Crypto Jews

Whispers of a Jewish past in the mountains of New Mexico

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In small villages and hamlets in the mountains of New Mexico live communities of individuals claiming descent from Jewish ancestors from Spain and Portugal. These people, often called secret Jews or crypto-Jews, live within a complex set of identities. Often, externally, they are part of churches of different denominations; the majority are Catholic, but some belong to Protestant churches. Internally, however, they maintain a hidden Jewish identity, with unique customs, practices and beliefs.

While crypto-Jewish communities are found in the mountainous region around Taos, crypto-Jews live in other parts of New Mexico and the wider Southwest. Indeed, they live in all areas settled by Spanish and Portuguese colonists, even along the New England coastline, where many individuals of Portuguese descent settled. All crypto-Jews share one thing in common: they trace their descent back to Jews in Spain and Portugal.

Crypto-Judaism within the Christian world first emerged between 1390 and 1492. (A similar phenomenon existed with Jewish communities in the Islamic world during periods of religious persecution.) Starting in 1390, significant numbers of Jews living in Spain converted to Catholicism. While these conversions were often forced, in many cases individuals chose to convert for economic or social reasons. These communities of new Christians, often called conversos, included a minority of individuals who chose to secretly maintain their Jewish identity, beliefs and practices. These individuals can be considered the first crypto-Jews.

The religion of the crypto-Jews diverged significantly from that of their Jewish compatriots.  While traditional Judaism includes a wide range of public practices, often led by men in synagogues, increasingly the religion of the crypto-Jews became a religion of the home, with women often taking a significant role in the practices and their transmission to the next generation. Over time, the practices became increasingly narrow, as memory and knowledge of traditional Judaism began to fade. This trend accelerated with the expulsion of the Jewish community from Spain in 1492. Up till that point, crypto-Jews could draw on the Jewish community for knowledge and even ritual items; this largely ceased after 1492.

While 1492 is a particularly sad point in Jewish history, with the destruction of one of the world’s largest and most successful Jewish communities, it also heralded the opening up of the Americas to colonial expansion and exploitation. A wide range of documentary evidence suggests that crypto-Jews played a part in the expansion, initially into Mexico and later into other parts of the Americas, including the territory that became New Mexico. For unknown reasons, crypto-Judaism in America seems to have persisted in stronger forms than in Spain, although evidence suggests that it may have persisted equally strongly in the mountainous regions of Portugal, particularly around the town of Belmonte.

New Mexico manifestations

In New Mexico, crypto-Judaism was expressed in diverse ways. In the larger cities, particularly those that had a strong religious and military presence in colonial times, crypto-Jews did not maintain communal structures. Only a small set of families, who intermarried, shared the tradition. Religious practices rarely moved outside the private space of the home, although a butcher might slaughter animals in a traditional way. My interviews suggest that one butcher in Albuquerque, Don Siverio Gomez, kept kosher meat away from pork and removed the blood.

The most common practices mentioned by crypto-Jews from all parts of New Mexico, particularly the cities, relate to observance of the Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday. Home practices included variations on lighting candles on Friday evening at sundown, drinking of special wine — occasionally with a blessing in Spanish that was similar to that recited by traditional Jews — and customs related to cleaning, clothing and abstaining from work. Other individuals spoke of family practices associated with different festivals, particularly Passover. These practices included eating unleavened bread similar to matzo and the telling of stories related to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, often conflated with the story of exile from Spain.

Crypto-Jews in mountainous areas seem to have developed a more communal set of structures and practices. Many villages in Northern New Mexico were illegal settlements, not sanctioned by authorities; they were remote from both religious and military colonial powers. This remoteness allowed these communities to develop unique practices and traditions, a strong communal identity and a degree of freedom to practice openly. Many interviews of individuals from this region suggest that crypto-Judaism was an open secret, well-known to the wider community. This view was never expressed in interviews with individuals from the larger centers of colonial power.

Many individuals from the mountains speak of ritual practices that brought the crypto-Jewish community together. These practices centered on life-cycle events — birth, marriage and death. They also included some celebration of festivals. As in the cities, Passover is the holiday most often mentioned. Rituals surrounding birth are some of the most indicative of crypto-Jewish culture. Since all crypto-Jews were publically Christian — specifically Catholic in Northern New Mexico — babies needed to be baptized soon after birth. To forgo this would be a public repudiation of the Catholic faith. But soon after the church baptism, crypto-Jewish children would be taken to another location, where they were ritually washed with water or perfume. This practice was seen as washing off the baptism and emphasizing the Jewish origins of the baby.

Stories are both an important mechanism of cultural transmission and a way of illustrating the complexity of crypto-Jewish identity. One family tradition, related by a friend in Albuquerque, serves as illustration. 

He told me, “When my great-grandmother Isabelle was born, her family lived in the mountains. There was no church nearby, and they needed to come down to Santa Fe to get the baby baptized. On the way down, the wagon hit a bump and the baby flew from the wagon to the side of the road, but nobody noticed. They got to the church and could not find the baby. They had come so far, so the priest put her in the book anyway. They started back, and there on the side of the road was my great-grandmother, as happy as could be. So they went home.”

This memory highlights the conflict between the Jewish and Christian aspects of the family’s identity. On the one hand, to be good Catholics, a family had to have a baby baptized, and indeed Isabelle’s name is in the baptismal register. On the other hand, to be a good Jew, one should not be baptized. In this story, the conflict is resolved by a trick.

A whispered tradition

It might be assumed from such stories and from the popular depiction of crypto-Judaism that most crypto-Jews are aware of their identity and have practices and rituals that are well understood. This is far from the case. Crypto-Jewish identity is very complex. Most crypto-Jews are only vaguely aware of their Jewish heritage. For some it is merely a whispered tradition — “Somos Judíos” — with little additional content or meaning. For many others it emerges from an attempt to understand strange practices that make them different from their neighbors. Only a small minority have a strong familial tradition with a wide range of practices and beliefs.

The practices and rituals also diverge. Not only did the religion change substantially in Spain, moving from a public to a private tradition, but it also became simplified and narrower due to the progressive loss of traditional knowledge. Many of the practices found today are shaped by these trends. But like all cultural traditions, crypto-Judaism continually changes and takes on new interpretations and practices. So some practices that have no historical Jewish connection have been given new meaning to fit into a hidden Jewish identity. Other practices, learned from neighbors or the Internet, stem from worldwide Jewish rituals and beliefs. And increasingly, some crypto-Jews have an affinity for Zionism, which has also impacted their self-understanding.

Despite the persistence of practices and identity, crypto-Judaism is largely a culture of memory — a culture of stories and narratives passed down between generations. Like all cultures of memory, it is increasingly impacted by internal and external cultural forces, which tend to pose challenges to its persistence. The impact of Hispanic identity, and even more the pervasiveness of American cultural tropes, prevents the whispered messages from being clearly heard and remembered. While some crypto-Jews struggle to maintain their culture, it is possible that in the next generation, crypto-Judaism will become a distant memory, lost in the mountains of New Mexico.

Seth Kunin is a professor and deputy vice chancellor at Curtin University in Australia. He previously worked for 30 years in Scotland and England. He spent more than 10 years doing research in New Mexico and has written widely about crypto-Judaism in New Mexico and the American Southwest.

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