Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Societies We Find Through Immersion Travel

Hanging Scroll - "Sangre de Cristo: The Wandering Gentiles of the Southwest", Sumi Ink and Acrylic Inks and Balsa Wood on Rice Paper, Tamrisk Sticks

The multiple circles or orbs represent Crypto-Jews (Jews that hide their Jewishness - they still uphold some home ceremonies or continue the culinary traditions, but they rarely tell anyone and publicly practice Christianity). A very common occurrence in America, but for some reason there is an astronomical number of them in northern New Mexico.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article relating to your latest post:

Crypto-Judaism in America

by Rick Aharon Chaimberlin

from Petah Tikvah (Door of Hope) Vol 16, No. 2

165 Doncaster Road

Rochester, NY 14623

As a result of persecution under the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, many Jews went 'underground,' continuing to practice Judaism in secret. Their descendants continued observing these traditions, often not understanding the reason why. They didn't realize that their ancestors were Jewish. They continued a practice which has come to be known as Crypto-Judaism (the practice of secretly observing Jewish customs and rituals) even while usually identifying themselves as Catholics. Crypto-Judaism continues to survive in America.

Life for Jews in Spain wasn't always bad. They had successfully integrated into Spanish culture, many rising to positions of influence and even affluence. Jewish history books call it the 'Golden Age" for Jews in Spain. Most Jewish scholarship emanated from Spain during the early centuries of the current millennium. That all changed as religious intolerance began to grow.

In 1480, the Spanish Inquisition was established by the Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella in order to root out "heresies", beliefs in contradiction to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. To extract evidence, the Inquisition used torture against both witnesses and defendants. The Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished in 1834. The similar Portuguese Inquisition began later, but also ended decades after the end of the Spanish Inquisition.

Prior to the introduction of the Inquisition there were Jews who converted to Catholicism. In many cases the conversions were a matter of convenience; conversion permitted them to progress economically and socially in the Gentile world. No doubt, other conversions may have been genuine. However, with the introduction of the Inquisition, the alternatives to conversion were often torture and execution. The preferred method of execution was the auto-de-fe, in which the victim was burned at the state.

Inquisition created a whole new generation of Nuevos Conversos (New converts). Many of these converts continued to practice Judaism in secret. The converts were called marranos (swine) by their 'Christian" neighbors, who suspected that most conversions were not genuine. In most cases, their suspicions may have been correct.


In 1492, the Jews of Spain were offered the choice of converting to Catholicism or exile. The alternative was execution. Most Jews chose to leave Spain rather than embrace a pagan faith. Many thousands of others chose to "convert", at least outwardly, greatly adding to the number of the Nuevos Conversos. This was easier than enduring the hardships of leaving a country in which they and their ancestors had lived for our a thousand years. Curiously, the most hospitable countries for Jews leaving Spain were Italy (where the Vatican was located!) and Turkey, a Moslem country. Moslems at that time treated Jews far better than the so-called Christian countries.

The Nuevos Conversos lived precarious lives. Always fearful of being discovered observing a 'Jewish' tradition, such as lighting the Erev Shabbat candles or avoiding pork. They often led two separate lives. Publicly, they were "good Catholics." In private. they would live Jewishly. They passed the "secret" traditions onto their children. As the generations went by the traditions were passed on without ever telling the children why. Most of the descendants were ignorant of their Jewish heritage.

Another avenue of escape was to travel to the "New World", which had been discovered in 1492, the some year that the forced exile began. They fled to Latin America, hoping to avoid the Inquisition. They were mistaken. The Inquisition followed them to the New World. Again, many more "converted" to Catholicism or moved further inland. Some did both, hoping to preserve their bodies and lives.


Some of the "secret Jews" joined themselves to another persecuted group: the indigenous people who were the majority population at that time in Latin America, the "Indians." They intermarried with them, forming what is now called "Mestizo Jews." The most well-known group of "Mestizo Jews" (or "Indian Jew") is in Venta Prieta in eastern Mexico. They look like American Indians, but have "reconverted" openly to Judaism. Unfortunately they have for the most part received much rejection by the ethnically 'pure' Jews of Mexico City. A notable exception was Rabbi Samuel Leer, a Conservative Rabbi who arrived in Mexico City in 1968, and became their spiritual advisor. He performs marriage ceremonies for them once they formally convert to Judaism, and helps their sons through the Bar Mitzvah process. He performs the conversions, "not because they need to but in order not to antagonize the other rabbis here." They are converted in a Mexico City mikveh ritual bath) run by Orthodox Jews. Every couple married since 1968 at well as the children born to these couples are now incontestably Jewish.1

Other Jewish-Indian communities have much weaker Jewish identities. Their Jewish ancestors escaped the Inquisition and found refuge in small Indian villages living among the Indian population in order to hide their identity. As a result of intermarriage, Jewish-Indian communities were established. Many of the rituals performed by Mestizo Jews and Catholic Mestizos in Mexico and across Latin America are a cross between Christianity and Judaism. Most were unable or never bothered to check the origins of their traditions. They have remained Catholic, but observe Jewish traditions. Some Indian women in Latin America go to church on Friday' evenings and light candles to images of saints! "This tradition took its place in Inquisitorial times when Jewish women were afraid to light their sabbath candles at home, so opted to do it in the security of the church. These women wave their hands over the candles, cover their eyes, and say the blessing quietly not knowing the origin of this tradition.2


As the generations went by other secret Jews continued practicing a form of Judaism which was more and more fragmented. The Hebrew blessings became more scrambled, as were the traditions, but the origins are still recognizably Jewish.

In New Mexico, Professor Stanley Hordes was the state historian, and is also on Ashkenazi Jew. Beginning in 1981, he began receiving regular visits from people who would come into his office telling him things like, "So-and-so doesn't eat pork," or, "So-and-so lights candles on Friday night." Intrigued, Hordes began interviewing these people. and tracing their family histories. His conclusion: Converso Jews: have been living in New Mexico for 400 years.

Among the most well-known of the Crypto-Jews who came to America was Luis de Carvajal. He came to Mexico with the title of el Conquistador. He was also an admiral, and was awarded a governorship of a newly created province, the New Kingdom of Leon in New Spain.3 He eventually shed his Catholicism, returning to his ethnic Jewish roots. As a result, he and his family suffered horrendously from The Inquisition. (Some of his descendants in Arizona are readers of Penta Tikvah).

Today more and more of the descendants of these Crypto-Jews are rediscovering their Jewish heritage. Some, like Anna Rael Delay, reconverted back to Judaism. Meanwhile, Anna's sister, Celina wants to integrate Judaism into her Christian and Indian identity. She considers herself a "cultural Catholic," and says That "in New Mexico there are a lot of negative attitudes about Jews". Both sisters remember that their grandmother would not allow the grandchildren to have meat for lunch if they had milk for breakfast. A grand-mother would cover the mirrors when someone died. One grandfather would not work on Shabbat. Another wouldn't eat pork. All the boys were circumcised on the eighth day'. As children. they played with 4-sided trompos, a spinning top like a Jewish dreidel. On the side were written in Spanish, "take all." "put back," "take one" and "nothing." These various customs are typical of many "Hispanics" in Southwestern USA, whose ancestors went north to avoid the Inquisition.

Many Crypto-Jews are now becoming members of Messianic Jewish congregations, where they are not required to reject the Jewish Messiah, and where they can live Torah-observant lifestyles. This development is being encouraged by Messianic Leaders such as Rabbi Haim Levi in Florida, Rabbi Michael Silver in New Mexico. and the Carvajals in Arizona. Rabbi Haim Levi sponsors a Sephardic Messianic Conference each year. which attracts a number of Crypto-Jews who are now finding their way back to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through Messianic Judaism.

In addition, there is a Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, a Reform rabbi from Pennsylvania, who has been instrumental in bringing "lost" Jews back into Judaism in such places as Brazil, France, and countries in Africa. We applaud his efforts. Of course we would be happier if these "lost" Jews would also come to know their Messiah and savior, Yeshua HaMashiach. said...

My family was kicked out of Spain, then France (a relative supposedly worked on the contruction of a masonic temple with Benjamin Franklin) and finally Russia (relative was a physician to the Czar), before making their way to America. Starting in NY, they made their way to Chicago and finally St. Louis.

The Native-American crypto-Jews are primarily who I am referring to in this painting; however both my wife and I fall loosely under the category, as well. I take exception to the Messianic Jews portion of the article to posted, because I believe them to be a fringe group, that lacks the conviction to make a "choice".

I know of two basic groups of crypto-Jews, those that hide their Judaism for self-preservation (portions of my extended family) and those that carry out traditions passed-down from earlier generations without any understanding from whence they developed. The only Messianic Jews I have ever encountered are not particularly "Jewish".

As far as Jews in New Mexico for over 400 years - yes definately. The shul where I attend, has a Torah that was brought to the territory via wagon train. - DN said...

Let me go off-topic for one more moment... a Jewish person cannot accurately live a "torah-observant lifestyle" and believe in the Holy Trinity (or God-Head-Three, pick your title); because the Torah (we're referring to the original Hebrew) never mentions more than one entity. Therefore, a person can't be both "torah-observant" (literally) and believe in a god-like messiah. Hence, Messianic Jews are a contradiction in terms.

Now don't mistake the intentions of my reply, I believe the Torah when it says, "the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come". Therefore, I'm not wrong, you're not wrong... I just feel the Messianic Jews are trying too hard to cover all their bases, more as a bit of a religious safety precaution; than out of an actual attempt to understand the Torah. - DN

Anonymous said...

I haven't studied to much about Messianic be honest, I don't know any and I don't know any Jews at all. I always thought of Messianic Jews as Jews who at some point in their life accept Christ as the Messiah but are still Jewish (for example, the Messianic Jews in Israel). It's a lifestyle and deep culture, their history and heritage. One time I went to a church service in Kansas City, Mo and a man came to speak about the Christian movement in Israel (I believe he was the editor of Israel Today but maybe just a journalist...I can't remember), anyway he used the term Messianic Jews to refer to Jews who have accepted Christ. It has always seemed to me that being Jewish is like being black or white. It's something that you are born in to like a race. Daniel, I thought you had a Jewish heritage but I wasn't sure of the extent. So how does your family refer to themselves? If I'm remembering correctly, you were raised going to a Christian Church. Do you believe that Christ is the Messiah? This is interesting. I wish someone who was a Messianic Jew would jump on this blog.