Researching Conversos & Crypto-Jews of the Southwest & New Word

History & Definitions

  • Definitions: Sephardim - Conversos - Marranos - Crypto-Jewish definitions and a historical overview with a bibliography from JewishGen, an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
  • Anusim (Crypto Judaism) Page of Shulamith HaLevy - Lexicon, articles, essays, and other resources from the Crypto-Jewish scholar.
  • Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies - Created to foster research and networking of information on the historical and contemporary development of crypto Jews of Iberian origin. Be sure to check out the papers in HaLapid, the Society's journal including annual conference proceedings.
  • The Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives - Housed at the University of Arizona Library, the research collection is dedicated to collecting and recording the history of Crypto-Jews and other pioneer Jews in the Desert Southwest, covering Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas.
  • Columbus Was a Catalan-Speaking Jew, U.S. Scholar Says - Linguistics professor, Estelle Irizarry asserts that peculiarities found in Columbus' writings that are associated with Ladino, suggest that Columbus was Jewish. Irizarry states that “Columbus even punctuated marginal notes and he included copious notes around his pages. In that sense, he followed the punctuation style of the Ladino-speaking scribes.”
  • Kabbalistic Signet Indicates Columbus was an Exiled Jew - Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu's article asserts that a recently rare triangular Kabbalistic signet indicates that Columbus was a Jew named Salvador Fernando Zarco and was among those expelled from Spain in 1492. Proof is that the unique monogram is similar to inscriptions on gravestones in Jewish cemeteries in Spain and southern France.
  • Was Columbus Jewish? - Howard M. Sachar, Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, explores the legend that Columbus consulted with Jews and transported some to the New World at the time of the expulsion, thus giving rise to new Jewish communities around the world.
  • Crypto-Jews in Mexico During the Spanish Colonial Era - Paper from the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Israel discusses Spanish policy toward New Christians, accusations of Judaizing, the Carvajal affair, and the Auto-da-Fé of 1649; with bibliography and links.
  • The Virtual Jewish History Tour of Mexico - The Jewish Virtual Library's history of the Jews of Mexico. Many prominent Mexicans claimed conversos roots, including Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero and Jose Lopez Portillo, and artist Diego Rivera who publicly announced his Jewish roots when he wrote in 1935: "My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work."

The Spanish & Mexican Inquisitions

Anthology edited by Mary Elizabeth Perry and Anne J. Cruz, University of California Press. With chapters written by Stanley Hordes, Richard C. Greenleaf, and others.

Paper by Clara Steinberg-Spitz: A brief overview of the origins of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, the Spanish territories in the New World, and the arrival of Crypto-Jews to the newly discovered lands.

From the Inquisition Rosters; some of the names of Conversos who were tried in New Spain (Mexico) by the Spanish Inquisition for relapsing into Judaism.

Robert J. Ferry's paper, based on testimonial records of over a hundred people who were prosecuted for Jewish heresy by the Mexican Holy Office of the Inquisition, examines some of the elements of the identity of Crypto Jews in seventeenth-century Mexico.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, author of the Jewish Press column "Glimpses Into American Jewish History," writes about the life and trials of Luis de Carvajal, Jr. (1567-1596), one of the most interesting personalities to be tried by the Inquisition in Mexico during the sixteenth century.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine asserts that it was not just economic opportunities that attracted the anusim to Mexico, but also the hope that in the New World they would be free to secretly practice the religion of their ancestors without interference from the Christian Inquisitors. Unfortunately, the Inquisition would soon follow them to New Spain.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine's essay shows that despite threats of torture and confiscation of property, as well as sufficient knowledge of Jewish ritual and practice, historical records prove that New Christians practiced as much Judaism as they could. One such story is about Tomas Trebino de Sobremonte, a martyr who was burned alive at the stake in the Mexican Inquisition of 1649.

During the black days of the Spanish Inquisition, instead of getting drunk on Purim and drawing the inquisitors' suspicions, crypto Jews took on the custom of fasting for three days, as Queen Esther had ordered the Jewish people when threatened with annihilation.

Resources for Those Researching Converso Heritage

  • Shavei Israel - "Israel Returns"
  • An Israel-based organization comprised of academics, educators and rabbis, whose goal is to assist "lost Jews," or those with Jewish ancestry in coming to terms with their heritage and identity "in a spirit of tolerance and understanding." Also see their "Anousim "section for articles and history about the Anousim.
  • Kulanu – All of Us
  • An organization dedicated to finding and assisting lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people (anusim/crypto-Jews).
  • SephardicGen Resources for Crypto-Jews/Anusim Genealogy
  • From Sephardic Genealogy Resources, includes general resources on Crypto-Jews, Sephardic Genealogy, and a bibliography for those wishing to research their Crypto-Jewish or Sephardic background.
  • Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue
  • Be'chol Lashon's goal is to expand and strengthen the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness. The organization recognizes the anusim as a vital component for potential growth. "If the forced conversions, expulsions, and inquisitorial persecutions had not occurred, the Sephardic population today would number in the tens of millions. Be'chol Lashon seeks to restore a link that was broken and thereby strengthen the future of the Jewish people."
  • The "Secret Jews" of San Luis Valley
  • In Colorado, the gene linked to a virulent form of breast cancer found mainly in Jewish women is discovered in Hispanic Catholics. Is this another link to proof of a crypto-Jewish past?

Crypto-Jewish Writers & Artists

  • The Searchers: Seven South Americans Uncover Their Converso Roots
  • Gabriela Böhm, filmmaker and a child of Holocaust survivors, discusses her film, The Longing. The film follows the return to Judaism of a group of South Americans who were raised as Catholics. They undergo conversion, but in the end face the heartbreaking reality that the Jewish community of Ecuador does not accept them into their community. For the filmmaker, a more important story emerged: "What happens when the forces who are saying 'no' are the Jews rather than the Catholic Church?"
  • Writer Kathleen Alcalá - Alcalá is the author of the short story collection, Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, and three novels: Spirits of the Ordinary, The Flower in the Skull, and Treasures in Heaven. Her recent collection of essays, in which she explores her family's crypto-Jewish heritage in Saltillo, Mexico, The Desert Remembers My Name, was recently published by the University of Arizona Press. Also, read Alcalá's presentation to the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies, "A Thread in the Tapestry: The Narros of Saltillo, Mexico, in History and Literature."
  • Crypto Jewish Images by Photographer Cary Herz - New Mexico's Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, Cary' Herz's twenty-year search for descendants of crypto-Jews, with essays by Mona Hernandez and Ori Z. Soltes; published by UNM Press. Also see Picturing Today’s Conversos, in which Herz discusses her observation that "even today New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews are ambivalent about their integration into the largely Ashkenazic New Mexican Jewish community." More Herz photos.
  • Consuelo Luz - Raised in Greece, the Philippines, Spain, Italy and Peru by Sephardic/Chilean/Cuban/Mampuche Indian parents, Luz now lives in Northern New Mexico. She sings Sephardic (Judeo-Hispanic) songs that "embrace all of humanity and envision a transformed and loving world celebrating its diversity while at the same time honoring its oneness."

Personal Stories of Crypto Jews/Conversos

  • The Jewish Shepherd of Tijuana
  • The story of Carlos Salas Diaz, founder of Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California. A converso, born in Mexico to a Catholic family, he was ordained as a Methodist minister, later converted to Judaism and became a rabbi. Diaz tells about his life and how he returned to Judaism. He has converted many Mexicans and also provides Jewish instruction to Mexican Jews, including conversos, such as the hidden Jews of Venta Prieta.
  • Hanging By a Wick
  • Musician Vanessa Paloma, who has a CD of Ladino music with Flor de Serena, tells her family's story by following the lives of strong female predecessors, starting with the expulsion from Spain as they moved from country to country through the Netherlands, Italy, Morocco, Panama, Columbia, and eventually to the United States.
  • Zakhor: A personal Account
  • Rabbi Juan Mejía, a descendant of Columbian Anusim, recounts the personal story of his decision to pursue the rabbinate. He asks, "After all, who was I? Just a Jew back from the dark woodwork of the Inquisition after 500 years? Could I aspire to learn as much as people who has been Jewish all their lives...?"
  • Reclaiming Jewish Traditions in Mexico
  • Rabbi Daniel Mehlman, of Southern California, was asked to provide guidance to a group of crypto-Jewish Mexicans practicing Judaism in a Mexicali home on their own, without rabbi or synagogue. This is the story of his visit.
  • The Inquisition: Full Circle
  • The story of Nuria Guasch Vidal, a crypto-Jew from Barcelona who discovered her family's secret when her grandfather lay on his deathbed and pulled her aside, instructing her not to allow a priest in the room once he died.

Culture & Folklore

  • "Let it go to the garlic!": Evil Eye and the Fertility of Women Among the Sephardim
  • Rosemary Levy Zumwalt examines the belief and ritual surrounding "mal ojo" (the evil eye) among Sephardic communities. She focuses on the prominent position of women in maintaining the evil eye belief system.
  • Preserving the Heritage
  • Renee Levine Melammed, author of A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective, writes about the practices of crypto-Jewish women of Spain and how they managed to observe some Jewish holidays, especially Yom Kippur, even after the forced conversions and under the watchful eye of the Church.
  • Converso Dualities in the First Generation: The Cancioneros
  • Cancioneros are collections of popular poems that flourished in the fifteen century. Often satirical and irreverent, using plain language and simple rhyme, the poems dealt with current events, people, and cultural norms. The Cancioneros provide a glimpse into "the converso situation and its early dualities." Many authors of the poems were conversos of the first generation, as was the first compiler of their work, Juan Alfonso de Baena. Several poems use Hispanized Hebrew idioms, and many attack as well as defend conversos. (From Jewish Social Studies Volume 4, Number 3, by Yirmiyahu Yovel.)
  • Texas Mexican Secret Spanish Jews Today
  • From An interesting article by Anne deSola Cardoza on how Jewish food, oral traditions, culture, and secret religious customs are in evidence today in the folklore, habits, and practices of the descendants of early settlers in South Texas and the nearby areas of Northern Mexico.
  • Flour Tortillas and Other Jewish Legacies of Colonial Texas
  • Charles M. Robinson, historian and McAllen, Texas author, discusses the unleavened tortilla and other culinary traditions of the crypto-Jews of the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Note: The original link disappeared, and I found a copy of the original essay posted on All Empires Blog. The article is there in its entirety, but the format is poor; however, I thought it was worth including it here because of the unique information it offers.
  • Semitas, Semitic Bread, and the Search for Community: A Culinary Detective Story (PDF)
  • Rachel Laudan's article about "pan de Semita" (bread of the Semites), a lightly sweetened loaf found along the Rio Grande border regions of South Texas, and how it reveals the identity of the conversos of the area.
  • Capirotada
  • The history and theories of the origins of "capirotada," or the bread pudding that is shared by both Hispanic Christians and Jews for Lent and Passover, respectively.
  • Manifestations of Crypto Judaism in the American Southwest
  • Article by Shulamith Halevy; appeared in Jewish Folklore & Ethnology Review 18(1-2), pp. 68-76, 1996.
  • Judeo-Spanish Ballads from New York (e-book)
  • The Sephardic community of New York City, numbering over twenty-five thousand, is an excellent source of ballads representative of the Judeo-Spanish communities of Turkey, Morocco, the Balkans, and South America. Maír José Benardete collected the ballads from mainly women older than forty years of age. Their archaic ballad repertoires retain many features of the Spanish ballad tradition as it existed at the time of the expulsion from Spain. Many narrative types date back to medieval times and still survive among Sephardic Jews.
  • Jewish Settlers Left Strong Imprint in the Rio Grande Valley
  • An article detailing how Jewish customs, culture, and bloodline, survived beyond the Spanish and Mexican Inquisitions to become a part of the lifestyle in the Rio Grande Valley city of McAllen, Texas.

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