Latino New Mexicans See Hints of Jewish Past

Within weeks of assuming the job of New Mexico state historian, Stanley Hordes started receiving some odd visitors. They would enter his Santa Fe office, close the door — and gossip about their neighbors. “So-and-so lights candles on Friday nights,” they would whisper. “So-and-so doesn’t eat pork,” they would say.

Hordes wasn’t the first scholar who had ever heard such things. But as a curious new arrival from Louisiana, the young historian was intrigued. So Hordes began visiting rural villages to interview the viejitos, Hispanic old-timers whose families had lived in the state for generations, sometimes since the original Spanish settlers came up from Mexico. He was astounded by what they told him.

Though the people Hordes spoke with were clearly Catholic, they reported following an array of Jewish customs. They talked about leaving pebbles on cemetery headstones, lighting candles on Friday nights, abstaining from pork and circumcising male infants. When Hordes asked why they did such things, some said they were simply following family tradition. Others gave a more straightforward explanation. “Somos judios,” they said. “We are Jews.”

What was that supposed to mean? Their villages were built around old Catholic mission chapels, not synagogues. The Hebrew scrolls of the Torah were Greek to them. They didn’t really know anything about the Jewish faith, and yet, they called themselves Jews. Were they? People don’t just decide they’re Jewish for no reason. Cultural traditions and identities, no matter how tenuous, have to come from somewhere.

A quarter-century later, Hordes has a stirring explanation of how Judaism got to New Mexico. Like so many Jewish stories — the Exodus, David and Goliath, the Hanukkah story — it is an ancient and epic tale of triumph against overwhelming adversity. And like so many of those stories, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief.

In the spring of 1492, Jews in Spain were given two choices: convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Many left, scattering as far afield as Istanbul, London and Cairo. Many others simply abandoned their religion for Catholicism. But a few of those who converted did so only publicly, continuing to practice Judaism in secret. The Spanish Inquisition sought to identify and punish such false converts.

Modern scholars have found a few communities of so-called “crypto-Jews” that survived in both Iberia and the New World for centuries, hiding their true religious identity from their neighbors and the Catholic church. In his 2005 book “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico,” Hordes suggests that many crypto-Jews found their way to the northern frontier of the Spanish colonial empire, where evading the authority of both church and state was an easier proposition. There they continued to observe their religion behind locked doors, blending publicly into the monolithic Catholic culture and teaching their children that revealing their true identities could mean death by the Inquisition. “They were invisible,” Hordes said.

But the very same secrecy that protected Judaism in the Spanish Southwest eventually doomed it. The people had no synagogue, no Torah, no connection to global Jewish culture. They were immersed in a Catholic culture with its own rich traditions. By the 20th century, Hordes concludes, all that was left were a few suggestive customs and a vague sense among a few viejitos that somehow, they were Jewish.

For Sonya Loya, there’s nothing vague about it. She has always felt Jewish. Growing up Catholic in Ruidoso, N.M., Loya was intensely spiritual. But she never identified with Jesus or Christianity. “I never felt whatever I was supposed to feel when I was Catholic,” Loya said.

Loya began observing the Jewish sabbath, Shabbat, six years ago, about the same time that she learned about the secret Jewish past that was being uncovered by Hordes and other scholars. She was thrilled at the possibility that she might actually have Jewish heritage, that a faith her ancestors lost over centuries of struggle was inexplicably welling up inside her. “I believe that what drew me back home to who I am is my Jewish soul,” Loya said.

In 2004 she went to her parents, asking them to bless her conversion to Judaism but expecting the worst. Perplexed by their daughter’s rejection of Catholicism, they had often reacted badly to such pronouncements. But this time it was her turn to be perplexed. Not only did her father give his blessing, Loya said, but he revealed that he had known since childhood that he had Jewish ancestry. An uncle, returning from World War II, had seen the family name on a list of concentration camp inmates. “I’m still discovering a lot of these things from my own family,” she said.

Bill Sanchez always felt Jewish, too. But not that Jewish; he’s a Catholic priest.

Sanchez discovered his own Jewish roots after watching a television documentary on genetics. The show inspired him to have his own genes tested by a Houston-based company called Family Tree DNA. The company determined that he has a set of genetic markers on his Y chromosome that is also found in about 30 percent of Jewish men. The tests even indicated that Sanchez has a genetic signature that has been associated with the Cohanim, the priesthood that is said to go back to Moses’ brother Aaron.

Since then, Sanchez has embraced his Jewish heritage. He wears a Star of David around his neck on the same chain that holds his crucifix and keeps a menorah in his office at St. Edwin parish in Albuquerque. “We’re already Jewish. We don’t have to become Jews,” Sanchez said. “The spark within us, the Jewish people, cannot be extinguished.”

Like Hordes, folklorist Judith Neulander was fascinated by the story of the Southwestern crypto-Jews when she first encountered it as a graduate student in the early 1990s. An American Jew who grew up in Mexico City, she felt like she was the perfect person to write the definitive book on the subject. “I really in my heart wanted to curate the crypto-Judaic exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York,” said Neulander, who is now co-director of the Jewish Studies Program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Neulander went to New Mexico in the summer of 1992 and began doing interviews. At first she talked with people who were referred to her by Hordes or other researchers, and then with people she identified herself. Neulander heard accounts of grandfathers donning shawls before they prayed and grandmothers carefully draining every drop of blood from chickens after slaughtering them. But she grew increasingly uneasy, and then dismayed. People told her about how their parents or grandparents prayed to “Yahweh” — Hebrew for God. But Judaism forbids saying God’s name out loud.

They talked about playing as children with a four-sided top that resembled a dreidel. But dreidels first appeared among Central and Eastern European Jews well after 1492. How would the descendants of Spanish Jews who fled Europe during the Inquisition have known anything about them? “All of it just doesn’t really hold up when you examine it carefully,” Neulander said.

Aside from the cultural evidence, all Hordes had was a handful of prosecutions against suspected Jews in the records of the Mexican Inquisition and genealogical arguments linking individual New Mexicans back generations to pre-expulsion Spanish Jews.

Neulander wasn’t buying it. But if they weren’t Jewish, she still had to explain why so many people in the Southwest thought they were. In 1994, Neulander wrote a paper in the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review that offered an explanation. During the 1940s, an anthropologist named Raphael Patai had discovered a church outside Mexico City whose members considered themselves Jewish, even though they believed in Jesus and knew very little about Judaism. He concluded that the church must have been founded by evangelical Protestant missionaries from one of several small sects who considered themselves descendants of a lost tribe of Israel.

Though rare today, such Christian groups follow many Jewish traditions while believing in Jesus, and consider themselves the world’s only truly chosen people. “There were probably many more sects like this in the early part of the 20th century,” Neulander said. She can’t prove it. But Neulander believes Protestant evangelicals, possibly from a group that splintered off the Seventh-day Adventist church, inspired the belief in a Southwestern Jewish past less than a century ago.

Hordes dismisses her theory as outrageous. “Do you think they would have forgotten that they were Seventh-day Adventists?” he asked. The debate isn’t just academic. People like Loya and Sanchez are constructing their religious lives around the assumption that their ancestors were Jewish: “All of it is a process of returning back to who I am and what was taken away from me,” Loya said.

Though Judaism has always allowed for the conversion of people who have demonstrated a sufficient commitment to the faith, it has an ethnic component that other religions lack. People become Christian when they choose to put their faith in Jesus Christ. But Jews don’t choose; they’re chosen. They have a special relationship with God, forged by the events chronicled in the Old Testament and kept alive over millennia. Crypto-Jews have an uncomfortable relationship with that legacy. Though their claim to Jewishness is based on inheritance, they have no way of documenting it. “You’ll never have proof,” Loya said. “You have these bits of evidence … like bread crumbs.”

Sanchez hopes to make the case with DNA. He estimates that more than half of the men he knows who have been tested have DNA signatures consistent with a Semitic ancestry. In Spain, the fraction of men with a similar signature is only 10 percent.

Yet the only serious genetic study that has attempted to find Jewish ancestry among Hispanics in the Southwest reached a different conclusion. “We just couldn’t wait to find all these Jews,” said Alec Knight, who was working in an anthropological genetics lab at Stanford University when he saw the crypto-Jew story in an in-flight magazine.

Knight recruited a handful of colleagues for a simple study. They took DNA samples from 139 men in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, most of whom could trace their family trees in the region back to the 17th century. The results? To use a Yiddish expression, bubkes — almost nothing.

As the 139 DNA profiles came back, it became clear to Knight that the population he had sampled was genetically indistinguishable from the modern population of Spain. There were a few individuals who did have typically “Jewish” profiles, but no more than you would find in Spain, due to the presence of Jews there before 1492. “Basically, it was a migration of Spaniards,” said Knight, who recently left Stanford to teach science in Alpine, Texas, at the high school level.

When confronted with the genetic evidence, Hordes quickly points out that genes are not culture. Besides, he adds, he never claimed that the early European settlers of the Southwest were overwhelmingly Jewish. But if there was never more than a handful of Jews among the first Southwesterners — if any — and they never left any visible impact on the culture beyond a few odd customs, why are people so eager to resurrect them? Sociologist Michael P. Carroll has suggested that the crypto-Jew story has “an appeal that is independent of the evidence.”

The crypto-Jewish saga is one of cultural survival against the odds, a life-affirming counterpoint to the genocidal reality that Jews have faced throughout history. Those who embrace a crypto-Jewish identity see themselves as heirs to a legacy of survival against tremendous odds. “The notion that you’re somehow indomitable, that there can be such a thing as a miraculous survival, is so comfortable, so buoyant to the spirit, that it’s very hard to let go,” Neulander said.

And what of the scholars like Hordes? Carroll and Neulander accuse them of being seduced by the age-old fantasy of discovering a lost tribe. The remote Southwest used to have such “tribes” in abundance. They lived in pueblos, in remote mountain villages and on desert reservations, isolated from the outside world for centuries. But earlier generations of researchers have already done the job of documenting those more typical Southwestern traditions. What was once an exotic, almost foreign region of the country has witnessed an influx of retirees and second-home dwellers from the coasts that has swelled its population and diluted its sense of place.

The crypto-Jew story injects fresh mystery into this increasingly humdrum world. In fact, the crypto-Jew phenomenon probably tells us more about life in the Southwest today than it does about what happened there hundreds of years ago. Even Hordes acknowledges that if Jews fleeing the Inquisition actually did settle on the northern frontier of Spain’s colonial empire, there weren’t very many of them and their impact on the culture never amounted to much.

But that doesn’t matter to people like Sonya Loya. Having “felt Jewish” for most of her life, the crypto-Jew story gives her the authority to embrace the heritage of her choice. And as she and others continue to spread the incredible survival story of the Southwest’s Jewish colonists, it almost becomes a religion itself.

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