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In 1985 Hordes, having grown frustrated with the paper-pushing life of a state bureaucrat, quit his job and started a private consulting business, taking on investigations for the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies and individuals embroiled in land disputes with the local populace. He also began spending more and more time promoting his growing belief that Sephardic crypto-Judaism had survived four centuries of secrecy in the Southwest. The proposition, if true, was astonishing. And it held enormous appeal for Jews elsewhere in the United States, still grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust and eager for stories about Jewish survival against all odds. Soon a freelance radio producer in Albuquerque named Benjamin Shapiro heard about Hordes and the crypto-Jews and, along with a Denver producer named Nan Rubin, interviewed people Hordes and others put them in touch with. Their documentary aired in 1987 on National Public Radio. During the next few years hundreds of people called to buy tapes of the show. Stories about the crypto-Jews proliferated in the domestic and international press. Stanley Hordes was interviewed by The New York Times, CNN, and the Jerusalem Post.
Y the early 1990s Latinos by the dozens from New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Arizona were coming forward with tales of a Jewish past. At conferences and in Internet forums they recalled playing with toys resembling dreidels (the four-sided tops associated with Hanukkah) as children. They reported that their parents had baked a flat, unleavened bread in the spring. They remembered mothers and grandmothers calling out on their deathbeds, "Children, we are really Israelites."
Isabelle Medina Sandoval had such memories. She spent her childhood, during the 1950s and 1960s, in Laramie, Wyoming, but her parents, grandparents, and cousins hailed from a village in the Mora Valley, between Taos and Santa Fe. Sandoval's mother and father left New Mexico after World War II to find work. As Sandoval wrote in one of many autobiographical essays, the family wanted to live in Denver but was unable to find an apartment, because landlords wouldn't rent to "Mexicans." In Laramie the Sandovals settled in a modest neighborhood of Anglos and fellow Hispanos who had likewise migrated north.
Isabelle Sandoval's skin has a vaguely olive cast, and her eyelids are slightly hooded. Today she reads a lot into these features. She says that when she was a child people used to comment on her appearance. One person told her she looked Sephardic, before she knew what that word meant. In Laramie, Sandoval always felt different, not just from the Anglo kids but from Hispanos as well. Like many introspective children, she wondered about her true origins. Once, on a visit to the family village, she proclaimed to her grandfather that their family was mestizo. He grew agitated and vehemently denied having Native American blood: "We are Spaniards!" he proclaimed. It was the only time she ever saw him get angry. Years later Sandoval began to feel that she understood his protestations after she attended a talk by Stanley Hordes.
As Sandoval listened to Hordes describe unusual customs and gravestone markings, she began rethinking her past. Her family had avoided Catholic mass and shown no interest in the Catholic saints. This made some sense -- although her father was Catholic, her mother was Protestant -- but in addition, the family hardly celebrated Christmas. Sandoval recalled her parents' drinking wine whose label showed people sitting around a table in "funny little hats" -- that is, yarmulkes. She asked why they were drinking Jewish wine. Because it was "clean," she was told. After hearing about the New Mexico crypto-Jews, Sandoval concluded that "clean" meant "kosher."
Juan Sandoval is apparently no relation to Isabelle, but his family, too, comes from the Mora Valley -- in his case, from the village of Mora. Like Isabelle, Juan had Protestants in his family, and he, too, wondered about his roots. He made his living as a folk artist: along with his wife and children, he fashioned Christmas wreaths and ceramics with Native American motifs. The family led a gypsy existence, moving frequently throughout the Southwest and in and out of Mexico. In the late 1980s they were in Mora again, on a small ranch inherited from Juan's father. That is when Juan first heard of the crypto-Jews of New Mexico. For reasons that remain unclear, he became convinced that he was a Jew. His wife started buying him kosher chickens from Colorado, even though the Sandovals were already raising chickens on their ranch. She bought him Jewish ritual items, such as the white prayer shawl called a tallith and candles to be lit on Friday night, the sabbath eve.
Stanley Hordes met Isabelle Sandoval and Juan Sandoval on separate occasions in the early 1990s. By then he was helping to organize a new group, the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, which facilitated connections among people who suspected that they were descended from crypto-Jews. Isabelle found out about Juan. She also found out about Loggie Carrasco, an elderly woman who claimed to belong to a clan that has practiced crypto-Judaism for generations in an old neighborhood in Albuquerque. Carrasco said the clan was descended from Manuel Carrasco, who had been prosecuted in Mexico in the seventeenth century after the Inquisition discovered that he carried bits of matzoh under his hat. Loggie Carrasco displayed a family heirloom she said dated from colonial times: a rosary with its cross removed. Some of her relatives recited ancient prayers and folk rhymes that Carrasco said were Sephardic. Other people with ancestors from the neighborhood remembered the practice of hanging goats upside down after slaughter in order to make the meat kosher by draining the blood. Hordes interviewed some of these people and brought reporters to meet them. The reporters wrote their stories. The stories attracted more stories.
Soon, however, Carrasco and others grew reluctant to speak with outsiders. They complained that Ashkenazic Jews looked down on Spanish-speaking Sephardim. Synagogue congregations, the crypto-Jews said, were often suspicious and unfriendly. So were many reporters, who seemed skeptical about the claims. Researchers, too, seemed insensitive to these anusim -- an ancient Hebrew word meaning "people who have been forced," used for Jews made to abandon their religion. The word soon became the term of choice for the Southwest's crypto-Jews.
Some of these self-styled anusim came to conferences of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, and to presentations that Hordes gave at Haddassah socials, Hillel meetings, Jewish historical-society lectures, and Lion's Club luncheons. Among the other attendees at these events were elderly Ashkenazim whose East Coast, vaguely Yiddish-edged voices clashed with the remnant-Spanish accents of the anusim. Many of the attendees were retirees who had moved to the anti-allergenic deserts of Albuquerque and Phoenix. Some were on Elderhostel-style vacations from New York, New Jersey, and Florida. A few were members of Kulanu, a Jewish group dedicated to finding "lost" co-religionists in exotic places.
When Hordes gave talks at conferences or sat for media interviews, he refused to reveal the identities or whereabouts of his crypto-Jewish informants, citing the New Mexicans' discomfort. In his slide shows of gravestones with Stars of David, the names of the dead were blocked out, and Hordes would not say where the burial sites were located. Secrecy was necessary, he said, because anusim had been hurt by meddling outsiders. They also needed privacy to deal with family members who could not or would not admit their Judaism. Reporters and researchers accepted that they would not be doing their own fact-checking. Hordes and a handful of vocal and prickly anusim thus became the primary sources of information about southwestern crypto-Judaism.
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Poetry by Isabelle Medina Sandoval
Isabelle Sandoval and Juan Sandoval were among this handful. By the mid-1990s both had undergone a ceremony called the rite of return, performed for Jews who come back to Judaism after having been forced to give it up. (The rabbi who performed the ritual later officiated at the funeral of Barry Goldwater, another ancestral Jew whose family abandoned the faith -- though in this case by choice.) Isabelle Sandoval helped to found a support group for people who considered themselves crypto-Jews. She began appearing at conferences, where she would read poems she had written, in a high, didactic voice. The poems had confrontational titles ("Contemporary Inquisition" was one, "Trial" was another) and tortured, angry verses:
On the border I
Juan Sandoval reconceived his folk-art offerings. He scrapped his Native American and Christmas inventory and replaced it with hardened-clay menorahs and "chia" rabbis whose beards contained seeds that sprouted when watered. The new line sold well in Judaica gift shops, and Sandoval began supplementing his earnings with honoraria for lectures about his hidden past. In 1996 he spoke at the annual meeting of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, in Albuquerque, and was introduced by his new name: Yehoshuah ben Avraham. The audience listened raptly as he described how his father, a Catholic, had kidnapped him after learning that his grandmother was a secret Jew, and how, years later, when he discovered his roots, neighbors shot at his family and forced him to sell his property, which he said was worth $1 million, for only $65,000. Juan illustrated his story with a photograph of the family cemetery in Mora. In the center was a gravestone with a Star of David.
Inside and outside these conferences tales about crypto-Jews in the Southwest became commonplace. Most were prosaic and full of stereotypes: speculation, for instance, that one's parents or grandparents were Jewish because they were successful merchants, or were tight with money, or liked to read books. Some were more intriguing. Frances Hernández, an English professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, wrote that Catholics in New Mexico were venerating "Saint Esther" -- named after the heroine of the Jewish Purim story. Stanley Hordes talked of diagnoses in Latinos of a rare skin disease, pemphigus vulgaris, which he said was prevalent among Jews. And covert rabbis, Hordes said, may still be hiding in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The stories fueled more reporting, including another National Public Radio segment, and brought more work for Hordes. In 1994 he was a member of the "faculty" for a package tour that advertised a chance to meet "descendants of the 'Hidden Jews' of the Southwest." Tour members could chat with Hispanos claiming blood kinship with Gómez Robledo, the sixteenth-century New Mexican soldier accused of having a tail. Meanwhile, Simcha Jacobovici, a Jewish documentary filmmaker from Canada, came to New Mexico to make a movie that was later released under the title Expulsion and Memory. For his film interview Stanley Hordes traded his usual professor's garb for a work shirt, open at the throat, and an Indiana Jones hat. Isabelle Sandoval donned a fuzzy vest with Santa Fe-style Indian geometrics.
VEN as Hordes and the Sandovals were riding a wave of celebrity, an undercurrent of trouble was gathering force. The problems had started in 1992, when an Indiana University graduate student named Judith Neulander arrived in New Mexico with notebooks, cassette tapes, and hopes of pursuing her own research in crypto-Jewish studies.
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"Conversos Surfacing Among Southwest's Hispanics,"
by Sarah Wildman, The Jewish Forward, (May 30, 1997)
Judith Neulander was already a middle-aged woman when she entered Indiana University, in 1989, to work on a doctorate in folklore. Before that, she had earned master's degrees in folklore and Jewish studies. She had been married and divorced. She had grown up in more-than-comfortable circumstances; her Ashkenazic parents were American, but her father worked as an economist with a European cartel that owned Mexico's electric-power industry before it was nationalized. The family lived in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in Mexico City. Neulander had hung around with the servants, spoken Spanish with them, and gone to mass at their churches.
In the late 1980s, when Neulander had just started work on her folklore doctorate, she heard the first of the NPR programs about the crypto-Jews. She was intrigued by the tales of dreidel spinning and kosher slaughter. She was also intrigued by the fact that none of these stories had been verified by a professional folklorist. Until some of them were, the accounts were doomed to remain in the realm of rumor, popular media, and pseudo-academic journals that lack peer review or scholarly cachet. Neulander wanted to be the first folklorist to dignify the claims with ethnographic research. As she derisively puts it now, she wanted to be "Queen of the Crypto-Jews."
Photographs by Maggie Heinzel-Neel.
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