15 September 2009

Crypto-Jews: Legacy of Secrecy

Forty-five years ago, my father told a story of a colleague in the Bonn embassy who’d taken a solo bicycle trip trough Spain. He had his route all carefully mapped out so he knew where he had to stop for the night on each leg of the trip. But on one segment, the road wasn’t as good as he’d anticipated, and he was much slower covering the distance between towns. He found himself in the countryside as night fell, so he rode up to a farmhouse and asked if he could spend the night. The farm family was more than gracious, and he shared their evening meal. Before the meal, he watched as the woman of the house and her daughter performed some apparent ritual in which they lit candles and mumbled some unintelligible words before the family sat down to eat. Realizing that it was Friday night, the traveler asked what the woman was saying. She admitted that she had no idea what the words meant, but that her mother and grandmother had always performed the ritual on Fridays, so she continued the practice and even taught it to her daughter. The visitor recognized that the woman had been performing the Friday night Sabbath prayer and that the language had originally been Hebrew, but that the family were descendants of Marranos, secret Jews from the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and that they’d long since lost any understanding of the ritual or even any knowledge of their Jewish past. The family was Catholic, of course--this was the time of Franco when all other religions were outlawed--so the visitor didn’t say anything, but he understood that he was in the home of the descendants of crypto-Jews whose real heritage had been lost to history. What was so strange wasn't that they were descendants of Marranos--there have to be thousands of those in Spain and Portugal today--but that they retained that ritual over all those centuries, even though they no longer had any notion of what it meant.

Somewhere around 1990 some historians began discovering that in the area of New Mexico, what used to be the northern provinces of New Spain when the Spanish colonized that territory in the 16th century, are scores, even hundreds of families who are descended from Marranos who came to the New World with the Conquistadors, fleeing the Inquisition on the Iberian Peninsula. Over the intervening four centuries, the Jewish histories of those families has been lost to the descendants who not only are no longer Jewish, but often don’t even know that their forebears used to be Jewish. This lost past is the legacy of secrecy.

Marranos, for those who need the refresher, were Jews in Spain and Portugal who overtly converted to Christianity to escape harm during the Spanish Inquisition while secretly maintaining their Jewish faith and practices. The Pope established the Inquisition between the 5th and 15th centuries to root out heretics and non-believers, especially Muslims (Moors) and Jews. It is estimated that by the end of the 14th century about 100,000 Jews had become conversos, or Marranos, although most Jews openly adhered to their faith even at the risk of expulsion. Some conversos fully accepted Christianity, but most practiced Judaism in secret, while others waited only for an opportunity to throw off their Christian disguise. Many conversos rose to positions of great prominence and even married into noble and wealthy Spanish families. Prosperity, however, didn’t indemnify the New Christians, as they were called by those born Catholic, from persecution and discrimination. The Old Christians were constantly looking for signs of secret adherence to Judaism: avoiding pork, lighting candles on Friday, observing the Sabbath on Saturday, wearing yarmulkes or prayer shawls under street clothes, allowing children to play with dreidel-like four-sided tops.

The Marranos suffered greatly at the hands of the Inquisition. Those perceived to be falling back to Judaism were severely punished or even burned at the stake. Marranos were often regarded with suspicion and hostility by the Christian population and were often victims of riots and massacres. Many Marranos left Iberia and openly resumed Judaism when they settled in countries beyond the reach of the Pope and the Inquisitor such as Holland and the New World. The first Jews to arrive in New York (then still New Amsterdam) 355 years ago were Spanish and Portuguese Jews from Brazil who’d originally fled the Inquisition in Iberia only to have it catch up to them in America after a few years. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza, while not himself a crypto-Jew, was the son of Marranos who resettled in Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition.

Discussions of Marranos (the name comes from the Spanish word for ‘pig’ or ‘swine,’ and has the connotation of filth, just as the English words do, when applied to people) include other words which, while not strictly interchangeable, can refer to related figures and are often used to mean the same thing. (Muslim converts were called Moriscos, meaning ‘like a Moor.’) First, the Spanish and Portuguese called the forced converts to Christianity conversos, which could be used to indicate both Jews and others, mostly Muslims, who were forced to convert as well. In its use by Spanish Christians it was not a complimentary or even neutral term. Another phrase was cristianos nuevos (or, in Portuguese, cristãos novos), or New Christians, which was also not a welcoming descriptive, used to distinguish the converts from the Old Christians who considered themselves superior to the conversos. Marrano has become a term used among Jews, though it wasn’t originally, but another phrase Jews themselves use is crypto-Jew, which designates a Jew who secretly practices Judaism while outwardly appearing to be converted to another faith. (While the other religion is usually Christianity, it isn’t always. Crypto-Judaism has also been practiced in Muslim countries where the observance of the Jewish faith is forbidden. A form of crypto-Judaism was also common in the former communist countries where all religious practices were suppressed.) The term can also refer to someone descended from secret Jews who still maintains some Jewish traditions in private--even though she may not actually know their significance, like the wife of the farmer in my father’s story. Used by non-Jews, the phrase can have anti-Semitic implications. Finally, there is anusim, Hebrew for ‘forced ones.’ This word is used to designate any Jews (the singular is, infelicitously, anús) who’ve been forced to abandon Judaism against their wills. (This expression is distinguished from meshumad, which means a person who’s voluntarily abandoned Judaism. This is similar to apikoros, Hebrew for ‘apostate,’ which is a Jew who’s abandoned religion altogether, either in favor of atheism or agnosticism, or simply in preference for non-practice or non-observance. What some Jews consider apikorsim may be merely practitioners of a less rigid form of Judaism or just secularized Jews.)

There’s one more set of terms that you might encounter in this history. Most Jews will know the distinctions, but others may not. After the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine in the 6th century B.C.E., the people spread over the known world; this was the Diaspora, the dispersion. Most Jews in the United States and North America, descended from Central and Eastern European ancestors, are Ashkenazim. The word comes from the medieval Hebrew name for what we now call Germany, but it refers to Jews not only from that country but the Slavic lands, Hungary, France, and even Italy. All those German and Slavic names that we associate with Jews are Ashkenazi names, many having been adjusted from Hebrew to more indigenous-sounding forms. Thus Levy might become Loewe in Germany or Levsky in Russia (both names derived from the words for ‘lion’). The traditions, cuisine, and language of the Ashkenazi Jews are distinctive to that group, influenced by the German and Slavic cultures within which the Ashkenazi Jews lived. Yiddish, for instance, is derived from medieval German with elements of Hebrew (whose alphabet the language uses), Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Polish.

The Jews from Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and North Africa are Sephardim (from the word that in modern Hebrew is the name for Spain). The religious practices are quite different from those of the Ashkenazim, though the religious tenets are the same. Most strikingly, the configuration of the synagogues of the two groups is dissimilar, the Sephardic shul resembling an arena stage, with the bimah (more accurately, tebah among Sephardim) in the center, and the Ashkenazi shul resembling a proscenium theater, the bimah at one end with the congregation arced out in front of it. The foods, including the Seder meal, of Sephardim is markedly different from that which we know as “Jewish food” in the United States and Western Europe, and the lingua franca of Sephardic Jews is Ladino, which bears the same relationship to Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, and Arabic that Yiddish does with German, Russian, and Polish. Sephardic names are outwardly Spanish or Portuguese for the most part; some well-known Sephardim include philosophers Moses Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon), Baruch Spinoza, and Jacques Derrida; statesmen Benjamin Disraeli and Pierre Mendès-France; poet Emma Lazarus, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo; painter Amadeo Modigliani; actor Hank Azaria; and pop singer Neil Sedaka. The Jews of the Inquisition, the Marranos, were largely Sephardim.

Mizrahim are Jews from the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. The name, which derives from the Hebrew word for ‘easterners,’ refers today, especially in Israel, to Jews from Muslim-majority lands, especially Arabic countries and Iran. Also called Oriental Jews, their traditions are similar, even identical to those of the Sephardim, but Mizrahim speak many different Judaic languages based on Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, or the other native tongues of the regions in which they live. Like Yiddish and Ladino, these indigenous dialects are written in Hebrew letters and adapted some Hebrew and even Aramaic words and expressions. Prominent Mizrahim include clothing designer Isaac Mizrahi, advertising mogul and art collector Charles Saatchi, pop singer Paula Abdul, actor Chris Kattan, martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, and filmmaker Claude Lelouch. Some Marranos were Mizrahim--those Jews who came to Spain with the Moors, whose acceptance of Jews was far more tolerant than the European Christians’.

It doesn’t make sense to summarize a history of the Inquisition here--it would simply be too long and much of it isn’t directly pertinent. Suffice it to say that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile and Aragon gave Spanish Jews a choice: either convert to Catholicism or be expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The Edict of Expulsion (sometimes called the Alhambra decree) was issued on 31 March 1492 and gave non-Christians until 31 July to decide. (Columbus started his voyage on 3 August, and the Battle of Granada, which resulted in the final defeat of the Moors in Spain, was fought from 24 April 1491 to 2 January 1492.) Many Jews simply stayed and faced the Inquisition as secret Jews; but many more fled, of course. Of those who fled, many went to the New World, including New Spain, the territory that became Mexico, Central America, California, and the southwestern United States. (Spain occupied Portugal in 1527, bringing the Inquisition with it.) By the mid-16th century, Jews began arriving in Mexico City and, as the Inquisition hadn’t reached New Spain yet, some even reconverted to Judaism. In 1571, however, the Inquisition spread to New Spain and the local authorities provided names of crypto-Jews as well as any New Christians whose behavior was suspicious or insufficiently Catholic in the eyes of their neighbors. Who carried matzoh under his hat, or perhaps a bit of tortilla instead? Who was quick to wash off a newly-baptized baby in water or perfume? Did someone turn the mirrors to the wall after a death in the house? Who had their sons quietly circumcised or incised a slit in the foreskin as a symbol? Arrest by the Inquisition could mean death at the stake. Having already fled across the Atlantic, the conversos pulled up stakes again and moved farther north into the frontiers of New Spain. They resettled in what became northern New Mexico, keeping their heritage hidden even after the United States took control of the territory in 1848, following the Mexican-American War. (The Edict of Expulsion wouldn’t be formally repealed in Spain until 16 December 1968.) In fact, few, if any, of these crypto-Jews revealed their religious backgrounds until the last third of the 20th century. By this time, of course, the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren knew little of their Jewishness because no one spoke of it openly, not even among family, not for 13 generations (that would be 10 “greats”).

But some of the conversos’ New Mexican descendants began to feel uneasy in the later years of the 20th century. Some attest to a sense of not belonging, or strangeness. Some began to wonder about the odd bits of behavior and family lore they observed and discovered little by little. There were Chanukah menorahs stashed away in attics. Some women observed odd rituals on Friday night before dinner and men refused to work on Saturdays. Some noticed that members of the family wouldn’t eat pork or hung freshly slaughtered meat to drain the blood. Some family gravestones were marked with both a cross and a six-pointed star like the Mogen David and even bore Hebrew inscriptions. In some cases, dying elderly relatives made deathbed statements that the family were really “Israelites” or “Sepharditos,” but no one else would address the utterances. These tales reached historians, genealogists, and occasionally clergy in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some of the people who felt there was something missing in their family histories had DNA tests conducted and found that they shared a chromosome with the clan of Cohanim, the traditional priests of ancient Judea. One DNA lab estimates that 10-15% of the men in the region who were tested (and I don’t know how large the sample was for this conclusion) had a gene that traced back to the Middle East. Of course, even if that’s accurate it’s not terribly conclusive with respect to being a descendant of Marranos since a few who have this gene are African Muslims and Spanish settlers could just as easily have been descended from an intermarriage with a Moor; the Moors occupied parts of Spain for 700 years until the Inquisition drove them out as well. Further, even if the gene does indicate a Jewish past, which is apparently statistically likely, many Jews converted sincerely and voluntarily over the centuries of the Diaspora, and intermarriage, while less common among Cohanim, was not unheard of both before and after the Inquisition. Finally, the DNA could have been inherited from a more recent intermarriage with a meshumad after the family came to America.

(One more word, one that describes the inhabitants of the American Southwest settlers, is significant. Many descendants of the Spanish settlers choose to call themselves Hispanos, they explain, since they feel it distinguishes them from Chicanos, which means specifically Mexicans and connotes the mixed ethnicities that that implies. Latino is much too broad, covering all Americans of Latin heritage regardless of country of origin, from France to Portugal to Italy. Hispanic, arguably the most commonly used descriptor for people of Spanish background, is a linguistic term, referring to the language people speak rather than where they came from. The New Mexicans whose ancestors were Marranos and other Spanish settlers want to stress their European roots, believing they trace their heritage back to medieval Spain.)

Some of the questionable actions can be written off as misinterpretations or coincidence. But too much of it’s been revealed by too many unrelated families, and the stories started circulating and the questions asked before any historians or genealogists began writing about the phenomenon. In fact, from what I’ve read on the subject, the New Mexican Hispanos actually started the whole search themselves, rather than picking up on an academic research project begun by some professors and academics. But even if you do dismiss some of the revealing anecdotes as self-delusions or misreadings, there’s still enough left to be thought-provoking. The logic is unassailable, too: we know that some Marranos came to America with the colonists and that the Inquisition in Mexico probably drove them north. It’s hard not to believe that some few would retain the outer trappings of their lost heritage like that farm family in Spain half a century ago. Why this would all surface so precipitously all at once in the ‘80s and ‘90s is a question, and why so many of the New Mexico crypto-Jews seem to have embraced, even sought a revival of their Jewishness, is another. “When I found out, it was like coming home for me,” said one searcher. (Not all of them have felt this way, of course. Some who learned of this hidden heritage have asked that it not be mentioned again.) One hidden Jew who found himself wondering about his family history is a Catholic priest and now celebrates Mass wearing a Star of David around his neck. His parish has accepted his spiritual dichotomy; as one parishioner said, “He has taken us back to our roots.” Several crypto-Jews have taken up the study of Judaism and the history of Spanish Jewry, saying that the revelations have enriched their family and their lives. Like the priest, some of the searchers have kept one foot in each faith, finding a richness in the confluence, but some have converted wholly to Judaism. One recently-revealed Jewish Hispano has begun attending services at an Orthodox synagogue.

The journey hasn’t always been simple or easy, as you might imagine. Some of the Marrano descendants had known, or at least suspected, for years that there was a Jewish connection in the family history. No one spoke of it openly, though in some families a child might be taken off to some field or mountainside and told, “We are Jews,” never to hear the matter discussed again. After affirming the truth, however, some searchers, sharing their discovery with relatives, are being told, “Of course we are Jews. We’ve always known that.” But other families never told their children, and the truth was lost over the generations. Still, those who suspected a Jewish connection might be hidden have confirmed their guesses with the help of genealogists, historians, and rabbis. Others have been surprised to learn of their hidden heritage, some quite by accident as they tried to trace their family trees past the arrival in New Mexico. (Curiously, some of the heirs to crypto-Jewry have learned that they are related to other Hispanos who are rediscovering their family backgrounds.)

The difficulty in coping with such a profound revelation has, unfortunately, been compounded in some cases by the established Jewish community. Many of the newly-revealed Jews have reached out to synagogues, rabbis, and Jewish centers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, trying to learn whatever they can about their history and their previously hidden roots. But because there’s almost no documentation to support the Marranos’ claims to Jewish heritage, some congregations, especially the Orthodox ones, have resisted welcoming these newcomers into their circles, unless they convert. Reformed and Conservative congregations have been more accepting, but they, too, acknowledge that provenance is questionable and rare. Nonetheless, some of the former conversos have willingly reconverted to remove any doubt.

As for the evidence of the crypto-Jewish practices that raised the suspicions of the searchers in the first place, some observers reject that it is in the least conclusive. The behavior doesn’t really resemble established Jewish practice, they insist. It’s idiosyncratic and individualistic. Supporters argue, however, that the differences are reasonable considering the circumstances. For 500 years, these former Jews have lived in secrecy and fear. As a legacy of that secrecy, of course their private rituals would take on individual characteristics. As scholars have pointed out, the Marranos have suffered the loss of three key aspects of cultural continuity: they no longer had contact with the larger Jewish community as a model and arbitrator; they were denied organized worship with co-religionists; and they were disconnected from the literary tradition of Judaism. Without such anchors, theorists observe, the Jewish practices of the Marranos would necessarily become idiosyncratic. Besides, they add, all societies evolve and change as they absorb the influences of the surrounding cultures, and this is more true of minority cultures. It’s reasonable to expect that the Marranos would take on some of the coloration of the dominant Christian society and even the Native American culture in the midst of which they were living. (In the 1980s, a similar objection was raised about the Falashas when they were in danger from the Ethiopian government and Israel proposed to provide haven. Their Judaism didn’t resemble that of the mainstream Jewry of either the Ashkenazim or the Sephardim, and some questioned that they were really Jews at all. Nonetheless, they were ultimately recognized as Jews and between 1984 and 1991, all the Falashas, nearly 30,000 people, were airlifted to safety in Israel.)

The analogy that comes to my mind is the development of what we call Pennsylvania Dutch, the language spoken by the American colonists from Germany in the 18th century. Cut off from the mother tongue, the emigrants had to develop the language on their own as new concepts and inventions came into being. With no word for railroad when the settlers arrived in America, when the new form of transportation was developed, the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers had to devise their own word for this new phenomenon. The Hochdeutsch word for railroad is Eisenbahn (literally, ‘iron road’); the Pennsylvania Dutch word is Riggelweg, which might be translated as ‘regular way,’ as in ‘standard, unwavering’ (Hochdeutsch: Regel, ‘rule’). (An even stranger coinage came many decades later, when TV was invented. In Hochdeutsch, the word is Fernseh, a kind of translation of the Greco-Latin etymology of the English word: ‘far’ + ‘sight.’ In Pennsylvania Dutch, the word is Guckbox, from the Hochdeutsch gucken, ‘to look,’ + ‘box,’ the English word. I’m not sure I’ve spelled any of the Pennsylvania Dutch words correctly, by the way.) Just as German needs the connection to the mother tongue to remain standard--the same development occurred in Canadian French, though to a lesser degree--so would “Jewish practice” need contact with the greater Jewish community. As I’ve already noted, the Sephardic tradition is very different from Ashkenazi practice, though both are mainstream Judaism.

Some of these evolved practices have even enlivened the traditional customs. In the Southwest, some of the Hispano families use tortillas instead of matzoh for unleavened bread at Passover, for instance. At the Seder, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is often conflated with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, with Queen Isabella appearing as an avatar of Pharaoh. At Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Hispanos associate the little booths, the succah, with both the shelters the Jews built in the wilderness and the crude huts their 16th-century ancestors built as they fled north from Mexico to New Mexico. To me, these all seem like wonderful palimpsests, hardly travesties or heresies.

All of this is truly fascinating--and not a little gratifying--to me. There are still pockets in this country, the most open society in the world, where anti-Semitism is condoned. Even among present-day crypto-Jewry there is a palpable sense of enduring trepidation. While for some, the floodgates have opened as relatives avidly tell stories and anecdotes of family lore, others still find silence and continued secrecy and apprehension. Some family members have encouraged the discovery and exploration, whereas others have resisted and persist in suppressing the past to protect their status in the church and community. There are even a few family members who want to retaliate against those who return to Judaism--a small but real threat, generating residual fear and distrust that echoes the 15th century, a legacy of the secrecy from the Inquisition. Said one rabbi who has worked with the former Marranos, "They are afraid of their own cousins."

The secret and unexplained behavior, however, is much more intriguing to me than the history or the science. How does a family continue to perform rituals they don’t understand for 500 years? That’s 17 generations removed from the origins in Spain. It’s probably different for modern Hispanos in New Mexico who can have read about Marranos and the Spanish Inquisition in school, but think of that peasant farm family in Spain in the 1950’s or ‘60s. They obviously had no idea what was happening, but the woman followed a tradition handed down to her by her mother and grandmother and unquestioningly passed it along to her own daughter. Doubtlessly, that family would have been aghast if they discovered what their actions meant. Surely the same circumstances held for the descendants of the Hispano settlers of New Mexico in the 17th or 18th centuries when they had lost the contact with other Jews but hadn’t acquired the sophistication to reinterpret their own actions. It doesn’t sound possible over all that time--and yet, it happened. Whole communities, unbeknownst to one another, followed customs and engaged in practices they didn’t understand for centuries and passed them on to their children and grandchildren, preserving, against all logic, a tradition that was meant to die out. But it didn’t. It persisted. Even among the Hispano crypto-Jews who knew what the rituals and behavior meant, it’s hardly believable that they would continue. They still thought of themselves as Catholics, and yet they lit Friday night candles and said Hebrew prayers even as they went to Mass on Sundays. The relics of the family’s Marrano past were preserved, even if no one ever took them out and showed them to the children. They kept them. Who does that? Why? Maybe it’s what the Stage Manager in Our Town says: “Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal.” I’m not enough of a philosopher or a mystic to try to figure that out, but something sure made those folks, who mostly just wanted to be good Catholics, keep all those remnants of a lost and hidden heritage, like spiritual packrats. Something kept them all connected to those remnants of Jewishness in the face of Torquemada and his progeny. Why the dam burst in the 1980s like that, I have no idea, but that little pocket of New Mexico reached back half a millennium and wrenched forth some lost history, and maybe we’re all richer for it. The legacy of secrecy has been exposed to the light. What do I know? It’s like my one and only experience with the aurora borealis: it’s something that shouldn’t exist because it defies reason. But there it is nonetheless. Go know, right?


  1. When visting our family in the early 60's, the book writing genealogist had a terrible time taking down the family history at our house, because my grandfather would simply not shut up. As Mom exasperatedly told me later, they were absolutely determined to shoehorn "our" Frinks into "their" Frinks, otherwise their side would lose my grandfather's cousin, THE greatest character actor of the 20th century (Joseph Cotton), and a bunch of state senators. So the writer artfully wove two Frink lines together with a generous dollop of pure fiction, Mom insisted up until her death. When in doubt, make up a sea captain. Thus "The Southern Frinks" were born.

    My Grandfather (b. 1892), who was apparently correct about the Frinks being part Black, had a far different origin story for our Southern Branch of the family. According to him the Frinks were originally "Jews who handled fish guts on the shores of the Bosporus, and we were all the descendants of Pinkus Frinkus who came to the US because the fish gut trade failed"...and the longer he went on the pinker the poor historian got!

    That all sounds nuts, until you look at the hundreds of Frinks in Romania, and consider that the "fish guts" in question may refer to isinglass -to quote from Wikipedia:

    "Isinglass was originally made exclusively from sturgeon, especially Beluga sturgeon, until the 1795 invention by William Murdoch of a cheap substitute using cod*. This was extensively used in Britain in place of Russian isinglass. The bladders, once removed from the fish, processed and dried, are formed into various shapes for use."

    *That invention ruined the Isinglass trade in Eastern Europe and put a lot of people out of business, a common cause of immigration.

    Khazars have long been linked with Isinglass production according to The Jews of Khazaria by Kevin Alan Brook

    The name "Pinkus Frinkus" was popular shows up in records here.

    Does the blood of the Jewish fish gut handler Pinkus Frinkus run in the veins of The Southern Frinks? A question no one else has been willing to ask, because no one can spell it (Frink in joke).

    1. This is all very interesting, although I'm not sure how it relates to the secret Jews among the Spanish colonists who came to America with the Conquistadors. I imagine there are lots of families, especially in the United States and North America, with hidden family backgrounds, lost when they immigrated or discarded in order to start over. Many immigrants "lost" their family names, too, either because the immigration officials couldn't spell them or because the new arrivals wanted to "Americanize" and assimilate into their new society.

      By the way, Joseph "Cotton" is a reggae singer. The character actor of film fame, a frequent collaborator with Orson Welles, was Joseph "Cotten." I assume that's whom you meant.


  2. Spell check often transforms the my grandfather's first cousin into the singer. The fact that these stories *are* preserved, despite the pressure of the bible belt, shows the persistence of belief and the tenacity cultural identity. Christmas, time for...fried foods!

    1. Thank you for the update and the comments.