“Did you know that Don Francisco is Jewish?” asked my friend José Baez as we talked about his recent appearance on world television’s longest running variety show, ‘Sábado Gigante (Giant Saturday).’ As it turns out I did know. Chilean-born Mario Kreutzberger has been hosting the legendary weekly program on Spanish-language television since 1962. My dad loved Don Francisco’s Latino Everyman, sort of Ed Sullivan meets Drew Carey, and many English-speaking viewers of Colbert on Comedy Central would recognize him from the hilarious skit, ‘Colberto Reporto Gigante,’ starring Esteban Colberto.
I thought of Don Francisco again this Rosh Hashanah morning; more generally about Latin American Jews for a book I want to write on the topic with the rascally title: Jaime Town. The title came first, in 1984 when while running for president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson referred to Jews as "Hymies" and to New York City as "Hymietown." Jackson mistakenly assumed that Milton Coleman the black Washington Post reporter he whispered the vile remarks to would keep them quiet. Coleman didn’t and the incident spelled the doom of Jesse’s mainstream promise and ambition. Now I want to steal Jesse’s words, coat them in irony to tell the inspiring story of how Jews helped settle the New World.
Around for almost as long as Don Francisco, I also get that, ‘did you know Geraldo is Jewish?’ With a last name and mustache like mine, most who know my religion mistakenly assume that my family is Sephardic, roughly those descended from the Diaspora that scattered Iberian Jews around the New World. They were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition that forced conversions to Roman Catholicism, among other cruelties. Many kept their religion secret, fleeing the intolerance of those times, as later generations of European Jews would flee the Nazi horrors for a generally better welcome in South America than they got in North America.
My Newark New Jersey born mom’s maiden name is Friedman. She met and married Cruz Rivera of Bayamon Puerto Rico while both worked in a cafeteria in Manhattan, and there are not many of us “Jew-Ricans” around. Credit for that description goes to John Lequizamo who had a Jewish wife in the movie ‘Nothing like the Holidays,’ and there was also the goofy Juan Epstein character on ‘Welcome Back Kotter.’
Going back to the intended book, although there has been wide-spread assimilation of Jewish immigrants in Latin America, there are no traces of the Continent’s original Jews, those who accompanied the great explorer Columbus on his series of Caribbean voyages in the last decade of the 15th Century.
Whether they had already been forced to convert, inter-married or just kept their religion on the down low, they have vanished as completely as the Native Americans who inhabited the Islands before the Europeans came. But many came after them. And there are ample monuments, historic synagogues, businesses, educational institutions and other enduring reminders of the almost three million folk who call Latin America home.
It would be an interesting yarn don’t you think? Maybe Don Francisco would let me promote it on ‘Sábado Gigante?’ La Shana Tova amigos. That means Feliz Año Nuevo.
Geraldo Rivera is Senior Editor for Fox News Latino.