Society For Crypto Judaic Studies
Highlights of SCJS Portland Conference
August 8-10, 2004
by Max Wolf Valerio
This review first appeared in HaLapid: Fall 2004
Portland's steel bridges and churning river provided a far-off backdrop to the non-stop stimulation and intensity of the Fourteenth Annual Conference of SCJS, August 8-10. Participants traveled from various parts of the United States and the world, listening attentively to music, lectures and the shared personal stories of members with crypto-Jewish backgrounds. It is a unique and beautiful city, and the conference this year felt especially informative and moving.
Portland is also the home of two Sephardic synagogues, including Avdey Torah Hayah, created principally for crypto Jews. Rabbi Yosef Garcia, founder of the congregation, Yvonne Garcia his wife, and the congregation hosted members of the Society in pre-conference events, at Friday and Saturday Shabbat services and a luncheon on Saturday.
Abraham Lavender, President of the Society, opened the conference on Sunday evening, welcoming participants to three days of presentations and other activities. Stanley Hordes, Vice President/Program, followed, recalling the beginnings of SCJS at the first conference, held in Ranchos de Taos New Mexico in 1991. He talked about how far the Society has come, culminating in a growing membership base and our imminent nonprofit status. Next, Conference Chair Gloria Trujillo presented logistical and schedule information.
Two outstanding members were then recognized with awards saluting their achievement and service (see above). Dr. Hordes presented founding member Rabbi Joshua Stampfer with the first plaque, which was accepted on his behalf by Rabbi Garcia. Rabbi Stampfer, who has served as President and an officer, is the person who came up with the idea for the Society, and persisted to see his vision become reality. Rabbi Garcia noted that Rabbi Stampfer had helped his synagogue to be recognized; and that he has displayed "tremendous heart and an abiding love for all Jews,” as well as his particular concern for the descendants of Jews persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition. Dolores Sloan presented the second award to Randy Baca. Rabbi Albert Plotkin accepted the award on her behalf. Sloan spoke at length about Baca and her enormous contributions, particularly as VP of membership from 2001-2004. Under Baca’s guidance, Society membership more than doubled. Her experience in business and nonprofit organizations has nurtured our organization. Rabbi Plotkin praised Baca as a "great woman of valor,” recognized for achievements in public service by Arizona Senator John McCain and the state’s governor. In a letter to the HaLapid editor, Baca expressed her “profound and sincere gratitude at the singular honor my fellow SCJS members bestowed upon me at the Portland Conference,” and added ”It was a special honor to be included with Rabbi Joshua Stampfer and to have my dear friend, Rabbi Albert Plotkin receive the plaque on my behalf in my absence.”
Introducing Trudi Alexy as keynote speaker Sunday evening, Dr. Hordes described her as the "closest thing to a conversa in 1492 that he'd ever met." Her book, The Marrano Legacy, is a detailed, riveting account of her correspondence with a contemporary crypto Jew. Alexy recounted her own history as a holocaust survivor, whose journey to safety from Czechoslovakia to Spain necessitated that her family convert twice, to Lutheranism and then to Catholicism. Awakened to the fact of her Jewish heritage years later, Alexy felt guilty for having survived the Holocaust by fraud. Later, she would decide to return to Spain and "find out how to be a Jew from the marranos."
The Marrano Legacy continues her exploration, inspired by a correspondence with a crypto Jewish priest, "Simon," who identifies as a contemporary marrano. The correspondence tracked in the book was ongoing for four years, and Alexy remains in touch with him. From the beginning, he revealed that he was a Catholic priest as well as a member of a secret community of about 300 people in Latin America who are hidden Jews. They marry among themselves and have kept their secrecy to this day. The book chronicles Simon's difficult attempts to reconcile with normative Judaism that would lead to numerous returns to his crypto-Judaic priesthood. His greatest disappointment has been the rejections endured from the established Jewish community, that have made his abandonment of secrecy nearly impossible.
Monday morning began with "The Ladino Translations of Crypto-Jews in Italy," by Ora Schwarzwald, Professor of Linguistics at Bar Ilan University in Israel, comparing the various linguistic features of converso versus traditional Jewish translation. Her paper has been adapted into an article, beginning on page 8 of this issue.
Speaking on "Portuguese Sephardim and the Settlement of Brazil,” Matthew Warshawsky, who teaches Spanish at University of Portland and Portland State University, illuminated this area of Jewish history with a colorful talk illustrated with slides.
The attitude of the Portuguese crown was more pragmatic than the Spanish counterpart; in general, Jews were viewed as having skills necessary to the maintenance and spread of empire, Dr. Warshawsky explained. From the beginning, the conversos in Portugal were not as assimilated. They had been converted forcibly in 1497. Since many were the descendants of Jews fleeing the edict to convert or leave in Spain, they had been able to invent methods to encrypt their Jewish practice into their daily Catholic religious life. The conversos were eventually persecuted by the Inquisition in 1536.
In 1500, the Portuguese would stumble upon Brazil, which they named, "The Land of the True Cross." At least two New Christians were on this accidental journey of discovery, Gaspar de Gama, a translator who spoke many languages fluently, and Jeste de Jao, an astrolabe expert who helped to navigate; an astrolabe was an instrument used to make celestial measurements.
In order to finance their explorations, fourteen captaincies were established; these were financed and operated rather like franchises. Just as they were involved in the initial exploration of Brazil, New Christians were also involved in the financing of these regions. In fact, in Brazil, New Christian became synonymous with Portuguese, since the Portuguese Sephardim were so important in the booming Brazilian landscape. They would establish the first sugar mill, and often played important roles in the exporting of this important commodity; they built important refineries in the Madeira Islands off Portugal. Also, because of the expulsion, the conversos had family connections throughout Europe, including the key cities of Amsterdam and Hamburg. These factors enabled them to be important movers in the burgeoning sugar trade. They were also instrumental in the slave trade. Although few New Christians were involved, many did play pivotal roles. More slaves were brought to Brazil than to North America.
Dr. Warshawsky breathed life into the varied and colorful history of New Christians in Brazil. He recounted the establishment of the Inquisition in Brazil in 1590, where the crypto Jew Isaac da Costa was burned alive. Dr. Warshawsky also recalled the accidental voyage of a small cluster of Portuguese Sephardim after the Brazilian Netherlands War, to the shores of New Amsterdam in North America, later known as New York. This small group of wayfaring Sephardim would go on to establish the first synagogue in what would become the United States. Portuguese New Christians would also help to colonize Angola, in fact, many "heretics," including crypto Jews, were sent to Angola, Mozambique or India.
In his paper, “The Anusim of Latin America and the Hmong People of Laos: A Comparison of Two Secret Communities,” Adam Savran, Professor of Geography, Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand, compared and contrasted the methods of the cultural and religious survival of the anusim with the Hmong people, an ethnic minority in Laos. The Hmong sided primarily with the pro-American militias in the secret civil war in Laos that involved the communist Pathet Lao government, the United States and Vietnam. Now, under communist rule, their religion and culture, a mixture of Christianity and animism, remain persecuted.
In order to practice their religion, the Hmong have resorted to a creative array of methods similar to those used by the anusim, using art, architecture, music, and ethnic games. Art, because it is a "world without boundaries, a world without proof," and a created world that engenders an atmosphere of "complete safety, without persecution," is often a method used by both anusim and the Hmong to simultaneously disguise and practice their religion. Anusim often transformed Jewish symbols into abstract designs, or painted cathedral murals with only Old Testament figures. Likewise, the Hmong communicate through woven textiles, incorporating forbidden symbols such as the American red, white, and blue with faded colors, or a hawk representing the American eagle (the Hmong have a reverence towards the United States since we fought against the communists). Murals depicting Communist leaders or symbols are often painted in such a way as to suggest, to the initiated, Christian characters or animist gods. Music and architecture are also useful subterfuges; crypto Jews will use cattle calls as prayers in Northeastern Brazil, and the Hmong will use coded songs with double "pun" meanings. Also, crypto Jews have used hidden rooms, secret walls and exits as in the Touro Synagogue; the Hmong have utilized circular settlement patterns where village planning is itself a prayer. The village will be constructed in the form of a Christian symbol, such as a cross or a fish, so that the entire area is meshed with religious meaning: the village is the church. Ethnic games have always provided anusim with clever methods to pray or hide religious intent or messages. Often, Jewish prayer books were on people's laps as cards were played at the table. The Hmong have created similar games, using dice to pray and recall Bible verses.
The Hmong and anusim share a heritage of clever subterfuge and survival against the odds, the Hmong's continuing persecution by communist authorities in Laos is obscure yet ongoing, and their religious survival, like the survival of the anusim, is a testimonial to their tenacity and creativity.
Seth D. Kunin, Professor of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen, Scotland and ordained rabbi, next explored the even larger question of whether or not crypto-Judaism will continue into the near future or be relegated to history. In his presentation, “Does Secularization Theory Throw Light on the Changes and Transformations Within Crypto-Jewish Culture,” he explored "secularization theory" or the idea, primarily promulgated by British theorists, that as the world becomes more rational and "brighter," it also becomes, as a matter of course, less religious and more secular. That is, the more advanced and scientific a society is, the less religious it will be. He observed that in the United States, arguably the most scientifically advanced nation on earth, religion has taken on an ascendant rather than diminished role. Obviously, the rational, in spite of the very real advances of the Enlightenment, is not always the only crucial element in human life.
Dr. Kunin contrasted this view with Rational Choice Theory, a set of ideas closely associated with theorists in the United States and with capitalism. In our postmodern world, identity has become more involved with choice; we believe that we can decide on it, or, at least, privilege certain aspects of ourselves over others. For example, in the past, crypto-Jewish identity was not necessarily distinguished from Hispano identity in New Mexico, but was an integral part of a whole; now, it is often "selected out” in a process that might have political or other cultural implications. Like any cultural form, crypto Judaism continues to live on as a process, and even today is being created anew, as people choose ways to affirm that identity. The history of crypto Judaism is still being written today, as we recover, reflect on, and find new ways to express it. However, identity is now being "practiced" or lived in ways contrasting with the past notion of identity as ongoing, essential, and continuous—not fragmented. In New Mexico, many people are discovering their crypto-Jewish past and relate to it as an identity remembered or reconstructed from a landscape of shifting clues, no longer a living and present reality that they practice. It’s about remembering what grandma did, and no longer about what you do yourself now. Dr. Kunin wondered out loud whether we are witnessing the "last flowering" of crypto-Judaism. Possibly, most crypto-Jews will eventually return to normative Judaism; Dr. Kunin doesn't believe that this possible eventuality is the most desirable since he "enjoys cultural diversity.” Also, as advances in DNA technology rapidly increase our access to our genetic heritage, crypto-Jewish identity moves from memory to biology, as people seek to "prove" scientifically whether or not their relatively recent ancestors were, in fact, Sephardim.
The Spanish community was one of the largest Jewish communities in the world prior to the expulsion. The effect of the expulsion was therefore cataclysmic, the largest cataclysm in Jewish history since the destruction of the second temple. In his paper, “Conversos, Exiles and Kabbalah,” Rabbi David Kunin detailed the spiritual movements that exploded after this trauma, including messianic movements, and an intensive and visionary involvement with Kabbalistic texts that dealt with the theme of exile. New spiritual practices were invented by many sages, including penitential practices: the mortification of the flesh, wandering through graveyards barefoot in prayer, and various re-enactments of the exile of the Shekhina from her lover, Tiphareth (part of the ten Sephiroth of the Kabbalah). Notably, the Shekhina was sometimes associated with veneration of the Virgin Mary, although Mary was also considered to be her “demonic” aspect by Abraham Cardoso. The Lurianic creation myth, expounded by Isaac Luria, ties creation to withdrawal (Zim Zum) of the creator (Ein Sof), and the emanation of the ten Sephiroth – which are then broken and scattered. It is the duty of the Jewish people to repair this through tikun olam, the repair of the world through the observance of the commandments. In time, messianic movements arose in response to the Spanish trauma, and it was even expounded by some that the messiah would be a converso! There were also theories that there would be two messiahs. The tapestry of religious longing in exile was awe-inspiring and complex.
In “The Jewish Memory and the Catholic Forgettery: Report from an Undocumented Jew,” Cesar Ayala Casas began the highly emotional rendition of personal stories of discovery of Jewish ancestry by contemporary descendants of conversos and crypto-Jews. He is Puerto Rican, raised Catholic, and as an adult, learned from a cousin that his grandfather was a “marrano.” This news was startling, and at first, nearly unbelievable–initially he felt it was an attempt to conjure up “whiteness” in his family tree. His mother, who was present at the time of this startling disclosure, expressed extreme discomfort, and a complete lack of memory--except for the act of her father lighting candles. Later, Ayala Casas would go to Puerto Rico to attempt to find out more. Along the way, Cesar asks himself the crucial and enigmatic question, “Why does it matter to me?” Many of his relatives, when hearing they have Jewish ancestry, have said that it means “nothing” to them; they consider it to be part of a remote and now, irrelevant past. Cesar feels that since he has lived so much of his life around Jews, and has many Jewish friends and colleagues, the discovery impacts him more vividly; he is able to ascribe it more value and weight. In contrast, his mother and other relatives often do not know one single Jew personally. Also, the fact that his Jewish heritage was stolen by force has compelled him to search out his Sephardic roots. With great emotion, he described going to a synagogue for the first time and being welcomed by a friend–the moment was charged with intense and overwhelming feeling, as if a “bucket of cold water” were being poured over his head. Ayala Casas noted that he is not a religious person, and contrary to “Rational Choice Theory” doesn’t experience this journey as a “choice.” Rather, the discovery has been experienced as an “unwelcome eruption in my life,” a kind of involuntary experience--overwhelming and transforming in its intensity.
Dione Pereira, of Manaus and Natal, Brazil, spoke movingly and with simple eloquence in Portuguese, her first language, of her discovery of her Jewish background and her subsequent return to active Jewish practice. Bob Ferron, her husband, translated her talk on “Contemporary B’nai Anusim in the Northeast of Brazil.” He provided a short background of the Portuguese Sephardim in Brazil as an introduction. She pointed out that Pereira is a well-known Sephardic name, and began with the specifics of her family’s journey to Northeast Brazil from Portugal during the period of the rubber boom. Her father’s business was the river navigation of the Amazon Basin, and her family didn’t eat pork. Her grandparents were vegetarians, in order to avoid the matter of pork and kosher entirely, as was her nuclear family. Pereira was put in the Catholic schools, attended by the children of the elite. Although she went to church regularly in her adolescence, she was surprised and disappointed that her grandmother did not. Her grandmother also lit two candles at sunset on Friday; these she stated, were for “the archangel Gabriel.” She noted also the persistence of Sephardic names for women in fourteen generations of her family – many were called “Anna, Hannah, and Judith.”
As a young adult, through her studies, she would encounter the phenomenon of crypto Judaism. Putting together the pieces was like a “Chinese puzzle.” Her mother would discourage her interest, claiming that her family had evolved and “why go backward” to Judaism? Like many B’nai Anusim who actively try and recover the family’s heritage, her family was against it. Pereira would eventually become involved with a group of thirty crypto-Judaic families in Brazil who study and practice together in a synagogue that is “in ruins,” with the roof fallen in and not one Torah present. Eventually, after marrying and deciding to start a family, she decided on a formal conversion process to insure that her children will incontrovertibly and without question be seen as Jews. There is no working mikve for her in Brazil, and so the ocean served as her “first mikve.” Later, while living in Washington DC, she finally was immersed in an actual mikve and describes the experience as “floating in paradise.” It is “bittersweet” to attend a synagogue in Maryland now, where there are over ten or more Torahs, knowing that the small crypto-Jewish community that she left behind has not even one. In Brazil the community still struggles, small and still secretive; there are many Christian missionaries masquerading as Jews and rabbis in the area are often overwhelmed by inquiries from crypto Jews. Pereira does not take her return to Judaism for granted, and spoke with great emotion of the fact that her young daughters go to Jewish day school and are learning Hebrew. This is the first time in seven generations that anyone in her family has studied Hebrew. She now understands that her search is actually part of a collective yearning, since many crypto-Jews in Brazil are still struggling and persevere. Her talk reminded everyone that this return and recovery of Judaism is fraught with peril and requires enormous courage and persistence, as well as a continuing refusal to believe that the past is anything but crucial for an understanding of the future.
During dinner, Monday evening, we were treated to an impromptu talk by Irwin Berg, an unscheduled treat that certainly made this writer want to travel more widely and with more of a spirit of adventure. Berg went to the Niger River area, visiting three villages along the way and, eventually, driving five hours through the Sahara desert to the city of Timbuktu. There he met with the scholar, Ismael Hadara, who wrote the book, The Jews of Timbuktu. Hadara told him more about the history of the region; how the three villages he visited were forcibly converted to Islam and that the city of Timbuktu was at one time known as the “capital of the Jews.” Apparently, Jews came to Morocco to trade and do business, and many also traveled there after the expulsion from Spain. Hadara took Irwin to visit the chief, and showed him the cemetery, saying “Everyone in Africa knows who their ancestors were for 1,000 years.” Indeed, there was a special area in the cemetery for the descendants of Jews. Although forcibly converted to Islam, in many areas the descendants of Jews don’t intermarry with the descendents of non-Jews. Remarkably, Hadara also showed Berg books that his family had taken with them on their exodus from Spain in 1455; books handed down to him over generations and now kept in trunks. Many were in Hebrew script, in Judeo-Arabic, as well as Ladino.
Conference attendees were treated to a performance by Judy Frankel Monday evening at Portland State University, sponsored by the Oregon School of Judaic Studies. She shared songs written by Isaac Behar, a hazzan, and songs that she has co-written with the contemporary Sephardic poet, Matilda Cohen Serrano, who lives in Jerusalem. Her voice was stirring; the audience in the 475-seat auditorium could not have been more captivated. The place was filled to capacity, and overflowing, with many standing in the back of the auditorium in order to catch her wonderful performance.
Ruth Oratz and Sharon Graw, working in genetics at Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, Denver, next spoke with Seth Ward, who teaches history at University of Wyoming. The topic was “Ashkenazi’ Breast Cancer Mutations in Sephardic and Sephardic-Ancestry Populations.”
Seth Ward began this disturbing and fascinating presentation on DNA and Sephardic ancestry with a cautionary talk. Genetics cannot “prove” that one is or is not a Jew, and should be approached as one tool among many. Personal testimony and family history are more persuasive, and should be accorded more value. This is not only because genetics is a relatively young and possibly flawed science, but because Judaism is a religion; subtlety, nuance of practice and the testimony of memory are lost when we acquit our identities to a “scientific” method of proof. “Aleals have no religion”, Ward said, [Judaism is not] “coded into our genes.” He concluded that our genes can tell us whether or not we have a family propensity toward or history of breast cancer, but not whether or not we are, in fact, Jews.
Ruth Oratz and Sharon Graw followed with a lucid talk about the recent discovery of a high incidence of breast cancer in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. The valley is populated by people who are descendants of the Juan de Oñate colonists, who traveled in an expedition in 1598 to what is now northern New Mexico. In time, many of their descendants would move northward, into the area eventually known as southern Colorado. They would intermarry over generations forming what is called a “bottleneck population.” These come into existence when there is a founder, high fertility, and a policy of endogamy such as you find among many Jewish populations, and certainly among crypto-Jewish populations. The endogamy does not have to be total, and in all likelihood, will probably not be. There have been many bottleneck populations in Jewish history, as Jews have settled in or been expelled from various parts of the world, and created communities; in fact, examining where these populations occur is one way to track Jewish history.
The initial observation about the San Luis Valley Hispanic residents revealed a very high incidence of a particularly virulent form of breast cancer, one that normally occurs in similar high percentages in Ashkenazi women. Further research revealed this was apparently tied in to a signature genetic mutation normally only found in Ashkenazi populations, one of the key genetic mutations on what is known as the “Ashkenazi panel”–a group of three genetic mutations indicating a propensity to this virulent cancer. A search for the source of the mutation began, and medical researchers were able finally to trace it back to Iraq. Apparently, this mutation occurred when Jews were still living in the area that is now called Iraq, before the Diaspora. This ancient mutation followed the population as it dispersed over Europe, and remained with the group now still in the Middle East. Following its trajectory not only gives crucial health data to people who may be at high risk for breast cancer, it also helps to trace the path of the Diaspora all the way from the ancient Middle East to what is now southern Colorado!
To gather further information on the movement of Jewish populations through the tracing of various genetic signatures, conference participants who suspect strongly, or know their ancestors are Jews were asked to give a sample of their DNA. Many in the audience were inspired to take part, and the results will be available at the next conference.
The Society’s own Stan Hordes followed with another presentation focusing on genetics and Jewish ancestry, “Achieving a Greater Understanding of Jewish Autoimmune Diseases among Crypto-Jewish Populations”
Again, certain rare disorders like phemphigus, a skin disorder, have shown up in significant numbers in the Hispano population of Northern New Mexico. Further research revealed that genetic signatures in the Hispanic patients were the same as Jewish patients with the disease. When asked about possible Jewish ancestry, the seven individuals tested had a range of responses – one was aware of possible Jewish customs, four had customs that appear to be Jewish in origin although they were not aware of this and two were actually cognizant of Sephardic ancestry. Further, genetic samples of the Hispano population reveal a marked absence of non-white ancestry compared to the general Hispanic population elsewhere in Latin America or the United States. The general Hispanic population has been found to have a 53% Spanish ancestry, 31% Mestizo (Indian and Spanish), 15% American Indian, and 1% Mulatto (African and European/Spanish ancestry). Northern New Mexico’s Hispano population tested as follows: 91% Spanish/Portuguese, 7 to 9% Mestizo, 1% Indian, and 0% Mulatto. Dr. Hordes also pointed out other diseases that have appeared in the Hispano population in Northern New Mexico, such as Blooms, a disease found in similarly high percentages in Ashkenazi populations. It is possible that the genetic mutations that cause these diseases occurred before the Diaspora, and are therefore shared by some Sephardim and Ashkenazim. However, research needs to be done to ascertain the point of origin and travel.
On this note, Dr. Hordes suggested that a special conference be convened to study these issues, which are both medical and historical in range and application. This conference, bringing together scholars and medical researchers, would focus on Jewish genetics, population movements, and specific instances of disease and genetic mutations. It would offer a chance to share historical and medical/scientific data, as well as the opportunity for many to explore their Jewish genetic heritage.
President Abe Lavender completed the series of talks with “Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Kurdish DNA Patterns,” dealing with DNA’s ability to track and reveal our ancestral origins. He began with a question regarding the origin of the custom of the matrilineal descent of Judaism; believing that it began very early in the Common Era after the destruction of the temple. Before that time, in the biblical era, it was common for Jewish men to marry out, with the result being that many of the “founding women” of Judaism may not, in fact, have been originally Jewish before marriage. Dr. Lavender explained some of the “mechanics” of genetics by first defining what is commonly understood as a “generation” – 25 to 27 years. Since many individuals often had many, many children over a span of as many years, he felt that more than twenty years was an accurate marker. The Y chromosome is infinitely easier to trace since it does not recombine, so each man has a Y chromosome that is nearly identical to a male ancestor living thousands of years ago. However, although it does not recombine, the Y does mutate rapidly, much more so than the X chromosome. Because of its propensity to mutate so quickly, it is far easier to establish a fairly recent genealogy. The X is more stable and in fact, women can all be divided into seven large genetic groups worldwide; mutations don’t appear frequently enough to easily trace recent ancestry.
Dr. Lavender produced a study focusing on finding what is understood as the MCRA, or Most Common Recent Ancestor. This enables us to establish statistical relations between groups.