controversies

This Week in Julia Salazar

She had a trust fund, her ancestors were Catholic elites, and she has a new version of her conversion story.

Julia Salazar during a rally in Brooklyn. Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/REX/Shutterstock

A state senate race that was once hailed as a test of the rising strength and power of insurgent socialists has devolved into a full-fledged New York City tabloid circus, featuring charges of lies, identify fraud, theft, and an affair with New York Mets legend Keith Hernandez.

And that was just last week.

Every time the life story of first-time state senate candidate Julia Salazar, 27, seems it can’t get any more convoluted, it does. First, questions were raised about her religious background and political affiliation, after it was revealed she grew up in a Christian family and was a registered Republican who led an anti-abortion group in college before running for office as a Jewish socialist. Then, her self-identification as an immigrant came under fire — she was born in Miami — and her own brother went to town on her claims that she is from a working-class background. Next came revelations of a complex legal dispute with Hernandez’s wife that had led to Salazar being arrested on identity-impersonation charges; she doggedly pursued a defamation countersuit that was ultimately settled in her favor. Amid that story, legal documents surfaced showing her lawyer pointing to “Ms. Salazar trust Account records showing in excess of $600,000” in assets in 2011 and therefore no incentive to steal from Hernandez’s wife.

Now the campaign has confirmed Salazar has had substantial assets held in trust for her. “Julia’s father, who played a very limited role in raising her after her parents’ divorce, was not able to work due to disability in the final years of his life, but on his death in 2009 he left a house and considerable retirement savings; those assets were put in a trust to be divided evenly between Julia and her brother,” campaign spokesman Michael Kinnucan said. “Julia does not have direct access to the trust; the trustee is a relative in Colombia.”

On September 13, Salazar will face off with incumbent Senator Martin Malavé Dilan; the primary winner is all but assured of victory in November.

Salazar’s bid, which has won endorsements from and/or appearances with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cynthia Nixon, and Nina Turner of Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution, has even drawn attention in her father’s homeland of Colombia, where a genealogist’s findings further undermine her early campaign claims of having come from a working-class mixed Jewish-Christian family and raise questions about how aware of her own Colombian heritage she has sought to be, despite her repeated statements identifying with it. Meanwhile, interviews with the candidate and with Jewish religious leaders show her story about converting to Reform Judaism could not have happened as she has described it to multiple reporters, because the person she now says guided her conversion process was not an ordained rabbi and also was, in any case, not affiliated with Columbia University the year she initially said she converted through the Columbia/Barnard Hillel.

According to Maria Emilia Naranjo Ramos, a genealogist with the Colombian Academy of Genealogy and Historic Academy of Córdoba, the Salazars have for generations been a prosperous family in Colombia that has played a prominent role in civic and political life. Far from being the daughter of struggling immigrants of mixed Jewish-Catholic religious heritage, which early news reports described her as based on her statements and those of her campaign, Julia Salazar is the scion of longtime Latin-American Catholic elites.

Her direct-line ancestors include the mayor of Bogota, elected in 1824, and a founder and mayor of the city of Manizales. Her great-grandfather Félix Salazar Jaramillo was a congressman, senator, and minister of finance for the Republic of Colombia during two separate presidential administrations. A Colombian Conservative Party politician, he later became manager of the then–newly established Bank of the Republic in 1924, the country’s first central bank. Her ancestor Captain Mariano Grillo was a martyr of the independence, having been sentenced to death by firing squad in 1816 during the fight to throw off the shackles of Spain. Along the way other direct-line family members were military captains, doctors, and businessmen.

“The Salazar and Grillo families have been recognized throughout their generations” for their roles in “public and political life,” Naranjo Ramos wrote in an unusual blog post diving into the Salazar ancestry (she doesn’t normally perform this exercise for living people) in response to the controversy in New York. Family photos and records were provided to her site by Marcela Salazar, Julia’s cousin.

Salazar, a common Basque name, is one surname on the list of hundreds of names Spain released in 2015 as having possible Jewish ancestry, as part of an attempt at reparations by offering citizenship to anyone who could prove that they were descended from Jews forced to flee or convert by the Catholic monarchs of Spain. Most of those forced conversions took place in the several-hundred-year period that ended with the remaining practicing Jews being expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century. That much is not contested. But it’s also a name that was adopted by Roma people in Spain during the forced taking of surnames in Castille, where the Salazars were a noble family, in the 14th and 15th centuries. And it is found in Latin America thanks also to the history of a group of Catholic Salazars who were deeply involved in the conquest of the new world. Still, the legacy of the forced conversions meant an entire people and culture was absorbed, and more than half a millennium later, about 20 percent of people who live in Spain and Portugal have genetic signatures suggesting Sephardic Jewish ancestry, according to a 2008 study. That’s probably true of some fraction of New-World Catholics of Iberian ancestry as well.

Whether there were Jewish Salazars in Julia Salazar’s direct line before the late 17th century, when her ancestor Pedro Salazar arrived from Spain is unknown, but according to Naranjo Ramos, Salazar’s patrilineally descended surname for the past three centuries has not belonged, in Colombia, to men or women who left a record of having considered themselves Jewish that she could locate.

“The Salazar family has been Catholic in their tradition and for many generations,” Naranjo Ramos wrote of the family.

That’s not how Julia Salazar has told the story. “Some of my extended family are Jewish; many are Catholic. Others converted from Judaism to Catholicism,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, to whom she also described herself as coming from a “secular and mixed family, Catholic and Jewish.” “My father was of Sephardic Jewish heritage,” Salazar wrote in an August campaign statement. “I was told that I had Jewish family when I was growing up,” Salazar told Jewish Currents. “My dad would talk about his dad being Sephardi, and then he would talk about it as a spiritual and geographical connection.”

Church records, however, show her grandfather Alejandro Salazar Grillo was Catholic, according to Naranjo Ramos.

Her brother Alex Salazar, just two years her senior, says their father never mentioned any possible Sephardic heritage to him. Not while his parents were married, not during weekends spent with him after their parents divorced, and not in the years during which he spent half his week taking care of his ailing father before his death from cancer in 2009.

“It was never discussed. The family was Catholic and my father, even though he wasn’t really religious, would have told you he was Catholic. His family was Catholic. His brother was a Jesuit; is a Jesuit priest. His mother, my grandmother, was a very devout Catholic and so that was the only religion that was known in the household,” Alex Salazar told New York.

“That’s probably true,” Christine Salazar, his mother, said when asked about his comment that the question of Jewish heritage was never discussed father to son. “My daughter is the one who did the research, and she’s most inquisitive. So she’s the one who sought out her family history, and, as far as we know, the last multiple generations were Catholic. But my daughter has a keen interest in the Jewish faith.”

Asked if her husband Luis had ever discussed having Jewish heritage with her during their marriage, Christine Salazar replied, “No, he did not. But like I said, his generation and probably multiple generations prior, they were Catholic.”

“I never discussed it with him,” she added. “I believe that was a discussion that Julia had with him about the family history in Iberia. But he would always say that he was born and raised in Colombia but his family was Iberian.”

“I don’t enjoy subjecting myself to Tablet-esque race science, as a person from a mixed background,” Julia Salazar tweeted in August after Tablet published the first piece questioning her self-descriptions.

Asked what he knew about his great-grandfather — who is so well-known in Colombia there’s even a Wikipedia page on him — Alex Salazar said, “Not much. But I have an old chair that belonged to him.” Alex did not know about his great-grandfather’s history in Colombian politics, he said.

Nor did Julia Salazar, until her cousin Marcela Salazar sent her a link to Naranjo Ramos’s research. Learning that she comes from a long line of civic leaders is “pretty cool — but I had no idea until I read that report,” she said. The one thing she had heard about was that an ancestor was founder of Manizales. “I had heard something about that actually,” she said, “but … I had no way of proving it, and didn’t give it that much thought, until a week ago; until a proper genealogist investigated it.”

To learn about that history while running for office has been something, and in the heat of the campaign she hasn’t been able to fully process it. “It’s totally bizarre. It’s wild. I haven’t even — truthfully, I haven’t had time to just really interrogate it and ruminate over it in the way that I would if I were not running for state senate,” she said.

Julia Salazar’s lengthy Catholic family history in Colombia makes her failure to correct the multiple stories that described her father as a Sephardic Jew, and her own statements about coming from a mixed-faith family, as misleading as describing herself as an immigrant, or allowing others to do so. “She also came from a unique Jewish background. She was born in Colombia, and her father was Jewish, descended from the community expelled from medieval Spain. When her family immigrated to the United States, they had little contact with the American Jewish community, struggling to establish themselves financially,” the Forward, a Jewish paper, reported in July in an article titled, “Julia Salazar Says Her Jewish Roots Helped Inspire Her Political Activism.” The JTA later reported that it was Salazar who told the Forward reporter her father was Jewish.

Nor was the Colombian side of her family, with its centuries-long record of playing elite roles in public life, one that could be considered working class, according to any reasonable definition of the term, despite her statement to a Village Voice reporter that “my parents both come from a working class background.” The legacy of financial well-being and achievement carried over from Colombia to Salazar’s early family life in Florida, where she was born.

“We were probably what you would consider upper middle class,” said Alex Salazar. “My father was a commercial airline pilot and did well, and he had a successful business as well that he had at the same time.”

Julia has disputed her brother’s description, accusing him of confronting her publicly because he disagrees with her politics, a charge he has denied and countered by supplying copious photographic evidence of the family’s lifestyle to the press, resulting in headlines like, “Private school, a waterside home, luxury boats, a jet-ski for four and a maid — Democratic Socialist Julia Salazar’s brother reveals truth about the childhood she called ‘hardscrabble’.”

Her mother says the story is more complex. “It’s a little bit of both worlds,” she said, “and I’ll explain why: My husband came from a solid middle-class family, there is no question. I came from a working class family.”

“When we divorced, our economic situation changed dramatically,” she said. She had to downsize, and returned to college. The kids lived primarily with her. Her ex became ill shortly after the divorce, then had a second bout of cancer at the same time she was laid off from her job in 2004. Then he died, in 2009. “These were big events in the life of any child — the turmoil of divorce, economic uncertainty, and a sick parent who ultimately died — these were big events in a child’s life, in ten years,” she said. “I did my best to shelter them, but these are big changes.”

Salazar’s father, born in 1944, was baptized and first came to America as a child with his parents, who traveled frequently between Bogota and the Tampa area, according to his son. By his teen years, Luis Salazar was in Southern California, where he studied and played football while attending an American high school, before going to community college in Santa Barbara. His interest in the nascent regional aerospace industry led him to flying lessons, his son said, and his skill caught the eye of legendary aviation pioneer Jack Conroy, who invited him to work for him.

Conroy designed the Guppy super plane that was an essential part of the successful effort that helped put Americans on the moon by allowing for the rapid transport of enormous rocket segments from Southern California to Cape Canaveral by plane. During the space race, every week counted. Luis Salazar would go on to pilot some of those Guppies, according to his son, and even met the father of rocket technology, former Nazi turned U.S. Army engineer and NASA space-flight director Wernher von Braun, once during this period.

While working as a pilot, Salazar also started his own airplane parts and avionics business, Global Aviation Distributors; it mainly sold to the Colombian airplane industry. It was also part owner of Storch Aircraft LLC, which manufactures replicas of the famous German Third-Reich Storch reconnaissance aircraft, according to records that precede the elder Salazar’s death.

Alex Salazar said he wasn’t speaking out about the family to criticize his sister, and he declined to comment directly on Julia Salazar’s specific statements. The whole situation has been extremely difficult for the family, especially his mother, he said. But he felt impelled to speak out, he said, because he wanted to correct the record about his father and his accomplishments and role in his children’s life. He spoke emotionally about his love for his father, whom he helped care for during the years of illness that preceded his death.

“I don’t really even want to speculate why or if she said these things, but I’m just telling you there’s stuff out there that is incorrect. It is false,” he said. “I don’t feel right seeing things being said about my family that aren’t true.”

New York City is not only the largest city in America, it is home to more Jews than any city outside Israel. The varieties of Jewish experience in New York City are as diverse as the city itself. There are Jewish Grindr groups and Hinjews who mark Diwali. There are Jews who bake Christmas hams and put up trees for their half-Jewish kids and Jews who read Torah and attend gender-separated synagogues and dress according to centuries-old European practices. There are blues-guitar Kol Nidre services and street-corner Lulav and etrog shakers and great stone and stained glass institutions that once held sermons in German. There are men who wear fur hats and sing in Hebrew and women who wear yoga pants and chant in Sanskrit. There are Jews who are related to Hillary Clinton, and Jews who are related to Donald Trump.

Whether or not Julia Salazar has any Jewish ancestry, she chose in college to identify and live as a Jew in 21st-century New York City amid a rising population of adults with fractional Jewish ancestry. Reform Judaism is America’s largest denomination, and half of Reform Jews who marry wed someone of a different faith background, according to the Pew Research Center — as do 79 percent of nonreligious Jews. That’s created a large population of young people of mixed ancestry who are both connected to and alienated from traditional Judaism. Salazar’s story fits easily into that mix. “She’s part of a generation that recognizes her story. No anonymous smear or racist attack can drown that out,” tweeted filmmaker Rebecca Pierce in her defense.

There’s no question that Salazar in college and after found for herself a Jewish community that accepted her, employed her, and to this day does not care about the technical details of how she came to Judaism — only how she lives it day to day in her values. Some of Salazar’s college classmates have written an editorial in the Forward claiming her and defending her: “We knew her as a woman with her own place in Judaism’s complicated history who yearned to connect with her roots and her past. Julia’s story is a celebration of 21st-century American Jews who embrace Judaism and Jewish life as adults, even when provided few resources to do so while growing up.”

All that being the case, on the question of when and how she formally converted to Judaism, as with her descriptions of her ancestry, her story has never stopped having that hard-to-pin-down quality that’s defined so much of her self-description and turned her from a minor would-be Brooklyn politician into a source of debate and high-profile fascination.

“I went through a conversion process with a Reform rabbi at [Columbia-Barnard] Hillel in 2012,” she told the JTA in August. “I don’t really bother to consider it a conversion because many people don’t respect Reform conversion.” The New York Jewish Week interviewed her and reported that she “underwent a formal conversion in 2012 … after a two-month conversion course.”

“Pressed for details,” the paper continued, “she said the course was taught by someone she believes was a rabbinic intern who left before the end of it for paternity leave. She also said she chose not to have any formal ceremony marking her conversion.”

“I essentially took a course and learned how to read Torah and had the option of going through a b’nai mitzvah ceremony … but declined to do it,” she also told JTA. “It also didn’t feel earnest to consider it a conversion because there was no religion for me to convert from … I felt Jewish, I was committed to Judaism and remain committed to Judaism.”

In September, a Vox reporter wrote “she told me [the course] was ‘more like five months’ and that she definitely completed all the required work.” Tablet, which first raised questions about Salazar, reported, “Multiple acquaintances have told Tablet that in the fall of 2012, Salazar had also informed friends she had undergone a Conservative movement conversion in the space of just two months.”

In the past month, stories have reported a two-month conversion course and a five-month course; a Reform conversion and a Conservative conversion; a rabbi being involved, and a rabbinic intern. In several stories based on interviews with Salazar she says she did not complete the course, and in one she says completed all the requirements. Three stories describe the course as having taken place in 2012, and one “in mid- to late 2013.”

Today, Salazar chalks up this scatter-plot graph of a biographical tale to being a first-time candidate. “I was naive about the need to solidify messaging,” she said. “It is a bit naïve, right. It sounds naïve. It’s a little embarrassing. But when I sought to run for state senate I thought I was just running on policies and certainly my record as an advocate, but didn’t give a lot of thought to where I was born or just verifying the details about my biography.”

I called Salazar to talk about the genealogical report on her family’s history in Colombia, which she now readily acknowledges is not the source of her religious faith, just the inspiration for exploring it. “To be clear, this genealogy does not make me Jewish,” she said. “I’m Jewish because I committed to practicing Judaism in college and went through a conversion.”

Given the conflicting reports about that conversion, I wanted to make sure I understood what had actually happened: “You did a Reform conversion with the beit din and the whole thing?”

“Yes,” she replied.

The process of conversion to Judaism is obscure to both outsiders and even many Jews, as it does not happen that frequently and often takes place within the context of marriage. The process culminates with a beit din — a religious court made up of either three rabbis or a rabbi and two learned members of the community, depending on the denomination, and a document usable for proving Jewishness to rabbis for the purpose of having them officiate future life-cycle events, like weddings.

Rabbi Hara Person, the chief strategy officer for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional association of Reform rabbis, describes the process as extensive.

“Conversion involves study with a rabbi, usually also a class that could be anywhere from 20 weeks to a 32-week class. It depends on where you are in the country. But it definitely involves rigorous study,” Person said. “For many rabbis it involves going to the mikvah. It involves generally writing some kind of a statement about your personal Jewish identity. It’s a long and involved and rigorous process.”

“I just want to be clear I am not making any comment whatsoever about Salazar. I don’t know anything about her,” she said. As for the possibility of a two-month conversion process: “I would say that in general, that would be extremely unlikely.”

The same goes for undertaking a conversion with someone who is not an ordained rabbi. “That would be unusual,” she said. “I can’t say it’s never happened.” The standard of practice for the Reform rabbinate is “that conversions to Judaism be supervised and guided solely by ordained rabbis.”

Salazar’s tale of conversion has continued to evolve in the telling. She told me what she told Vox, that her course was not a two-month one, contrary to her earlier statements, but something longer. The “B’nai Mitzvah course” she took was “closer to five months,” she said. “I don’t, honestly, I just would want to be accurate, I’m not sure how long it was. It was definitely longer than two months. It may have been longer than five months … it began in one semester and ended in the next.”

And she now says, for the first time, that she was certified by a beit din, though she has no record of it. “I just did not keep my records,” she told me. “It was 2013. I never — truthfully, especially because it was a Reform conversion, I expected that people would probably always challenge the legitimacy of my Judaism even though I had remained active in the Jewish community since 2010.”

The person who taught the course “was definitely a rabbi at the time, but he may also have been a rabbinic intern because Columbia/Barnard Hillel doesn’t ordain rabbis, right, but he was definitely a rabbi, and his name was Daniel Crane,” she said. She says there were two other women in the course, but she does not recall either of their names.

There is in the United States one Reform rabbi with that name, Daniel Aaron Crane Kirzane, who was ordained in March 2014 by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He was the Reform rabbinic intern at Columbia/Barnard Hillel during the 2013–2014 academic year — which is to say, he was not an ordained rabbi, and therefore could not yet lead conversions while Salazar was a student.

“At this time, I have no comment about Julia Salazar,” Kirzane said. The Columbia/Barnard Hillel said it would not be commenting on Salazar, either.

Reform conversions may not be honored by the other denominations for the purpose of religious weddings, and Reform weddings performed in Israel are not recognized by the state. But Reform Judaism is the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S., and Reform rabbis take the question of the Reform conversion process quite seriously.

“The state of Israel doesn’t always get to decide or determine what people do in North America,” Hara said.

Whatever happens on Thursday, Salazar’s bid for the state senate has opened a can of worms for her and for the Democratic Socialists who have their largest chapter in New York and thronged her campaign to elevate her bid for office following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over Congressman Joe Crowley in her summer primary.

None of the high-profile insurgent candidates who endorsed Salazar have backed away from her, and throughout the last weeks of controversy the Democratic Socialists of America have put their power and weight behind canvassing for her. By all accounts they are formidable organizers. On Friday, the leaders of DSA-NY emailed an appeal to members.

When she hasn’t been inundated by press requests, Salazar has been head-down, doing the same thing: door-knocking. “Julia has always from the time she was 14 been an advocate for the underdog, always trying to raise people up,” her mother Christine Salazar said, adding later: “She has relentless energy for that type of thing.”

The Dilan campaign has fended off primary challenges before, but with Cynthia Nixon on the ballot, the progressive vote in what some call “the L Train corridor” is likely to be high, and no one has any polling on this down-ballot race. The Dilan campaign has also drawn negative attention in the waning days of the race for failing to report thousands in donations.

“I cannot imagine if voters would judge her based on whether or not she is an immigrant, or any of the other creative claims about her background that have been shown to be untrue,” said Bob Liff, a spokesman for the Dilan campaign. “But they do care if she lies.”

Early Sunday morning, the attention seemed to be getting to Salazar. “I loved my job and my simple life before this ‘opportunity’ to go through hell like this,” she tweeted.