CHOOSING TO BE CHOSEN
Hispanic New Mexicans intrigued by hints of a hidden Jewish past
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 12/31/06
BY MATT CRENSON
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Within weeks of assuming the job of New Mexico state historian, Stanley Hordes started receiving some odd visitors. They would enter his Santa Fe office, close the door — and gossip about their neighbors.
"So-and-so lights candles on Friday nights," they would whisper. "So-and-so doesn't eat pork," they would say.
Hordes wasn't the first scholar who had ever heard such things. But as a curious new arrival from Louisiana, the young historian was intrigued.
So Hordes began visiting rural villages to interview the "viejitos," Hispanic old-timers whose families had lived in the state for generations, sometimes since the original Spanish settlers came up from Mexico.
He was astounded by what they told him.
Though the people Hordes spoke with were clearly Catholic, they reported following an array of Jewish customs.
When Hordes asked why they did such things, some said they were simply following family tradition. Others gave a more straightforward explanation.
"Somos judios," they said. We are Jews.
They didn't really know anything about the Jewish faith — and yet, they called themselves Jews.
People don't just decide they're Jewish for no reason. Cultural traditions and identities, no matter how tenuous, have to come from somewhere.
A quarter century later, Hordes has a stirring explanation of how Judaism got to New Mexico. Like so many Jewish stories — the Exodus, David and Goliath, the Hanukkah story — it is an ancient and epic tale of triumph against overwhelming adversity.
In his 2005 book "To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico," Hordes suggests that many crypto-Jews found their way to the northern frontier of the Spanish colonial empire, where evading the authority of both church and state was an easier proposition.
There they continued to observe their religion behind locked doors, blending publicly into the monolithic Catholic culture.
"They were invisible," Hordes said.
But the people had no synagogue, no Torah, no connection to global Jewish culture. By the 20th century, Hordes concludes, all that was left were a few suggestive customs and a vague sense among a few viejitos that somehow, they were Jewish.
For Sonya Loya, there's nothing vague about it. She has always felt Jewish. Growing up Catholic in Ruidoso, N.M., Loya was intensely spiritual. But she never identified with Jesus or Christianity.
"I never felt whatever I was supposed to feel when I was Catholic," Loya said.
Loya began observing the Jewish sabbath, Shabbat, six years ago, about the same time that she learned about the secret Jewish past that was being uncovered by Hordes and other scholars. She was thrilled at the possibility that she might actually have Jewish heritage.
"I believe that what drew me back home to who I am is my Jewish soul," Loya said.
In 2004 she went to her parents, asking them to bless her conversion to Judaism but expecting the worst. But not only did her father give his blessing, Loya said, but he also revealed that he had known since childhood that he had Jewish ancestry. An uncle, returning from World War II, had seen the family name among a list of concentration camp inmates.
"I'm still discovering a lot of these things from my own family," she said.
Bill Sanchez always felt Jewish too. But not that Jewish — he's a Catholic priest.
Sanchez discovered his own Jewish roots after watching a television documentary on genetics. The show inspired him to have his own genes tested by a Houston-based company called Family Tree DNA. The company determined that he has a set of genetic markers on his Y-chromosome that is also found in about 30 percent of Jewish men.
Like Hordes, folklorist Judith Neulander was fascinated by the story of the Southwestern crypto-Jews when she first encountered it as a graduate student in the early 1990s. Neulander is an American Jew who grew up in Mexico City.
"I really in my heart wanted to curate the crypto-Judaic exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York," said Neulander, co-director of the Jewish Studies Program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Neulander went to New Mexico in the summer of 1992 and began doing interviews.
Neulander heard accounts of grandfathers donning shawls before they prayed and grandmothers carefully draining every drop of blood from chickens after slaughtering them. But she grew increasingly uneasy, and then dismayed.
People told her about how their parents or grandparents prayed to "Yahweh" — Hebrew for God. But Judaism forbids saying God's name out loud.
They talked about playing as children with a four-sided top that resembled a dreidel. But dreidels first appeared among Central and Eastern European Jews well after 1492. How would the descendants of Spanish Jews who fled Europe during the Inquisition have known anything about them?
"All of it just doesn't really hold up when you examine it carefully," Neulander said.
In 1994, Neulander wrote a paper in the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review that offered an explanation. She can't prove it, but Neulander believes Protestant evangelicals, possibly from a group that splintered off the Seventh Day Adventist church, inspired the belief in a Southwestern Jewish past less than a century ago.
Hordes dismisses her theory as outrageous.
"Do you think they would have forgotten that they were Seventh-Day Adventists?" he asked.
Though Judaism has always allowed for the conversion of people who have demonstrated a sufficient commitment to the faith, it has an ethnic component that other religions lack. People become Christian when they choose to put their faith in Jesus Christ. But Jews don't choose; they're chosen. They have a special relationship with God, forged by the events chronicled in the Old Testament and kept alive over millennia.
Crypto-Jews have an uncomfortable relationship with that legacy. Though their claim to Jewishness is based on inheritance, they have no way of documenting it. "You'll never have proof," Loya said. "You have these bits of evidence — like bread crumbs."
But that doesn't matter to people like Loya. Having "felt Jewish" for most of her life, the crypto-Jew story, she says, gives her the authority to embrace the heritage of her choice.
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