Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Crytpo Judaism -- does any linger?

Note: A print version of this story appeared in the December issue of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas, but more about LareDOS can be seen online, and in pdf form, at


Mysteries course through our blood like raindrops on a lake and Jewish Sephardic lines and stories of modern crypto Jews surface frequently in South Texas and Mexico.
Plenty of evidence points to a past, in which Spain’s infamous Inquisition burned many at the stake, fueled the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and forced many to go underground. Much of that evidence extends to modern family storytelling and historical research about many of the crypto Jews pioneering Spain’s colonization into what is now northern Mexico and Texas – out in the wilds and away from church or government officials who might prefer to burn them at the stake.
Experts say the crypto Jews of the American Southwest and northern Mexico probably gave up their hidden Judaism for the safer Catholicism two or three generations after landing in the Americas, but that’s only because none have stepped forward with any concrete proof.
And they possibly never will.
Most likely.
Seth Ward at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver writes that the term crypto Jew is always used with respect to Sephardic converts to Christianity, but it could be said to apply to the secret Judaism practiced under Islam when the Almohades invaded Spain in the 12th century; in Mashhad, Iran in the 19th and 20th centuries and possibly to the Turkish Donme.
“Due to its secretive nature, a sense of community was possible only in fairly remote areas; even so, there was a constant fear that a practice might give them away to the authorities, or even that a family member might turn them in,” Ward’s story adds. “Crypto-Judaism is used to refer to a wide range of phenomena. In some cases, families are reported to have transmitted explicit statements such as ‘We are Jews’ through the generations.”
Corpus Christi-based historian and retired ethnology professor Leonardo Carrillo says some families passed down house keys from homes in Spain. Hopes were that the Inquisition would one day fade away, allowing Sephardic Jews to return home.
Crytpo Jews occupy an obscure corner of North American and European history, but their descendents appear to be all around and among us in abundance – leaving any future crypto Judaism to most likely fall into urban legend, possibly rising in a fiction novel, or a movie.
“So are there any crypto Jews today? NO,” Historian, archivist and “Silent Heritage” author Richard G. Santos, of San Antonio, said by e-mail. “What you will find are their descendents whose religious beliefs and practices will vary according to their familial religiosity, upbringing, worldview and heritage awareness.”
Carlos M. Larralde writes online at that Laredo founder Spanish army Cpt. Tomas Sanchez and most of this city’s original settlers came with Jewish bloodlines, too. Larralde lives in the San Diego, California-area, but like many Laredoans claims to be a Sanchez descendent.
Larralde noted Sanchez’s connections to Judaism in his story.
“During Colonial Mexico, the Sanchez family used different surnames, a practice common among Hispanic Jews. Like other Jews, Sanchez had confidence in himself,” his story said. “Sanchez’s family roots sprang from Nuevo Leon since the 1600s, as part of the community founded by New Christian Governor Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva. There were probably 100 or more families.”
Carvajal was later found to be Jewish and many of his family and associates were victims of the Inquisition.
Carvajal came to Mexico through Portugal and Carrillo says Carvajal’s followers were Jews expelled from Spain, staying in Portugal long enough to be called Portuguese, escaping Spanish decrees against traveling to the Americas.
None of this surprises Laredo archivist and businessman Armengol Guerra who points to the online names section of
“It looks like the Laredo phone book,” Guerra said. “Probably 60 percent of the names in Laredo are of Jewish descent.
“Why come here in the mid-1700s when there was nothing here?” Guerra asked. “I think they wanted to be free of the Inquisition. It is surprising to a lot that they are Sephardic and not just Spanish and Mexican.” says the word Sephardic came from Roman times when many Jews were exiled from the Holy Land to the Iberian Peninsula.
“The area became known by the Hebrew word Sephard meaning far away. The Jews in Spain and Portugal became known as Sephardim or Sephardi, and those things associated with the Sephardim including names, customs, genealogy and religious rites, became known as Sephardic,” the Web site says.
Here in South Texas, weekends would have been different in a Jewish home. Carrillo says the Saturday Sabbath really began at sundown on Friday when candles were lit.
“They were not supposed to work, sweep, bath or eat pork,” Carrillo said. “They were obliged to eat pork in the daytime, but not at home.”
Carrillo says weeks were counted in eight days, too.
Carrillo, Santos and others note the appearance of numerous Ladino words popping up in Spanish-language conversations. Ladino was the dialect of Sephardic Jews taken with them when fleeing Spain after Queen Isabela’s expulsion decree in 1492.
Variations like muncho instead of mucho and comite rather than comiste are only two Ladino examples, but many more are listed in the growing number of Web sites dedicated to crypto and Sephardic heritage.
More information is showing up in libraries and bookstores, too.
Santos has taken some criticism for his work as it tends to divulge the family secret, as he told Austin Chronicle reviewer David Garza in 2001 after his book “Silent Heritage” was published.
Carrillo and Santos both note that some family lineage secrets include the marriage of cousins. Carrillo says there were some cases of close cousins marrying, but Santos says the Catholic Church didn’t allow first cousins to marry and the term cousin has a different meaning in the extended families of Mexico and South Texas.
“The licencias matromoniales conducted before any marriage could be performed attest to the fact they did each parties' family tree to their great great grand parents. Uncles marrying nieces and aunts marrying nephews were not uncommon. Second, third and etc. cousins marrying were also not uncommon as they were not illegal or prohibited,” Santos said in e-mail. “Bear in mind that in the Hispanic and Mexican culture the extended family bridges generations. Therefore, distant relatives are frequently referred to as cousins, uncles, aunts etc. even though they could be four generations removed. “
Loose-lipped family could give a crypto away, but dangers existed in public habits, too.
Converted Jews, or conversos, and their family members weren’t free of discrimination and the Inquisition by simply converting to Catholicism, but they, and the cryptos, could hide their faith, or links to Judaism by publicly violating kosher dietary laws when they ate pork, or shellfish. Muslims, also eventually forced to convert or leave Spain, had a similar diet and the same security problem.
Some people of crypto descent have maintained old handed down habits and claim to be allergic to pork.
“I don’t think you would have to look too far for an illustrative crypto Jew. You might find one on your own newspaper,” Dr. Jack Zeller said. “Many people know that their family is a bit odd since they have family customs that are very important that are never discussed outside the family. Anyone on your staff that thinks their family has an allergy to pork are good candidates. There is no such medical entity.”
Zeller speaks with authority as both a physician and president of Zulanu, a worldwide Jewish social and educational organization.
Zeller and others in synagogues and Jewish organizations have increasingly met people who came to believe that they are Jewish in habit and ancestry. But Jewish leaders constantly remind Web site readers and researchers that Judaism is a religion and not a race, leaving traceable bloodlines to the Semitic peoples, which includes vast numbers in the Middle East and Asia Minor.
Leaders also note a membership surge, which appears to have emotional, if not direct blood ties to that crypto, or converso, past.
An Oct. 29, 2005 New York Times story notes the strong growth of Judaism in the American Southwest.
“It is difficult to know precisely how many Hispanics are converting or adopting Jewish religious practices, but accounts of such embraces of Judaism are growing more common in parts of the Southwest,” Simon Romero’s story said. “In Clear Lake, a suburb south of Houston, Rabbi Stuart Federow has overseen half a dozen conversions of Hispanics in recent years. In El Paso, Rabbi Steven Leon said he had converted almost 40 Hispanic families since moving from New Jersey to Texas 19 years ago.”
Much of the same is happening much farther south in Brazil where Kobi Ben Simhon wrote for Ha’aretz’ online version on March 24 last year that all signs indicate a crypto Jewish awakening in search of its roots.
Simhon quotes from Israeli professor Avi Gross, of Ben-Gurion University, an expert on Spanish and Portuguese Jewry, while using the word Marranos, a derogatory word meaning swine, which stems from terminology in the expulsion from Spain.
“He describes a conversation he had in Sao Paolo with prof. Anita Novinsky, a world expert on the Inquisition – ‘She denies persistence of Judaism among the Marranos, yet she admits, as she told me, that Brazil is seething with Judaism below the surface.’ I will not forget what she said about one of the descendents of the Marranos I met – that he carries history in his flesh and blood.
“From my point of view as a historian, that is a definitive statement. After all, she is highly critical of the way historical research has idealized the Marranos’ preservation of Judaism, and when she says something like that she apparently knows whereof she speaks.”
Houston’s Family Tree DNA is one of several companies that could help some decide if they are of Jewish ancestry, but this tester has a Jewish-specific test.
“We could tell you if those clues indicate a possible Jewish ancestry, or if you are related to someone that is in our database. Our Jewish specific comparative databases are the largest in the world containing records for Jews of Ashkenazi and Sephardic origins, as well as Levite and Cohanim,” Family Tree’s Web site says.
Owner Bennett Greenspan says he contracts with the University of Arizona for Family Tree testing.
Greenspan is an amateur genealogist and has read about human migrations since watching National Geographic television specials as a boy. Greenspan notes the reasoning and logic behind why great numbers of Jews would have come to the Americas. Anyone lacking an army to fight back with most likely would have fled to remote places, too, but the DNA he finds in those Jewish heritage tests net much the same findings he would get testing a Palestinian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, Saudi Arabian or someone else from that region.
“I think a lot of Palestinians are Muslims, but were Christians and Jews, but they were not deported by the Romans,” he said by phone from Houston. “I think many were fighting Rome some 2,000 years ago. The DNA between the Palestinians and Jews is closer.”
Greenspan has been in the DNA business since 1999 when he bought another company’s test for a friend from Argentina, but says there’s a lot of work to do, hoping to get more information about those Spanish exiles “and make it easier for people to look up.” He is also diving more into Mexico’s intriguing gene pools, which include earlier groups than the crypto Jews.
Experts might have the confidence to bet money that no more crypto Jews exist, but they might be conservative in their betting, too.
“For many decades it was assumed that no crypto Jews remained in Iberia, but in 1917 Samuel Schwarz, a Polish Jewish engineer, stumbled upon remnants of crypto Jews in the village of Belmonte, Portugal,” Ward writes. “Attempts to revive crypto-Judaism at this time were defeated by opponents, but in 1932 interest in the crypto Jews of Spain and Portugal, and their contemporary descendents, was first popularized by the famous Judaic scholar Cecil Roth with the publication of “A History of the Marranos.” Much has changed since then, including gradual replacement of the negative Spanish word Marrano with the positive terms crypto Jews or anuism (forced converts).”
Santos’ epilogue in “Silent Heritage” places Laredo in the New Kingdom of De Leon founded by Carvajal and his crypto followers, which evolved into South Texas and the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon, Coahuila and Tamaulipas. This territory became a patria chica, or little homeland, separate from the other patria chica around present day New Mexico and remote from Mexico City’s bureaucracy.
Santos writes that the founding families of both patrias chicas were mostly of Sephardic descent.
“It mattered not if they were crypto Jews or sincere converses; they were Sephardic by culture. They were the ruling class and landed aristocracy. As such, their culture, worldview, cuisine and lifestyle was imitated not only by their Christian counterparts, but by the converted and assimilated Native American Indian cultures,” Santos wrote.
Turkish-born Laredo businesswoman Matilde Frank, 84, has assimilated into Mexican and United States cultures from Sephardic roots established after the 1492 expulsion from Spain.
Her family was able to practice their faith openly in Turkey and could in Mexico, but some of that old Inquisition-based discrimination lingered when she was a little girl in her second of three countries.
“Little by little it got better,” she said in both English and Spanish. “Thanks to the foreigners, Mexico is getting growing up, and the U.S., too.”
Frank recalls a lifetime in sales in Mexico and the U.S., but sees love as the top product sought everywhere and that commonality serves to break down barriers between divided peoples.
“People want to be loved. Everybody, somewhere inside has a heart,” she said.
Frank also notes the world’s people taking more control of their lives and their country’s directions in recent decades much more so than in past centuries, denying chances for policies like the Inquisition to happen again.

Note: Some of the other Web sites related to crypto Judaism:

Most of these sites also provide numerous links to others.


At 11:22 PM, Blogger baiyunlong said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:28 PM, Anonymous joe Botello said...

I was googling for "marranos in Texas" and found your side. I read it with interest since my great-grandfather was a Private with the Benavides regiment, a discharge I have hanging on my study. His name was Antonio Botello and I have often wondered where he came from. Do you have other sites that may be of help in finding out?

Joe Botello

At 3:54 PM, Anonymous M. Miriam Herrera said...

Thank you for your discussion on this topic close to my heart--as I am a poet descended from Crypto Jews of S. Texas. For more information on Crypto Jews and/or to read my poetry, you can visit my site at (poetry), or (Crypto Jewish links)

At 11:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most viewed web-site on the topic of Crypto Jews is the co-founder of The Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies, Rabbi Joshua Stamper and long time member of the same, Rabbi Yosef Garcia started The ACJA to help in the return of Crypto Jews to main stream Judaism. The Organization has helped more than 300 people to date. With a certificate of return which has been accepted in Yisrael as proof of ones Jewishness.

Cris Smith


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