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  • To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico
  • Judith Neulander
To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, by Stanley M. Hordes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 348 pp. $39.50.

According to this publication, a substantial number of "secret" or crypto-Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition were among the Spanish Catholic founders of today's New Mexican Hispano community. The book's first two chapters reflect the author's doctoral research on the well documented settlement of Portuguese crypto-Jews in colonial Old Mexico. But the balance of the book is a procrustean effort to identify Old Mexico's indisputably Portuguese crypto-Jews as modern New Mexico's indisputably Spanish founding fathers. In this way Stanley M. Hordes attempts to justify his own well documented history of misrepresenting the region's modern, and largely Protestant, folkways, as colonial and "crypto-Jewish."

Hordes' claims were disconfirmed in my article in Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review in 1996 and thus remain noteworthy for their ongoing popularity, rather than their scholarly accuracy. To a significant extent, local Hispano acceptance reflects the traditional mode of asserting overvalued, white ancestral descent in the multiracial Spanish-Americas, where, as Raphael Patai wrote in his article "The Jewish Indians of Mexico," "Spanish [white] descent, even Spanish Jewish descent, means a step up on the social scale." At the same time, widespread Jewish acceptance seems to reflect a beleaguered peoples' need to believe itself indomitable, as evidenced by a miraculous crypto-Jewish survival. However, despite acceptance at the popular level, it is ultimately Hordes who must go "to the end of the earth" to defend a thesis that scholarship can only refute. Not surprisingly, he does it the only way it can be done: by abandoning scholarly method and relying, instead, on serious violations of scholarship norms.

For example, Hordes introduces me to his readers as "Folklorist Judith Neulander, who has dismissed any crypto-Jewish presence in New Mexico, either historical or contemporary . . ." (p. 221). He thus misrepresents my disconfirmation of 1996, as well as my doctoral dissertation, both of which are cited in the book, and both of which clearly state: "I have consciously avoided suggesting that a crypto-Jewish presence never existed in New Mexico," not to mention "I insist only that the crypto-Jewish canon is no evidence of that presence . . . [I keep] an open mind on the possibility of cultural variation, and that would include crypto-Judaism in New Mexico." My position could not be clearer. Yet, in every reference to my work, Hordes makes no attempt to provide better scholarship. Rather, as in the example above, he responds to [End Page 179] scholarly argument the only way he can: by voicing righteous indignation at irrational positions that I have never taken.

As always, Hordes' primary research strategy is over-generalization of superficially related cultural items. In this new book he resurrects an ancient Roman gambling top (in global Hispanic use), which he earlier claimed was a variant of the Hanukkah dreydl. Long before he made this claim, however, it was refuted by scholars whose work he never consulted; the dreydl is a Yiddish toy that appeared much later, borrowed from a pagan tradition in England and Germany, which was never used by Iberian Jews. In response to this criticism, Hordes has revised the claim, now citing the toy as "crypto-Jewish" in that it was (purportedly) used by crypto-Jewish Hispanos to celebrate Hanukkah when they first learned of the Ashkenazi custom. For support, he cites a colleague who eagerly provides it (unless Hordes misrepresents him, as well) by defining "bricolage" incorrectly, sweeping it into the same category as cultural "borrowing":

Kunin believed the toy may well exemplify the anthropological concept of bricolage, or the borrowing by one culture of elements from others. . . . He held that the identification of [the local toy] with crypto-Jewish culture was: "clearly explicable within bricolage. . . ."

(p. 248)

But in his groundbreaking opus The Savage Mind, anthropologist Levi-Strauss used the term to describe both the process and the end product of concrete, or pre-critical, sense-making, the...