Shedding New Light on A Hidden Jewish Heritage
Sunday, December 24, 2006
RUIDOSO, N.M. -- Within weeks of becoming New Mexico state historian, Stanley Hordes started receiving some odd visitors. They would enter his Santa Fe office, close the door -- and gossip about their neighbors.
"So-and-so lights candles on Friday nights," they would whisper.
"So-and-so doesn't eat pork," they would say.
The young historian was intrigued. Though the people Hordes spoke with were clearly Catholic, they reported following an array of Jewish customs. They talked about leaving pebbles on cemetery headstones, lighting candles on Friday nights, abstaining from pork and circumcising male infants.
When Hordes asked why they did such things, some said they were simply following family tradition. Others gave a more straightforward explanation.
"Somos judios," they said. We are Jews.
A quarter-century later, Hordes has a stirring explanation of how Judaism got to New Mexico. Like so many Jewish stories -- the Exodus, David and Goliath, the Hanukkah story -- it is an ancient and epic tale of triumph against overwhelming adversity.
And like so many of those stories, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief.
In the spring of 1492, Jews in Spain were given two choices: Convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Many left. Many others simply abandoned their religion for Catholicism.
But a few of those who converted did so only publicly, continuing to practice Judaism in secret.
Modern scholars have found a few communities of so-called "crypto-Jews" that survived in both Iberia and the New World for centuries, hiding their true religious identity from their neighbors and the Catholic church.
In his 2005 book, "To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico," Hordes suggests that many crypto-Jews found their way to the northern frontier of the Spanish colonial empire.