an intro to Crypto-Jewish identity

WHAT IS CRYPTO-JUDAISM?

The terms “Crypto-Judaism” and “Crypto-Jews” describe Jews that were forcibly converted to Christianity or Islam but continued practicing Judaism in secret. Jews have been forcibly stripped from their Jewish identity in multiple places and at various points throughout history; however, “Crypto-Judaism” is most often associated with the Jews that outwardly practiced Catholicism but privately continued practicing Judaism in the aftermath of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. B’nei Anusim, translating to “children of the converted ones,” are the descendants of these Jews, many of whom, in recent years, have sought to formally reconnect with their Jewish heritage. This post specifically tells the story of Crypto-Jews/B’nei Anusim in Latin America and the Southwestern United States. If there’s enough interest, I can make this a series about Crypto-Jews elsewhere.

In recent years, thousands of Latin American B’nei Anusim have chosen to formally reconnect with their Jewish heritage. It’s important to understand that Crypto-Judaism is not about carrying a tiny percentage of Jewish DNA — between 20-25% of Latin Americans are estimated to have a small amount of Jewish DNA — but about carrying on the traditions and culture of the Jewish tribe (even if it was done covertly and even if much of it was lost over time) throughout the generations. It’s imperative to note that the Jewish People are first and foremost a nation and a tribe, and like all other tribes, Jews have certain protocols regarding tribe membership and respectful reconnection. In recent years, rabbis and other Jewish leaders have regarded the process of reconnection of B’nei Anusim as a “returning” rather than a “conversion” to Judaism.

 

EARLY COLONIAL PERIOD

Following the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews fled to Portugal. By 1492 and 1497, respectively, however, Jews were expelled from both Spain and Portugal. Though many chose to convert to Catholicism to avoid expulsion, the Spanish “Limpieza de Sangre” (“purity of blood”) policy meant that “New Christians” and Crypto-Jews (Catholic converts who still practiced Judaism in secret) were both distrusted and still persecuted. As such, many Crypto-Jews fled to the Americas. So many Portuguese Jews and Crypto-Jews fled to Mexico that Spanish officials started using the terms “Portuguese” and “Jewish” interchangeably.

Spanish officials, as was to be expected, were unhappy with this wave of Jewish immigration. They began cracking down on Crypto-Jewish communities, destroying their synagogues. With the newly-enacted Law of Pure Blood, they banned New Christians from immigrating to Mexico if they couldn’t prove that their families had been Christian for at least three generations. They instituted the Mexican Inquisition, burning both ethnic Jews and Indigenous Mexicans at the stake. Because of this persecution, Jewish immigration to Mexico quickly dwindled.

 

MEXICO & SOUTHWESTERN US

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, Spanish colonizers began migrating upwards toward the Southwestern United States. However, the harsh terrain and the resistance of the local Indigenous tribes proved difficult for the Spaniards.

Louis Carvajal y de la Cueva was a Spanish New Christian and royal accountant who was given permission from Spain to settle in Nuevo León. He enacted an exemption to the Law of Pure Blood, so New Christians and Crypto-Jews moved toward that territory. Meanwhile, Carvajal’s main economic pursuit was capturing Indigenous Peoples and selling them into slavery.

Due to this Crypto-Jewish immigration, the colonial authorities began receiving complaints that people were practicing Judaism. Thus, Carvajal, his family, and his associates were jailed and tortured. Carvajal was exiled and the rest were burned at the stake. This persecution prompted the Crypto-Jews of the region to migrate toward the Southwestern United States. Well into the 20th century, the descendants of Crypto-Jews in New Mexico maintained Jewish traditions, even though most practiced Catholicism by then.

 

PERU

Sephardic Jews first arrived to Peru during the period of the Spanish Conquest. Initially they lived freely as Jews; however, when the Peruvian Inquisition was first established in 1570, they were forced to hide their Judaism. Many fled toward the Andes region and the jungle. They quickly intermarried with the local Indigenous populations and assimilated, losing their Jewish practices, beliefs, and culture. The Peruvian Inquisition was not disbanded until 1820.

 

COLOMBIA & COSTA RICA

DNA testing has found that a small percentage of people in Antioquia and the Paisa region of Colombia possibly descend from the Sephardic Jews of the Iberian Peninsula. The city of Medellín has a tradition known as the “marranada,” when a pig is butchered and eaten on the streets during Christmas. This tradition likely represents a rejection of Crypto-Jews, who were pejoratively called “Marranos” (pigs).

A community of Crypto-Jews settled in the town of Itzkazú (now known as Escazú), Costa Rica. Because the Latin American Inquisitions were predominantly preoccupied with the main colonies, these Crypto-Jews soon felt safe to practice their traditions more publicly. When local Spaniards observed them lighting the Shabbat candles and uttering prayers in a strange language (Hebrew), they assumed that these Crypto-Jews were witches. To this day, Escazú is known as “the city of witches.” And yes, this is where the title of my book comes from!

 

BOLIVIA & BRAZIL

Early during the Spanish Conquest, the region of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia was a safe haven for Sephardic Jews escaping the Inquisition. However, by the 16th century, the Inquisition began targeting Crypto-Jews in La Paz, Potosí, and La Plata, which prompted many to flee to Santa Cruz, as well as its adjacent towns, as the Inquisition didn’t bother with those areas. To this day, some of the oldest families in Santa Cruz still maintain some Crypto-Jewish traditions, such as lighting candles on Friday evenings and keeping some dietary restrictions reminiscent of kashrut. However, most consider themselves Catholic and have no interest in returning to Judaism.

Other smaller Crypto-Jewish communities settled in South America, most significantly in Brazil, where Sephardic Jews who’d first fled the Inquisition, settled in the Netherlands, and later went to South America, founded the Synagogue Kahal Zur Israel in Recife, the first synagogue in the Americas. In the mid-1600s, the synagogue held a congregation of around 1500 Jews. Today, it’s a museum that sees upwards of 20,000 visitors a year. Since 2015, around 500 Brazilian B’nei Anusim have chosen to reconnect with their roots and have formally converted (or “returned”) to Judaism.

 

TRADITIONS & RECONNECTION

It’s important to understand that Crypto-Jews practiced their traditions in extreme secrecy. This secrecy resulted in the meshing of old Jewish traditions with the local cultures. For example, in Bolivia, when Crypto-Jews lit candles on Friday evenings, they did so to “mourn the deaths of close relatives,” rather than to observe Shabbat. Oftentimes, this secret Jewish heritage was passed down through surnames (e.g. Sión, meaning Zion). However, Sephardic historians and Crypto-Jewish expert Genie Milgrom warn that having a traditionally Sephardic surname down your family tree does NOT necessarily mean that your family was Crypto-Jewish. Nor does a small amount of Jewish DNA necessarily amount to Jewish or Crypto-Jewish ancestry. It’s also extremely important to understand that Judaism is a closed practice, and as such, if you discover Crypto-Jewish ancestry and wish to return, it’s important to respectfully engage with the Jewish community (exactly the opposite of what AOC has done). That’s not to say that B’nei Anusim haven’t faced systemic obstacles in reconnecting, which, as a Jewish community, we need to address.

As mentioned, Crypto-Jewish traditions heavily meshed with the local cultures. It wasn’t until the Ashkenazi and Sephardi migrations to Latin America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that many Crypto-Jews (particularly in Mexico and New Mexico) began practicing the Judaism that we recognize today (e.g. celebrating Hanukkah, which was of little significance pre and post-expulsion in the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America).

Judaism teaches that there is such thing as a “Jewish soul.” Milgrom explains that something in her soul always called to Judaism; it wasn’t until later that she began doing serious research to discover her Crypto-Jewish ancestry. Her research consisted of sifting through church and Inquisition records and deconstructing unique family traditions (e.g. recipes that did not originate from the local cuisine). For example, many of her ancestors did not baptize their children, citing “illness.” Through those clues, she was able to trace her genealogy to Jews in the late 1300s in Spain.

For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon