Jews in the New World

An article in The Atlantic caught my attention. We’re going ’round again with conversos and crypto-Jews, and once again the fantasy is just as stronger or stronger than the proved reality.

In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella ordered all Jews in Spain to convert to Catholicism or leave the kingdom. Those who converted became known as conversos. Some of them continued to practice Judaism in secret, and even if they didn’t, they were often suspected of it. The functional result of this suspicion was that many conversos took pains to hide their Jewish ancestry.

Ferdinand and Isabella commissioned the first voyage of Christopher Columbus the same year they expelled the Jews. Two grand narratives in the same year. The temptation to link them is almost irresistible.

The popular story is that Columbus himself was a Jew looking for new homeland, and the American Southwest is full of crypto-Jews who are descendants of conversos driven further and further north as the territorial government solidified its hold.

Here in Colorado we have a native Hispano population that goes back to the early days, before the Anglo-American conquest. One of my step-mothers belonged to such a family. It’s not uncommon.

What we’ve seen just in the course of my lifetime is that Hispanos throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas increasingly claim Jewish ancestry. In some circles the stories have reached a saturation point where no one doubts them anymore. They are taken at face value. In fact, there’s now a special term for them — the anusim, the one who were forced.

The modern fashion for finding crypto-Jews in the American Southwest seems to have started with Stanley Hordes in the mid-1980s. As New Mexico State Historian he heard stories that could be broadly interpreted as pointing to Jewish customs. He became convinced there was a bigger story there. After he left his job he began promoting the idea that conversos made their way to the New World, where they were able to practice Judaism in secret for 400 years. (Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan, “Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s “Hidden Jews” in The Atlantic (Dec. 2000)).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the story exploded in popularity. Now there’s even a Society for Crypto-Jewish Studies. But were they really crypto-Jews? There’s a great deal of doubt. Certainly, the Inquisition was looking for crypto-Jews. About 100 were executed in Mexico, and many more were investigated, including a governor of New Mexico.

Many experts now believe Hordes misinterpreted the stories he was hearing. What he thought were survivals of Judaism might have come instead from Catholic converts to Protestant churches that emphasize Jewish practices. The most popular of these seems to have been the Seventh-Day Adventists, who observe the Sabbath on Saturday, practice Jewish dietary restrictions, celebrate certain Jewish holy days.

To be continued…

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