CHEVY CHASE, Maryland– Over the past few years, I had glimpses of the world of Sephardic Jewish history that streamed from the period of the Inquisition, but no real knowledge about these Jewish ancestors.
Finally, this past summer (July 2009), my husband Bob, another couple and I signed up for an Elderhostel trip in New Mexico to learn the Converso/Crypto- Jewish story. In my most enthusiastic expectations I could not have imagined what an extraordinary and deeply emotional experience awaited me. My three travelling companions were just as moved and surprised.
We arrived in Albuquerque on a Sunday afternoon, emerging into the heat and dust of the arid climate. The scenery was, to my surprised eyes, bleak and uninviting, not the exciting vista others had described to me. For the next five days I listened to the surprising story, to envisage in amazement how the Converso families who fled there managed to not only survive in such a hostile climate, but to deal with the everyday tensions defending their Converso status.
Two women led our group of 14; Norma Libman was the lecturer/ teacher. Her scholarly depth of knowledge, dedication, and enthusiasmfor the subject sparked similar feelings in all of us. Karen Long, our group leader, provided, with similar enthusiasm, not only a perfectly planned and executed schedule, but knowledge about New Mexico, the Native Indian and Spanish heritages, and even the climate, flora and fauna, and current social and demographic background.
I’m sure the people who read the Kulanu newsletter know much more about the Converso/Crypto experience than I could absorb in five days. So, I will resist telling you the whole story as it unfolded for us, the significant place of Jews in the history both of Spain and of early Mexico and the United States.
In the interest of emphasizing the novelty of the subject for us, I will list some “factual” items that some of my companions told me know that Jews were ever noted as sailors or navigators, let alone dominated the field in the 14 and 15 hundreds.”
“I didn’t know these Jews were so numerous in the settlement of New Mexico and other areas of the southwestern United States.”
“I didn’t know that at the time of the Inquisition Conversos accounted for 40% of the Spanish colonization of the area now known as New Mexico.”
“I didn’t know the Inquisition was active in Mexico and even in the then Spanish held parts of America.”
“I didn’t know the Office of the Inquisition in Spain was not closed until the 1900’s and then only in response to
Spain’s desire to have the Olympics held there.”
And so on!
As a fairly literate Jew, I have read and heard much history.
How could such a dramatic part of Jewish and American history havebeen omitted from my education? We Ashkenazic Jews rightfully hold the Holocaust as the loss of a significant portion not only of our population, but also of our culture and heritage. So, too, was the loss of that cultured and large community wiped out by the Inquisition. Its tattered remnant also fled to our shores and deserves to have its proud tale enrich our study of history. Perhaps the parallels between these two events are too ominous to integrate into our thinking.
The new scholarship being done on our Southwestern Jewish history is quite amazing. ( I thoroughly recommend New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, Cary Herz’s wonderful book of photographs, interviews, and essays. And I learned much from Stanley Hordes’ To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico.) As more and more unfolds, it will be fascinating to see if any Crypto-Jewish community survives as such or if it is absorbed into the existing community. Either way, we can all be grateful to have the opportunity to learn about these courageous people.
We are very grateful to the Elderhostel for providing this course.
This story previously appeared in the fall 2009 edition of the Kulanu newsletter. http://www.kulanu.org/newsletters/2009-fall.pdf Janis Colton is a retired Clinical Social Worker, specializing in Adult Psychotherapy. She is enjoying this phase of her life exploring new places, people, skills and ideas. She lives in Chevy Chase, MD.