That old time re­li­gion

A new ex­hibit ex­am­ines the his­tory of Span­ish Ju­daism, the In­qui­si­tion, and iden­tity in the New World

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Jen­nifer Levin

Frac­tured Faiths: Span­ish Ju­daism, the In­qui­si­tion, and New World Iden­ti­ties at the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum

Dur­ing the Jewish golden age in Spain, from about AD 900 to 1300, Jews con­trib­uted to the econ­omy, arts, and pur­suit of sci­en­tific knowl­edge that thrived dur­ing the some­times un­easy co­ex­is­tence of three cul­tures — Chris­tian, Mus­lim, and Jewish — known in Span­ish as con­viven­cia. Though they were al­ways the minority pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try they called Sepharad, and they pe­ri­od­i­cally ex­pe­ri­enced per­se­cu­tion at the hands of the rul­ing class, Jews were po­ets, astronomers, philoso­phers, mer­chants, and even ad­vi­sors in Mus­lim and Chris­tian courts un­til sen­ti­ment turned against them in the 14th cen­tury. Europe, rav­aged by the Black Death, faced eco­nomic col­lapse and ris­ing po­lit­i­cal ten­sions. As they had been for cen­turies and would con­tinue to be for cen­turies to come through­out the world, Jews were vi­o­lently scape­goated, their vil­lages pil­laged. They were en­cour­aged to con­vert to Chris­tian­ity, as were Mus­lims. In 1391, a year­long pogrom forced Jews to ei­ther con­vert or be killed. About half of Spain’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion opted for con­ver­sion, which cre­ated a fourth group, con­ver­sos, or New Chris­tians. “It is in­ter­est­ing to note that, dur­ing the fif­teenth cen­tury, the hate, envy, and hos­til­ity to­ward Jews were trans­ferred to the con­ver­sos,” Juan Ig­na­cio Pulido Ser­rano writes in “As­sault and Frag­men­ta­tion: Emer­gent Iden­ti­ties from 1391 to 1492,” the sec­ond es­say in the bilin­gual ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log that ac­com­pa­nies Frac­tured Faiths: Span­ish Ju­daism, the In­qui­si­tion, and New World Iden­ti­ties, open­ing at the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum on Sun­day, May 22. “This hos­til­ity was jus­ti­fied by a wide­spread sus­pi­cion held by the ma­jor­ity. Con­ver­sos were ac­cused of be­ing, in fact, false Chris­tians by se­cretly main­tain­ing the Jewish faith and prac­tices. It was re­peat­edly said that if they had con­verted, it was to en­rich them­selves and gain power.”

Frac­tured Faiths, which fol­lows con­ver­sos to mod­ern-day North­ern New Mex­ico, is cu­rated by Josef B. Díaz, cu­ra­tor of South­west and Mex­i­can colo­nial art and his­tory col­lec­tions at the mu­seum, and Roger L. Martínez-Dávila, a CONEX Marie Curie Fel­low at the Univer­si­dad de Car­los III de Madrid and as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The ex­hi­bi­tion, which in­cludes his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and pan­els, sy­n­a­gogue tiles, arts, crafts, and doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy, is di­vided into three parts: “His­pania, Al-An­dalus, Sepharad, Es­paña Pre-His­tory to 1600”; “New World, New Woes, New Wor­ries 1500-1800”; and “At Home

at ‘The End of the Earth’ 1800 to the Present.” The cat­a­log of­fers read­ers six in-depth es­says on the his­tory of Sephardic Jews and the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion in Europe and the Amer­i­cas.

Iden­tity has al­ways been a com­pli­cated is­sue in Ju­daism, de­fined var­i­ously, in­side and out­side of the faith, by a mix­ture of re­li­gious ob­ser­va­tion, cul­tural af­fil­i­a­tion, and ge­net­ics. In the cat­a­log and ex­hibit, pains are taken to ex­plain the Span­ish vo­cab­u­lary that emerged by the end of the 15th cen­tury to de­scribe per­mu­ta­tions of re­li­gious iden­tity, while sep­a­rat­ing his­tor­i­cal no­tions from 21st-cen­tury uses of the terms. For in­stance, “con­verso” was a gen­eral term for a Jewish con­vert to Chris­tian­ity, with some­what neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, but a con­vert was likely to re­fer to him­self as a “buen cris­tiano” or “good Chris­tian.” Many 15th-cen­tury con­verts did not se­cretly re­tain their Jewish faith, though they were pre­sumed to have done so by re­belling Catholics in Toledo, who ac­cused them of schem­ing against the unity of Chris­tians and wanted them banned from hold­ing im­por­tant of­fices. “The re­bel­lion of Toledo in 1449 marked a key mo­ment in the his­tory of the con­verso prob­lem,” Ser­rano writes. “The statutes of ‘blood cleans­ing’ or racial pu­rity slowly be­gan to spread through­out the coun­try.”

Other forced con­verts did con­tinue to prac­tice Ju­daism or clung to cer­tain rit­u­als de­spite also be­ing true be­liev­ers in Christ, but it is un­likely they would have re­ferred to them­selves as crypto-Jews, or cripto-judío, which was a term used by Span­ish Chris­tians to de­scribe false con­verts. The English term came into use in the 19th and 20th cen­turies and is em­braced by some peo­ple who iden­tify as Sephardic Jews. To­day in New Mex­ico, “con­verso” and “crypto-Jew” are of­ten used in­ter­change­ably. But in the 15th cen­tury, th­ese la­bels were more than slurs or a recla­ma­tion of cul­tural pride.

Con­ver­sos had pen­e­trated all lev­els of so­ci­ety by the mid-15th cen­tury, and the most elite con­ver­sos were ea­ger to prove the pu­rity of their blood­lines. An in­dus­try sprang up to cre­ate elab­o­rate doc­u­men­ta­tion of Old Chris­tian sta­tus. Some of the il­lu­mi­nated ge­nealog­i­cal patent let­ters of con­firmed Jewish fam­i­lies con­vey fal­si­fied Old Chris­tian her­itage, such as the 1623 char­ter let­ter of no­bil­ity from King Felipe IV to An­dres and Francisco de Cer­vantes Cabr­era, in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

In 1478, in an ef­fort to quell un­rest among the pop­u­lace, Is­abel I of Castile and Fer­nando II of Aragón, known as the Catholic Mon­archs, de­cided to take care of the “con­verso prob­lem” once and for all by get­ting pa­pal con­ces­sion to be­gin an In­qui­si­tion (which lasted more than 350 years). Tri­bunals were held to ad­ju­di­cate ac­cu­sa­tions of heresy among con­ver­sos, but there were still un­con­verted, prac­tic­ing Jews in Spain at the time, and it was de­ter­mined that con­tin­ued con­tact be­tween Jews and con­ver­sos could only have neg­a­tive out­comes.

The in­quisi­tors of the tri­bunals “so­licited the kings to pro­hibit Ju­daism in their king­doms and to force all Jews to con­vert,” Ser­rano writes. “Those who did not ac­cept bap­tism should be ex­pelled. Once they all be­came con­verts, it would be eas­ier to com­bat those who prac­ticed the Jewish faith in se­cret. The pro­posal was ac­cepted. The ex­pul­sion de­cree signed by the kings was made pub­lic in 1492. Be­cause of this mea­sure, the ma­jor­ity of Jews were bap­tized to avoid ex­ile, but an im­por­tant num­ber de­cided to leave Sepharad. The Jews of this new di­as­pora were known as Sephardic Jews.”

Jews had four months to flee. Leav­ing most of their pos­ses­sions be­hind, they went to Por­tu­gal, France, Italy, the in­de­pen­dent king­dom of Navarra, North Africa, and the Ot­toman Em­pire. Con­ver­sos who stayed in Spain faced con­stant scru­tiny, tor­ture, and even death. As the In­qui­si­tion wore on into the 16th cen­tury, many be­gan to see mi­gra­tion to the New World — Mex­ico — as the best pos­si­ble op­tion to es­cape op­pres­sion and prac­tice their faith in peace, whether as Catholics or as crypto-Jews or some­thing in be­tween. Such mi­gra­tion was legally lim­ited to Old Chris­tians, but forged doc­u­ments could be ob­tained for a high price, and many Jewish and Mus­lim Spa­niards — who were sim­i­larly ex­pelled in 1503 — were able to em­i­grate se­cretly, with­out pa­pers. The de­cree of ex­pul­sion is in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, the In­qui­si­tion fol­lowed con­ver­sos to Mex­ico, where their com­mu­ni­ties were dis­cov­ered and rooted out. Many peo­ple were tried and put to death, some for Jewish heresy and oth­ers for witch­craft and other crimes of blas­phemy. When the fron­tier of New Spain extended north into New Mex­ico, some con­ver­sos seized the op­por­tu­nity to move again, this time to a land where the Catholic fri­ars were too busy try­ing to wrest power from Pe­dro de Per­alta, gov­er­nor of New Mex­ico, and con­vert the Pue­blo In­di­ans to pay at­ten­tion to who was or was not light­ing Sab­bath can­dles on Fri­day nights or fast­ing on Yom Kip­pur. In 1663-1664, New Mex­ico gov­er­nor Bernardo López de Men­dizábal and his wife, Doña Teresa de Aguil­era y Roche, were ar­rested at the Palace of the Gov­er­nors in Santa Fe and trans­ported to Mex­ico City, where they were tried at the Palace of the In­qui­si­tion for se­cretly prac­tic­ing Ju­daism. Doña Teresa wrote an ex­ten­sive 28-page refu­ta­tion of the charges, fir­ing back at many of her pre­sumed ac­cusers, that is in­cluded in the mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion.

“That none of those ar­rested in the 1660s … were con­victed of Ju­daiz­ing in­di­cates the dis­in­cli­na­tion of the Mex­i­can In­qui­si­tion at that time to pros­e­cute cases against con­ver­sos,” writes Stan­ley M. Hordes in “To the Far North­ern Fron­tier of New Spain: Con­verso Set­tle­ment in New Mex­ico, 1598-1900,” the fifth es­say in the Frac­tured Faiths cat­a­log. In 1680, Pue­blo In­di­ans re­volted against the Span­ish colonists and set­tlers, driv­ing them out of New Mex­ico for more than a decade. Af­ter the re­con­quest by Diego De Var­gas in 1692-1693, civil and re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties were fo­cused on de­fend­ing against at­tacks from in­dige­nous New Mex­i­cans, and the con­verso is­sue even­tu­ally fell away. With­out the ro­bust record-keep­ing of the In­qui­si­tion, how­ever, Hordes says, it be­comes far more dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine the re­li­gious roots of those who re­set­tled here in the 18th cen­tury. Ac­cord­ing to Seth D. Kunin, au­thor of the fi­nal es­say in Frac­tured

Faiths, “Fluid Iden­ti­ties: New Mex­i­can Crypto-Jews in the Late Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury,” there was very lit­tle ex­pres­sion of mod­ern crypto-Ju­daism in New Mex­ico un­til the 1980s, when peo­ple be­gan to re­con­sider and re­ex­am­ine their eth­nic and cul­tural iden­ti­ties. Ge­nealog­i­cal re­search in­di­cates that at least some who em­brace Sephardic roots are de­scended from con­ver­sos ac­cused of Ju­daiz­ing, and in other cases their an­ces­tors were con­ver­sos with no his­tory of se­cret Jewish faith. Fam­ily tra­di­tions, sto­ries, and heir­looms some­times in­di­cate old strains of Ju­daism, with ge­neal­ogy, Kunin writes, func­tion­ing as just one as­pect of Jewish iden­tity and self-per­cep­tion. A se­ries of pho­tos by Cary Herz cap­tures mod­ern­day de­scen­dants of crypto-Jews around New Mex­ico, as well as ceme­tery head­stones en­graved with Jewish writ­ing and im­agery.

“What is im­por­tant is how they view them­selves and give their lives mean­ing — for some it will be through dif­fer­ent forms of mean­ings and val­ues at­trib­uted to their Jewish past and present,” Kunin writes. “It is those who con­sider the past to be part of their present iden­tity (what­ever their for­mal re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion) who are the crypto-Jews and who are both the in­her­i­tors of a Sephardic past and cre­ators of a crypto-Jewish present and fu­ture.”

Felipe IV, King of Spain, char­ter let­ter of no­bil­ity to An­dres de Cer­vantes and Francisco Cabr­era, Granada, Spain, 1623, il­lu­mi­nated man­u­script on vel­lum; top, case doc­u­ments of Doña Teresa de Aguil­era y Roche re­late to the ar­rest with her hus­band, New Mex­ico gov­er­nor Bernardo López de Men­dizábal, 16631664; they were tried by the Holy Of­fice of the In­qui­si­tion

From left to right, The Five Com­mand­ments in He­brew Let­ters, in a Catholic Ceme­tery in the Mid­dle of the Río Grande Val­ley, 1905, photo Cary Herz; 14th-cen­tury chest piece, Spain; bot­tom, 13th-15th-cen­tury bronze horse bit, Spain

Late 14th-cen­tury glazed ce­ramic jar, Teruel, Spain; top, David and the Pri­est Ahim­elech, Mex­ico, early 18th cen­tury, oil on can­vas, by an uniden­ti­fied artist; all images cour­tesy New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum/Palace of the Gov­er­nors

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