Society For Crypto Judaic Studies


Conference 2005:

15th Annual Conference Attracts International,

      Local Speakers, Members to Miami Beach


by Dolores Sloan, Editor, HaLapid


South Florida residents reading the August 6 edition of the Miami Herald learned about SCJS and the fifteenth annual conference in the following paragraph from a story titled “‘Secret Jews’ of the Spanish Inquisition.”

“There are bound to be thousands of people who are descended from the secret Jews of Spain and Portugal” said Abraham Lavender, a sociology professor at Florida International University and president of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, which will hold its annual conference Sunday through Tuesday in Miami Beach.”

Indeed, Miami was chosen to host this year’s annual conference because of growing interest there by those of Latin background, by researchers studying the history of the anusim, and by local individuals wanting to learn more.

      The story, written by the Herald’s Alexandra Alter, described South Florida, with its large Hispanic population as “fertile ground” for those who believe the area is home to   “scattered remnants of the anusim.”  Indeed, 65 persons from four countries and many American states attended the Society’s conference sessions at the Marseilles Hotel, reports Vice President Gloria Trujillo, conference coordinator.  Among them were several local residents attracted by the Herald story and letters sent to rabbis throughout the region.

SCJS’s mission statement describes its members, from all religious or spiritual persuasions, as seeking and providing information and research about crypto-Judaism. They include scholars and members of the interested public.  Many are descendants of the Sephardic Jews who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula for 1,500 years before the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the forced conversions in Portugal in 1497.

It has become traditional for a local synagogue to host conferees arriving in conference cities before official opening events.  This year, visitors were welcomed by Rabbi Manuel Armon on Friday and Saturday, August 5-6, at Temple Beth Tov-Ahavat Shalom, on Calle Ocho, Eighth Street, in Miami’s Little Havana. Temple President Roberto Gonzalez, and SCJS President Lavender, also a member of the congregation, joined in the greeting.

Armon and Gonzalez, the latter joined by his wife and daughter, spoke later during the conference on how the declining membership of Ashkenazi Jews of European origins has been bolstered by 20 Latino families over the past few years (see page 13).

The conference itself began officially two days later on Sunday evening, August 7.  Conferees were welcomed at the opening dinner by Abraham Lavender, SCJS President and South Florida resident and by Stanley Hordes, who, as Vice President/Programs, coordinated the program for the event.  

Hordes introduced keynote speaker Seth Kunin, Dean of Arts and Humanities, University of Durham, United Kingdom.  Speaking on “Why Do Academics and Non-Academics Have a Problem with Crypto-Judaism?” Kunin explained that “the term itself is actually a problem.”

He then described issues raised by critics, who ask for specific evidence of Jewish heritage.  They claim that the Stars of David on tombstones and artifacts such as candlesticks or dreidels reflect the influence of messianic or Adventist religions, which proselytized actively in the southwest after the American takeover of former Spanish territory.  They aver that the grandparents of those claiming Jewish roots actually converted to these religions, which include some Judaic elements. 

Critics also accuse scholars reporting crypto-Jewish heritage of exoticizing and romanticizing the phenomenon. 

Kunin said he was “speaking as a post-modern anthropologist” when he “argues against essentialism,” or the requirement for crypto Jews to evidence “pure forms and traditions going back through the genes….For many, it is not about religion but some kind of identity about self.”

”Identity doesn’t stay static.  It changes through life.  Pure cultural identity means more than genes.” 

Kunin has pursued this subject actively in New Mexico and the southwest, where he has interviewed numerous individuals as part of a research project on crypto-Jewish identity.  [Note: Seth, please expand this paragraph if needed]

Conferees heard twenty-one speakers in the two days that followed, Monday and Tuesday, August 7-9. 

Shaul Regev, professor at Bar Ilan University, opened Monday morning’s session with a paper on “The Conversos in 15th-16th Century Jewish Thought,”  describing how prominent Jewish scholars, such as  Albo and Abravanel, reacted to the large number of forced conversions taking place during that period.  He also spoke of earlier opinions on the subject by Maimonides, who himself had been forced to convert briefly to Islam during a persecutory phase in his native Córdoba.

Regev pointed out that the three thinkers distinguished between those converts who continued to observe their Jewish identity in secret and those who had wanted to be Catholic and used the conversionary period as an opportunity to convert willingly.

“The members of the first group were regarded as Jews in every respect,…an integral part of the Jewish people, although…certainly sinners….On the other hand, the voluntary conversos were seen as rebellious sinners who would not be redeemed together with the rest of the Jews.”

Talking next on “Alien Aspirations in Elizabethan England,” Charles Meyers, researcher from Ft. Myers, FL, portrayed English Royal Treasurer Lord Burghley’s relationship with Portuguese converso physician Hector Núñez from 1569 to 1587.  During that period, the latter, using New Christian commercial contacts, was able to pass on intelligence information on Spain, Portugal and the Low Countries, which helped the British defeat the Spanish Armada.  

Meyers described how, despite his valuable contributions to British interests, Núñez failed to secure the social acceptance he sought among the British.

In his paper, “Infiltration of the Persecutors: How Secret Religious Groups in Latin America and Asia Infiltrated the Very Clergies that Persecuted Them,” the next speaker, Adam Savron, formerly of Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand, described the Padre Nos, crypto Jews serving as priests in northeastern Brazil, who encouraged the secret practice of Judaism. During the Dutch period of control, they reverted to Judaism, becoming rabbis.  Then, when the Portuguese returned, they reverted to the Catholic priesthood, where, as crypto Jews, secretly practiced Judaism while professing Catholicism. 

“These ‘priests’ kept Judaism alive within the walls of the Catholic Church that persecuted the Jews for centuries,” Savran declared.

He was followed at the podium by Norman Simms, of the University of Waikato, Australia, who explored the theory that the religious brotherhood of the Penitentes in New Mexico has offered some crypto Jews the opportunity to observe some elements of Judaic practice hidden as Catholicism.

In “Marranos in the Moradas: The Penitentes of the American Southwest,” Simms suggested “that the ceremonies of self inflicted pain allow the Marrano to work out in a psychological way the ancestral anxieties and fears experienced by certain family members in the torture chambers of the Inquisition and at the stake in the autos-de-fé.

Final speaker of the morning was Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, of Temple B’nai Israel, Albany, GA.  Speaking on “Fidel Castro the Jew?” he quoted resources who report the Cuban leader acknowledging to them purported Jewish ancestry.  He also reported “that many of Castro’s childhood friends called him judío because he had not been baptized until the age of seven.”

Rabbi Kaplan added that “most of the speculation about Fidel’s Jewish ancestry deals with his father Angel, who was a Spaniard from Galicia,” and reported Castro’s daughter, Alina Fernández, writing recently “that he is descended from a Turkish Jew on his mother’s side.”

Amy Aaronson-Friedman of Valdosta State University began Monday afternoon’s presentations with “Traces of a Converso Voice: The Poetry of Juan Alvarez Gato.”  The fifteenth-century poet was a Spanish noble and courtier to royalty, whose work consisted of 104 works with themes of love, satire and religion.

Aaronson-Friedman distributed copies of selected poems by Gato, and indicated passages which could be interpreted as alluding to his ancestral Jewish heritage.

She was followed by Zion Zohar, Director of Sephardic Studies, Florida International University.  Zohar, whose doctoral work was on Maimonides, explained the sage’s position on what Jews should do when pressures are put on them to forcefully convert to another religion.

Conferees were next presented with a paper by New York Writer Valdivia Beauchamp, presenting the literary steps and devices that went into the writing of her historical novel, Stigma, Saga for a New World.  The book tells the story of the 23 Jews who fled Brazil after the Portuguese takeover and whose ship ended up off the coast of Dutch New Amsterdam.

Speaking about herself as author in the third person, Beauchamp described her use of “pictorial” means, which “forces the reader to immerse himself in what I would like to call ‘literary synergism’ with the virtual world.”  She described, for example, how she incorporates in the text visual elements from the paintings of period artists such as Albert Eckhout.

Next, Israeli Psychiatrist Gad Nassi spoke about the world of Turkish Sabbatean descendants, referring to boyhood experiences he shared in Istanbul with members of this group.  Titled “Linking the Sabbatean Spring Festival with Tekufoth,” he presented some of the “many historical, sociological, folkloric, religious mystical factors that went into the Spring event, and related it to the Jewish belief of Tekufoth.”  His paper is adapted for this issue of HaLapid, beginning on page 1 .

In “Formation of a New Cultural Identity: An Anthropological Perspective,” which followed next, Ruth Ann Tarletz, of Pasadena, CA, spoke about the use of art in helping an individual transition into his relatively new Sephardic self.  She explained how Eduardo Rocha Soto, of Mexican, Indian and Catholic background, incorporates the Jewish identity into his consciousness.

“Eduardo has used artistic expression to deal with his confrontation with his Sephardic roots.  He still struggles with having Sephardic, meaning to him Spanish, roots as he has strong feelings about the destruction wrought by the Spanish to the Aztec culture.”

The next speaker paid attention to the objects that support tales about crypto Judaism.  Speaking of “Tangible Supports of the Intangible: Expressions of Crypto Judaism in Material Culture” Annette Fromm of the Deering Estate at Cutler Ridge, Miami, FL, related how objects, or legends about them accompany the stories of crypto Jewish folklore.  An example is the claim of some Sephardic individuals today to having the key to the home in Spain from which their families fled at the time of the expulsion.

“The stones can’t talk on their own.  They have to have people to talk for them,” she stated, stressing the importance of “collecting full narratives” from anusim.  “Don’t just get a kernel.”

At the dinner that followed in the evening, President Lavender and Program Chair Hordes paid tribute to Seymour B. Liebman, distinguished professor who wrote extensively about Jews in colonial Mexico.  Liebman, an attorney who dedicated much of his life to his research of primary sources, was honored posthumously with an Award of Honor for his work.

Dolores Sloan, Editor and Society Vice President/Communications, read from Liebman’s correspondence with Scholar Carlos M. Larralde, who was unable to attend the conference.  Larralde’s doctoral work and much of his writing has focused on the crypto Jews of Texas.  His article, “Tomas Sanchez, Founder of Laredo,” appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of HaLapid.

The letters reveal the lighter side of the scholar Liebman.

“Sometimes he loved to talk about his Mexican culinary collection of rare cookbooks, scarce pamphlets, antique kitchen implements and ephemera from all over Mexico,” Larralde writes in a letter to Sloan.  “His culinary influence can be seen in the work of [Richard] Santos, [Gregory] Cuellar and in my research.”

The evening closed with a concert and dance presentation by Roger Prado and Group. 

The following morning, Stan Hordes read a paper prepared by Remy Ilona of the Igbo people of Nigeria, who could not be present.  In “Crypto-Judaism Among the Igbos of Nigeria,” Ilona described the four Igbo approaches to Judaic practice, referring to the people as “pre-Talmudic Jews.”

“There are those who practice but don’t know what they practice; those who have returned but were Christian, those who practice Judaism and believe the messiah has come, and those who are Christians.”

This was followed by a panel discussion, “Report of B’nai Anusim of Portugal.”  SCJS Board Member Yaacov Gladstone reported that “young crypto Jews in Lisbon,” who, having formed Ohel Jacob Synagogue, have decided to affiliate with the Conservative Movement. He gave an update on the community of Belmonte, and described an education project he is initiating to teach Jewish cultural traditions to adults and young people.

Fernando da Costa, artist from Lisbon currently living in New York, described how his return to Judaism began when his grandmother told the family “we’re Jewish,” and when he “stopped believing in Jesus.”  He visited Israel, at age 24, to explore his ancestral origins, and followed that with a trip to New York.  There, he made his return with the support of SCJS members Gladstone and Kitty Teltsch.

Da Costa observed that, as Portugal had lived under fascism for many years in the last century, his return “could endanger his family if things change.”

Judy Priven, publisher and freelance writer from Bethesda, MD, spoke about aspects of the anusim experience she gleaned from interviews in the US, Spain and Peru, as well as the “positive aspects of Judaism” that appealed to them, such as “diversity of Jewish concepts and practices, and above all, the sharing of humanistic values.”

The interviews revealed five steps in the return process.  These are “spiritual isolation” or feelings of being different, exploring the “alternative culture” and “secret revelations,” marriage among relatives, the search through geneology and Jewish beliefs, and “spiritual awakening,” or identification with Judaism. 

Next on the agenda was a three-person panel on Genetics and DNA.  Shoshana Tell, senior at Pine Crest Preparatory High School, Fort Lauderdale, FL, described a population genetic study of the Chuetas, or crypto Jews of Mallorca, undertaken for her Science Research Honors course, and for which she achieved second place at the Florida Junior Academy of Sciences.

Tell found the Chuetas to be a “maternally, genetically distinct population from non-Chueta Mallorcans and closely resembling Sephardic Jews.”  Her study included 24 individuals from Chueta, non-Chueta Mallorcan and continental Spanish backgrounds.

SCJS President Lavender’s presentation, “Using the Cohen DNA for Geographic Genetic Patterns of Jews,” reported on his exploratory study to expand the use of this haplotype, discovered among African males, to different parts of the world.  His goal is to find the extent to which the Cohen gene indicates a larger Jewish presence in an area.

Speaking on “Genetic Diseases Among Hispanics in the Southwest,” Conference Chair Hordes described plans for interdisciplinary workshops on this subject to be cosponsored by the University of New Mexico and SCJS.

The final afternoon of presentations began with a description by Norma Libman, independent journalist from Albuquerque, NM of her experience planning and implementing classes on the converso and crypto-Jewish experience.

Formal conference presentations ended with a panel discussion, “Analyzing the Crypto-Jewish Situation in Miami, Florida,” organized by President Lavender.  He introduced the chair, Rabbi Manuel Armon of Temple Beth Tov, who had played host to early arrivals before the conference (see page 1).  Rabbi Armon described the temple as reflecting population changes.  The street on which it is located has changed, from a busy thoroughfare through a Jewish neighborhood, to Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana.  With a declining membership of aging Ashkenazi Jews, the temple has reached out to those of Latin background who want to explore possible Jewish ancestry.  As a result, the temple has had an influx of families with this history.

Roberto González, Co-President of the temple, spoke next about his family’s experience as members.  He introduced his wife, Marta, and daughter, Yesenia, who shared her enthusiasm for the family’s participation in the life of the synagogue.

The Fifteenth Annual Business Meeting of the society convened immediately after conference adjournment.  A summary of subjects covered is on page 2, along with a summary of the meeting of the SCJS Board of Directors, which met before the conference opened on August 7.  For greater detail, please see minutes of both meetings on our website: www.cryptojews.com.