Review of Papers Presented at the SCJS 2001 Conference in Pueblo, Colorado

Reviewed by Michele Greene

Seth Ward, “Crypto-Judaic Research Holdings at Denver University”
Dr. Ward presented an overview of Crypto-Judaic research holdings organized
and conceptualized by volunteer Arlene Gachinsky.

The holdings are organized into six notebooks, comprising newspaper articles, professional and journal articles (including all issues of Halapid), internet articles, and manuscripts. Dr Ward emphasized that his intent when including an item is not to be interpretative or decisive about what is “correct,” the truth of an issue,” or “more valuable” than something else, but simply to provide as much resource material as possible.

Dr. Ward would like donations of videotaped oral histories, along with items of material culture which might have been displayed in museums in the form of photos of personal material culture. He said that outside of headstones and dreidls, not many items of material culture are well documented. Songs, poems, and recipes would also be welcomed. He stressed, however, that texts or photos of items should be accompanied by the story of their use within a given context. He stressed that symbols alone are not the whole story — what we say about them, and their meaning and use in our lives reveals a great deal as well. Dr. Ward feels it is very important to document how people talk about their experiences.

“Self Affirmation” Key to Judaism

This tied in with the last segment of his talk, which he referred to as his “bully pulpit.” Dr. Ward agreed with speaker and anthropologist Seth Kunin that Judaism is not carried in the genes but is rather how one defines him/herself. Those from Crypto Judaic backgrounds who state “I am a Jew,” have to be taken seriously; their assertion about being members of the Jewish community is what is real in their lives — genetics are irrelevant. Dr. Ward then pointed out that most Hispanos probably have Jewish ancestry anyway, so that alone should not define them today as Jews; self affirmation should be the key.

Dr. Ward said he accesses the Hebrew University Library collection of Jewish studies for additional material, a database of all scholarly articles in Judaic studies. The web address is:


Rabbi Leo Abrami “The Anusim of Portugal”
Leo Abrami focused on three individuals from the exiled converso community, Uriel da Costa, Baruch Spinoza and Feli?pe da Luna Montalto.

Rabbi Abrami has taught Jewish history in the Jewish Studies program of the University of Arizona and since retiring from the rabbinate, he volunteers for Kulanu. He has published various works on logotherapy and psychoanalysis.

He began with an introduction to the situation in Portugal following the expulsion of the Jews from adjoining Spain. Probably some 120,000 Spanish Jews entered Portugal in 1492, initially welcomed by King John who thought they might be economically useful. By 1579, however, the Inquisition in Portugal was at full steam, resulting both in the exodus of many New Christians as well as the Jews to communities outside of the Iberian peninsula. In these safer environments, most exiles tended to return to Judaism, though not all. Some had great difficulties regarding social and religious beliefs and traditions unfamiliar to them, and found it too hard returning to Judaism after Catholicism.

Rabbi Abrami’s first example of such an individual was Uriel da Costa, born in Oporto in 1585 and raised Catholic, although later he converted to Judaism. Leaving Portugal for Amsterdam, he was unhappy to discover a Judaism he did not recognize. He felt the rabbis were wrong to add their own interpretations to the text of law as written in the Bible, since he had no knowledge of the Talmudic tradition. He opposed the rabbis openly, as “Pharisees,” and “obstinate,” was eventually excommunicated, publicly humiliated, and left the Jewish community. In his autobiography, “Exemplar Humana Vitae,” he gives a moving account of his unsuccessful attempt to return to Judaism. He committed suicide soon after.

Rabbi Abrami then talked about the famous philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, 1632-1677, another descendant of conversos n conflict with the Jewish community of Amsterdam. Although he was influenced by the teachings of Maimonides and Rabbi Ibn Ezra, he also favored the Enlightenment philosophers, so was also eventually excommunicated and declared “persona non grata,” notably for his espousal of the philosophies of Rene Descartes.

Montalto, Physician to Queen
The speaker then discussed the “amazing” Felipe da Luna Montalto, a Portuguese New Christian who returned to Judaism and was able to live openly as a Jew as personal physician to Mari?a de Medici, Queen of France and wife of Henri IV. In fact, before accepting the post of royal physician he made it a condition that he be allowed to practice Judaism openly. He was a zealous defender of the Jewish faith who encouraged others to return, and he openly interceded for a small colony of Parisian conversos accused of secretly observing Passover. He remained in service to the Queen until 1616 when, on a trip to southern France, he died apparently of bubonic plague. The Queen ordered his body to be embalmed and sent to the Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam.

Rabbi Abrami followed these biographies with the mention of several other important French historical figures with converso ties: France’s greatest philosopher of the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne, a descendant of conversos whose relatives were among those who established the first synagogue in Newport, RI, an influential group known collectively as the Portuguese Merchants, Jacobo Rodriguez Pereira, inventor of the first forms of sign language for the deaf and mute and a casualty of the French Revolution; and his two nephews, Jacob-Emile and Isaac Pereira (who later converted to Catholicism), credited with being the major developers of capitalism under Napoleon III. Among more modern figures, Abrami noted Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rene Cassant, who authored the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights; and former Prime Minister of France Pierre Mendes-France, 1907-1982, who was most likely a descendant of the illustrious Mendes family who faced the problems of the end of France’s colonial era in places such as Indochina and Tunisia.


Dr. Robert Ferry, “Prison, Resistance, Defeat; The Inquisition, Women, and the Crypto-Jewish Community in Seventeenth-Century Mexico”

Robert Ferry University of Colorado, reported on a family of several women collectively known as Las Blancas. The group consisted of the mother, Blanca Mendes de Rivera and her five daughters, Maria, Margarita, Catarina, Clara and Isabel.

They were arrested in 1642 and their trial is useful as a window into the larger community of crypto Jews.

They were charged as heretics. Maria, Catarina and Clara died in their cells. Blanca, Margarita and Isabel were eventually released. Known as Las Blancas, the women were referred to in almost all of the Inquisition documents of the day. They earned meager livings as seamstresses at the margins of the cloth trade, but they supplemented their income by collecting alms for Jewish prayers and other religious services. Many came to them for ayunos ordinatios or special prayers. How did Las Blances come to know virtually the entire crypto-Jewish community? They were at its hub. Testimony from the trial record reveals a woman, about to move with her new husband, who gave the Blancas four pesos for ayunos for safe travel. Another person gave ten pesos so that Blanca could commend to God the arrangement for her daughter’s marriage. They were paid to pray for hope for marriages and also to act as a go-between in arranging them.

Another set of clients was the rich family Enriquez-Baez. There were many connections between Blanca Mendes and Senora Enriquez-Baez. They knew each other in Seville. Both came to Mexico at about the same time. They shared participation at rituals such as Yom Kippur and festival of Queen Esther. Las Blancas officiated at funerals and performed ayunos for the souls of the deceased. Ties with the Enriquez-Baez brought extra prestige to Blancas. New arrivals would contact them in order to get entry to the Enriquez-Baez family for commercial reasons.

Las Blancas were arrested as traitors to their Catholic faith and their trial record lists the names of many people denounced by them. The lists are very long. They testified about everybody and everybody testifies about them.

The women were kept in adjoining cells and unknown to them, spies were outside their cells at night listening to and recording their conversations. The spy records are in the transcript of the trials.

Blanca was overheard saying to her daughters “I realize that now we are without honor. Oh what a stab of the dagger, we are lost and will have to flee to the ends of the earth.” Blanca calls out to them. “I don’t know what to tell them. If I were to talk they would have to burn all of Mexico and I don’t know what to say in order to do no harm, daughters what can I do?”

Did they name names? At first they did, but were unaware of it. Two sisters had remained free for two days. When arrested they were overheard telling Blanca who they had contacted. Blanca told her daughters how she had defied the Inquisitors, how she had been a Jew since the time of Adam.

The mother was taken to solitary confinement and the torture chamber and after two months, she began to talk. Clara, a simple-minded daughter, also named names.

Characterized as Deceitful

Many of the people implicated by Las Blancas used an enimigos mortales defense. By claiming that their accusers were mortal enemies they could hold that the testimony against them was false. These enimigos mortales defenses are full of hate and anger for Las Blancas They were characterized as lying, deceitful women. Members of the community turned quickly against them as liars falsely accusing others.

Why did they give up and talk? Maybe because of the ostracism, embarrassment and alienation from their community, which had exiled them.

At their trial, the Enriquez-Baez family constructed an enimigos mortales story. They insisted that Mari?a de Rivera, one of Blanca’s daughters, had spent time in the Enriquez house after the death of Senora Enriquez and tried to initiate an affair with Gaspar Baez, her son.


Elizabeth Hirschman, The Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America

Elizabeth Hirschman of Rutgers University, reported that, when she was young, many people mistook her for being Hispanic and spoke to her in Spanish, a language that she had never heard before. Her people are olive skinned and dark eyed. They had been discriminated against since the 1600s because of their dark skin and religious practices. They were white, but darker than the surrounding Scotch Irish. At one time they were classified as FPC or Free Persons of Color, barred from testifying at trials. They could not vote, in some places could not go to school with “whites” and were subject to anti miscegenation laws.

The Melungeons lived in remote parts of Appalachia, in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. No roads or railroads existed there until 1890 and no interstate highway until about 1970.

Many myths existed about the origin of the Melungeons: some held that they were the lost colony of Roanoke or a lost tribe of Israel. Others held that they were Sephardic Jews, Moors or Portuguese. Many Melungeons claimed that they were “Portogee.”

Melungeons: “Lost” or “Mixture”
The name Melungeon may come from one of two roots: melan djin, an Arabic/Turkish term meaning lost or abandoned soul, or the French word, melange meaning mixture.

Recent research into the origin of these people has turned up some remarkable information:

In the 1585 it was believed that the Spanish Armada was going to invade England within a year, so many desperate people left for the new colony of Roanoke. In 1588 Francis Drake led the British Navy to a great victory over the Spanish, leaving Britain free to expand its colonization of America. But when British ships returned to Roanoke, they found that the colony had been abandoned. It is believed that the survivors of the colony were taken in by Indians. Recent DNA studies have found that some Melungeons have Lumbe Indian DNA.

In 1587 Francis Drake dropped off approximately 500 Turkish and Moorish prisoners that he had rescued from Cartagena off the coast of Columbia. They had been allied against the Spanish. He left the freed prisoners in Roanoke intending to return for them later. He came back one year later but they had gone inland.

A large, active Spanish colony called Santa Elena existed at the same time as Roanoke off the coast of South Carolina on Parris Island. Drake raided the Spanish colonies of St. Augustine and Havana and he intended to raid Santa Elena, but he could not find it. So the colony was spared. It lasted 20 years and was probably occupied by Sephardic and Moorish conversos. It operated a trade pattern that followed de Soto’s route from Tennessee to North Georgia. Juan Pardo (a converso) set up five forts in the area. The Santa Elena Colony disappeared at about the same time that Roanoke was abandoned. Recent excavations of Santa Elena reveal that it traded with Cuba and even China. This argues for a Morisco and Sephardic presence. Patterns of tableware and pottery from Spain, Italy, Mexico and China were found there. One kiln manufactured a mudejar (Moorish) pattern of ceramics.

In 1990, blood samples from 1969 of 177 Tennessee Malungeons were analyzed. Blood typing showed a consistency with specific Mediterranean populations: Libya (specifically the area around Tripoli), the Canary Islands, Malta, Venice, Trentino, Cyprus and Galicia, Spain. All were areas consistent with Sephardic and Moorish ancestry. In that sample there was no match with DNA of Native Americans, Africans or British. The Melungeons had been told that they were mongrels, but blood samples showed otherwise. They have now been labeled as “tri-racial isolates”

More recent DNA samples for Melungeons, for whom ancestry is accurate, have shown that they are primarily Sephardic Jews. One line is from Sardinia, another from a particular group in Morocco and Atlas Mountain Berber (those who conquered Spain with the Moors). There is more limited ancestry from Ottoman Turks. There will be tests to see if the male lines go back to Turks and the female to native Americans. Some DNA from Northwest India has been found, probably from gypsies. A colony of gypsies were settled next to Jamestown in 1610. Those people also disappeared.

The population contains very little northern European or sub-Saharan African ancestry. It is a very homogeneous (inbred) population. Many cousins marry and niece/uncle marriages are common. As a result many genetic diseases including Bacett’s Syndrome and Familial Mediterranean Fever are found. These diseases are only found among Mediterranean people and among Melungeons.They each require two recessive genes. Polydactylism (extra fingers and toes) is also found.

They call themselves Baptist, but meet on Saturday mornings and practice minimal Christianity. Men and women are separated in church and females are excluded from church leadership. They have a communion very much like Passover, in which they drink sweet wine and have bathing rituals in which men would wash each other’s feet, women do likewise. They cover their heads and go to the river, where they practice full body immersion dressed completely in white. The deceased are buried on an East/West axis and there is a year-long mourning period.

In 1965 one grandmother said to her grandson, “Brent, I have something to tell you, we are Jewish.” He asked his parents if this was true but they denied it.

“Koshered” the Pig

Dr. Hirschman said that her family never allowed pork in the house. Some Melungeons would eat pork but would “kosher” the pig by slitting the neck and draining the blood. They would then take the hide off and salt it in for weeks, then smoke it. They would not consume the blood. This is not a Scotch/Irish way of slaughtering pigs.

Melungeon names show a of mixture of Spanish, Hebrew and Atlas Mountain Berber roots. Examples are: Javes, Nunes, Xavier (which became Severe), Jacobs, Caraco, Lopes, Gomes, Taliaferro (pronounced, Tolliver), Alee, Moses, Angel and Yocum (Joachim or Joaquin). Many had anglicized names such as, Charles Cromwell Addington. Some indentured servants took the names of their employers.

First names were often perpetuated for generations. Some were unusual: Mahala, Alafer, or sometimes the last name of parent or grandparent would become the first name of an offspring.

Daniel Boone was of Melungeon descent. So was the father of Abraham Lincoln who was with the party that followed Boone to Kentucky. The Lincolns and Boones intermarried.


Stanley Hordes, “Between Toleration and Persecution: The Relationship of the Inquisition and Crypto Jews on the Northern Frontier of New Spain, 1589-1663”

Stanley Hordes is adjunct research professor, Latin American and Iberian Institute of University on New Mexico, and is working under a grant received from the estate of Eva Feld to write a history of the crypto Jews of New Mexico.

Dr. Hordes began by saying that most cases of torture and burning by the Inquisition were much less frequent than many authors would have us believe, and that, with the exception of two periods in New Spain, the focus of the Holy Office in Mexico City was in fact much less on Judaizers than those suspected of other breaches of orthodoxy such as bigamy, blasphemy, and the like. The perception of relentless violence against only Jews was in part perpetrated by the Leyenda Negra and anti-Spanish historiography of the early ninteenth and twentieth centuries by Protestant Northern European scholars. Dr Hordes’ thesis is that in actuality, the attitude of the Holy Office in Mexico towards crypto Jews was more of tolerance than persecution, relative to what was happening in Spain. And, the more distant one was from the seat of power in Mexico, the less attention was paid by the Inquisition.

A haven for escaping Jews

Mexico had been somewhat of a haven for escaping Iberian Jews since its inception as a ViceRoyalty, with a number of Jewish communities flourishing due to mercantile trades, such as Veracruz and Acapulco. However, peace was disturbed from 1589-1601, in response to the activities of Lui?s de Carvajal (“El Mozo”), who was the New Christian nephew of the governor of Nuevo Leon, also named Lui?s de Carvajal. The elder Lui?s had earlier requested permission to colonize Nuevo Leon, with the condition that the ethnic backgrounds of colonizers not be questioned. In effect, Nuevo Leon became a refuge for Jews, who were left alone as long as they kept their Judaism low key. But Lui?s the younger, upon learning of his Jewish background, decided to live and practice publicly as a Jew as well as encourage others to return openly to Judaism. This was too much for the Holy Office, which cracked down on the community and ultimately burned the younger Lui?s and several family members at the stake in 1596.

Relative peace returned by 1604, and the Crypto Jewish communities continued to grow and prosper until another flexing of Inquisitorial might in the 1640s, after which things settled down again until the formal death of the Inquisition in 1821. Thus, many generations assimilated and acculturated into mainstream Catholic society, mostly losing all Judaism, although others retained outward vestiges of it or even passed along conscious knowledge.

The next part of Dr Hordes’ talk he called “The Frontier as Refuge.” Referring to the research of Solange Alberro, he explained that the far northern frontier of New Spain always served as a haven for conversos and other “undesirables” seeking to avoid the Holy Office, as it afforded remoteness from the seat of power as well as relative anonymity. Dr Hordes quoted Albero’s statement that in communities such as Zacatecas, “the practice of the law of Moses…was conscious, coherent, and deliberate.” And what is present day New Mexico afforded a “zone of refuge from the zone of refuge” for those not satisfied even with the relative tolerance of areas such as Zacatecas.

Castaño leads expedition

The Carvajal incident of Nuevo Leon directly impacted the first explorations of northern New Mexico, one of them by the Lieutenant Governor of Carvajal the elder, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa, who upon the arrest of Carvajal rounded up an expedition of about 170 people for an uncharted journey north. They attempted to establish a permanent colony near Glorieta Pass, but permission was denied on the grounds of “illegal entry:” they had left without permission to do so. Interestingly enough, it was also the only expedition of its day not to have a priest along. Dr Hordes contends that this group was comprised of crypto Jews whom Castaño de Sosa, of possible Jewish background, was trying to get to safety. The expedition was forced to return to Mexico, where some of its members founded Monterrey. Castaño was convicted of treason and died in exile in the Philippines.

In 1595, the King realized advantages to exploring the north, so gave the task to Don Juan de Oñate, also of converso origin. Members of his expedition included some from Castaño de Sosa’s party, who knew the route, as well as individuals later cited as “fugitives” and “true Judaizers” by the Holy Office and who were burned in effigy. It is probable that Oñate’s supplier was a converso relative of Lui?s de Carvajal.

Once established in northern New Mexico, crypto Jews were apparently left alone. The Franciscans, who ran the Inquisition in New Mexico, were more focused on power struggles with civil authorities than with crypto Jews. Not until 1662, when the Governor, his wife, and the Sergeant Major were arrested for Judaizing, did the Inquisition display any interest in crypto Jews. However, as it unfolded, even these trials were far more politically motivated than not. In general, except when sparked by political motives, neither civil nor religious leaders were overly concerned about the obvious presence and practices of crypto Jews in the northern reaches of the frontier — a true zone of refuge.


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