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Oakwood woman’s book reveals secret Jewish sect

Julie Marlow tells journeys of Sephardic Messianic families, from Israel to Spain to America

POSTED: March 3, 2012 12:30 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

The cover of the book "Lift High the Banner: Secrets of a Sephardic Messianic Jewish Family Revealed" by Julie Marlow of Oakwood.

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It isn't uncommon to hear children in Sunday school sing, "This little light of mine. I'm gonna let it shine. Everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine."

For many years, Julie Marlow and her family could not "let it shine," at least not publicly. Her family's religious history is complicated, but not unique.

It's rather common among the Sephardic Messianic Jewish, Marlow says. "Sephardic" is derived from the Hebrew name for Spain and "Messianic" refers to their belief in Jesus.

"All throughout my childhood, I heard my parents and grandparents talk about how our family had always been persecuted. They would talk about how (our ancestors) had at one time come from Israel back when the tribes were scattered (as told in the Old Testament of the Bible)," said Marlow, an Oakwood resident and retired Gainesville State College instructor.

"They ended up going to the area that is now Spain. After they got there, they were satisfied and happy until King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella wanted an all-Catholic country, so the Jews had to leave."

After leaving Spain, many of the former Israelites settled in parts of what are now New Mexico and Colorado.

"After they got (to America), everything was fine until they started building their churches," Marlow said.

Catholicism was the main religion of the day, and when church leaders began creating religious statues, that didn't go over well with Jews who felt the statues went against the Ten Commandments.

Since their beliefs had expelled them first from Israel, then Spain, Marlow's ancestors chose to take their faith "underground" to avoid further mistreatment.

"They were very aware that they were not able to attend the (Catholic) churches, so they said the only thing they could do was to go underground and not let people know they existed," Marlow said.

"They started worshipping in their homes."

Once again in a land of Catholic worshippers, Marlow's ancestors did everything they could avoid being deemed an outsider.

"When people would recognize them, they would say, ‘There goes a Jew.' And they wondered how they knew," Marlow said.

"So they developed a system where they took coded surnames of something in nature, or a city or town. That way, they could identify themselves (as Sephardic Messianic Jews) without asking, but others wouldn't know."

Marlow's maiden name was Cordova, Spanish town.

The families also gave up their native language, known as "Ladino," or Judeo-Spanish. According to the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, "Ladino" is the spoken and written Hispanic language of Jews of Spanish origin. Ladino did not become a specifically Jewish language until after the expulsion from Spain in 1492 - it was merely the language of their province."

Even as more faiths established roots in America, Marlow's ancestors still were without an official church home.

"When they went to Christian churches, they weren't welcome because they were Jews," Marlow said. "Because they believed in Jesus, when they went to (traditional) Jewish synagogues, they weren't welcome there either.

"They assimilated, yet they kept to themselves."

Even during her childhood, the shroud of secrecy continued.

"They would tell us kids that we weren't supposed to tell a stranger about our beliefs or that we were Jews," Marlow said.

"We couldn't call our holidays by the Jewish names, so we called them by the Biblical names celebrated (privately in our homes) in our own way.

"Sometimes our own neighbors would tattle on us and eventually, somebody would come to our door and ask if we were Jewish. We wouldn't deny it, but we would (downplay it)."

Like recipes and family heirlooms, religious vigilance was handed down from generation to generation.

"We had our own little church in our home. It started with my family, then it grew with our friends and neighbors who were also Messianic Jews," Marlow said.

"When the congregation got bigger and we did (meet in an established church), we could never go in as a congregation of Jewish believers. We didn't have a formal name; we just went in and had church."

As an adult, Marlow became curious about the origins of the oral family stories of fleeing Israel and Spain, and the reasoning behind all the secrecy.

Although her research started out as a family genealogy project, it grew into a history of the entire community. The finished work, "Lift High the Banner: Secrets of a Sephardic Messianic Jewish Family Revealed" was published last fall. It is available through Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Holly Springs United Methodist Church in Pendergrass, is holding a reception March 11 to celebrate the release of the book.

"At first, the stories I would hear as a child were unbelievable, but I knew (my elders) were fearful of something, so I wondered if it could be true," Marlow said.

"When I started interviewing the older people, at first they didn't want to tell me anything. They'd kept these secrets for 500 years, so when they finally shared their stories with me, they were very emotional."

Marlow's family questioned why she was doing the unthinkable - committing their oral history to paper for all the world to see.

"I had to tell them this is history, it's not personal. It is about my family, but it is the history of people who lived so long ago," Marlow said.

"It's about their names and their language and their beliefs and holidays that have been kept all these years. I am a direct descendant; I lived it. I spoke the language, but we're losing it fast.

"I was afraid that no one would remember this history. After (my generation) died off, I was afraid that no one would know we existed."



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