Menu JTA Search

Crypto-Jewish group supports people newly discovering roots

The New Mexico Jewish Link
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., Dec. 11 (JTA) — Dennis Duran converted to Judaism in 1977. Duran, president of Anusim Ysrael, a New Mexico-based support group for crypto-Jews, has since discovered that he descended from Jews on both sides of his Mormon-Catholic family. His mother and father are fifth cousins, at least, he said, and he has gone back to 1557 in his genealogical research. But it was not until 1988, when he talked with former New Mexico state historian Stan Hordes, that he discovered his family had many behaviors that fit the crypto-Jewish profile. Crypto-Jews are descendants of the Jews forced to convert or leave Spain during the Inquisition. They have been called Secret Jews, or the derogatory term Marranos. Anusim, which means “the forced ones,” is the current and preferred term. “When I grew up, my grandfather was leading me to a path of Judaism without my even knowing it,” said Duran, a former officer of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society. “I went to Catholic school for 11 years and I would talk to him about what they were teaching me and he would say, `No, no that’s wrong. This is the way it ought to be.’ “I’d go back to class and start asking questions and I seemed to be getting in a lot of trouble with the nuns. They didn’t like it and they showed it in the way they treated me, often singling me out and disciplining me for unknown reasons.” Duran said his grandfather made him four-sided tops for use in a game called “pon y saca,” which means “put and take.” Each side of the top had an Arabic letter, and the game was played like the game of dreidel. Duran always left the toy at his grandfather’s house. He said there were no crosses or pictures or statues of saints in his own home. His family ate no pork and his father grew up on a ranch where the animals were slaughtered in the kosher way. Many other people, particularly in the American Southwest, are discovering that they are descendants of Jews forced out of Spain during the days of the Inquisition who often secretly maintained their Jewish beliefs and practices. Coming to terms with this information is often a long and difficult process, and many people consult historian Hordes when they have questions. “I leave people’s spiritual choices to them,” said Hordes. “I’m here to help with the history and heritage issues.” Both Gloria Trujillo and Isabelle Medina Sandoval have also learned they are descended from Jewish families and have recently gone through a conversion process called the rite of return. Sandoval, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., recalled that her mother made kosher wine, but she does not believe her mother ever knew of her Jewish heritage. “I always noticed that our family didn’t seem to fit in anywhere,” she said. “About five years ago, a friend suggested that I might be a Sephardi Jew, and I started reading and things just fell into place. I’m very much at peace with who I am now.” Trujillo, who lives in California but also has roots in northern New Mexico, said she, too, always wondered about the ways in which her family was different. She began to study genealogy and spoke with Hordes about some of the rituals her family followed and soon realized they were of Jewish origin. “It explained a lot of things for me,” she said. Out of these similar situations came the idea for Anusim Ysrael, a support group for crypto-Jews who are facing their heritage and who are interested in considering the possibility of identifying with Judaism. The group is headquartered in Santa Fe, N.M., but draws its members from around the Southwest, as well as other parts of the country. In 1994, Duran, along with Sandoval, Trujillo and other descendants of crypto-Jews who traveled to Jerusalem and Portugal for a meeting of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, decided to organize into a support group. “Different people are in different stages of dealing with who and what they are — whether they grew up knowing it or it kind of hit them in the face just recently and there’s some kind of trauma,” said Duran. Duran was elected president of the group, which now comprises about 50 members. Sandoval is vice president and Trujillo is the group’s secretary. The group meets annually and has other events during the year. The word “Anusim” was chosen to be in the group’s name because it is an apt description of what happened to Jews in Spain who were forced to give up the public worship of their religion. Sandoval said that, for her, Anusim Ysrael is “like having a brother or sister that I don’t have to explain my background to. We understand each other and the implications of being ostracized by some family members who view you as being strange, almost like a violation of the family boundaries.” Group members have helped Trujillo find books and articles as she continues her study of Judaism, she said. “You get anxious about things,” Trujillo said. “Feelings of not knowing which way to turn. It’s helpful to talk with people with the same feelings. We share what we know.”