Jewish Identity and Crypto-Judaism: The emergence of a community

Jewish Identity and Crypto-Judaism: The emergence of a community

Seth Ward, University of Wyoming

Leslie and Gloria Mound Library

Netanya Academic College, Netanya Israel, May 23, 2012

A lecture about identity and Crypto-Judaism, primarily in the southwestern USA, discussing the history of the emergence of the community in the past thirty years.  Much of the story is tied to the career of Stan Hordes, a historian whose work on genealogy and genetics, the canon of evidence, and the expression of identity, has been central to any understanding of the phenomenon in the United States, which often reflects very different realities than those in Israel. The research and the emergence of this identity in North America complement the work of Casa Shalom in Spain, Israel and throughout the world. 

This talk was adapted from a lecture I gave in Albuquerque in April 2012 to honor Stan; I prepared that talk already with the lecture in Netanya in mind. The talk was further edited for a faculty seminar in Shanghai. I have made only a few edits since then on this version, but prepared a shorter, edited version for publication in Casa Shalom.  

I am convinced that I do not know enough about how contemporary Chinese academics shape their conception of religious and national identities, but the discussion at the faculty seminar there was spirited and useful. Issues surrounding the emergence of national identities submerged by history struck a nerve with this audience, and I am grateful for their input.

Seth Ward.

December 10 2012


Introduction from library talk

I am happy indeed to honor my friend Gloria Mound and to honor the creation of the Leslie and Gloria Mound library. For the past few years I have brought a student study-abroad delegation (havaya yisraelit limudit) from the University of Wyoming in May or June. Last year I made intense efforts to adjust my schedule to speak at the opening; in the end this proved impossible. I regretted not being able to attend the opening ceremony and conference, and thank the Netanya Academic College for this opportunity to celebrate the opening of this important resource. I am also grateful for this opportunity to recall the late Leslie Mound, z”l. I brought students to Gan Yavneh a few times; as much as they recalled the resources and enthusiasm that Gloria Mound brought to this study, they recalled the graciousness of Leslie Mound, whose kind manner and warmth was so highly appreciated by my students and colleagues at receptions made at the Mound’s home after Gloria’s presentation. He is deeply missed.

I beg indulgence of my students—this is not a part of my career that is often reflected in their classes.



In April, I spoke at an event honoring Dr. Stan Hordes, a man whose long career has had many achievements, not all of them related to crypto-Jews or Jewish history; and, as a state Historian and expert on water and other rights descending from Spanish colonial times in that area, not even to Jewish studies at all. This past May I spoke at the Leslie and Gloria Mound library in Netanya Israel, a collection of books and materials that opened last year and is part of a new program in Sephardic studies with special reference to Crypto-Jews. These occasions provided a reference point to take stock of the changes and growth over the past few decades.

Put very simply, the past three decades or so have seen radical changes in the expression and study of what I shall call “crypto-Judaism,” in the way Crypto-Judaism is understood, in the emergence of a community, and its relationship with Judaism. Moreover, this period has seen sharp changes in ways that Jewish identity is articulated, and today I hope to address themes about community and identity that may be of particular interest to today’s audience.


For this audience today (In the University of Shanghai) I should start with a definition: In many places around the world, there are individuals who see themselves as descendants of Jews who were living in Spain over 500 years ago. Even in the 13th century, Jews (and Muslims) were under pressure to join the dominant society by adopting Christianity, and many did so. All of them observed Christianity in public, adopting Christian names, attending Christian worship services and otherwise living Christian lives. However, some of them continued to view themselves as Jews—some only in an ethnic sense, taking pride in the fact that they Christians who were of the same race as Jesus himself—but some in a religious sense, observing Judaism in secret and passing down their heritage to their families. The pace of conversion to Christianity hastened in 1391, after riots in many cities. In the 1400s, Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella  of Castille, uniting the two largest Kingdoms in what is today Spain—and in essence forming Spain as we know it today. They drove out the last vestige of Muslim rule in January of 1492, and in March, they decreed that all Jews had to leave Spain by the summer. But this did not affect Christians of Jewish heritage, and Jews who became Christians could stay in Spain.

My own feeling is that some converts were loyal to Judaism, others were convinced of the truth of Christianity; the situation was somewhat different in neighboring Portugal, where the entire Jewish community, including many Jews who had left Spain, were baptized and declared to be Christians in 1497. In the past 30 years in the USA—earlier in some places—a number of individuals of largely Spanish heritage have begun to assert a Jewish identity, based on their understanding that they had Jewish ancestors, and in some cases based on assumptions that their immediate ancestors had inherited some Jewish practices or beliefs—although they kept them hidden from their Christian neighbors.


The World Over was a publication of the New York Board of Jewish Education distributed to young American Jews at Hebrew schools around the country in the 1950s and 1960s—and, I have found, fondly remembered by all those familiar with it from those days.  Their pieces about the Inquisition, especially the superb graphic-novel style histories by Morris Epstein on the back cover, highlighted the romance of Jewish survival against all odds—a theme that resonated well in this newsletter addressed to the youth of a highly assimilating community. As I remember it, the World Over never quite answered the question of what became of the descendants of the conversos who retained loyalty to Judaism. Back on those days, there were few indicators of any survival; if there were, I wonder how attractive they would have been to the World Over or to American Jews as a whole. As romantic as 16th and early 17th century perseverance of Jewish identity in a Christian world may have seemed, in the 20th century North American context, converso descendants had indeed committed the arch-crime: they did not maintain Jewish identity, willfully assimilating into their environment. Indeed, the late father of the current PM, Ben-Tzion Netanyahu emphasized the degree to which many converso descendants had identified strongly as Christians and identified Spanish attitudes towards Limpieza de Sangre “purity of blood” with the beginnings of an approach to Jewish heritage in which hatred and oppression was based not on the religious orientation or even on self-identification but on determination of Jewish identity made by governments and the Church, and based more on what we would call racial heritage—the beginnings of antisemitism. Netanyahu’s conclusions are controversial to be sure, but, suggest that some of those who identified with the Law of Moses did so only because of antisemitism—a finding that is highly problematic for a community dedicated to ending antisemitism and promoting Jewish identity.


Indeed, a generation ago there was little scholarship at all that suggested any survival whatsoever of Jewish identity among the descendants of Conversos. Cecil Roth’s history of the Marranos had little; indeed, Roth was editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica and there is little in the 1972-4 publication to suggest the great flowering of interest and research that have ensured in the past 40 years. Raphael Patai had visited the village of Venta Prieta and dismissed its Judaic practices—a view he was later to emend. There were a few references to persons who believed they had some Jewish ancestry—although sometimes connected with personages such as the Carvajal family; one famous historian of 17th century New Spain traced his own ancestry back to the Carvajal family with multiple strands—while insisting he had no connection with any Jewish ancestry at all. J.R. Marcus, the dean of American Jewish Historians, served the Jews of Trinidad, Colorado for the High Holy days for many years. He is quoted as suggesting that there were as some 2000 New Christians in New Mexico in the 16th century—yet it is not clear to me that he believed the Spanish speakers in the area preserved Jewish practices or identity into the 20th century. There was little popular awareness either. Dan Ross published a wonderful book called Acts of Faith (my first published article was a short review of this book) with accounts of his travels to Venta Prieta, of the Xuetas and other communities which preserved Jewish identity—in 1982—and had nothing to say about the New Mexico phenomenon.


The Six Day War—in which the old city of Jerusalem came into Israeli control and Israel avoided disaster, and attitudes toward Israel and Judaism began to change—the growth of a more denominational approach to Jewish education, and the spirit of multiculturalism changed American Jewish life. Slowly there came to be more awareness of broader diversity in Judaism. America as a whole changed too, and so did the Spanish-ancestry community. Urbanization and mobility brought many Hispanos into contact with Jews; Suburbanization and economic growth brought them together as well, as did education and shared experiences stretching back to World War II.  America had become a melting Pot, but in the aftermath of the 1960s, greater valorization of diversity and a radical drop in Antisemitism also played a role. (Charles Silberman argued that American Antisemitism ended in the 1970s when a major family corporation that had had a history of excluding Jews appointed a Jewish president and no one really made a fuss over it), and in any case, according to an important AJC study, anti-Jewish feelings among persons of hispano ancestry born in America was very low, as compared to the high rate of antisemitism among those born outside the US. The conditions were set for a reconsideration of Jewish heritage among converso descendants.


Stan Hordes’ often-repeated account of how people began to express a sense of Jewish identity to him refers to quiet, nearly-clandestine approaches by individuals who had heard him speak about practices reported by the Spanish Inquisition as “Judaizing,” such as lighting candles or having larger meals on Friday evenings, avoiding pork, or eating flat breads around Easter time. These twentieth-century informants told him that they had always wondered about their own, similar family traditions and that his accounts of crypto-Jewish practices from several hundred years ago explained them. In other cases, as reported to me and to others, persons of Spanish heritage who came into contact with Jewish families as domestics, college roommates or army buddies remarked on similarities of practice. At least in such cases, the quest for Jewish identity was initiated by the people themselves as the result of contact with Jews, to be sure, but not by some folklorist or journalist probing them for details, a practice which usually is seen as tainting the research.


Slowly, a consistent picture emerged, usually described as the survival of Jewish practices and some sense of a special identity. Hordes’ historical research work provided a sound basis for interpreting modern practices, and his familiarity with genealogical records enabled him to track the ancestry of some of the families with practices that fit the pattern—often enough finding known Jewish Iberian ancestors. At the very least, there is a sound basis for understanding some of the reported practices as evidence of survival either of Jewish ritual or converso responses to external fear of Judaism, in other words, modern testimony among the descendants of Spanish colonials to converso heritage. But it also made him keenly aware of the limitations of the sources, of the need for sensitivity and respect for privacy, and care to report findings but not over-interpret. For example, certain objects with potential Jewish significance, or the prevalence of certain names have often been adduced as evidence of a hidden Jewish heritage; he and others have shown that these arguments are of limited utility. In any case, the publication and dissemination of these research findings in the form of scholarly articles, documentaries, exhibits and more greatly facilitated the emergence of a community of individuals of largely Hispanic ancestry who identify in some way with the Jewish people


Claims of preserved Jewish heritage have often been controversial, in the US as well as in Israel. A fundamental difference, of course, is that in Israel, there are a number of governmental considerations such as the Law of Return, population registry, state-religious schools and many more that have official stakes in status determination; no such government institutions exist in the U.S. situation. Thus in Israel, deliberations about whether Ethiopian Beta Israel or Falas Mura, Xuetas, Bnai Menashe may be considered Jewish involve governmental bodies. In America, there is no such government involvement of course, and for the most part, no mainstream rabbinic guidance is sought. Some converso descendants have adopted a fully Jewish identity, working with Rabbis trained by some of the main Ranbbinic seminaries—I mean here the large rabbinic schools that furnish Rabbis for all of the main Jewish communities all across the American spectrum from more to less observant—but in my experience, many parts of this community are drawn to work with self-proclaimed Rabbis with no smichut or diploma at all, or whose training is from small programs with little standing in the general Jewish community.

To return to the history of the emergence of this community in America: Whereas there had been reports about Jewish identity among indigenous Mexican people (i.e. Indians) with Venta Prieta, the first inklings of a change in the notion of a “crypto-Jewish identity” in the USA began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 1970s and 80s there were references to contemporary Hispanic families who identified as Jews. Carlos Llaralde did a PhD on members of his own family in the Brownsville are in Texas, near the Mexican border; Some talked about Tejano (Texan)– Jewish identity in places such as San Antonio, and I learned of a number of memoires that were written in those days, but not published, perhaps out of fear of rejection in the largely-Catholic worlds in which the writers lived. This began to change radically in the mid-1980s. There were a few publications around 1985, Hordes and Tomas Atencio published a detailed prospectus in 1987; and a number of histories of New Mexico mentioned some telling details. Hordes was a standard bearer for this change: he interviewed with the American Public Broadcasting Service and was featured in some documentaries, wrote articles in professional journals and newspapers, founded two professional historical societies, and worked with the Smithsonian Institution on an exhibition. A further impetus to this development in the late 1980s was the 500th anniversary of the Expulsion from Spain. I had just moved from Haifa to Denver Colorado in 1991, and well remember interest expressed to me in such issues as whether Spain would use the occasion to welcome the Jews back to Spain—and what this would mean to people of Spanish ancestry.


Back in 1996, I suggested that Crypto-Judaism could be studied and discussed under the rubrics of the question of genealogy, the canon of evidence, and the expression of identity. The “canon of evidence included what I call “argument from names” — rigorous research has shown that in fact during the 19th century this argument holds up—using a set of nine families that exhibit crypto-Jewish features, it has been shown that for a generation or two in the 19th century there were in fact a statistically significant subset of names that were used by their ancestors; otherwise however the evidence is not convincing. A second set of evidence is artifacts—people talked about items used as mezuzot, or holy books or other items supposedly associated with Jewish practice. Again, research has shown that the description of the artifact by those associated with it is more determinative than the artifact itself—most of the artifacts cited as evidence are unconvincing when taken alone. Another part of the canon of evidence is a tradition in a family that somos judaeos “we are Jews” or accusations that these people were Jews. Again, this is not as convincing as you might think: accusations of Judaism may simply reflect an anti-Semitic slur more than actual Jewish heritage.


Patient genealogical work demonstrated Jewish ancestry but a “genetic essentialism” so often plagues popular treatments of this phenomenon; as DNA evidence began to be available professional, critical analysis and serious critiques to flawed arguments are even more necessary. Conclusions drawn from DNA evidence often do not stand up under scrutiny, or are irrelevant to the point being made. For example, the famous “Cohen Modal Haplotype” – a Y chromosome pattern occurring with striking frequency among men who claim to be Kohanim – occurs often enough among people with no such claim, so often, indeed, that in general, Jewish males with traditions of being Kohanim are only a small subset of males with this haplotype—put differently, a Kohen has a strikingly high probability of having this haplotype, but a person with the haplotype still has a very low probability of being Jewish or having Jewish ancestors. (This type of analysis is important even when addressed to those who are impervious to logic and, unwilling to accept the fact that often proffered evidence does not stand up under scrutiny.  I wrote these lines about some of the genetics presentations in various conference I have attended, but it applies equally well to those such as Judith Neulander or various journalists who wrote critically in general of work identifying the phenomenon of Crypto-Judaism) To my mind, the most important decision in the area of genetic genealogy was to devote much effort and energy to the medical sphere: one may quibble about the interpretation of this or that allele or group of Y-chromosome genes, but the identification of diseases and disorders worth testing among a given subset of the population saves lives.


The most important component is the study of the expression of identity. Prof. Kunin’s book on the subject is Juggling Identities. This book has a fascinating analysis of a session offered by some Messianic Christians on how they constructed their sense of a Jewish heritage and Jewish identity—based on a conference presentation which might not have come about except for Stan’s patient insistence to program committee members and society board that giving them a space to articulate their approach was a crucial component in understanding all aspects of Crypto-Jewish identity.

So, what are the components of this community? In my teaching, I often use the typology of “believing, behaving and belonging” to organize descriptions of what is important in describing religious movements. Among the Crypto-Jews of the U.S. Southwest, there is little unanimity of belief in the traditional religious sense: some fervently believe in God and some don’t, some express beliefs that would be familiar to anyone in the normative Jewish community; most do not. Underlying this, I conclude, is an important belief: the belief in the value of continuity of their Jewish identity, at least in a hidden form, and the value of their type of identity. To rephrase this: they believe it is important to affirm that they and their ancestors have always been Jewish in at least some sense, rather than to assert that they have some Jewish ancestors or heritage and they have chosen to identify as Jews. 


Behavior is easier to discuss, as is the sense of belonging. Indeed, in observing this community and participating in some of their events, it seems to me that the believing and belonging components are expressed in a readily identifiable pattern.


1.      1.  Rituals and places. Rabbis, Conference, Purim/Esther

Some people in this community follow very traditional Jewish rituals, but most do not. Most talk about rituals and practices they believe their ancestors followed: lighting candles on Friday nights –similar to the Jewish practice—but in a hidden area in the house, or baking pan de Semita at Easter time—but few follow these rituals either. Research has shown that the Jewish festival of Purim was highly meaningful to Crypto Jews several centuries ago, especially the story of Esther, who kept her Jewish identity secret even when brought into the royal palace and married to the King—but while they talk of Esther with pride, relatively few participate in normative Purim activities.


Many, though, participate in various groups and forums, conferences and travel. They seek DNA confirmation of their heritage—it seems to me that this should be considered a kind of ritual. They consult Rabbis and cheer various organizations and rabbis who speak to their beliefs about the continuity of their Jewish identity—regardless of the training and standing of these leaders. Just as “Jewish continuity” seems to be a major unifying belief (rather than belief in God)—as is true for many Jews in the Mainstream Jewish world—who do not have strong religious beliefs regarding the Divine–this style of “Jewish practice” mirrors that of the general Jewish community, whose practice has only a small religious content, but often centers around leaders whose opinions are cherished, and non-religious community institutions.


Thus, “belonging” is the most important component—but here we see that belonging to the Crypto-Jewish community or to a Sephardic subset of Judaism—appears to be the most important component of this equation.


2.      2.  Minority attitudes-Crypto Jews /African American parallels 1960-1980s.

An interesting area for further research is a comparison between Hispanic Crypto-Jews and African American Muslims. Both groups share a narrative asserting a unique heritage:  “Our ancestors included Jews or Muslims” (that is not or not merely Christian Blacks or Spaniards), and a conscious choice to adopt this heritage, including the notion that some small trace was preserved – even if it was hidden or nearly destroyed. Moreover, these communities have not simply folded into the religious mainstream, both due to some of the choices they have made, and due to a feeling in the respective mainstream communities that these groups may represent historic returns – but are also marginal and have practices and beliefs that may not be “mainstream” enough.  


3.      3. Complex attitude towards mainstream, classic communities, multiple identities, reshaping self-image

The Crypto-Jews remind us that adopting a religious heritage can be very complex, and part of a multiple set of identities. There is no single pattern; if anything, the Crypto-Jews seem to behave more like American secular Jews than traditional Jews. Despite the protestations of Crypto-Jews that they are maintaining a religious tradition, often it is the racial component that is most important to them. DNA do not have religion—but often that is just how this is expressed in this community.



4.      4. Important roles of researchers/standard bearers/ creation of institutions and publications.

Finally, I must offer a few words about “Standard Bearers,” institutions and publications in the formation of identity.  I mentioned various processes and changes such as the Six Day War, integration into urban and especially suburban areas with large Jewish populations, shared experiences in World War II, the decline of antisemitism—and I do think these were necessary for and partially the cause for openness to or indeed desire to express a Jewish identity among hispanos. But I do not think they were sufficient: people like Stan Hordes and Gloria Mound worked to help give this phenomenon a voice, and (this is also important) combined commitment to spreading the voice with research and critical thinking. Although Stan, for example, has often been called a “booster” he is more of a “standard bearer”—both in the since of carrying the flag (i.e. the ‘standard’) but also of maintain standards. The leaders and institutions created have made it possible for hispanos interested in exploring Jewish identity to do so, and made it easy to be part of the “Crypto-Jewish Community” – and on the whole these institutions have not insisted on a traditional approach to belonging to the Jewish mainstream. It seems to me to be inevitable that this be so, and the institutions pretty much have to adopt a broad, inclusive and secular approach, in which the religious component is similar to that of secular Jewish institutions.


It is also inevitable that some individuals, movements and institutions are entirely committed to integrating descendants of Crypto-Jews into the contemporary Jewish community and providing them a traditional Jewish identity. Had organizations or Rabbis emphasizing traditional religious training and practice (and not emphasizing research and an inclusive approach) been more active in the US, for example, the shape of the Crypto-Judaism “community” would have been quite different.




Here in China, Jewish identity is not much of an issue, although it might be that individuals who believe they have ancestry from Kai Feng or for that matter from Jews of Shanghai or Tientsin of a century or more ago might come forward and assert that they hid  their Jewish identity from public view for various reasons. However, many Chinese people are wrestling with questions of preserving ethnic and – yes—religious or belief-oriented practice—and the comparison with the issues raised by Crypto-Judaism may well be instructive. 


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