Thursday, December 18, 2008

Soy Judia: Soul Food, Pomegranates, and Finding My Way Home

I'm not only Chicana, I'm what was formerly referred to as marrano or converso. What I am is Anusim, a descendant of my mother, her mother, and her mother before her, and on and on, spiraling toward a distant past. Anusim, an unbroken chain of Jews hiding in plain sight en Mexico, con sudor y corazón, con shabbat candles lit in secrecy.

My family had many secrets, but these were ones of joy, ones that braided me to four generations of women living under one roof. They bound me to a great-grandmother and grandmother who taught me to take challah, to have a house sparkling clean by sunset every Friday, to kill chickens in a proscribed way, to a mother who would have been delighted to hear my friends calling me Leila Shulamit.

It's been a long trip, weaving my way through a childhood difficult and full of well-meaning Catholics, yet remaining unclaimed and untouched. It was years of attending shabbat services alone from the time I was sixteen, unable to speak, but able to let the swirling words of yet another tongue talk to me in the ways beyond language. And it's only recently that I fully gave birth to myself, living purposefully and clearly as a Jew.

I keep shabbat now, in the open, and sit with loved ones and allow the sacred of Friday night. I set my own table, light my own candles and recite the bruchas, las bendiciones. I attend shul, although not as often as my rabbi would like. And I have started on the next leg of this journey, finding other people like me, with my past, with my joy.


New Mexico's Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory
Cary Herz , Photographer
Essays by Ori Z. Soltes and Mona Hernandez
University of New Mexico Press ISBN
( hardcover ) 978-0-8263-4289-8
( paperback ) 978-0-8263-4290-4

While photographing the Congregation Montefiore Cemetery in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1985, Cary Herz first heard whispers about "the other people." Thus began a twenty-year search for descendants of crypto-Jews, the Sephardic Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions centuries ago. Many openly professed Catholicism, but continued to practice the Jewish faith privately. Herz's photographs and the accompanying essays honor the people whose ancestors, through families' oral histories and genealogical records, knew about their heritage. Other New Mexican Hispanics have recently begun to explore their families' customs and are only beginning to examine their possible blended lineage.

To help complete her exploration, Herz sought out symbols--gravesites, artifacts, and icons--that might point toward the presence of the descendants of crypto-Jews who came to the New World. There has recently been a renewed interest in crypto-Jews, as DNA tests have revealed the Jewish heritage of a number of Hispanic New Mexicans.

New Mexico's Crypto-Jews was named Best Nonfiction Book--Religion for 2008 by the National Federation of Press Women. Cary Herz was also presented with the New Mexico Press Women's Communicator of Achievement Award, 2008, for exceptional achievement in the communications field and service to the community.

". . . New Mexico's Crypto-Jews is a work that merits a special place on every bookshelf of New Mexico history."--La Herencia

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Herz's photos speak volumes on a neglected and shadowy aspect of New Mexican history. Her book is a visual feast that will be of interest to specialists and general readers alike."--Catholic Southwest

"In New Mexico's Crypto-Jews, Herz has accomplished her goal: 'to put a face on the invisible ones, the Anusim, to open a small window into their world, to show their pride and diversity.'"--Hadassah Magazine

"The photographs and essays herein exhibit the strength, passion, and devotion that move the pride of Jews throughout the world."--Jewish Book World

"[New Mexico's Crypto-Jews] is a book rich in images, memory, and longing for connection, as well as thoughtful text. . . ."--Taos Horse-Fly

"[New Mexico's Crypto-Jews] is a welcome prize. . . . The fact that Herz is a descendant of Holocaust survivors means that she brings a rare and poignant Jewish sensitivity to a subject that is more often examined through Hispanic lenses. . . . Concise essays and commentaries accompany Herz's striking photographs of modern residents of New Mexico and Colorado who retain tatters and shards of Jewish religiosity and custom."--Intermountain Jewish Times

"[A] compelling book of photos. . . ."--NA'AMAT WOMAN Magazine "[A] fascinating book . . . handsome and empowering. . . ."--Bloomsbury Review

"[Cary] Herz's photography book is the first visual exploration of the descendants of Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition and traveled with Spanish colonial settlers to what is today New Mexico. [New Mexico's Crypto-Jews] introduces a unique community whose Jewish identity is grounded in the Catholicism that characterizes the traditions of the American Southwest."

Cary Herz, 1947-2008, was an award-winning professional photographer specializing in corporate and editorial photography. She was a New Mexico photo correspondent for the New York Times and worked with a variety of editorial clients, including TIME, PC World, People, Ms., Garden Design, Hispanic Business, The Discovery Channel, The Dallas Morning News, and The Houston Chronicle's Texas Magazine. 9 x 9 176 pages 115 duotones, 1 map

To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico
Stanley M. Hordes
Columbia University Press
Paper, 376 pages, 12 maps; 16 photos
ISBN: 978-0-231-12937-4
Cloth 376 pages, 12 maps; 16 photos
ISBN: 978-0-231-12936-7

In 1981, while working as New Mexico State Historian, Stanley M. Hordes began to hear stories of Hispanos who lit candles on Friday night and abstained from eating pork. Puzzling over the matter, Hordes realized that these practices might very well have been passed down through the centuries from early crypto-Jewish settlers in New Spain. After extensive research and hundreds of interviews, Hordes concluded that there was, in New Mexico and the Southwest, a Sephardic legacy derived from the converso community of Spanish Jews.

In To the End of the Earth, Hordes explores the remarkable story of crypto-Jews and the tenuous preservation of Jewish rituals and traditions in Mexico and New Mexico over the past five hundred years. He follows the crypto-Jews from their Jewish origins in medieval Spain and Portugal to their efforts to escape persecution by migrating to the New World and settling in the far reaches of the northern Mexican frontier.
Drawing on individual biographies (including those of colonial officials accused of secretly practicing Judaism), family histories, Inquisition records, letters, and other primary sources, Hordes provides a richly detailed account of the economic, social and religious lives of crypto-Jews during the colonial period and after the annexation of New Mexico by the United States in 1846.

While the American government offered more religious freedom than had the Spanish colonial rulers, cultural assimilation into Anglo-American society weakened many elements of the crypto-Jewish tradition.
Hordes concludes with a discussion of the reemergence of crypto-Jewish culture and the reclamation of Jewish ancestry within the Hispano community in the late twentieth century. He examines the publicity surrounding the rediscovery of the crypto-Jewish community and explores the challenges inherent in a study that attempts to reconstruct the history of a people who tried to leave no documentary record.

Remnants of Crypto-Jews Among Hispanic Americans
Gloria Golden,
Edited by Andrea Alessandra Cabello and Sohaib Raihan
Floricanto Press ISBN: 0-915745-56-9

Hidden deep in the heart of the American Southwest among the larger Hispanic population are descendants of the Sephardim, Jews from Spain and Portugal. Five hundred years after their expulsion from Spain remnants of Judaism are still practiced within Southwestern Hispanic communities.

Often unaware of their origins, conversos have revealed, through oral history, how the ancestral faith of the Crypto-Jews has been passed on from generation to generation.
"Five hundred years after the Inquisition, Gloria Golden manages to turn the little-known subject of crypto-Jews into an inspiring tale of identity. The rich portraiture and captivating oral histories offer a poignant view of what it means to discover and embrace one's Judaism." Elana Harris, Managing Editor, B'nai B'rith Magazine "Gloria Golden's images and text provide a valuable insight into the Crypto-Judaic world.

All who are drawn to this fascinating subject will find great rewards in this volume." Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, Founder and First President of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
"The impact of these photographs and related interviews cannot be measured. Surely, through their existence, we touch a part of our past, and preserve it for our children's children. It is another piece in the great puzzle of our scattered people." Flora Sussely, Director, Adult Programs, Mittleman Jewish Community Center

Pomegranate Seeds: Latin American Jewish Tales
Editor, Nadia Grosser Nagarajan
Introduction by Ilan Stavans
University Of New Mexico Press
( paperback ) ISBN 978-0-8263-2391-0

Pomegranate Seeds is the first collection of the oral tradition of Latin American Jews to be presented in English. These thirty-four tales span the 500 years of Jewish presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. The folktales and cultural oral narratives were often based on actual events, recorded not only from the Ashkenazi perspective but from the Sephardic and Oriental as well. Like dispersed pomegranate seeds, all the stories come from a common cluster, yet each is a separate kernel.

The stories are short, between five and fifteen pages, and each is carefully annotated. In addition to gathering stories from eleven Latin American countries, the author found material in the United States and Israel. Regardless of their origin, several tales have to do with personal feelings, emotional insights, and interpretation of the protagonists, while others deal with happy or traumatic events that cannot be forgotten and dreams that have not been fulfilled.

Not surprisingly, trauma and bigotry are common threads through some of the stories. These are tales, as Nadia Grosser Nagarajan says, "concealed by tropical greenery, encircled by vast jungles and flowing majestic rivers that echo many voices and reflect many views and visions."

From "Seeking Wisdom,"
a tale in Pomegranate Seeds

"Many years ago, when the forests south of the river Bio-Bio were still impenetrable, there lived in the beautiful lake district of Chile a very poor family. The father and mother had two children, a girl and a boy, who helped them to fish in the lakes and gather pine nuts in the woods, and thus they had a very simple yet happy existence. . . ."

National Jewish Book Awards, 2006, 2nd place in Sephardic Culture category.

"Pomegranate Seeds is a fascinating book filled with rich oral narratives of wisdom, experiences, folk imagination, journeys, history, folktales, customs and traditions--and adventures. . .This splendid collection will never stand on a shelf after a first reading--but rather it will become a favorite travel companion."--Jewish Book World

"This collection of folk tales, legends, and true stories that have been handed down by generations of Jews of Latin America are not only of great interest and humor, but also of great inspiration. In addition, through these tales the reader gains an insight into the lives and customs of Jews from Latin American countries."--Multicultural Review

"[Nadia Grosser Nagarajan] has created a rich and important cultural history of Jews and Jewish life in Latin America."--Hadassah Magazine

Nadia Grosser Nagarajan is also the author of Jewish Tales from Eastern Europe. She lives in San Jose, California.

5.5 x 8.5 207 pages

Lisa Alvarado


TeachESL said...

This truly warms my heart! And gives me goose bumps! I have a friend from Brazil - who is currently in Jerusalem - who is also descended from Jews. I will send this to her.

But the question is: how many of these people are coming back as you have??

don quixote said...

Now I have insight into why as a youth I always had a fascination with gefeltifish, matzo ball soup, and Neil Diamond records.

Gimme a break please, I also have ancestors from New Mexico and So. Colorado and all my life I have had to hear that we are not Mexican we are Spanish.
It's referred to by many as the big "New Mexico Lie".
So now because some of our ancestors were Converso's, Jews, and don't forget the Arabs (Moors), we are distanced farther from our real roots of Mexico .

Lisa Alvarado said...

don -- I would never presume to tell you how best to honor your ancestry....My family was and is puro Chicano, but is also Jewish. Please afford me the courtesy of walking my own path, Chicana y Judia.

Judaism is so much more that gefilte fish and matzo ball soup, just as Chicanismo is a world away from Taco Bell. It is thousands of years of ritual, an ethical and religious code of conduct.

Si los zapatos quepo, pontelos.

I do wish you a blessed season whatever your tradition and an open heart moving forward.

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