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The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

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Norma Libman, left, and Sonia Loya

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

The story of the conversos — those Spanish Jews forced to convert to Catholicism, as well as their descendants — is a tangled and complicated web of fear, loyalty, and tradition. Most conversos know nothing of their Jewish heritage. But some, crypto-Jews, “secretly and knowingly practice Judaism while outwardly practicing Christianity,” instructor Norma Libman said. A journalist, educator, and author, Ms. Libman contends that about 5 percent of crypto-Jews “are very conscious of their Jewish roots.”

The instructor, who has interviewed and profiled dozens of conversos, noted that “the vast majority” have no interest in being Jewish. Some, however, do choose to return to Judaism.

Susan Amsterdam of Ridgewood said that before this program, she had not realized the enormous impact the Inquisition had made on the Jewish landscape.

“I knew about the expulsion of Jews from Spain, of course, and I knew they emigrated to countries not under Spain’s control,” she said. Still, “in my mind, the expulsion was simply the most dramatic example — before the Holocaust — of the persecutions Jews had endured and would continue to endure all over Europe.”

In fact, the Alhambra Decree of 1492, which forced Spain’s Jewish citizens to convert to Christianity or leave the country, affected a large number of people. While scholars disagree about how many Jews left Spain as a result of the decree, the number is known to be well over 100,000. A smaller number of Jews — but still in the tens of thousands — chose to convert.

Ms. Amsterdam said she was surprised to learn that “40 percent of the Spanish conquistadores had Jewish roots,” information that can be verified by an examination of inquisitors’ records. And while conversos and crypto-Jews can be found all over the world — for example, in Brazil, Portugal, India, Africa, and China — “I was most surprised by the existence of conversos and crypto-Jews in contemporary America.”

“I’m amazed that any acknowledgement of Jewish heritage was maintained beyond three generations after the Inquisition by conversos, especially in families where only one or two relatives in each generation knew the secret of their Jewish heritage,” she said. “Under those conditions, I would think the secret would be lost. Also, when the Inquisition came to Mexico in 1642, there would be even less reason to maintain any Jewish ties.”

Those Jewish ties varied from family to family, as did the family’s willingness to discuss it, even with other family members. Generally, Ms. Libman said, crypto-Jewish families kept their Jewishness a secret. Sometimes one child was told the secret, and he or she then told one child in the next generation.

The result, Ms. Amsterdam said “was that many family members found themselves practicing ‘Jewish’ rituals without knowing why, and not even knowing these practices were Jewish — for example, lighting candles on Friday evening, observing a non-Christian fast day or day of atonement, or not eating pork products. Sometimes a mezuzah was hidden in a crucifix and hung on a wall or doorway. Other mezuzahs were hung on a doorpost and hidden under coats of plaster. Some of these people knew they were Jewish, and others just thought their families had odd traditions.”

Other crypto-Jews kept pet pigs or even became priests or caretakers of Christian cemeteries to hide their Jewishness more thoroughly. It is also possible that having relatives in these positions may not only have indicated piety, but also might have provided sources of information and early warnings of impending danger.

Still another peculiar behavior was the tendency of some converso families to have preferred marriage partners for their children, generally singling out the children of other conversos. While the reason underlying these preferences was not made explicitly to their children — and probably not fully understood even by the parents — it created an extended group whose members referred to each other as “primos” — cousins.

“I’m not surprised that most conversos don’t pursue their Jewish roots,” Ms. Amsterdam said. “It isn’t relevant to their lives. They’re Catholic, and their families have been so for generations. Their Jewish ancestry is just an interesting footnote.”

“I kept asking myself why the crypto-Jews continued to keep their secret,” she continued. “I’m sure it was religious conviction at first, but as the generations unfolded, I think it was out of loyalty to family tradition. It was what made their family ‘special.’

“I can’t imagine being put in the position of keeping such a secret, but if it were important enough to me, I would do it too.”

Elizabeth Kessler of Cliffside Park, said she doesn’t expect today’s conversos to care about something that happened 500 years ago.

“Why tell anyone?” she asked. “Why antagonize anybody? Growing up in the Catholic church, conversos may have a negative attitude toward Jews. They don’t really know what it means, and they don’t want to be labeled. They don’t want to be ostracized by the community at large.”

Ms. Kessler noted that speaker Sonya Loya — who grew up in a practicing Catholic home but eventually discovered that she hailed from crypto-Jews and now is training to be a rabbi — told the group her formal conversion back to Judaism has spurred hostility in her home community.

“People don’t talk to her,” Ms. Kessler said. In small towns, “there are limitations imposed by society for people who haven’t traveled beyond it. It keeps them in place. I don’t think they have the same freedom they would have in a city. Also, they may not feel strongly enough about it to change.”

Ms. Kessler said she believes that “we grow up with our family’s religion and belief system, whatever it happens to be. If someone’s life is content and happy, why would they want to do anything about it? But if they’re unhappy or searching for something, this is one route to pursue. Why stir the pot for no reason?”

She is not surprised that converso parents who know about their Jewish heritage stonewall when asked questions by children who may suspect that they’re keeping a secret, whether about a family ritual or an object found in the house.

Even if those children “get the vibe that the answers don’t pass muster,” whether they pursue it further will depend on their frame of mind, she said.

Joan and Richard Klein of Tenafly also took the Road Scholar trip.

Recalling a story she heard from a speaker, Ms. Klein said that “in one of our classes, a converso who had returned to Judaism told us of her uncle, who served in World War II and was one of the soldiers who liberated the camps. When he returned home in 1945, he said to his mother, ‘It’s still not safe to be a Jew.’”

Guessing that she, too, could have kept her heritage a secret if it had been absolutely necessary, Ms. Klein said, “I think many conversos continue to believe that they have no choice.

“Who knows? They may be right.”

Nevertheless, she said, “I don’t see how you can keep a secret for 500 years without family members having a sense that something is going on, whether or not they know just what it is.” She noted “the terrible burden it must have put on those who were told and had to keep it to themselves. Imagine carrying this information in your heart and not being able to share it with those who are closest to you and whom you most love.”

On the issue of religious identity, Ms. Klein said, “My grandmother used to talk of a Jewish ‘neshama’ — a Jewish soul. It’s not very scientific, but perhaps those who have it embrace Judaism to achieve a fulfillment that had always eluded them.

If I learned I had a different heritage, I would explore it with great interest, but not as a replacement for my Judaism, however I came to acquire it.”

Richard Klein thinks he could not have kept such a secret. “Conversos seem to continually expect another Inquisition,” he said. “Their continued secrecy in modern times amazes me.”

He said that he was struck by some conversos’ custom of making only one third of the sign of the cross. While they may not have known the reason, it reflected their intention of worshipping only God, the Father — not the son, and not the holy ghost.

The conversos who return to Judaism “certainly have unique values, experiences, and customs that can only contribute to modern Judaism,” he said. “They should be welcomed into the mainstream.” That would not be risk-free, though, he noted — it “could increase both interfaith dialogue and interfaith tension.”

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