Society For Crypto Judaic Studies
Seth Kunin: Rabbi and Scholar
by Stan Hordes
From HaLapid, Fall 2005
Several years ago Professor Seth Kunin and I attended a national conference of messianic congregations, where I had been invited to lecture on the history of crypto-Judaism in New Mexico. As we passed by the numerous displays of talletim, kippot and prayer books, Seth whispered to me, “As a rabbi, I’m appalled, but as an anthropologist, I find all this absolutely fascinating!
Seth Kunin brings the training and orientation of both fields to his research into the phenomenon of crypto-Judaism in the US Southwest. He is the author of several papers and articles on the topic, and is currently preparing a manuscript on the ethnography of crypto-Jews in New Mexico, to be published by Columbia University Press.
Born in New York City, he was exposed early to the life of an anthropologist, traveling around Mexico as a child with his mother, Professor Carolyn Kunin. Seth’s twin brother, SCJS member David Kunin, also became a rabbi, and currently holds a pulpit at Congregation Beth Shalom in Edmonton, British Columbia.
He earned his B.A. at Columbia University, M.A. at The Jewish Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. He was ordained as a Conservative Rabbi at Leo Baeck College in London.
Seth’s initial research interests lay in structural analyses of Biblical texts, with particular attention to women and the book of Genesis. In the mid-1990s, he became aware of a growing body of literature dealing with crypto-Judaism, and decided to explore the topic.
“You might say that my move from Biblical analysis to crypto-Judaism started as a theoretical move,” he explained, “wondering how Israelite/Rabbinic cultural structures would be found in three modern communities—crypto-Jews, Ethiopian Jews and Hasidic Jews. After beginning the project I became so fascinated and intrigued by crypto-Judaism that it took over my research agenda—and has been an extraordinary experience both in research and personal terms.”
Receiving generous grants from the universities where he taught, as well as from the British Academy, the Carnegie Trust, and the Estate of Eva Feld, Seth has spent the past ten summers conducting anthropological field work in New Mexico. He was the first anthropologist to apply a sophisticated theoretical construct to the study of crypto-Jewish society in New Mexico. It was not his purpose to either deny or demonstrate the historical validity of the community, but rather to examine the dynamic nature of the group comprising those who assert a converso heritage at the turn of the twenty-first century. But despite this expressed intention, his analysis appeared to confirm the presence of customs, practices and belief structures among New Mexico Hispanos, consistent with a historical evolution of these traditions from earlier generations. Seth also recognized influences on crypto-Jewish culture from other sources, such as Protestantism, Catholicism, Ashkenazi Judaism, and general Anglo-American culture.
Seth has been a mainstay of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies since he presented his first paper to the organization in Albuquerque in 1995. Since then, he has participated regularly in our conferences, and has served on the program committee for the past nine years, and as chair in 2003. Seth is a newly elected board Member at Large.
He is leaving his position as Director of Research of the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, having accepted the prestigious post of Dean, Arts and Humanities, at the University of Durham in the UK.