EL PASO, Texas (JTA) — Stanley Hordes is one of the foremost experts on the Crypto-Jews, with his recent book “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico” (Columbia University Press, 2008) and his next study on the Crypto-Jews of the Spanish Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and pre-British Jamaica. The former state historian of New Mexico and current adjunct research professor at the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico talks about what exactly is a Crypto-Jew and how to go about finding your past.
JTA: What is a Crypto-Jew?
HORDES: A Crypto-Jew is someone who professed one faith openly and their Jewish faith secretly. After 500 years this cultural remnant spans a broad spectrum, ranging from people with no consciousness and no practices — nothing but a bloodline, a suspicious name and a tendency to contract certain genetic diseases, diseases associated with Jewish populations — to people whose grandmother still lights candles on Friday nights, who still observes the Sabbath on Saturday, who still refrain from eating pork and don’t mix milk and meat at the same meal, people who still circumcise their children and male infants and have done so long before the doctors were coming through New Mexico. …
Technically, a converso refers to a person who underwent a conversion himself/herself, but the term has been used to refer to their descendants as well. A Crypto-Jew, or secret Jew, is someone who practices his/her Judaism secretly while openly professing another religion. “Anusim” is a Hebrew term for people who were forced to convert against their will, while “meshumadim” refer to willing converts. The term “marrano” is more complex, and there are many different histories for the term. The one that makes the most sense to me is a combination of two Hebrew words: “mumar”(convert) and “anús” (compelled one). Marrano means swine and was meant as a pejorative term used by Jews who did not convert to describe Jews who did.
JTA: How did you get involved in the study of Crypto-Jews?
HORDES: In 1981 I became the state historian of New Mexico. I started receiving a lot of visits from people who said, ‘You know, so-and-so lights candles on Friday night.’ I thought, ‘Why are you telling me this? It’s certainly not unusual for a Catholic woman to be lighting candles.’ And a couple of weeks later, someone else would come into my office and in a secretive manner say, ‘So-and-so doesn’t eat pork!’ Over the succeeding weeks people were telling me about how their colleagues were observing rituals suggestive of a Jewish past. I suspect that they were talking about themselves. After awhile I asked myself, ‘Could it be possible that there could be a survival of not only Jewish customs but of Jewish consciousness?‘
JTA: Can a last name help someone tell if they have Jewish blood?
HORDES: There’s quite a bit of confusion over this question — some people think that names ending in “es” or “ez” are uniquely Jewish. The “es” suffix simply means “son of.” But put yourself in the position of someone in 1492 who has made the gut-wrenching decision to stay in Spain and convert to Catholicism. Now if your name was Avraham Ben Moshe, and you’re trying to quickly assimilate into Old Christian society, the first thing you’d do is get rid of that name. You’d likely take a name like the Old Christians have, such as Gonzalez or García — or de la Cruz, de Jesus or Santa Maria. There’s only a very small number of cases where a name is uniquely Jewish. I’ve heard so many stories about the name Rael coming from “Israel.” Every Rael I’ve ever found in New Mexico goes back to one Jewish family in southeastern Spain that had converted to Judaism in the 1480s. But you have to be careful about names. There’s no other way of ascertaining proof of ancestry except by playing the “who begat whom” game, or conducting extensive archival research through the genealogical records.
JTA: What about DNA?
HORDES: DNA testing potentially can tell us an awful lot. But we’re at only an early stage of this kind of research, and at this point the commercial testing companies can only tell who your mothers’ mother’s mother’s mother is or your father’s father’s father’s father — all the way back. They can’t tell you anything about your mother’s father’s family or any of the other thousands of ancestors. But culture is not passed down through genes — it’s interesting, but it does not define who you are. A lot of us are more interested in cultural traits and Jewish consciousness, including the extent to which descendants of Crypto-Jews tended to marry within the group. The genetic and genealogical research supplies us with a historical plausibility of suggestive Crypto-Jewish practices that may have been passed down. All of these avenues of research complement each other.
JTA: Some think this whole issue is untrue, like folklorist Judith Neulander, who thinks Hispanos might be inventing an “imaginary Crypto-Jewish identity,” according to the December 2000 Atlantic Monthly article “Mistaken Identity: The Case of New Mexico’s Hidden Jews.”
HORDES: Anthropologist Seth D. Kunin addresses these issues in his recently released “Juggling Identities: Identity and Authenticity Among the Crypto-Jews,” (Columbia University Press). We know that thousands of Crypto-Jews on the Iberian Penisula converted to Catholicism,but secretly held to their ancestral Jewish faith and customs. Some believe that people are inventing a past that they never had in order to deny their black or Indian family background — to climb the social ladder by showing how “white” they are. But there are so many more conventional ways to assert whiteness, why would you want to be Jewish when being different is not valued in that community?