- Hidden Heritage, the Legacy of the Crypto-Jews
"But are they really Jews?"
Within the American Jewish community, this is perhaps the most common question regarding the descendants of the Spanish conversos. And perhaps it is no surprise: fewSpanish-heritage individuals were prepared to openly acknowledge or even publicly examine ancestral links with Jewish heritage until very recently. The answer to this question varies from individual to individual, from community to community, and from rabbi to rabbi. But most poignant of all, as Janet Liebman Jacobs shows, the question parallels the one often asked often by the converso descendants themselves: "Are we really Jews?"
The answer very often is a resounding "Yes!" Even though some who now publicly assert a Jewish identity also express doubts or qualifications, the tendency to identify with Judaism is most remarkable, in that their families were often unaware that such traditions could be explained as having a Jewish origin, and those who were aware of their Jewish heritage were most often secretive about sharing these details, expressing the reason for them in other terms. Indeed, often the respondents remember their families as feeling separate from the others, saying such things as "Our ancestors came from Spain" (p. 131) rather than being Mexican, or a memory of rejecting Catholicism, or of having a grandmother or great aunt who was openly demonstrative about being Catholic but who nevertheless had rituals, like lighting candles on Friday nights, that, in the words of a respondent "did not seem Catholic at all."
Jacobs leads the reader through the important issues, such as the culture of secrecy, via respondents' statements, stressing the importance of family narratives in creating a sense of a "true" identity not easily seen by outsiders, and the "recovery process" by which modern day converso descendants acquire a contemporary Jewish identity. As she says: "[F]amily lore contributes to the creation of a collective memory that not only preserves a history of hidden religious observance but also reinforces the memory of religious persecution by the Church" (p. 41). Jacobs asserts that "women have been at the center for the recovery process for modern descendants" (p. 42), and describes reports [End Page 155] about purity practices, dietary restrictions, fasting, and other rituals, some of which indeed were primarily passed down by women. She comments on syncretism and especially the "transformation of the spiritual and ethnic self, as each of these aspects of identity are reconstructed through the lens of Sephardic heritage" (p. 67). She reports about visits to synagogues where converso descendants are welcomed, and about the ways they describe their new religious experiences. All along the way, she discusses how these transformations and spiritual experiences fit in with various modern theorists, or with the experiences of Jews in Europe or in North Africa. Thus, she discusses Albert Memmi's ideas about European identification among Tunisian Jews, and describes the "ethnic masking and cultural persistence that in varying degrees can be found throughout the history of European Jewry . . . ," noting that "[t]he crypto-Jews of medieval Spain represent one of the earliest and most drastic examples of this form of extreme Jewish assimilation" (p. 10).
The open discussion of Jewish identity among individuals of Hispanic heritage comes at a time in which, unfortunately, the living preservation of these traditional customs is disappearing. But the focus is not really on cataloguing the crypto-Judaic traditions of her respondents' families. Especially in the light of the high proportion of her respondents who have come to adopt some sort of active identification with Judaism, Jacobs' work focuses on the processes of identification with Judaism, of the feeling of recovery of an ancient family heritage, of problems and joys encountered along this path. The frequent respondent quotes will resonate deeply, however, with almost all converso descendants who have tried to come to grips with the meaning of this heritage, regardless of what they have decided to make of it, as well as with others (Ba'alei teshuva "returnees" to Judaism, perhaps even African Americans "returning" to Islam...