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'Crypto-Jews' In The Southwest Find Faith In A Shrouded Legacy

Discussion in 'Faith and Religion' started by tulianr, Feb 19, 2014.

  1. tulianr

    tulianr Don Quixote de la Monkey

    by Wyatt Orme
    February 19, 2014 7:45 AM

    There were the grandfathers who refused to eat pork and wore hats at Saturday church services, the grandmothers who lit candles on Friday nights. The sheep and cattle ranchers who slit the throats of their animals, drained the blood, removed the sciatic nerve and salted the meat. These kinds of stories aren't uncommon in the American Southwest.

    At a bedside altar facing the room's East wall, Sonya Loya's maternal grandmother, a staunch Catholic, would pray three times daily with a shawl over her head. Living in Alpine, Texas, a small town isolated in the high desert, she taught her family to routinely check their hens' eggs for spots of blood. Her last request before she died was that she be buried with her feet facing the East.

    "There's something about it, deep within our souls," Loya says.

    It wasn't until Loya was an adult that she learned of a possible Jewish legacy in the region — a narrative that the media would magnify and scholars would dispute. She matched her family surnames with names of medieval Sephardic Jews on an online database. Suddenly, her grandmother's unquestioned traditions dramatically changed in meaning. Had she been a Jew all along?

    New Mexico's Hidden Jews
    When Jewish-Latino photographer Peter Svarzbein drove through Ruidoso, N.M., and stopped at Sonya Loya's shop, he was overwhelmed to find a collection of Judaica for sale in the small town off I-70. "It was fascinating and emotional," he says, "not something that fit with the Jewish narrative of my life." He began taking pictures. That evolved into a project documenting crypto-Jews in the region who were making the "transition back" to Judaism. See Svarzbein's project .

    A Religion In Hiding
    Spain, 1391: Anti-Semitic riots broke out across the Iberian Peninsula. Thousands of Jews were murdered; thousands more converted to Christianity, mostly by force. But even the converts were still targets. In the 15th century King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella feared that these Jews who converted to Christianity, conversos or Cristianos nuevos, continued to secretly adhere to Judaism. To root out and punish the crypto-Jews (crypto as in concealed, hidden) they established the Spanish Inquisition, whose first tribunals were established in 1480 in Seville.

    In 1492, the practicing Jews who remained were officially expelled from Spain. Jews and crypto-Jews alike immigrated to Portugal and the Spanish colonies for new opportunity and more religious freedom. But the Inquisition spread to Portugal, then to the empire's farthest reaches: first Peru, then Mexico City.

    Those who claim to be descendants of crypto-Jews — and the academics who support them — believe that converso populations sought refuge in what is now the border region between Texas and the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.

    When Sonya Loya learned about this legacy of crypto-Judaism, she was running a glass shop in the small mountain town of Ruidoso, N.M. She'd been raised Catholic, like her grandmother, but never felt much sense of belonging. When she was 18, her priest told her not to come back.

    But something else was in order for her. "I had the courage to keep asking questions until I had my answers," she remembers.

    Years later, a friend invited her to a gathering of Messianic Jews near Santa Fe, and it was there she witnessed her first Sabbath service. Seeing other Hispanics wearing yarmulkes and reading Hebrew stirred her curiosity unlike anything had before.

    "I walked away from that weekend with a few tools in my hand to continue my journey," she says.

    A woman at the gathering explained the history of the crypto-Jews to Loya and encouraged her to look into her genealogy. After learning online her ancestors may have been Sephardic Jews, some of whom were persecuted by the Inquisition, she began teaching herself Hebrew and studying Torah.

    Legitimacy Of The Legacy
    She wasn't aware of it at the time, but the "crypto-Jewish" identity in the Southwest has been the subject of heated controversy. In 1981, New Mexico's newly appointed state historian, Stanley Hordes, began work in Santa Fe and immediately began receiving visitors in search of family records, believing themselves to be the descendants of conversos.

    He began tracing through the state's archives and Inquisition records. He discovered genealogical links between families in the Southwest with vestigial Jewish traditions and victims of the Inquisition in Mexico, Portugal and Spain.

    "The biggest challenge in completing a study of this kind was determining the history of a group of people who for centuries tried desperately to cover their tracks ..." Hordes writes in the introduction to his book, To the End of the Earth.

    His findings became popular in the Southwest, but many remained skeptical. Folklorist and Case Western Reserve University lecturer Judith Neulander has concluded that the "folk evidence" of a crypto-Jewish survival in the Southwest — six-pointed stars on tombstones, supposedly kosher practices — is inadequate.

    Many of those traditions, she said, could as easily have come from a separatist sect of Seventh-day Adventists in the area, whose practices were notably more Hebraic than other forms of Protestantism. The crypto-Jewish identity, she argued, could instead be an origin myth Hispanics in New Mexico appropriated in lieu of one previously debunked — that they were the descendants of conquistadors.

    "People will reconstruct the past in the way of the greatest social benefit to their communities," Neulander says.

    Forward To Israel
    Loya began selling Jewish items in her store in Ruidoso and turned a section of the space into the Bat Tziyon [daughter of Zion] Hebrew Learning Center, which hosted weekly Torah-study classes and Shabbat dinners. While many community members became involved, others were vehemently opposed and tried to get it banned. She says a Christian radio station ran several programs about her, accusing her of brainwashing Christians and blasting her Judaism.

    "Some pastors run the other way when they see me," Loya says.

    But against doubts and opposition, she completed her conversion to Judaism in 2005 and has since filled out her papers to emigrate to Israel. At the age of 54, she hopes to study to become a rabbi.

    "Sometimes I wake up and I think, 'Why am I doing this?' " she says. "And then I remember — it's for all the thousands and thousands of the others who are trying to make it back."

    'Crypto-Jews' In The Southwest Find Faith In A Shrouded Legacy : Code Switch : NPR
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  2. chelloveck

    chelloveck Diabolus Causidicus

  3. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    DNA may be an avenue to explore.
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  4. tulianr

    tulianr Don Quixote de la Monkey

    The real test of whether they are Jews or not is if their neighbors are attempting to annihilate them. History seems to point to that one indicator. A civilization isn't truly advanced until they've attempted to wipe out their Jewish neighbors.
    cjsloane likes this.
  5. chelloveck

    chelloveck Diabolus Causidicus

    Particularly if they share the lineage of Cohen.

    The Cohen / DNA Connection
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  6. Minuteman

    Minuteman Chaplain Moderator Founding Member

    I am a student of ancient history and the ancient history of north America is fascinating. There were inscribed gravestones found in,IIRC, Pennsylvania or maybe Ohio back in the late 1800's. They were assumed to be "indian" writing. It wasn't until the 1920's that someone realized that the native Americans didn't have a written language. It was found that the inscriptions were ancient Hebrew.
    A stone carving in New Mexico was found to be the ten commandments in Aramaic, a language not spoken for a millennium.
    There is little doubt that the Israelites were familiar with and frequenting north America for centuries before Columbus "discovered" it. There is a theory that the vast quantities of gold that Solomon used to build the temple and all of it's accoutrements may have come from north and south America.

    One thing that always irks me is the widespread usage of the term "Jew". A "Jew" is one who practices the religion of Judaism that evolved during and after the Babylonian captivity. A Judahite, sometimes referred to in scripture as a "Jew" is someone from the geographic nation of Judah. All Jews (except those who converted to the religion of Judaism) are Israelites. But not all Israelites are Jews. And the Israelites practiced the Hebrew religion not Judaism.
    It is a common mistake to refer to anything of Israelite origin as "Jewish".

    The practitioners of Judaism have been persecuted around the world, even by their relatives the Israelites.

    I have no doubt that many fled to the new world to escape that persecution. And the south west and northern Mexico is rife with evidences of their influence. But I don't think it is hidden or something shrouded in mystery. Many people know or at least claim to be of that descent. Though many have hidden it over the years. Either for fear of persecution or bias in their careers. One of the most famous examples of this is Jerry Rivers. A Jewish family name and history but the family purposely changed their name and hid all evidence of their "Jewishness" to help to further the career of their son. You now him as Geraldo Rivera.
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  7. tulianr

    tulianr Don Quixote de la Monkey

    I find claims of Israelite residence in North and South America prior to 1492 to be dubious in the extreme, and I don't believe they are well founded. As for defining who and what a Jew is, I'll leave that to the Jewish community. Surely, Jews should have the right to decide who is, and who is not, a Jew. In modern usage, an Israelite is someone who is a citizen of the nation state of Israel. In ancient usage, an Israelite was a descendent of Israel, also known as Jacob. Recent attempts to confuse and obfuscate the issue with lengthy discourses and word play by some Christians just hurts my head.

    I posted the original article because I found the possibility of religious customs surviving through the centuries, and still being practiced by people in the modern day, even though they didn't know why they did these things, interesting. I thought others might find it similarly interesting.

    The documentary (I use the term somewhat loosely) "Quest for the Lost Tribes," by Simcha Jacobovici, highlights several communities around the world in which Jewish dietary and religious practices are followed by the residents, even though they aren't ostensibly Jews. They are simply following age old customs, without completely understanding why they are doing the things that they do. Some of these communities may very well be the descendents of older Jewish communities, which had been forced to convert to Christianity or Islam.

    This may be the case with the group in New Mexico, or it may be wishful thinking on the part of a few. It would be interesting to see what DNA testing would reveal, though I don't know how conclusive that would necessarily be. As I've said, my genetic markers matched several people around the world who identified themselves as Jews. Me a Jew? Who knew?

    I think - along the lines of hearing hoof beats and thinking horses, not zebras - that if indeed individuals of Mexican descent are carrying on ancient Jewish traditions, it is most likely that their ancestors were Marranos, or Conversos; those Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in order to remain in the territory of Spain after 1492.

    Now where is my yarmulke? I had it here somewhere ...... ;)
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  8. Minuteman

    Minuteman Chaplain Moderator Founding Member

    I found it interesting also. I remember either seeing a documentary or reading an article on this. It was about practicing Jews(blood line or converted?) that were quite prevalent in the SW and Mexico but that were very secretive due to persecution from the dominate catholic authorities of the area.
    As for calling a Jew a Jew so to speak. That is more my perfectionist mindset than anything ideological. I am the same about many misused terms and phrases.
  9. cjsloane

    cjsloane Monkey

    No. You are Jewish if your mother was Jewish. All else, as they say, is commentary.

    Wikipedia has a pretty good entry.
    In general, Orthodox Judaism considers individuals born of Jewish mothers to be Jewish, even if they convert to another religion.
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  10. cjsloane

    cjsloane Monkey

    I did see that "documentary" & it was kinda cool. DNA testing to back up the claims would've been cooler.

    As for me, I don't need any DNA testing - 100% sure I am.
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  11. Minuteman

    Minuteman Chaplain Moderator Founding Member

    Yes that is the standard. However that is apples and oranges. That standard is for the practitioners of the religion of judaism. It has nothing to do with the heredity of Israelite origin. But as the OP was About that group I suppose my comment would have been better suited to another discussion. I was merely pointing out that to refer to ancient Israelites as Jews is not accurate. They did not reside in the nation of Judah, making them Judahites, commonly referred to in scripture as Jews nor did they practice the religion of Judaism which in it's current form is only recognized after the Babylonian captivity. A point in time in which the vast majority of Israelites had been taken captive by the assyrians over 700 years prior.
  12. Minuteman

    Minuteman Chaplain Moderator Founding Member

    The Judaic standard is the same as the Islamic one with the exception that in Islam the descent is from the father. It has nothing to do with genetics. If I converted to islam then all my children would be Muslim, in perpetuity. No matter if they converted back to Christian or any other religion.
  13. chelloveck

    chelloveck Diabolus Causidicus

    Children born prior to the their father's conversion to Islam, subsequent to his conversion, or both?
  14. cjsloane

    cjsloane Monkey

    Actually, the Judaic standard is more nuanced. You are Jewish if your mother is Jewish, but your tribal affiliation is inherited through your father. I'm just throwing that out there because you have "chaplain" in your avatar, and it has relevance to Jesus.
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  15. Minuteman

    Minuteman Chaplain Moderator Founding Member

    To Chell, not sure on that. I know that they consider all children born to a Muslim as Muslim. It was part of the debate on whether Obama was Muslim or not. If his father was, then according to Islam so is he, no matter what faith he proclaims later. But what if it was his stepfather? And children born pre-conversion, interesting, I'll have to research that.
    And to cj, I am not that familiar with Judaic standards, I knew that it came from the maternal line but now that you mention it the tribal line is of course through the father. Thus the Levites, Judahites, in fact all of the Iraelites are called according to their fathers bloodline. ie; the kingly Davidic bloodline.
  16. chelloveck

    chelloveck Diabolus Causidicus

    It would seem that his (Obama's) baptism into the United Church of Christ would place Obama into a state of Apostasy in respect to Islam, regardless of the state of Obama Senior's nominal commitment to Islam. Upon baptism into the Christian faith...who gets to claim a convert's soul? Allah, or Jesus?
  17. Minuteman

    Minuteman Chaplain Moderator Founding Member

    I know your being facetious but on the Apostasy issue, yes, conversion is a capitol crime in many Muslim countries and as to the soul claimant, the last one with the ball gets the score!
  18. chelloveck

    chelloveck Diabolus Causidicus

    It was a serious question....though for an apostate Christian, it seems absurd that being an atheist, Jesus gets to keep the apostate's soul and then send it to perdition, just because Jesus was the last deity in the deity conversion conga line. : S
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  19. Minuteman

    Minuteman Chaplain Moderator Founding Member

    Not what I said. I said the last one with the ball. If no one has the ball(at the goal line, aka, deaths door) then no one gets the score. I guess that's what they call "Nirvana". Perfect nothingness. No score, no foul, perpetual limbo.
  20. chelloveck

    chelloveck Diabolus Causidicus

    That works for me...I guess...I'm glad the Tikes abolished Limbo...I think. I can live with not being: I was not before I was; and going back to being not, well, I have had billions of years of that, and although being is much more fun than not being, when I eventually become not, I'll have billions of years of non experience to draw upon.

    Thankyou for answering my question. :)
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