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

This article about identity and Crypto-Judaism, primarily in the southwestern USA, discusses the history and significance 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. It is based on remarks offered earlier this year at an event honoring Stan Hordes in Albuquerque NM, USA, at the Leslie and Gloria Mound Library in Netanya, and in a faculty seminar at the University of Shanghai.

Stan Hordes, the leading researcher about contemporary Crypto-Judaism in the Southwestern U.S., often recounts how people came to him quietly after lectures about Spanish Inquisition records of 16th–17th -century “Judaizing” practices such as lighting candles, large meals on Friday evenings, and avoiding pork. They told him this was their own story too–the practices described matched unusual family practices they had always wondered about.

In the US, Hispanics wondered about Judaism and remarked on perceived similarities as they heard lectures, or came in contact with Jewish families as domestics, college roommates or army buddies, Especially from the 1980s, anti-Semitism was falling among Hispanics born in the United States, and many quested to understand and appreciate a Jewish component to their heritage. 

Slowly, a consistent picture emerged, and many Hispanics identified in various ways as Jews or “Crypto-Jews.” Hordes’ historical research work provided a sound basis for interpreting family practices sometimes associated with crypto-Judaism, and familiarity with genealogical records sometimes enabled him to find that such families had known Jewish ancestors. He and others worked to understand whether reported practices are explicable either as evidence of survival of Jewish rituals, or converso responses to fear of accusation of Judaizing.

Yet he also emphasized critical research standards, the need for sensitivity and privacy, and the pitfalls of over-interpretation, for example, proving that the prevalence of certain names in this population is significant only for some names and some decades, otherwise having no correlation to Jewish heritage, and arguing that artifacts purported to evidence hidden Jewish heritage attest to the way people interpret them, not necessarily to the actual history of the object, and have limited utility in “proving” Jewish ancestry.

Hordes’ most important role was the publication and dissemination of research in scholarly articles, documentaries, exhibits and more, greatly facilitating the emergence of a community of Hispanic ancestry who identify in some way as Crypto-Jews.  Journalistic reports and academic research have a more direct influence in the USA than in Israel. Without the Law of Return, Israel population registry, state-religious schools, and the Chief Rabbinate, there is no government and little mainstream Rabbinic involvement in determining Jewish identity. Some converso descendants have joined the Jewish mainstream, but many chose no affiliation (in this way resembling a large portion of American Jews), or are drawn to groups or Rabbis outside the Jewish mainstream. As a result, the work of scholars (such as Hordes) and journalists, reporting real or imagined research, and of supposed validation via names, genetics or artifacts, plays a more crucial role than any formal authority.

The first inklings of the development of an American Crypto-Jewish identity began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s (well after reports began to emerge in Mexico and elsewhere), with references to contemporary Hispanic families who identified as Jews. Carlos Llaralde’s PhD dissertation studied members of his own family in the Brownsville area in Texas, near the Mexican border, and there was talk about Tejano (Texan)-Jewish identity in places such as San Antonio. Memoires 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, and Hordes and Tomas Atencio published a detailed prospectus in 1987. A number of histories of New Mexico written in the late 1980s mentioned some telling details. Hordes was a standard-bearer for this change: he was interviewed by the American Public Broadcasting Service  and was featured in documentaries, wrote articles in professional journals and newspapers, co-founded professional historical societies for Crypto-Jewish Studies and New Mexico Jewish history, and worked with the Smithsonian Institution on an exhibition. Some of the impetus to this development in the late 1980s was the 500th anniversary of the Expulsion from Spain. I well remember interest expressed to me in the mainstream Jewish community about 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 who had lost this part of their heritage.

I’ve argued that discussion of Crypto-Judaism should focus on three rubrics: the canon of evidence, the question of genealogy, and the expression of identity.

The “canon of evidence” has many problematic elements, such as the argument from names and artifacts mentioned above. Hordes’ genealogical research into a group of families showed that this argument holds up for a generation or two in the 19th century, otherwise is unconvincing. Regarding artifacts—items supposedly used as mezuzot, holy books, etc., or symbols held to be Jewish–research demonstrated that artifact or symbol descriptions often reflect the value assigned them by the describer rather than the artifact’s original purpose. Yet these descriptions themselves give important testimony to how such items are understood today.

Another type of evidence is family tradition, for example, a tradition handed down that somos judaeos “we are Jews,” or that some other family was Jewish. Again, this is not as convincing as some think: for example, accusations of Judaism might reflect anti-Semitic slurs applied to people with no actual Jewish ancestry, perhaps even adopted by them as a point of pride.

While critical analysis may question individual items in the canon of evidence, a strong pattern of practices, artifacts and traditions recur often among American Crypto-Jews and help define their identity.


The “question of genealogy” is likewise problematic in many ways. In a general sense, all American hispanos are likely to have some Jews among their ancestors: even low estimates of medieval Iberian demography, intermarriage and migration suggest it’s statistically unlikely that any American Hispanos today lack any Jewish ancestors. Specific Jewish ancestry can only be demonstrated by patient genealogical work (Hordes has been a leader in this area), not shortcuts based on personal names, places or spellings. “Genetic essentialism” often plagues popular treatments of this phenomenon. Conclusions drawn from DNA evidence often do not stand up under scrutiny, or are irrelevant to the point being made. For example, while there is a higher than expected probability that Jews identifying as Kohanim have the “Cohen Modal Haplotype” Y chromosome pattern, a random person with the haplotype has a low probability of being Jewish, and no genetic pattern implies preservation of Jewish beliefs, practice or identity. (For example, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s four grandparents were all Jews, yet she is not considered Jewish).  Unfortunately, many popular discussions, conference presentations and individual crypto-Jews assert such flawed genetic essentialism—here too, often testifying to the way these data are understood by those who cite them and use them to understand their own identity.

To my mind, the best use of genetic genealogy relates to the medical sphere: one may quibble about the interpretation of an allele or gene, but the identification of diseases and disorders worth testing among a given subset of the population saves lives. Hordes has been active in promoting medical population genetics, and a more critical approach to the whole issue.


To my mind, the most important component is the expression of identity. Prof. Kunin’s book Juggling Identities is based on numerous interviews in the area, leading to understand the expression of crypto-Jewish identities. Indeed, as I have argued above, the evidence and genealogy adduced are best understood in the context of identity. Indeed, the most striking aspect is not the evidence and genealogy, but the way attitudes towards Judaism have changed in this community.


An informal community of American Hispanos claiming their ancestors were forced to become Catholics has emerged in the past three decades, largely but not entirely with roots in the Southwestern U.S. What are the components of this community? I like to use categories of “believing, behaving and belonging” to discuss religious phenomena, and they shape the discussion here.

As with mainstream American Jews, there is little uniformity of traditional religious belief among U.S. Crypto-Jews: some fervently believe in God and some don’t, some express beliefs that would be familiar to anyone in the mainstream Jewish community; most do not. But most believe in the value of the continuity of their Jewish identity, at least in a hidden form: a belief that they and their ancestors have always been Jewish in at least some sense (rather than just having some Jewish ancestors or choosing to identify as Jews). 

As for “behaving:” 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. They assert that Purim is highly meaningful to Crypto-Jews and talk of Esther with pride for maintaining Jewish identity in secret while married to the King and living in the royal palace —but few participate in normative Purim activities.


Practice is more likely to involve participation in various groups and forums, conferences and travel. They seek DNA confirmation of their heritage (perhaps this is a kind of ritual). They consult rabbis and cheer various organizations that validate their beliefs about the continuity of their Jewish identity and the nature of that identity, while wary of total identification with Jewish mainstream—a cause of the complexity of their relation with it). “Belonging” to a Crypto-Jewish or Sephardic community (often not the mainstream Jewish community!) is more important than traditional beliefs and behaviors.

As we saw with belief in “Jewish continuity” (rather than God), this style of “Jewish practice” in which there is often only a small religious content, emphasizing non-religious community institutions and ethnic practices, also mirrors a large portion of the American Jewish mainstream.  


It may be instructive to compare American Hispanic Crypto-Jews and African American Muslims. Both groups share a foundation narrative asserting a unique heritage, including the survival of a small trace even if completely hidden or nearly destroyed. Neither community has simply folded into its religious mainstream, maintaining a complex relationship with their “former identities” and often marginalized by many who question whether these groups are authentic enough or meet religious standards.


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. Crypto-Jews assert they are maintaining a religious tradition but often it is the essentialist genetic (i.e. racial) component that is most important to them. It’s often difficult for them to relate to mainstream Jewish community concerns such as Israel, educating the next generation, and deepening Jewish identification among a population that considers Judaism elective. Yet if the way they handle genealogy, evidence and identity is unique, and their relationship with the Jewish mainstream complex, their patterns and priorities of believing, behaving and belonging  fit into an American pattern, and underscore the importance of national models in understanding crypto-Judaic phenomena around the world.


Finally, a word about “Standard Bearers.” Integration into urban and especially suburban areas with large Jewish populations, shared experiences in World War II, the decline of anti-Semitism all were necessary for hispano openness and desire to express a Jewish identity.  But I do not think they were sufficient: people like Stan Hordes worked to help give this phenomenon a voice.  Although Hordes for example, has often been called a “booster” he is more of a “standard bearer”—both as in carrying the flag (i.e. the ‘standard’) but also of setting the standard: combining commitment to this community with research and critical thinking. The leadership of committed individuals such as Stan Hordes with solid research credentials is crucial to the emergence and stability of this community.


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