Conversos and Crypto-Jews in the Popular Press:
By Norma Libman
For almost three decades the story of the Conversos and Crypto-Jews of the
American Southwest has been big news in the popular press. Everyone from
the New York Times to Hadassah Magazine to the Forward has had a go at it
on more than one occasion. Over the years the focus has shifted from oral
tradition - tales of ancestors who survived the Inquisition in Spain by
converting to Catholicism while maintaining Jewish practice in secret - to
genealogy studies, and then to DNA research. The tones taken by the various
authors have included everything from awestruck to playful to snide derision.
The movement from serious studies of "marranos" (a word no longer
acceptable because of its insulting connotation) by such historians as Cecil
Roth to more accessible versions of the story occurred in large part because of
the appearance of Dr. Stanley Hordes on the scene. In 1981 Hordes took the
position of state historian of New Mexico. Because he had done his doctoral
dissertation on the Inquisition in Mexico City, people started to come to him
with tales of a survival of Jewish practice in New Mexico and he began to
study the phenomenon. When the New York Times ran some stories on the
subject other publications began to take an interest.
Two early New York Times articles ("Scholars and Descendants Uncover
Hidden Legacy of Jews in Southwest," Nov. 11, 1990 and "After 500 Years,
Discovering Jewish Ties That Bind," Nov. 29, 1992) are by Kathleen Teltsch. In
both she includes brief summaries of the history of the Conversos and singles
out some individuals to interview concerning their families' stories. She quotes
Hordes in both articles and Rabbi Isaac Celnik, then Rabbi of B'nai Israel in
Albuquerque, in the earlier one. Also in the first article, she quotes Rabbi Marc
Angel, of Shearith Israel in New York, and describes some of his objections at
that time to accepting Conversos as Jews. By the second article there is no
mention of naysayers.
In an Oct. 29, 2005 New York Times article ("Hispanics Uncovering Roots as
Inquisition's 'Hidden' Jews") by Simon Romero we see the changes that a
decade has brought to the study. For one thing, Romero includes
developments in the field of DNA studies and references Bennett Greenspan,
founder and chief executive of Family Tree DNA, on the work his company is
doing in helping "Hispanics interested in exploring the possibility of Jewish
On a disturbing note, however, one can also see in Romero's article hints that
he has read, and possibly taken as valid, material which appeared in the
December 2000 issue of Atlantic Monthly. This magazine published an article
("Mistaken Identity?: The Case of New Mexico's 'Hidden Jews'") by Barbara
Ferry and Debbie Nathan that was poorly edited and filled with inaccuracies.
It's hard to know where to begin in reviewing this particular article, possibly
the most inaccurate and distorted account of the Converso story ever to
appear in the popular press. The very first words set the tone by announcing
that the true explanation for the phenomenon is "nearly as improbable" as the
explanation that Conversos are descendants of Jews forced to convert to
Christianity during the Inquisition. For someone unfamiliar with the history of
the American Southwest the idea has now been planted that the accepted
explanation is "improbable" when, actually, the explanation the authors
support - that these practitioners were influenced by Seventh Day Adventists -
is impossible because Jewish behavior is documented in the area long before
the arrival of the Protestant sect. And the true explanation is supported by
historical documentation from Church and Inquisition records and is not the
least bit improbable.
On the first page of the article there is a picture of a mysterious-looking stone
object with some Hebrew letters. No caption identifies the source of the photo
but a reader unfamiliar with New Mexico would be drawn in by its dark quality
and hint of something sinister. It is, of course, nothing more than the
tetragrammaton carved above the doors of the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa
Fe, a symbol which has nothing whatever to do with the Converso story. This
is never explained in the article. It is one of many examples of attempts to
sensationalize and discredit the story.
Off to this poor start, the authors continue to misrepresent the facts of history
and the stories of the lives of the individuals who allowed themselves to be
interviewed. At the same time they glorify the flawed research of Judith
Neulander who - while making some valid points about not relying on the
possession of Jewish artifacts such as dreidels or mezuzahs as proof of a
Jewish past-is the unfortunate creator of the Seventh Day Adventist theory as
the explanation of Jewish practices among Christians in New Mexico.
In recent years some writers have taken a more serious approach by focusing
on the scientific angle: specifically, developments in DNA research. The
October 2008 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, for instance, ran an article by
Jeff Wheelwright entitled "The Secret of San Luis Valley." Wheelwright includes
a history of the Conversos and Crypto-Jews from the Inquisition to modern-
day New Mexico, but his focus is on the 185delAG mutation of the BRCA gene
in Jewish women, the mutation implicated in breast cancer, and its recent
discovery in surprising numbers of Hispanic women in Southern Colorado.
Until recently this mutation was thought to be associated with Ashkenazi
women only, but now it has been identified in women of Sephardic heritage,
"los judios" of San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado.
Talia Bloch takes this line of inquiry even further in her article "The Other
Jewish Genetic Diseases" in the August 28, 2009 issue of Forward. She
includes a comprehensive discussion of genetic diseases in Ashkenazi and
Sephardic Jews. In addition, the paper ran a second article by Bloch focusing
on Persian Jewish disorders, a two-page listing of Jewish genetic diseases with
comments on symptoms, testing and treatment for each one, and more
articles on Jewish genetic diseases by other authors.
Despite this seeming new serious approach and the scholarly interest in what
DNA research can bring to the Crypto-Jewish/Converso story, the old-style,
breathless, "guess what's happening out in the desert" type of story still
appears in major magazines. So we find in the December 2009 issue of
Harper's Magazine an article entitled "Shalom on the Range: In Search of the
American Crypto-Jew" by Theodore Ross.
Ross recounts his own scant Jewish history and says the "idea of hidden
Judaism in Santa Fe had the feel of a tall tale, of yetis and UFOs and Atlantis."
He judges the practices of Crypto-Jews - sweeping to the center of the room,
covering the mirrors after a funeral - as dubious because he has never heard
of them. While some of the people he encounters in his travels in New Mexico
are not genuine examples of Conversos, Ross adopts a tone which suggests
that none are. His approach, in the end, is not serious.
We do not have space here to examine every article written about Conversos
in the popular press. Most are respectful and accurate. Some are overly
romantic and excited in their approach, but the authors are well-meaning.
They are journalists, not historians or anthropologists or psychologists. They
give a brief history and some examples. They do not delve into the profound
trauma of living a double life, of keeping a family secret, of finding out late in
life that your family story is not what you thought it was. Nor are they
equipped by training to tackle such subjects. The highest praise goes to those
who do not trivialize the subject or attempt to make a joke at the expense of
those who live this story every day of their lives.
At last there is a body of serious scholarship accumulating that looks not only
at the history of this phenomenon but also at the impact it has on people's
lives and on our understanding of Jewish history. Scholars such as Stanley
Hordes, David Gitlitz, Seth Kunin, Janet Liebman Jacobs and others are where
we should be turning for answers to the many questions the Converso/Crypto-
Jewish story raises.
Norma Libman is a journalist and educator who has been doing research in
the field of Converso history and contemporary life for 16 years.
©Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No portion of this article may be
republished without the express written permission of the author
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