judaism that requires explanation that makes it different from evangelical Protestantism, Mormonism, Orthodox Christianity, or other religions, and that is the sheer difficulty of it. Ignore the philosophical and social ramifications of adopting a religion that denies the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. Think about the work involved. There is the adoption of a new mode of dress, a swath of food that you can't eat, new dishes, and getting circumcised! There are the regular prayers (shacharit, mincha, and ma'ariv), and then the constant prayers over every action (eating, drinking, waking up, going to bed, seeing a rainbow). Keeping the sabbath, with no driving, music, electricity, cooking, or lights. Learning a new language just for prayer. Whatever hoops the other religions require, I don't think any are as overwhelmingly encompassing of one's life as orthodox Judaism.
My point is that people going through this process are taking on a huge life change. And it's not like they couldn't convert to reform or conservative Judaism for the same religious change with a fraction of the bother. They are looking to change their lives in a way that is different from other conversion paths. I am sure there is more to the sociology and psychology of this.
This reminds me of a speaker I heard at a Border's bookstore, around 2005. He was a Jew who'd been sent to investigate a Christian church in Uganda that had written to some rabbis in the US saying they wanted to become Jews, but didn't know how.
A missionary had converted them to Christianity, and given them Bibles. (I don't remember what language the Bibles were in.) They read the Bibles, and decided that the Old Testament made sense, but the New Testament didn't. So they decided that Jesus was a false messiah, and they wanted to become Jews instead of Christians.
Anybody who actually reads the entire Bible with an open mind will notice the same things the Ugandans did: the Old and New Testaments don't fit together, the New Testament is full of contradictions on key points of theology and practice, and the religion Christians teach isn't the religion that Jesus taught.
So maybe increasing literacy is an important factor. The "Christian" parts of the world are made of peoples who converted to Christianity by about 800 AD, long before literacy was common. Hardly anyone in those areas ever had the chance to read the Bible objectively.
Or it could just be a small sample/clustering issue: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clustering_illusion; https://dataremixed.com/2015/01/avoiding-data-pitfalls-part-2/
As a member of a culturally conservative religion that sends quite a few missionaries to Latin America and South America I can speak to the “Religion as a way out of a gang” thing. Basically, the cartels will only allow gang members to leave if they immediately join a church and attend every Sunday. If they miss to many services, they will get a “visit” from the cartel.
An unrelated thought, but religions that separate themselves from the rest of society become much more attractive in times of upheaval like the last 10 years. I can understand the attraction to Orthodox Judaism. Judaism offers a structure and tradition that is lacking in Latin American Catholicism. Despite its intimidating look Catholicism allows anyone in and does not ask anyone to change in any way. A murderous cartel leader can be a Catholic in good standing. This becomes decidedly unattractive to anyone who is trying to raise children and keep them of the streets and out of drugs.
"Orthodox Judaism almost aggressively avoids providing [a personal connection with God"
---this is so wrong as to almost be antisemitic.
The ironic thing is that if the evangelicals would go back just a bit further, they would realize (perhaps) just how much the biblical scriptures owe to Near Eastern mythology, Greek cosmogony, mystery cults, eschatology, and a whole bunch of other traditions.
That includes the Jewish books. In fact, the earlier books of the Old Testament are even more deeply involved in this borrowing of neighbouring myths. So to me it makes no logical sense to stop at Judaism and not go back to say... Zoroastrianism - particularly for those people who find themselves longing for monotheism. Besides, the name Ahura Mazda is so much cooler than Yahweh.
Re: "seeking a personal connection with God” (Orthodox Judaism almost aggressively avoids providing this)."
Wow, have you got this wrong. Way off base. That is one of the most incorrect statements I have ever heard, the complete antipodes of the truth. Orthodox Judaism is in fact COMPLETELY and OBSESSIVELY focused on our constant deep and personal connection with the Almighty. We have hundreds of connection points throughout each day and night in thought, speech and action. The whole point of our life is what we call "dveykus": cleaving closely to God, and expressing our love for God and feeling God's love for us! The primary mission statement of the Jewish nation, the "Shma" prayer (which we recite twice per day) opens with: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your power"! You mentioned the Rambam, well, look in the 10th chapter of his Hilchos Teshuva where he describes our ultimate spiritual goal: to become madly in love with God, like a man obsessed with loving a woman to the point of love sickness, who eats, breathes and sleeps totally for his beloved! ... this is an elevated life of spirit, power, emotion and intellect harnessed together to power us higher and higher in our love relationship with the Creator, infusing all life, all our relationships and interactions and even the most physical of acts with illuminated Divine Godliness. That is the point of all the Mitzvos. (The word "mitzva" itself means to join together as in "tzevet" (team)). That is the point of all of this. That is why we are poring over sacred texts all day and night: we are God's lovers - obsessing over every nuance and every drop of ink in the love letters He gave us... and learning all the details and subtleties to best live our lives together with God, inside this deep and growing love relationship, always...
Sometimes seeing the same phenomenon somewhere else can provide a useful check. Here is an account of a trip I took to Erode, India in 2015 (note I am not the author of this quote):
First of all, a short background. Several years ago, there was a man named Samuel who lives in Erode, a city of 500,000 in Southern India. He was a Christian minister of a congregation of 3000 members and a businessman as well. He began to realize on his own that the Christian teachings he had learned and taught for so many years were just not making sense anymore and the concept of one G-d was something much more sensible. He began to learn about Judaism and began secretly practicing the religion (to the best of his ability) in secret while still leading his congregation. Finally, when his son was about to be baptized, he decided to address his congregation about his feelings of becoming Jewish and asked who wanted to join him to create a new congregation that would attempt to take the necessary steps to becoming Jewish. Half of them agreed to continue to follow his path and so a new congregation was born. Samuel and his wife Anne realized they had little knowledge of Judaism and its authentic practices and searched for help as to how to acquire the necessary knowledge to attempt giyur[conversion].
Interesting. The phenomenon was first reported in a North American publication 5 years ago:
"The Faithful: René and Juan Carlos set out to convert their Colombian megachurch to Orthodox Judaism. This is what happened." By Graciela Mochkofsky in The California Sunday Magazine on April 28, 2016
The article mentioned the word "sicario," meaning "assassins" in Spanish. Interestingly, the sicarii were a splinter group of Jewish zealots back in Jesus' day. It has to have the same root.
"...if you avoid alcohol and violence out of pious Christian humility, that looks better than backing out because you’re not macho enough to handle it."
I've had a similar thought coming from my family's experience. My father was raised pentacostal and consequently a teetotaler, but as he and his brother left the faith they gradually became functioning alcoholics. I wonder how many conversions to alcohol-abstaining creeds were in some part a way to credibly escape alcoholism. It would be interesting to see if, within a given population with a decent amount of recent conversions such as South America, those alcohol-abstaining converts had a higher incidence of genetic markers predicting alcoholism.
Christianity is a mash-up of two major cultural forces in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Classical age -- Jewish and Hellenistic. Paul in his New Testament letters tries to synthesize them and make his religion, later known as Christianity, palatable to the non Jewish urban world of his time.
After Christianity becomes the official religion of the Empire and its successor states, rebellion involves heresy. One class of heresies is Hellenistic and roots it self in Neo-platonism. This is the Gnostic tendency. E.g. Paulicians, Bogomils, and Cathars. Another class is Judaizers.
The attraction is rooted in the Christian acceptance of the "Old Testament" as the word of God. In John 4:22 Jesus says that salvation comes from the Jews. In Matthew 5:18-20 Jesus says: "till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
Scripture of course is not monophonic, and there are lots of passages that can be read in opposition to these.
Much of Protestantism is Judaising. Translating the "Old Testament" from Hebrew instead of Greek and Latin. Rejecting icons and statues. Are Judaising moves. Some sects have gone farther. The Seventh Day Adventists went back to the Jewish Sabbath. the Mormons wear undergarments modeled on the Tallit katan.
In context, the Columbian converts are more of the same.
My only advice to them would be find some Sephardi Jews to teach you how to cook. Ashkenazic food is greasy and bland.
I'd be interested in seeing your friend's review of "The Reformation of Machismo". I loaned my copy briefly to my cousin who is a priest in Colombia, and my reading of it doesn't line up with your description.
I think one thing that Protestant groups offer is a closer connection to the minister, which helps both for counseling and for accountability. My cousin was one priest of 5 in a town of 40,000. A typical Evangelical congregation is closer to 150; this means the minister can actually directly offer help and advice to all of his flock, and can check in on all of them to make sure they're staying off booze and staying out of other sorts of trouble.
I like your hypothesis about envy for the culture and community that comes with a religion. When I visited Salt Lake City, I thought, yeah, their dogmas are silly, but those Mormons sure figured out how to build an impressively nice city under difficult circumstances and to keep it running smoothly. It was almost like Switzerland, just with desert instead of mountains. Likewise, Jews have managed to establish a pretty impressive country - especially compared to the oppressive shitholes that surround it - in an environment that is hostile in many ways. If Latin-American Mormons and Jews manage to tap into the secret sauce of that success, more power to them.
Do you think there is any merit to the notion that they are converting to eventually get Israeli passports and citizenship? I was surprised that this was not at all explored in your article.
Orthodox Judaism absolutely does encourage forming a "personal connection to God".
You are supposed to pray and ask Him for anything and everything you want in your day-to-day life. If you have sinned, you need to apologize directly to Him; He may be upset at you but He will relent if you are sincere enough (and committed to improvement). Moral dilemmas are challenges designed by God specifically, to promote your personal growth. Etc, etc...
Convert to Taoism! You get to skip church on Sundays, get to brag to all your friends about how detached you are, and when you die, you can force your kids to fold little pieces of gold and silver to send up to you in heaven! You can also get a swanky house, servants, and even a computer and an iPhone if your kids cash out for the burnable paper models!
I knew guy in college who converted from evangelical Protestantism to Judaism. He started off in Reform Judaism but he was in the process of moving on to Conservative Judaism because it felt more authentic. I think he would have considered Orthodox too, but he was convinced that they probably wouldn't let him in (at the time)
Sort of OT but not entirely, I have read that one reason Islam is popular in prisons is that it provides prisoners a way to go straight but not be seen to be selling out.
"Yet, to Juan Carlos’s surprise, 600 parishioners declared that they trusted him and would follow him into Judaism."
If some 600 parishioners woke up one morning as Messianic Jews, then followed their pastor into Judaism that evening, were they not really following the pastor?
Something similar could be said about a pagan Dark Ages king converting to Christianity and then his entire people or tribe or whatever immediately following suit, except that the king had a lot more power to hand out the goodies and lay out the smackdowns than any pastor does.
Scott, Thank you for founding this strange schismatic community. I'm glad I found you.
"If I had a nickel for every time someone converted to Orthodox Judaism in Columbia, I'd have 5000 nickels. Which isn't a lot but it's weird that it happened to 0.0004% of the population."
This gave me extreme The Diamond Age vibes.
For those not familiar, The Diamond Age is a novel by Neal Stephenson about a not-too-distant future where governments have collapsed due to a combination of factors, and society is now organized into "phyles", distinct identity groups which may be ethnic, religious, or ideological. The book goes out of its way to emphasize that the most powerful phyles tend to ask a tremendous amount of their members, much like Orthodox Judaism. It is, in fact, why they are powerful.
>Orthodox Judaism is about the least-hip and least Latin-American-culture-compatible religion imaginable
Tisches and some services can get pretty hype. Really depends on the crowd, if you checked out a good hillel or a shul with a good bnei akiva presence you might be impressed.
My question is, who's going to make the second shul in the area? You're not a real jew if you don't have one shul you go to and another shul you wouldn't be caught dead in
Hey, scott -- quick point here about "The number one reason cited by new Latin American converts to Protestantism is that they are “seeking a personal connection with God” (Orthodox Judaism almost aggressively avoids providing this)." -- even modern orthodox judaism, the least personal-connection-with god wing of orthodox judaism, has some 'connect to god as father' -- e.g. Shir Hashirim/song of songs and Avinu Malkeinu/'our father, our king' (and more generally half the high holy day liturgy) and the more traditional sides of OJ have much more personal connection to G-d as a liturgical/communal focus (don't even get me started on the chassidic relationship with G-d)
Here's a theory:
Orthodox Judaism is a really good religion.
Judaism has more holidays than Christianity and Islam combined. Most of them are meant to be enjoyable and the major one that isn't, Yom Kippur, forces a lot of reflection.
Judaism has the shabbat, which is a really good time for families to bond and for people to break their social media addictions.
Orthodox Judaism has a lot of prohibitions and requirements, but those prohibitions and requirements have a way of increasing social cohesion within the group. If you go to a daily minyan, how can you not become friends with the other people who go to minyan too?
If you have to live within walking distance of your synagogue and walk to and from synagogue, forming friendships is easier than if people live scattered about and drive independently away together.
Colombian here. Wanted to add a bit more context.
The average Colombian wants to get the hell out of Colombia, because the average Colombian is stuck in an unofficial caste system where they're placed within a very tightly defined socio-economic strata that will determine what kind of education, jobs, and social connections are available to them.
Conversion to Judaism, to the average Colombian, would represent mainly:
1. Personal connections to wealth (politically incorrect, sure, but the idea of Jewish wealth and status are very firmly planted in the average Colombian's mindset)
2. The possibility of emigrating from Colombia.
Really, the aspiration of one day leaving Colombia is one of the most firmly rooted ideas in any Colombian's mind.
I discussed this article with a very wealthy, highly respected member of the Jewish community in the capital, who is of direct European descent, and learned that the conversions have become a source of concern for the traditional Jewish community in the country.
Their stance is that of skepticism towards the converts, as they suspect that the reason behind conversions boil down to the two points above.
and in part, the conversions spark scorn among some members of the Jewish community because the converts have not lived through so many of the tragic shared experiences in the history of the Jews.
Now, a bit about the traditional Jewish community in Colombia: From the 16th to 18th centuries there was a large influx of Sephardic Jews to Colombia that largely converted to catholicism and blended into the typical Colombian mestizo over the course of time. This followed, among other things, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which was only officially repealed in 1962, if you can believe that! ( A bit more on this later)
In summary, a lot of Sephardic families entirely lost any sense of their Jewish heritage, passing from secretly hiding stars of David in their families' catholic burial sites, to eventually becoming your average bible-touting Colombian family.
It seems that a core part of Colombia's traditional Jewish community is comprised of Ashkenazi Jews that migrated around WW2. As such, the link between religion, ethnicity, and family history are more strongly intertwined than in the case of most catholic families, for example, which also has made them, to an extent, a self-segregating outgroup. (Curious about how prevalent this is in other places.)
Now, let's frame all of this in terms of socio economics in Colombia. Colombia is one of the most economically unequal countries on earth.
Lighter skinned folks of European descent tend to dominate all areas of business and politics, and represent the greatest concentrations of wealth in the country, while being a relatively small proportion of the total population.
For purposes of this conversation, we have a sudden influx of Ashkenazi (lighter skinned) Jews around WW2, in contrast with the older generations of generally assimilated Sephardic Jews, a lot of which have been entirely assimilated into mestizo Catholics. They stand out among the mostly brown average Colombian populace. Even if they are poor European migrants, further empoverished by the war, Colombian inequality is so extreme that the newcomers are in all likelyhood wealthier and better educated than the average Colombian mestizo locals, further strengthening the myth of the wealthy Jew.
Again, they are perceived as an outgroup by the average Colombian...
Spain, out of some sense of apparent historical guilt, (but also possibly wanting to revive its stagnant economy?) decides it will grant Spanish citizenship to the descendents of all the wronged Sepharic Jews.
So they publish a list of last names. If you do a little legwork and digging through your long list of last names, you have a chance to swap castes and become a bona-fide Spanish citizen. Play your cards right and you too can have the chance to move up in life and scrub toilets in Barcelona. (Which likely pays better than a lot of office jobs back here)
Suddenly, it turns out that every other Colombian is a Sephardic Jew.
Now, I don't want to suggest that these policies are necessarily behind the boom conversions to Judaism. As far as I know, there's no requirement of actually practicing Judaism in order to be granted citizenship. Apparently, it's your bloodline that counts, no kidding.
But between skipping out to Israel or Spain, or even Portugal, too, now, there's never been a better time to be a Jew. (Or to be one again... I guess)
Anyways, hope that provides some additional context for the conversation.