Article — From the December 2009 issue
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Article — From the December 2009 issue
Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.
—Bernard Malamud, “Angel Levine”
I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert from Judaism to Christianity. We had just moved from New York City to a small southern town whose local hospital had recruited her to open a medical practice. My new faith was a ruse—I never formally converted—but if anyone asked, I was instructed by my mother to say I was Unitarian. She also told me to keep these sectarian machinations secret from my father, who was still in New York and who would have filed a court order demanding custody if he had the slightest notion of what she was up to. Meanwhile, I was enrolled in an Episcopal school, where I studied the Bible, attended church each week, received communion, and even sang in the choir.
Understand, please, that I love my mother, and know that she had her reasons. In retrospect, her belief that our Bible Belt town would reject a divorced, Yankee, female doctor who was also Jewish seems not so absurd. Yet let no one mistake her either for a friend of the Jews. She was convinced that the ceaseless shtick that defines Judaism in this country—the wry exceptionalism, the ironic fatalism, the false socialism, the Zionist apologetics, the Yiddish jargoning, the hand-wringing over the Holocaust—barred her from the full American experience. For her, being a Jew meant being cheated of a piece of this country’s restless, rootless anonymity. She didn’t hate Jews or Judaism, and she certainly didn’t want to hurt me. She just wanted to be one of us.
I can relate. As an adult I find that I am uncomfortable with devout practitioners of my birth religion. I worry that if they knew of my past they might not accept me as Jewish, and, with some of my mother’s scorn cutting through the unease, I wonder why I would want their acceptance in the first place. The result has been a furtive fascination with Judaism, one that compels and repels in equal measure.
One evening not long ago, I came across an odd little children’s book. Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs told the story of a Hispanic boy named Jacobo who, while visiting his grandmother in Santa Fe, learned that he was something called an anusim, or a “Crypto-Jew,” which I learned meant that he was a descendant of the Medieval Jews of Spain, who were forcibly converted to Catholicism yet continued, for hundreds of years, to practice Judaism in secret. Anusim is the Hebrew word for “forced.” The forced converts were also known by the pejorative marrano (Spanish for pig); cristianos-nuevos (New Christians); conversos (converts); and judaizantes (Judaizers). The term “Crypto-Jew” dates from 1893, when it was used in an article in the British journal Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England.
I also learned that no sizable population of formerly Jewish Christians existed before 1391, when anti-Semitic riots in Spain resulted in the conversion under duress of some 200,000 Jews, many of them baptized by clergymen accompanying the mobs. Once this violence abated, Spanish Christians wanted nothing to do with their converted brethren. Some historians insist, in fact, that the Inquisition was established in Spain in 1481 not to convert the Jews, as I had always thought, but to eradicate what were believed to be large numbers of surreptitiously still-Jewish families among the conversos, both anusim and meshumadim (willing converts). Some of those persecuted fled for locations throughout Europe, while others made their way to the New World. Semi-open communities of Crypto-Jews thrived in the Spanish imperial possessions until the late 1500s, when the Inquisition arrived in the colonies. Trials, interrogations, and autos-da-fé ensued, and within a century the Crypto-Jews were no more.
That, at least, is the conventional history. But what if Jacobo’s grandmother was to be believed? What if some of her ancestors had evaded the Inquisition in Mexico and infiltrated the conquistador party that later settled the northern wilderness that became New Mexico? Could they possibly have remained in the Southwest ever since, covertly maintaining their religion, avoiding pork in their burritos, substituting tortillas for matzos, co-opting Mexican serapes for Jewish prayer shawls, and somehow hiding in plain sight? Certainly their Judaism would have changed with time, evolving into something not immediately recognizable as such, even to those practicing it, but could it actually exist?
At first, I had a great deal of difficulty believing it could. I had always felt an ironic affinity for the world’s communities of supposed “Lost Jews” (the Hebrews of Cape Verde, Kaifeng, and Timbuktu), but these American anusim seemed altogether different. The idea of hidden Judaism in Santa Fe had the feel of a tall tale, of yetis and UFOs and Atlantis.
Yet articles on the Crypto-Jews had appeared in practically every major American newspaper; in academic journals; in Jewish publications such as Shofar, Hadassah, and The Forward; and in a slew of books with God-awful New Age titles like The Marrano Legacy, Suddenly Jewish, and Sephardic Destiny: A Latino Quest. Unfortunately, finding an actual living, talking, davening Crypto-Jew proved a challenge. Neither the academics who had studied them nor the authors who had attempted their history were willing to introduce me to one, usually citing concerns for their privacy.
Then I caught a break. I found an email address for a man named Daniel Yocum, who had revealed to the New York Times in 1990 that he was a Crypto-Jew. He agreed to speak to me by phone. Yocum had been raised in Albuquerque’s Atrisco Valley, an insular tract of ranch and farmland that had been absorbed by the city only in his lifetime. Raised Catholic, Yocum didn’t know he was Jewish growing up, though he told me that “there were always rumors around.” The men of his family, he said, used to gather each Friday night in the morada, the chapterhouse of a secret society of Catholic flagellants. They would cover the santos—wooden images of the saints—with gunnysacks, light candles, and conduct a modified Sabbath service, reading from a handwritten Book of Psalms. Daniel, who now lived in Colorado, told me that he had learned these practices were Judaic in nature only as an adult. As a child, he thought they were part of the Catholic rituals specific to rural New Mexico. After learning the truth, he said, he had begun to live openly as a Jew. He now attended synagogue regularly, kept kosher, read his Torah portion, and wore a yarmulke. When I asked him if he would help me contact his Crypto-Jewish relatives and friends in New Mexico, he agreed. I thanked him and booked my ticket to Albuquerque.
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.”
Sonya Loya couldn’t meet until after her shift making cappuccinos at a coffee shop, so it was past ten in the evening when I followed her pickup along the tourist drag in Ruidoso, New Mexico, a dumpy, down-market ski town whose locals had settled on a half-baked Alpine design theme in the hopes of luring some trade away from Taos. Shuttered and dark at this hour, it resembled a remaindered set from the Swiss Family Robinson movie.
When we arrived at Sonya’s art studio and retail store, Hosanna’s Glass Works, she turned on the lights, illuminating the slightly pricey glass jewelry and the fancy candles she sold to the tourists. She then directed me to a pair of French doors near the back of the shop, through which lay her other business, the Bat-Tzion Hebrew Learning Center.
The shelves in this little cinder-block room were filled with all manner of tchotchkes: menorahs, dreidels, mezuzot, Hanukkah gelt, shofars small and large, prayer books, language primers in Hebrew, English, and Spanish (¡Hebrew! ¡Tan Simple!), and general interest titles such as 26 Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus, which Sonya said was a bestseller.
“I’m out of tallits,” she said. “Just sold the last one when I was in Israel.”
Sonya was in her forties, with rounded features, olive skin, and black eyes that could read enthusiastic or manic depending on your feelings about her. She hosted Torah-study classes here and, simultaneously, via the Internet, on an aging computer set up on a desk behind an old couch. A whiteboard covered with Hebrew alphabet lessons stood in one corner of the room, next to a poster with instructions on “How to Wash Hands Before Eating Bread.” Several Ruidosans attended the lessons, she said, linked in with other students in Texas and California. They studied the parsha, the weekly Torah portion, with a man named Juan Mejía, a Colombian from a prominent Catholic family in Bogotá, who as a teen had discovered a hidden Jewish background and was now a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“You have a dog-friendly Judaica store,” I said, pointing to the sacks of kibble beneath the whiteboard.
“Listen, we have Shabbat dogs here. People always say, ‘Can I bring Belle? She’ll be upset if I don’t bring her for Shabbat.’ Belle, she sees us doing the berakhah for the challah,” Sonya said, not at all shy with the “ch” sounds, “and she goes and sits right there by the challah.”
Sonya had little choice but to accept these unorthodox (for lack of a better word) Sabbath requests, given the difficulties of forming and maintaining a Jewish community in Ruidoso.
“I’m a female. I’m Hispanic. I’m an artist living in a tourist town. I close on Shabbat, the busiest time of the week.” Tears came to her eyes. “It’s so hard to be a Jew here. It’s even harder when you grew up Catholic, because basically people treat you like you have the Black Plague.” She caught herself, wiped away a tear, and smiled. “Honey, people here still believe that Jews have horns.”
Her biggest problem, however, was not lapdogs or devils but Jesus. Many of the people Sonya brought to the Learning Center had left Catholicism but hadn’t committed fully to Judaism. They often belonged to evangelical Christian sects that worked Jewish ritual into their worship, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of God, or the Iglesia de Dios. Still others were “Messianic Jews,” members of a Christian religious movement whose adherents keep the Sabbath and Kashrut, celebrate the Pesach, wear yarmulkes, and support Israel but also believe that Jesus, whom they call Yeshuah, was the Son of God. Among those who have embraced Judaism (and many haven’t; they remain Catholic and view their being Jewish as a genealogical oddity), there is a genuine eagerness to learn the context of Jewish practices, but things grow complicated when Sonya explains that they will have to disavow Jesus as the Christ. “Verbalizing that you no longer believe in the Big Lie,” as she put it, caused many of them to quit.
Before I left that night, Sonya told me it had become so difficult to find recruits in Ruidoso for her proposed minyan that she was considering moving to El Paso, where there was a more established Jewish community, or perhaps even to Israel.
“I love living here,” she said. “This is where I grew up. My parents are here. My brother is here. At the same time, I wouldn’t be the first one that’s abandoned the familiar. Abraham left his family, too.”
I returned to Sonya’s store the next morning. I noticed that she kept the double doors to Bat-Tzion closed, not wanting to disconcert any out-of-town goyim unaware of her religious pursuits. While Sonya helped an elderly couple, I loitered at the cash register, chatting with her assistant, Carl, a former Pentecostal minister whom Sonya had helped convert to Judaism.
“I had several God encounters,” Carl told me as he wrestled with a pile of credit-card receipts on the counter. “I didn’t know if they were real, but who was I to argue with the word of God? I was a real Bible basher.”
Unlike with Daniel and Perry, there wasn’t a whisper of Judaism in Sonya’s family growing up—no tall tales, no raving mad tía whispering deathbed secrets. She was raised Catholic and went to church every Sunday. She had a troubled youth and dropped out of high school at seventeen. She left Ruidoso the following year and fell in with an evangelical Christian man she met while hitchhiking through Arizona. They married, had a daughter, divorced. She was born again somewhere along the way, baptized in a white dress in a back-road Pentecostal church. Even then, though, she always felt “the strangest connection to Jewish people. All my friends called me the ‘Jew magnet.’”
She often had “awakenings” in the middle of the night, during which a Voice came to her intoning passages from the Bible. They reminded her of dreams she had had as a child, of cobblestone streets that she said she now knew to be Israel. In 1999 she went with a friend to a “Jewish conference” in the desert outside Santa Fe. It was actually a gathering of Messianic Jews, but for Sonya it was a revelation. A Sabbath service was held during the conference, and when the Messianic rabbis—Hispanic men in yarmulkes and tallits—read the prayers aloud in Hebrew, a language she didn’t then understand, she found she was somehow able to follow along. She devoted herself to Judaism and, after several years of study, formally converted. She was now a member of a Conservative congregation in El Paso.
Sonya joined me after the old couple left.
“Have you seen my Crypto-Ware?” she asked.
We moved to a small display case filled with a selection of rings, necklaces, and earrings. Each one was made with glass that had undergone a special glazing process to lend it certain unique characteristics in different levels of light.
Sonya had come to Judaism with nothing. She wasn’t unusual in this respect. As attention paid to Crypto-Judaism increased over the years, a very American thing began to happen: staking a claim to history’s most persecuted religion became a mark of cultural distinction. People in New Mexico “came out” as Jewish; they spoke of reclaiming their “compromised identities”; they professed a link to Judaism because they “looked Jewish,” or because, like Sonya, they had an unusual number of Jewish friends. Stranger still, some saw their Judaism through a convex lens of unflattering stereotypes, such as the one echoed in this old Crypto-Judaic saying: Muy judíos . . . _muy codo. “Very Jewish . . . very tight.”
Sonya handed me a pair of black earrings decorated with red and green colored glass bands. “Go outside and hold them to the light.”
It was still morning in Ruidoso, the sun filtering through the evergreens on the mountains. I felt somewhat silly, but I knew that Sonya was watching me from the store. I raised the earrings and looked at them. At first there was nothing but the colored bands on the black, but when I pivoted the earrings directly into the sun’s glow a hazy image of the Star of David emerged. I moved the earrings again and it disappeared.
I went back inside and asked Sonya to box up the earrings for me. They would look nice on my wife for Passover.
Stanley Hordes moved to Santa Fe in 1981, when he was named state historian of New Mexico. Almost immediately, he began to receive some rather curious visitors: nervous folks who would look both ways before entering his office and then whisper, “My abuelita doesn’t eat pork”; “She hides in the basement on Friday night and lights candles”; “She sweeps dirt into the center of the room”; “My grandfather let the blood run from the sheep onto the ground”; “Before my tía died, she swore I was a Jew.”
Hordes at first dismissed these visitors as cranks. “It’s not unusual for Catholic women to be lighting candles,” he told me when we spoke in a hotel lobby in downtown Albuquerque. “People eat things and don’t eat things. Why should I care?”
Still, Hordes had written a dissertation on the topic of Crypto-Judaism in New Spain, and his research on Mexico’s Crypto-Jews had indeed unearthed a community of conversos that included bakers, tailors, barbers, silversmiths, merchants, miners, doctors, military officers, accountants, a municipal mayor, and even one man who sang in the choir at the Cathedral of Querétaro. One of Cortés’s conquistadors (Jewish conquistadors!) turned out to be a Crypto-Jew and was burned at the stake in Mexico City in 1528. Most Crypto-Jews, however, lived relatively safely in New Spain until 1571, when the Holy Office was formally established in the colony, after which periodic campaigns against suspected judaizantes took place over the next hundred years. It was these persecutions that served as the basis of Hordes’s research; the Inquisition kept excellent records of its interrogations, trials, and autos-da-fé. For example, Hordes learned that 80 percent of the men accused as Crypto-Jews had in fact been circumcised, a figure, one Inquisition record noted, that did not count the 11 percent whose penises bore “a mark of undetermined origin, raising the suspicion . . . that some Jewish ritual had resulted in such scarring.”
Yet none of Hordes’s earlier work helped account for the wayward Jews who now came slinking into his office. He developed a new theory for that. In 1598, as conditions for the Crypto-Jews were deteriorating in New Spain, a settler party of 460 men, women, and children headed north into the frontier wilderness, traversing the barren stretch of desert known as the jornada del muerto (“journey of the dead man”) into Pueblo Indian territory. At the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Chama, they founded a town, San Gabriel del Yunque, which became the first permanent European settlement in what is today known as New Mexico. Hordes could never confirm how many conversos there were among the settlers, but he did know that within a couple of generations the Inquisition, now in New Mexico, began prosecuting their descendants for Judaizing.
“The testimony from these trials,” Hordes told me, “indicates pretty clearly that not only was Crypto–Judaism being practiced but it was being practiced and nobody cared. Witness after witness after witness comes forward and says, ‘Well, yeah, we knew Francisco Gomez was a Jew. We knew that he lived and died as a Jew. We knew that his sons were circumcised. So what?’”
Hordes spent the next twenty-five years playing what he called “the down and dirty game of who begat.” He interviewed anyone in New Mexico (including both Perry Peña and Daniel Yocum) who evinced vestiges of Jewish practices, and compared their surnames with the Catholic birth, baptismal, marriage, death, and burial records archived in the state. He cross-checked these records against Inquisition trial and confession documents from Mexico, Spain, and Portugal. And he found links—clear, verifiable, genealogical links—between these modern-day candle-lighters and pork-abstainers and the ancient deceased.
I asked Hordes what it felt like when he first began to believe that these people really were the historical Crypto-Jews. “It was like a light bulb went on,” he said. “I asked myself, Could these possibly be the same people? Could there really have been a survival?”
I was beginning to understand that these weren’t questions at all. They were an affirmation.
At the junction of two dead rivers on the parched mesa outside Los Lunas, New Mexico, a string of foothills covered in desert shrubbery stretches to the horizon. The arroyos where the rivers once flowed run some thirty feet deep, a gash in the lunar landscape of red dirt and volcanic boulders. This stretch of territory, known as Cerro de Los Escondidos—Hill of the Hidden Ones—was part of a 1761 land grant awarded to a Spanish settler party that wanted to homestead in the area. It is unclear whether the settlers ever made it here. By the 1800s no trace of them remained. The land then passed into the hands of a family of prosperous Jewish merchants originally from Germany who eventually ceded it to the state of New Mexico.
I had come here with a Catholic priest from Albuquerque named William Sanchez. He was a large man in his mid-fifties, dressed this morning in new-looking hiking boots, cargo pants, and mirrored sunglasses. A few of Father Sanchez’s friends, cheerful older folks done up in varying shades of golf and western clothing, had come along, too. Father Sanchez guided us down a wide, planed dirt track away from the highway until we reached an oak cattle fence bleached gray by the sun and held fast with barbed wire. Beyond it a winding footpath led into the hills. We began to climb, shuffling upward in a slow and careful single file.
As we walked, Vicky, one of Sanchez’s friends, plucked a green weed from between some rocks. She mentioned that her mother used to season her eggs with this weed. It tasted like parsley.
“We used to pick up all kinds of weeds as kids,” she said.
“As long as you never smoked it,” joked her husband, Carlos.
“Oh, we sure did,” said another one of the group, a man named Gil, who earlier that day had told me he was a distant relative of an Apache war chief.
After a short while, the footpath plunged into a narrow ravine shaded by sun-blackened boulders. About five yards ahead, a small rectangular stone blocked the way. This stone was the reason we had come here.
Known variously as “Covenant Rock,” “the Mystery Stone,” or “Los Lunas Decalogue,” the rock was a hundred-ton slab of basalt inscribed with nine lines of text. Theories about the writing’s origins abound: It is a poem composed by the ancient Greek sailor Zakyneros; a treasure map of the Acoma Indians; the Ten Commandments, written either by “Hebraic mound builders” originally from Ohio or by ancient Samaritan seafarers who ran aground off the coast of Texas or by Phoenician sailors out of Tarshish; or, as theorized in a 1973 article in Desert magazine, the work of an extraterrestrial “intelligence” that had devised a “coded message” whose meaning “we are . . . not yet ready to receive.”
Father Sanchez was a proponent of the Phoenician-sailor theory, because the presence of far-ranging biblical-era ocean voyagers squared well with his understanding of his own family history. A devoted amateur genealogist, Sanchez believed that he had successfully traced his ancestry back to before his family’s migration from New Spain to New Mexico in 1598; to before they departed Spain in 1492; to earlier even than their flight, in 587 B.C.E., from Jerusalem to southern Spain, following Nebuchadnezzar’s sack of the First Temple; all the way to the Negev, where his earliest descendants were _Kohanim, _Israelite high priests of an order founded by Aaron, brother of Moses. That is, Father Sanchez, Catholic priest, believed he was a Jew.
We sat on the boulders surrounding the Rock, pulled out our water bottles, and mopped our brows. Carlos had brought a harmonica with him, and he played a mournful hymn. Earlier that week, I had attended mass at Father Sanchez’s parish church in Albuquerque. He kept a menorah in the church sanctuary, and a shofar, which he sounded each Ash Wednesday; he wore a silver-and-turquoise Star of David beneath his awl, chasuble, and stole; and during his sermon he referred to God as Yahweh. He had been very eager for me to see the Rock, which he described as a mystical point of “convergence.” The Rock was about five feet square, and was engraved with what I can only describe as a series of exceedingly fake-looking petroglyphs. The earliest confirmed reports of the Rock date to 1933, which meant the markings were no less than seventy-five years old. I had trouble believing they had been there longer than a week.
“Notice the tree,” Father Sanchez said, pointing at a withered acacia growing from under the stone. “The Ark of the Covenant was made from this.”
Genealogy is a slender thread on which to hang one’s identity, religious or otherwise. A Jew in the family four hundred years ago doesn’t really make you Jewish. But Father Sanchez had had his DNA tested for the presence of a Y-chromosome marker called the Cohen Modal Haplotype, which research has shown to be carried only by historical descendants of the Israelite priesthood. The test results confirmed that he was, genetically at least, Kohanim. Sanchez subsequently encouraged other Crypto-Jews to be tested. Of the 185 people he convinced to submit samples, 100 showed genetic evidence of Sephardic descent, though, to be fair, a peer-reviewed 2006 study in the Annals of Human Biology disputed those results. Among the five people Sanchez brought with us that day, everyone but Gil had been tested. Vicky and Carlos were the only ones whose results came back positive for Jewishness.
The morning was gone by now, and the Rock was engulfed in shadow. It was time to return to Los Lunas for lunch. Father Sanchez led us in a prayer before we left.
“Pray, Father, that you give our ancestors peace,” he said. “Bring healing to them and bring healing to our world.” He ended with the Shema, the Jewish daily prayer: Hashem yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad. Hear, O Israel: the Lord, our God, the Lord is one. Amen.
We made for the cars.
But is it good for the Jews? I actually asked myself this question, sitting on a bench in the contemplation garden at Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso. The garden adjoined the modernist pillbox of the temple and was designed to evoke the state of Israel in miniature, complete with a desert oasis filled with blooming flowers and shade trees, a version of the Wailing Wall, and a shallow pool for the Dead Sea. Eventually I went inside, where I was greeted by B’nai Zion’s shepherd, Rabbi Stephen Leon.
“This is a beautiful building,” I said as I accepted a seat in Rabbi Leon’s spacious, rabbinical-text-cluttered office.
“Yes it is. It really is,” Leon replied.
The building was in fact hideous, but after so much time spent unpacking the riddles of the maybe-Jews and the hidden-Jews and the Jews-by-
genealogy-or-genetics-or-less, B’nai Zion’s high-Scarsdale kitsch was soothing to me in a way I didn’t quite understand. And it wasn’t just the building—it was the rebbe. Religious authority figures were not held in particular esteem in my family, yet here I was hoping, even expecting, a rabbi to help me understand how I should think and feel about the Crypto-Jews.
Rabbi Leon was a stoutly built man with a stern, somewhat self-important mien. He managed somehow to appear dignified despite his blue-and-red New York Giants yarmulke. He had moved to El Paso from New Jersey in 1986, and, much like Stan Hordes, almost immediately began receiving visits from people who wanted to speak to the “Rabbino.” A Presbyterian minister came to him in tears because she had learned of her family’s Jewish roots and was devastated with guilt because, as a proselytizing clergyperson, she felt that she had betrayed her Hebraic ancestors. She wanted Leon’s permission to come to the temple on Yom Kippur to atone for her sin. At home, the cable man noticed Leon’s shalom, y’all poster and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a Star of David necklace. These and many other encounters had transformed Rabbi Leon. Providing spiritual shelter to lost Jews became his great passion. He had converted some two hundred Crypto-Jews to full Judaism, and he hoped to do more.
“You don’t do Returns?” I asked.
“Personally, I view them as returning,” Rabbi Leon replied. “But I use the conversion so there won’t be a question if they want to make aliyah.”
Aliyah is the Hebrew term for the Ingathering of the Exiles, the basis of the fundamental right of all Jews to return from the global Diaspora and become Israeli citizens. Israel currently does not recognize the historical claims of American Crypto-Jews, a point of more than just academic interest to Leon.
“I read somewhere that had there not been a Holocaust there would be forty million Jews in the world,” he said. “Now we have less than fourteen million. When I got involved with the anusim, I said, ‘Wait a minute, what if there was never an Inquisition?’ What would have happened?”
Rabbi Leon told me he’d read that between 200,000 and 800,000 Jews were exterminated, forced to convert, or expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492.
“Eight hundred thousand seems like an awfully big number,” I said.
“It is. It’s probably closer to the 200,000, but it could be as many as 400,000. Regardless, that was 500 years ago. That wasn’t sixty years ago. Those people had a lot of children. Those people were passionate about their religion. What would have happened? Where did they go? In the United States, I know they came here.”
He estimated that from 10 to 15 percent of the Hispanic community in El Paso-Juarez—275,000 people—had Jewish roots and didn’t know it.
“Which is okay,” he quickly added. “I’m not out to convert the world.”
Leon told me about the “Anusim Return Center” he planned to found in El Paso. It would serve as a public institution where the Crypto-Jews could learn the history (there would be an Inquisition museum akin to those dedicated to the Holocaust) and conventions of the religion, and also convert and ready themselves for the ultimate goal—aliyah. Sonya Loya and Juan Mejía, the Crypto-Jewish rabbi in New York, were working with Leon on the project, and he said both planned to move to El Paso to help run it. Funding was still an issue, but not an overly pressing one. (“We have an ear at Soros,” he told me.)
“It appears that the fastest growing religion in the world is Islam,” Leon said. “We know of the problems going on in the Middle East as a result of that. Imagine if the tiny state of Israel all of a sudden had an influx, a return of the anusim.” He leaned across his desk toward me.
“All of these Arab nations that are ‘afraid’ of this tiny state—I don’t think you would have war, but it would be a totally different situation. Intermarriage would decline. Assimilation would decline. These people have a passion for the religion. I think it would change the world.”
Sonya had told me about the Return Center, but only that it would be a place for the Crypto-Jews to come to find acceptance in the greater Jewish-American community. As far as aliyah was concerned—and Sonya had mentioned it—I understood it to be a symbolic notion, like the toast my family would make each year over the Manischewitz at Passover. Next year in Jerusalem—we’d say it all right, but no one was booking tickets for the settlements. Leon had something more definite in mind: the conversion of the Crypto-Jews into a sort of anti-Muslim neutron bomb.
Thankfully, there may be an alternate future for the Crypto-Jews, one that remains within America’s geographic and psychological borders, which I suppose is why I found myself standing in front of Joe Morse’s double-wide in Meadow Lake, New Mexico.
Joe was waiting for me in his weed-bedraggled front yard. He was in his mid-fifties, a bowling ball of a man, dressed much like Perry Peña, in black pants, white shirt, and clip-on braces, except he wore his tzitzit outside the pants. He pumped my hand in greeting and then checked the sun’s progress. Dusk was approaching.
“Come on in,” he said. “We still have time to talk before the Shabbat.”
Joe’s trailer was a study in brown: brown carpet, brown linoleum kitchen floor, brown wall paneling, a tattered brown couch. A large blue painting of a waterfall cut the brown somewhat, as did a Jewish calendar from French’s Mortuary and a portrait of Joe—chubby, blank-faced, age thirteen—painted for his bar mitzvah.
We took a seat in the living room. Joe’s wife, Gloria, as porcelain-doll tiny as Joe, puttered about in the kitchen preparing the potted chicken for dinner. Trefina, Joe’s youngest, sat at the dinner table, quietly reading a Hebrew prayer book.
“Tell me, Ted,” Joe said once we had settled in. “What do you know about the Jews?”
Joe grew up in a Boston suburb, the son of a Jewish meat cutter in the Old Haymarket Square. In his twenties he left the secular Judaism of his family and commenced a process of religious searching that lasted several decades and included stints in such Christian evangelical sects as the Assembly of God, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Calvary Chapel, and the Free Methodists. Despite not one but two born-again experiences, Joe still felt spiritually incomplete, and in the late 1980s he decided to return to Judaism. “With one difference,” he said. “The difference is that now I have a Messiah.”
Joe joined a Messianic Jewish congregation in Albuquerque that met on Saturdays in a Baptist church. It was there that he first began to meet Crypto-Jews. Perry Peña, at the time also a member of the congregation, became a good friend. (Joe would later bar mitzvah Perry at Covenant Rock.) Perry inspired Joe to research his own family history, where he discovered, in the midst of a Jewish past, a lost Jewish past. “I am not Ashkenazi,” Joe said. “You are. I’m Hispanic and didn’t know it.”
His family, which had emigrated to the United States from Ukraine, had, he said, been expelled from Barcelona centuries prior. Joe took this to mean that he was also a Crypto-Jew. “We went from Morais in Spain to Moraz in Ukraine to Morse in the United States. We always tried to fit in.”
Both Joe and Perry felt that the Ashkenazi Messianics in their congregation discriminated against the Crypto-Jews. As Joe put it, “They didn’t give them an opportunity to really come into their fullness.” In 2001, Joe and Perry struck out on their own, founding a Messianic congregation that would minister to Crypto-Jews. They named it _Kahilah Ba’Midbar, _the Congregation of the Wilderness, because at first when they didn’t have a place to meet for prayer, they would gather outside in local parks or by the banks of the Rio Grande.
“I felt like these were a people who needed to explode. We needed to go out, search them out, to bring the Lost House of Israel back. Not fellowshipping in foolishness but through righteousness!” Joe said, his voice rising with sermonic passion. “I fell in love with these people, started hanging out with them. We were kind of a little clique. It felt like an us-against-the-world kinda thing.”
Eventually, though, Joe and Perry broke with each other, in part because of Perry’s decision to live as a Jew rather than as a Messianic. Joe, however, insisted that he bore Perry no ill will.
“Perry’s searching. I’m not searching anymore. I’ve got what I need. I’ve got a relationship with the Messiah.” Joe patted his royal-blue yarmulke, which was enbroidered with the words yeshua ha’mashiach, Jesus the Messiah—a phrase one doesn’t often encounter in Hebrew.
Joe was vague about how many Crypto-Jews remained in his congregation. But he promised to introduce me to them the following day, at a Saturday service in the home of one of the congregation members. The trailer had grown dark as we talked. The Sabbath had begun. To my surprise, Joe stood up and flipped on the lights. He smiled at me.
“Don’t panic,” he said. “The light bulbs are kosher.”
Joe and I drove to Belen, New Mexico, the next morning for the service. (Gloria and Trefina came in another car.) As we sped down a narrow country road, Joe pointed to a dusty hill at the top of which I could just barely make out three white crosses. This was Tomé hill, Joe said. Every Easter, local Christians make a pilgrimage to the summit to pray to a painted Jesus; some of the more devoted simulate the Crucifixion by tying themselves to one of the crosses.
“Repentance is so easy now,” Joe said. “It was a real bloody business out there in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. They were out there for two years trying to learn to do it right, construct it, build it, and then consecrate it. They were sprinkling blood, draining blood. They were killing animals. It was a factory. I don’t know if I could have dealt with that.”
We reached the town house where the service was being held. Before I could get out of the car, Joe put his hand on my wrist.
“You’re in such trouble,” he said.
“You mean today?” I said, wondering if the congregants would think I was a journalist hostile to Messianics.
“No, I mean in life,” Joe replied. “You’re going to go back home, and all of a sudden you’ll find yourself thinking about Messiah, and how maybe there’s something to it.” He paused. “You know what my goal with you is, Ted?”
An elderly retiree named Matt owned the town house. He was a hulking, watery-eyed old fellow with military tattoos on his forearms and a yarmulke on his head. He showed me around while Joe readied the living room for the service. Matt had decorated his home with a western flair of near-Lynchian oddness. The paintings on the walls depicted a cowboy feeding his horse an apple at sunset; mustangs drinking from a creek; plus a few glamour portraits of horses Matt had once owned. He still kept two saddles and tack on the floor in his bedroom.
Matt told me he had come to Messianic Judaism late in life, when a friend helped him look into his genealogy and told him he might be Sephardic on his father’s side. He enjoyed being a Jew, he said (“I wear my kipa 24/7”), but as far as a Crypto-Jewish past in New Mexico was concerned, he didn’t have one.
“I’m from New Orleans,” he said.
Gloria and Trefina arrived shortly thereafter, accompanied by a purple-haired septuagenarian widow named Wanda. Joe deposited her in a chair in the living room, where she idly thumbed through a Messianic prayer book, squinting at the words and humming quietly to herself. Three others joined us. Elaine was a heavily made-up Anglo woman in her forties who greeted Joe with a complaint about a son who was giving her problems. Joe clucked sympathetically. Also joining us were “Sam,” a beefy, sunburned man, and his towheaded teenage daughter. They were from Iowa.
The service was conducted at a table in the living room. Joe sat in the center, his shoulders draped with a tallit. He opened with a blessing in Hebrew, followed by a lively song whose only lyrics were “Shabbat shalom. Shabbat shalom. Shabbat shalom.” We punctuated each shabbat shalom by clapping our hands twice in quick succession.
Joe then recited several passages from the Bible, led us through some more Hebrew prayers and songs, and expounded at length on Scripture.
“The Christians very often regard what they see here as null and void. However, to this day the Law of God stands,” Joe remarked during an explication of Leviticus. “We are not saved by the laws pertaining to God, but they are a manual for us to live by. So despite the fact that we are not saved by them, we still keep them, including the laws of Kashrut.”
Joe motioned to Gloria. She rummaged around in her purse and produced a recipe for salt-crusted shrimp that she had clipped from the back of a box of Morton’s kosher salt. She passed it around and everyone laughed and tut-tutted.
“I wonder if anyone raised Cain over that,” Elaine said.
“They can’t,” Matt replied as he inspected the recipe. “Because it says here, ‘Good for gourmet cooking.’”
As the joking continued, my mind drifted away to the other Crypto-Jews I had met, particularly Sonya. She kept kosher, was a Conservative Jew, and spoke Hebrew. She could emigrate to Israel, vote Likud, and found the country’s last legitimately socialist kibbutz, and it would never be enough. She would never be sufficiently Jewish to eat shrimp; that is, Jewish like me, in my perfectly American way, in which no proof is demanded and no pious displays of observance required. The question of what makes a Jew is tired to the point of absurdity. For me, a Crypto-Jew who acted as a Jew, lived as a Jew, and wanted to be a Jew, was Jewish. By doing so they had moved beyond the dictates of historical truth or untruth; I watched them go with satisfaction.
The folks listening to Joe hold forth that day were a different matter: not one of them, you see, was a Crypto-Jew. When I first realized this I was annoyed that Joe had wasted my time, but then it struck me that the connection I had felt to the Crypto-Jews—that needful hope in their existence—was shared very strongly by those gathered here. We were explorers of the same historical—but by this point thoroughly American—deception.
When the service ended I told Joe that I was skipping the barbecue lunch. He walked me to my car, threw an arm over my shoulder, and wished me well. He prayed for me and told me that he hoped God would “plague” me until I accepted the Messiah. As I was about to drive away, Matt rushed outside and waved for me to wait. I rolled down my window to see what he wanted. He had a gift, he said, a box of matzos, which he handed me with some ceremony.
“For the road,” he said.
Theodore Ross is an associate editor of Harper’s Magazine. His last article, “String Theory,” appeared in the December 2006 issue.
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