New Mex­ico’s lit­tle-known ‘Crypto-Jews’ are rooted in his­tory

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Matt Cren­son

RUI­DOSO, N.M. — Stan­ley Horde­shadonlyas­sumedthe­jobof NewMex­i­costate­his­to­ri­an­forafew weeks when he started re­ceiv­ing someod­dvis­i­tors.They­woulden­ter his Santa Fe of­fice, close the door — and gos­sip about their neigh­bors.

“So-and-so lights can­dles on Fri­day nights,” they would whis­per.

“So-and-so doesn’t eat pork,” they would say.

Mr. Hordes wasn’t the first scholar who had ever heard such things. But as a curious new ar­rival from Louisiana, the young his­to­rian was in­trigued. So he be­gan visit­ing rural vil­lages to in­ter­view the “vieji­tos,” His­panic old-timers whose fam­i­lies had lived in the state for gen­er­a­tions, some­times since the orig­i­nal Span­ish set­tlers came up from Mex­ico.

He was as­tounded by what they told him. Though the peo­ple Mr. Hordes spoke with were clearly Catholic, they re­ported fol­low­ing an ar­ray of Jewish cus­toms. They talked about leav­ing peb­bles on ceme­tery head­stones, light­ing can­dles on Fri­day nights, ab­stain­ing from pork and cir­cum­cis­ing male in­fants.

When Mr. Hordes asked why they did such things, some said they were sim­ply fol­low­ing fam­ily tra­di­tion. Oth­ers gave a more straight­for­ward ex­pla­na­tion.

“Somos ju­dios,” they said. “We are Jews.”

What­wasthat­sup­posed­tomean? Their vil­lages were built around old Catholic mis­sion chapels, not syn­a­gogues. The He­brew scrolls of theTo­rah­w­ereGreek­tothem.They didn’t re­ally know any­thing about the Jewish faith — and yet, they called them­selves Jews.

A quar­ter-cen­tury later, Mr. Horde­shasa­stir­ring­ex­pla­na­tionof how Ju­daism got to New Mex­ico.

In the spring of 1492, Jews in Spain were given two choices: con­vert to Catholi­cism or leave the coun­try. Many left, scat­ter­ing as far afield as Is­tan­bul, Lon­don and Cairo. Many oth­ers sim­ply aban­doned their re­li­gion for Catholi­cism.

Butafe­wofthose­who­con­verted did so only pub­licly, con­tin­u­ing to prac­tice Ju­daism in se­cret. The Span­ish In­qui­si­tion sought to iden­tify and pun­ish such false con­verts.

Mod­ern schol­ars have found a few com­mu­ni­ties of so-called “crypto-Jews” that sur­vived in both Ibe­ria and the New World for cen­turies, hid­ing their true re­li­gious iden­tity from their neigh­bors and the Catholic Church.

In his 2005 book “To the End of the Earth: A His­tory of the Cryp­toJews of New Mex­ico,” Mr. Hordes sug­gests that many crypto-Jews found their way to the north­ern fron­tier of the Span­ish colo­nial em­pire, where evad­ing the author­ity of both church and state was an eas­ier propo­si­tion.

There, they con­tin­ued to ob­serve their re­li­gion be­hind locked doors, blend­ing pub­licly into the mono­lithic Catholic cul­ture and teach­ing their chil­dren that re­veal­ing their true iden­ti­ties could mean death by the In­qui­si­tion.

“They were Hordes said.

in­vis­i­ble,”

Mr.

But the very same se­crecy that pro­tected Ju­daism in the Span­ish South­west even­tu­ally doomed it. The peo­ple had no syn­a­gogue, no To­rah, no con­nec­tion to global Jewish cul­ture. They were im­mersed in a Catholic cul­ture with its own rich tra­di­tions. By the 20th cen­tury, Mr. Hordes con­cludes, all that was left were a few sug­ges­tive cus­toms and a vague sense among a few vieji­tos that some­how, they were Jewish.

For Sonya Loya, there’s noth­ing vague about it. She has al­ways felt Jewish.GrowingupCatholicinRui­doso, N.M., Miss Loya was in­tensely spir­i­tual. But she never iden­ti­fied with Je­sus or Chris­tian­ity.

“I never felt what­ever I was sup­posed to feel when I was Catholic,” Miss Loya said.

Miss Loya be­gan ob­serv­ing the Jewish Sab­bath, Shab­bat, six years ago, about the same time that she learned about the se­cret Jewish past that was be­ing un­cov­ered by Mr. Hordes and other schol­ars. She was thrilled at the pos­si­bil­ity that she might ac­tu­ally have Jewish her­itage.

“I be­lieve that what drew me back home to who I am is my Jewish soul,” Miss Loya said.

In 2004, she went to her par­ents, ask­ing them to bless her con­ver­sion to Ju­daism, but ex­pect­ing the worst. Per­plexed by their daugh­ter’s re­jec­tion of Catholi­cism, they had of­ten re­acted badly to such pro­nounce­ments.

But this time, it was her turn to be per­plexed. Not only did her fa­ther give his bless­ing, Miss Loya said, but he re­vealed that he had known since child­hood that he had Jewish an­ces­try.

The Rev. Bill Sanchez al­ways felt Jewish, too. But not that Jewish; he’s a Catholic priest.

Fa­ther Sanchez dis­cov­ered his own Jewish roots af­ter watch­ing a television doc­u­men­tary on ge­net­ics. The show in­spired him to have his own genes tested by a Hous­ton- based com­pany called Fam­ily Tree DNA. The com­pany de­ter­mined that he has a set of ge­netic mark­ers on his Y-chro­mo­some that is also found in about 30 per­cent of Jewish men.

Since then Fa­ther Sanchez has em­braced his Jewish her­itage. He wears a Star of David around his neck on the same chain that holds his cru­ci­fix, and keeps a meno­rah in his of­fice at St. Ed­win Parish in Al­bu­querque, N.M.

Like Mr. Hordes, folk­lorist Ju­dith Neu­lan­der was fas­ci­nated by the story of the South­west­ern cryp­toJews when she first en­coun­tered it as a grad­u­ate stu­dent in the early 1990s. An Amer­i­can Jew who grew up in Mex­ico City, she felt like she was the per­fect per­son to write the de­fin­i­tive book on the sub­ject.

“I re­ally in my heart wanted to cu­rate the crypto-Ju­daic ex­hibit at the Jewish Mu­seum in New York,” saidMis­sNeu­lan­der,whois­now­codi­rec­tor of the Jewish Stud­ies Pro- gra­matCaseWesternRe­serveUniver­sity in Cleve­land.

Miss Neu­lan­der went to New Mex­ico in the sum­mer of 1992 and be­gan do­ing in­ter­views. At first, she talked with peo­ple who were re­ferred­to­her­byMr.Hordes­orother re­searchers, and then with peo­ple she iden­ti­fied her­self.

“All of it just doesn’t re­ally hold up when you ex­am­ine it care­fully,” Miss Neu­lan­der said.

Aside­fromthecul­tur­alev­i­dence, all Mr. Hordes had was a hand­ful of pros­e­cu­tion­sagain­st­sus­pect­edJews in the records of the Mex­i­can In­qui­si­tion and ge­nealog­i­cal ar­gu­ments link­ing in­di­vid­ual New Mex­i­cans back gen­er­a­tions to pre-ex­pul­sion Span­ish Jews.

Miss Neu­lan­der wasn’t buy­ing it. But if they weren’t Jewish, she still had to ex­plain why so many peo­ple in the South­west thought they were.

In 1994, Miss Neu­lan­der wrote a pa­per in the Jewish Folk­lore and Eth­nol­ogy Re­view that of­fered an ex­pla­na­tion. Dur­ing the 1940s an an­thro­pol­o­gist named Raphael Patai had dis­cov­ered a church out­side Mex­ico City whose mem­bers con­sid­eredthem­selvesJewish,even though they be­lieved in Je­sus and knew very lit­tle about Ju­daism. He con­cluded that the church must have been founded by evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tant mis­sion­ar­ies from one of sev­eral small sects who con­sid­ered them­selves de­scen­dants of a lost tribe of Is­rael.

Though rare to­day, such Chris­tian groups fol­low many Jewish tra­di­tions while be­liev­ing in Je­sus, and con­sider them­selves the world’s only truly cho­sen peo­ple.

“There were prob­a­bly many more sects like this in the early part ofthe20th­cen­tury,”Mis­sNeu­lan­der said.

She can’t prove it. But Miss Neu­lan­der be­lieves Protes­tant evan­gel­i­cals, pos­si­bly from a group that splin­tered off the Sev­enth-day Ad­ven­tist church, in­spired the be­lief in a South­west­ern Jewish past less than a cen­tury ago.

Mr. Hordes dis­misses her the­ory as out­ra­geous. “Do you think they would­have­for­got­ten­thatthey­were Sev­enth-day Ad­ven­tists?” he asked.

The only se­ri­ous ge­netic study that has at­tempted to find Jewish an­ces­try among His­pan­ics in the South­west reached a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion.

“We just couldn’t wait to find all th­ese Jews,” said Alec Knight, who was work­ing in an an­thro­po­log­i­cal ge­net­ics lab at Stan­ford Univer­sity when he saw the crypto-Jew story in an in-flight mag­a­zine.

Mr. Knight re­cruited a hand­ful of col­leagues for a sim­ple study. They tookDNAsam­ples­from139­menin north­ernNewMex­i­coand­south­ern Colorado,mostofwhom­could­trace their fam­ily trees in the re­gion back to the 17th cen­tury.

The re­sults? To use a Yid­dish ex­pres­sion, bubkes — al­most noth­ing.

As the 139 DNA pro­files came back, it be­came clear to Mr. Knight that the pop­u­la­tion he had sam­pled was ge­net­i­cally in­dis­tin­guish­able from the mod­ern pop­u­la­tion of Spain. There were a few in­di­vid­u­als who did have typ­i­cally “Jewish” pro­files,but­nomorethany­ouwould find in Spain, ow­ing to the pres­ence of Jews there be­fore 1492.

As­so­ci­ated Press

“Crypto-Jew” Sonya Loya, of Rui­doso, N.M., held loaves of chal­lah bread dur­ing a Fri­day evening Shab­bat cel­e­bra­tion at her par­ents’ home in Novem­ber.

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