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As soon as she arrived in the Southwest, she visited Stanley Hordes. He showed her slides of gravestones and gave her names and phone numbers of people in the crypto-Jewish coterie. During ensuing months of fieldwork Neulander started to suspect that something was wrong with the claims she was investigating. The Star of David gravestones were one example. When Hordes and others showed pictures of the stones, they obscured certain features, such as last names, that would help a researcher to locate the graves independently. Neulander saw one slide that she found especially interesting: it showed a star that was recessed, as though someone had tried to minimize it. When she asked where the grave was, she was given inaccurate information. She started visiting cemeteries on her own, and one day chanced upon the stone that she had seen in the slide. The graveyard was in a small town south of Albuquerque. She quickly located the family of the deceased, a young woman who had died not long before. The woman's parents were a Catholic couple who were thoroughly cordial to Neulander but puzzled that anyone would think they were Jews. As for the six-pointed star, they said their priest had chosen the design for them. Lest anyone suspect that the priest himself was a crypto-Jew, the couple assured Neulander he was Irish.
Neulander was also puzzled by the gravestones bearing the first name Adonay: Jewish law forbids attaching a term for God to a human being. And why were some of Hordes's informants telling him that their parents prayed to "Yahweh"? That name, as observant Jews know, is a direct transliteration of the Hebrew designation for God and, as such, may never be uttered. Yet the crypto-Jews of New Mexico were saying it aloud.
Or were they? Neulander wasn't sure after she watched Hordes interview a woman from the same neighborhood as Loggie Carrasco, the member of the clan in Albuquerque. A few years earlier Hordes had sent a New York Times reporter to the woman, whose name is Nora Garcia Herrera. The article that appeared had Garcia Herrera describing her father's dislike of Catholic saints and his circumcision by an old man in the neighborhood. Afterward Hordes continued visiting the woman and recovering more memories -- for instance, about her father's praying when he slaughtered sheep.
But on the visit to Garcia Herrera that Neulander made with Hordes, she was shocked by how leading his questions were. When Garcia Herrera said that she didn't recognize the language her father used when he prayed, Hordes started reciting the Kaddish -- the Jewish mourners' prayer -- in Hebrew. Then he suggested that "Yahweh" might have been what the old man called God. "Yahweh, yeah!" Garcia Herrera answered. "He used to call him Yahweh." "Because it's the Hebrew name for God," Hordes chimed in, in Spanish.
Neulander also researched the origins of alleged crypto-Jewish customs, such as celebrating Saint Esther's Day, burying or burning hair and nail clippings, and playing with a dreidel. To Hordes, these practices were dramatically Jewish. But as Neulander dug into historical and folklore archives, she learned that Esther is a Spanish folk saint and has been for hundreds of years. As for burning hair and nails, the practice is found in folk cultures throughout the Western world, and was widespread even when the Inquisition was attributing it only to Jews. Neulander also found that the dreidel does not exist in Sephardic culture -- it is an Ashkenazic object that postdates the Inquisition. What does exist, throughout Latin America, is the trompita, a wooden top that children play with regardless of their religion. Other matters also troubled Neulander. For instance, when she looked into Loggie Carrasco's "colonial-era" rosary, she found that it was identical to items that could be bought in virtually any Catholic gift shop -- and that were approved by the Church only in 1911. As for pemphigus vulgaris, the disease that Hordes had said was common among Jews, it predominantly afflicts Ashkenazic, not Sephardic, Jews, and in fact occurs in Mediterranean peoples of several ethnicities.
Still, there were customs that really did seem Jewish. Nora Garcia Herrera's father wouldn't eat meat with blood in it. Families consumed unleavened bread in springtime. Old people mumbled deathbed declarations about being judío or israelita. After Neulander finished her fieldwork and left New Mexico, she started looking for similar practices in other Latino and in Mediterranean cultures. It wasn't long before she ran across the work of the anthropologist Raphael Patai.
N the 1940s Patai had visited Venta Prieta, a dusty town near Mexico City, where people have been calling themselves Jews at least since the 1930s. When Patai arrived, on the heels of World War II, the Venta Prietans actually had a synagogue. Their prayers sometimes included a few sentences in halting Hebrew. In the spring they celebrated Passover, with a seder and flatbread. With their short stature, black hair, and dark skin, the Venta Prietans were indistinguishable from the mestizo Catholic population that dominates Mexico. Yet they claimed descent from one of the country's Inquisition-era Sephardic families, the Carvajals, and said that their religion was handed down over the centuries from them.
As Patai poked through Venta Prieta's history, he accumulated persuasive evidence that its people were not descended from Jews at all. Instead they were the inheritors of what might be called crypto-Protestantism. In the early decades of this century, it seems, a fundamentalist splinter group called the Church of God Israelite left Mexico City to proselytize elsewhere; some settled in Venta Prieta. The group was a branch of the Church of God (Seventh Day) -- a sect originally located in Iowa, and now headquartered in Colorado. As the name suggests, Church of God (Seventh Day) members observe the sabbath as Jews do, on the last day of the week -- Saturday. They ignore Christmas and Easter, believing these holidays to be "pagan." Branches in the Southwest celebrate their own versions of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth, along with Passover, which they mark with a ceremony that includes unleavened bread. They refuse to eat blood sausage or blood pudding, although both are Mexican delicacies.
At a recent Church of God (Seventh Day) service, at a church on the U.S.-Mexico border, many members of the congregation wore small Stars of David on necklaces. The walls of the church were graced with Stars of David. Years ago the building contained more Stars of David, and also Hebrew writing. One day some American Jews walked in. They were convinced that the place was a synagogue, and were overjoyed at this discovery. The congregation was deeply embarrassed, and removed the Hebrew and some of the stars. Yet a number of Stars of David remain visible, and old people still want them on their gravestones. Although the stars are important symbolically and doctrinally, the church is firmly Christian: the congregation's prayers and songs are all dedicated to Jesus.
The doctrinal roots of the Church of God (Seventh Day) go back to the Reformation, to an obsession among some Protestants with the Second Coming and the Millennium. One scenario, which is repeated these days by many televangelists, has it that Jesus will not return to earth until all the world's Jews are gathered together to welcome him back. If present-day Jews are uninterested in doing so, then perhaps they can be replaced by worthier ones, by Jews who accept Christ as the Messiah. These more promising Jews, in the view of some fundamentalist Protestants, disappeared with the ten lost tribes of Israel. Now they must be found, so that the Savior can return.
This logic has engendered a centuries-old preoccupation with identifying certain gentiles as long-lost Jews. During the Reformation some thought the English were one of the tribes. (This belief survived in the twentieth-century theology of Herbert Armstrong, the father of the radio evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong, who used to point out that brit is Hebrew for "covenant," and ish means "man"; ergo the British were "the true covenant people.") During the age of European colonialism nonwhites were often venerated as Jews even as they were defined as racially inferior and marketed as slaves. Africans were a favored group for lost tribehood. In the New World, Cotton Mather and William Penn focused on Native Americans. At the turn of the century in the Southwest, Church of God proselytizers looked to Latinos. Mormons, the Church of Holiness, and Seventh-day Adventists also went searching in the Southwest for the lost tribes. Even mainstream New Mexico churches adopted Old Testament motifs: Presbyterians, for instance, held "last suppers" emphasizing the fact that Jesus' last meal was a Passover seder. Indeed, it seems that in the early twentieth century the hamlets around Santa Fe and Albuquerque were roiling with Hebraic Protestantism, just as Venta Prieta was.
One would never know this if one read only the Santa Fe tourist-store books that depict non-Anglo New Mexicans as either kachina dancers or carvers of wooden saints. One might not even know if one's own parents had once experimented with a fundamentalist sect and then abandoned it because Catholic neighbors were getting vicious or because the church leaders decided that Hispanos were not a lost tribe after all.
This seems to be what happened two generations ago, when the Church of God (Seventh Day) pulled its ministers out of New Mexico. Fifty years later, Neulander believes, the children and grandchildren of former members are recalling their elders' Old Testament customs and misinterpreting their last words about being Jews. These recollections, Neulander says, have been skewed by Stanley Hordes and others who are ignorant of the Southwest's true recent history. It is a history that includes both fundamentalist Protestants and other groups whose behavior could be wrongly construed as crypto-Judaism. Muslims, too, fled the Inquisition, settled in New Spain, eschewed pork, and ignored priests. Sephardic immigrants also came to Mexico and the Southwest from countries such as Morocco and Turkey, where they had practiced Judaism openly for centuries. Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe have been in Mexico and the Southwest for 150 years. They have intermarried with Latinos, and many have even embraced the Catholic Church. They might have kept dreidels in the house, but that is no sign of the Inquisition.
N 1996 Judith Neulander published her findings in an obscure periodical, the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review. Word quickly spread among the self-described anusim that the ethnographer who had approached them so enthusiastically a few years earlier was now attacking the very basis of their identity. Since then conferences of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies have often included presentations in which a speaker criticizes the work of the ungrateful scholar from Indiana. When asked about Neulander, society members often sneer, sometimes without having looked at any of her work. Even those who have done the reading find it easy to despise her. For when Neulander makes her arguments, she presents more than just dry scholarship on Protestantism. She also speculates about the reasons Hispanos might be inventing what she calls an "imaginary crypto-Jewish identity."
Neulander thinks they are doing it because they are, in effect, racists. Colonial Spaniards were obsessed with proving they had "pure" blood, untainted by that of what they regarded as inferior peoples. The same has been true for many New Mexicans, and Neulander believes that the concern for purity -- limpieza de sangre -- is intensifying, now that Hispanos are being boxed in by Anglo newcomers and Mexican immigrants. As noted, Hispanos have always been loath to be called Mexicans. But that is how Anglos in the region have identified anyone who speaks Spanish. So, Neulander theorizes, some Hispanos are using crypto-Jewish identity as a postmodern marker for ethnic purity. What better way to be a noble Spaniard than to be Sephardic, since Sephardim almost never marry outside their own narrow ethnic group -- and would certainly not intermarry with Native Americans? Neulander also comes at the racism issue from another, not quite compatible angle. She stresses that Protestant lost-tribes logic is deeply anti-Semitic. Below its Judeophilic veneer lies the belief that because they reject Jesus, most of today's ethnic Jews will in fact go up in flames at the Apocalypse.
Such talk frightens and offends those who call themselves anusim. True, some of them are fixated on finding a noble Spanish past. But some from Hispano families are politically liberal, involved in civil-rights work, and proud of their mestizo complexions and ancestry. They are eager to stir into their Raza Cósmica mixture what they see as the ultimate outsider blood -- that of Jews. Neulander's theories don't take account of someone like Tomás Atencio, the sociologist son of the Presbyterian minister, who has for many years done community organizing in Texas and New Mexico. By speculating that the Hispano Presbyterian church was really a secret synagogue for crypto-Jews who wanted to read the Bible, Atencio reconciles his modern, Chicano identity with what he thinks of as his traditional, shamefully Anglo persona.
Such reasoning is far more complicated than anything Neulander has suggested, and it is thus easy for many to dismiss her. She dismisses them and clings to her principles. What her detractors think nowadays does not count anyhow, Neulander believes, since researchers like Hordes have so muddied the crypto-Jewish field that it is no longer possible to tell history from fantasy. Pessimistic about her chances of landing an academic job, Neulander has been moving around the Midwest, working at whatever comes her way. She currently works in philanthropy at a Jewish organization. Not long ago she was working part-time at a local public-television station, co-producing shows about the gentle folklore of Indiana. One segment she did was about scarecrows.
As for Hordes, he has received generous funding from the estate of a wealthy Jewish woman in New Jersey, and has embarked on an ambitious project: tracing the family trees of self-proclaimed anusim. Definitely linking them to converts who quit the Continent for the New World, he believes, would strongly support the historical case for the crypto-Jews. Hordes is undaunted by the concept of powers of two: when lineage is traced back to 1492, each person has (depending on whether a generation is counted as thirty years or as twenty-five) as many as 131,072 to 1,048,576 direct ancestors. Given these numbers, every southwestern Latino is practically guaranteed Iberian Jewish ancestry -- whether he or she wants it or not.
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"Faithful Jew or Don Juan?" by Anne Rackham,
Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, (May 30, 1997)
ERHAPS Neulander is right that history can no longer be distinguished from fantasy. But for some the difference no longer seems to matter. A few years ago, after the folk artist Juan Sandoval began touring with his merchandise through Ashkenazic America, his ex-wife and children called in the press and announced that Sandoval was a fake. His tearful stories about being kidnapped as a child and losing his ranch as an adult were, he is said to have told his son, "like show business: I tell them what they want to hear." Sandoval also appears to have manufactured for Jews what they wanted to see. His son showed a reporter a Styrofoam mock-up of a gravestone with a Star of David on it, painted gray on three sides. He said he came across the object after Sandoval had discarded it -- presumably following a photo shoot. After Sandoval was exposed, a number of Jewish women compared notes and discovered that he had been hinting at marriage with each of them and had also bilked some of them of money. At first the women were devastated. Later several formed warm friendships through e-mail. One has credited Sandoval with inadvertently being "a catalyst to the most incredible group of women in Chicago and across the country meeting one another."
Isabelle Medina Sandoval, too, has had her life transformed. Not long ago she was writing bleak memoirs about never fitting in as a child, because her Protestant family taught her to look down on her cousins who worshipped Catholic saints and wore frilly dresses for communion. Today, as a self-styled "crypto-Jewess" writer and teacher, Sandoval has reconstructed a happier past. Now her girlhood occurred not in a drab neighborhood in Laramie, Wyoming, but in a quaint New Mexico village. Now her mother and grandmother enthusiastically venerated a saint -- Esther -- and clothed little Isabelle for Saint Esther's Day in a lovely pink dress, patent-leather shoes, and dainty flower earrings.
Other self-identified anusim still feel Christian, and they constitute fertile soil for messianic Jewish evangelists -- including those known as Jews for Jesus. Like the fundamentalist Protestant groups that once populated New Mexico, today's messianists believe that Jesus will not come again until the Jews have gathered to welcome him. Having spent their formative years in church, crypto-Jews are considered to be especially receptive to this message, and messianic houses of worship are being set up throughout the Southwest, with literature and sermonizing directed at the supposed descendants of the Inquisition. To the dismay of many Ashkenazim who have been following the crypto-Judaism story, some anusim wander into these hybrid synagogue-churches and stay there.
Others, though, have visited traditional Jewish congregations, liked what they saw, and undergone full conversions, complete with immersion in the mikvah bath and even circumcision. One, a Latino retiree named Frank Longoria, underwent conversion rites at Beth Shalom, a synagogue in the Dallas suburbs. Longoria's wife and children also converted, and now his grandchildren have had bar mitzvahs. At a time when half this country's Ashkenazim are marrying non-Jews and drifting from their historical roots, Longoria and other Latinos may represent a small movement in the other direction, exotic and unexpected though it may be.
Their path, perhaps, will turn out to be a northern version of the Venta Prieta story. For years Mexico City's Jews wanted nothing to do with those poor, dark-skinned Protestant villagers who mistakenly called themselves Sephardim. In the 1960s, though, the Venta Prietans met a rabbi from the capital who agreed to perform conversions. With the help of visiting teenagers from a temple in Pennsylvania, the Venta Prietans rehabilitated their primitive synagogue and started studying Hebrew. Their children traveled to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Some fell in love with Israelis and married. Today the Venta Prietans are official: they have cast their lot with contemporary Judaism.
Has it all been a mistake? Historically, perhaps. But faith, of course, is always about more than history. Religions are built on collective wishes and hopes. And with southwestern crypto-Judaism the wishes and hopes may, in the end, prevail.
Photographs by Maggie Heinzel-Neel.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.