Genie Milgrom knew something was terribly wrong. Even as a little girl, she had always struggled with her family’s Catholic faith and identity, she explained in a recent interview with Ami.
Born in 1956 into a cultured, upper-class family in Cuba, Genie grew up hearing stories about her family’s ancestral home, a small village in Spain called Fermoselle. In 1960, after Cuba’s Communist revolution, the family moved to Miami, and Genie grew up in comfort there, ensconced in a tight-knit community of Cuban refugees.
That meant attending Catholic schools, from elementary school all the way through college. But from the time she was very young, the teachings of the Catholic Church just didn’t feel right to her. “I’ve always been very religious in faith,” she explains, “but I felt uncomfortable in that environment.”
Throughout her childhood, Genie felt drawn to the few Jews she happened to meet. One summer when she was eight, she befriended a Jewish girl at summer camp. For hours every day, Genie peppered her new friend with questions, learning all she could about Jewish life and beliefs. Even at that tender age, Genie felt the tug of truth in her friend’s descriptions of her family’s Jewish lifestyle. In addition, some of Genie’s family traditions didn’t seem to mesh with their Catholic faith; unlike her peers, Genie’s family maintained a host of strange practices and superstitions.
“I was always very close with my grandmother,” Genie says of her mother’s mother. They cooked together, and her grandma made sure she was steeped in family lore. One tradition was to take some dough when they were baking bread, wrap it in foil, and place it in the back of the oven to burn. This ritual was so important to Genie’s grandmother that even when she became elderly and infirm, she checked to make sure Genie separated and burned the dough, making her go back and do it if she forgot. The ritual seemed completely pointless to Genie—she assumed it was for good luck—but she continued the family tradition to make her grandmother happy.
Her grandmother also taught her the family method of cooking with eggs, which had to be checked for blood spots and discarded if any were found. And vegetables had to be checked carefully for bugs using a light. “All these things were taught to me when I was a child,” Genie says with a laugh, explaining that they made her family unique.
Another uncommon family tradition was only to marry cousins. Genie’s mother’s parents were first cousins, and their parents and grandparents also married only within the family. In fact, Genie’s mother was the first person in the family’s long memory to marry a true outsider instead of someone from within the clan.
Right after she graduated college, Genie married a Catholic Cuban man, just as her family expected her to. Even then, she recalls that her family had a strange ritual that was different from the practice of other Catholic families; just before the marriage, her mother rushed forward and pinned white shawls to the shoulders of her dress and her husband’s suit. For Genie, this was just one more unique family custom.