Article — From the December 2009 issue

Shalom on the Range: In search of the American Crypto-Jew

In search of the American Crypto-Jew

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ii.

Eternal rest in the Santa Clara campo santo is restricted to the descendants of the families of the Atrisco Land Grant, an 82,000-square-acre expanse of mesquite-scented dust bowl, ceded in 1692 to the conquistador Don Fernando Durán y Chavez as reward for his suppression of an Indian uprising. The cemetery sits on a narrow pie wedge of desert scrubland, with perhaps 200 souls resident, in graves obscured by tangles of bunchgrass and windblown trash. A chain-link fence encircles the cemetery on three sides, along with a single cinder-block wall decorated with gangland graffiti and a crudely beautiful mural depicting the Virgin Mary with angel’s wings. Behind the fence lurks a decaying subdivision, which in its advanced decrepitude seems ready to collapse onto the cemetery.

Perry Peña, Daniel Yocum’s college roommate, had brought me to Santa Clara. Perry was a slightly built Hispanic man in his early forties, dressed in black slacks and a white button-down shirt. He was also wearing a Jewish religious undergarment called a tallit katan, with the tzitzit, the tassels that edge the cloth, knotted and tucked into his trousers. Perry said this was a Sephardic custom; Ashkenazim wear their tassels outside their pants.

“Let’s see if I can’t find a little example for you,” Perry said.

We walked through the cramped rows of gravestones, past memorials that were little more than a dirt mound, a wooden cross, and a hand-painted icon depicting a New Mexican patron saint.

“Okay, here’s one.”

Perry pointed to a flat cement slab with a red cross painted on it. No name, no dates. A series of shallow cylinders had been drilled into the cement and filled with pebbles. I noticed that at least half of the graves in Santa Clara were similarly marked.

“Who do you think did this?” I asked.

“You mean the cross?” Perry asked, motioning to the grave.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “But also that there’s a place to put stones.”

“That’s just a family custom. They don’t even think about it. It’s just automatic. They built it in for it, as you can see.”

Many people in New Mexico had no idea that such “family customs” were Judaic practices. Perry himself had never heard the term Crypto-Jew until he was in college. The university paper ran an article about a research project that was exploring hidden Judaism among New Mexico’s original settler families. There had been rumors in Perry’s family too, so he volunteered for the project and was given a list of questions. Did anyone in his family light candles on Friday night? His grandmother, Elvira, did. Did they attend church on Saturday instead of Sunday? His grandparents did that. Were there Jewish given names in the family? Abrana, Adonais, Ezekiel, Isaac, Eva, Eliasim, Moises. Perry’s recent ancestors, many of them sheep and cattle herders, used to slit the throats of their animals, drain the blood, remove the sciatic nerve, and salt the meat. They never touched pork, rabbit, or shellfish. No one ever used the word “kosher,” of course, and in fact, la dieta, as it is known, was never discussed directly. Perry’s grandfather, for instance, explained his aversion to swine by saying that he once “saw a pig eating a snake and that after that he could no longer look at pork.”

Some of the practices documented in New Mexico were either so altered or so obscure that I had no idea they were Jewish. Members of my family buried their dead within a day of passing, and we mourned for a year. But we certainly didn’t cover the mirrors in the homes of the deceased. Nor did new mothers refrain from sex for forty days, an observance known here as Quarentena. And married couples aligning their bed on a north-south axis? That was so bizarre I had a rabbi friend of mine look it up: “Whosoever places his bed north and south will have male children, as it says: And whose belly Thou fillest with Thy treasure, who have sons in plenty. . . . His wife also will not miscarry” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 5b). I knew that Orthodox Jewish women changed the bed sheets and “personal” linens on Fridays before the Sabbath. But sweeping dust into the middle of a room? Burning fingernail trimmings and hair clippings (again, to avoid miscarriages)? Religious holidays likewise were observed in transformed fashion. Was the holiday known as Transito really Passover, with Queen Isabella as Pharaoh, the Rio Grande as the Red Sea, and hard-baked tortillas as matzos? Were those huts built for Jacales really for Succoth? Las Fiestas de Los Reis, when candles were lit every night for eight nights, was recognizable as Hannukah, but the Festival of Saint Esther? Could that really be Purim?

I was reminded that when the Holy Office arrived in a new town or city during the Inquisition, it would first gather the citizenry for the reading of the Edict of Grace, a document that described, in detail, what Jewish heresy might actually look like. Those who had committed or witnessed such acts were required to confess within a short period of time, in exchange for a lighter penance (hence the “grace”). More stubborn heretics were to be “relaxed,” a euphemism for being remanded to secular officials for torture or burning at the stake.

The Edict was intended to root out the covertly Jewish among the conversos, and, to an extent, it did. But the descriptions of Jewish practice included in the Edict also served another purpose: for those cut off from rabbinical instruction for generations, it became a rudimentary religious manual, without which many Jewish traditions, and even Crypto-Judaism itself, might have died out entirely. The same might be said for the scholarly study in which Perry had participated.

We continued wandering the cemetery, circling back through the rows of graves, and stopped at a memorial for a baby who had just died. Perry mentioned that the child was distantly related to Daniel. He dropped to his knees to retrieve a stone for the grave, his shoulders slumping almost prayerfully as he did so, and I perversely half expected him to make the sign of the cross.

Perry then pointed to the ground, where a few Easter eggs lay hidden in the weeds, leftovers, presumably, from the previous week’s holiday.

“Hunting for Easter eggs in a cemetery,” Perry said with a snorting laugh. “That’s a little creepy to me. I don’t know what anyone else thinks.”

is an associate editor of Harper's Magazine. His last article, "String Theory," appeared in the December 2006 issue.

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