Off to Albuquerque: In search of the American Crypto-Jew
October 8, 2012
I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert from Judaism to Christianity. We had just moved from New York City to a small southern town whose local hospital had recruited her to open a medical practice. My new faith was a ruse—I never formally converted—but if anyone asked, I was instructed by my mother to say I was Unitarian. She also told me to keep these sectarian machinations secret from my father, who was still in New York and who would have filed a court order demanding custody if he had the slightest notion of what she was up to. Meanwhile, I was enrolled in an Episcopal school, where I studied the Bible, attended church each week, received communion, and even sang in the choir.
Understand, please, that I love my mother, and know that she had her reasons. In retrospect, her belief that our Bible Belt town would reject a divorced, Yankee, female doctor who was also Jewish seems not so absurd. Yet let no one mistake her either for a friend of the Jews. She was convinced that the ceaseless shtick that defines Judaism in this country—the wry exceptionalism, the ironic fatalism, the false socialism, the Zionist apologetics, the Yiddish jargoning, the hand-wringing over the Holocaust—barred her from the full American experience. For her, being a Jew meant being cheated of a piece of this country’s restless, rootless anonymity. She didn’t hate Jews or Judaism, and she certainly didn’t want to hurt me. She just wanted to be one of us.
I can relate. As an adult I find that I am uncomfortable with devout practitioners of my birth religion. I worry that if they knew of my past they might not accept me as Jewish, and, with some of my mother’s scorn cutting through the unease, I wonder why I would want their acceptance in the first place. The result has been a furtive fascination with Judaism, one that compels and repels in equal measure.
One evening not long ago, I came across an odd little children’s book. Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs told the story of a Hispanic boy named Jacobo who, while visiting his grandmother in Santa Fe, learned that he was something called an anusim, or a “Crypto-Jew,” which I learned meant that he was a descendant of the Medieval Jews of Spain, who were forcibly converted to Catholicism yet continued, for hundreds of years, to practice Judaism in secret.1
I also learned that no sizable population of formerly Jewish Christians existed before 1391, when anti-Semitic riots in Spain resulted in the conversion under duress of some 200,000 Jews, many of them baptized by clergymen accompanying the mobs. Once this violence abated, Spanish Christians wanted nothing to do with their converted brethren. Some historians insist, in fact, that the Inquisition was established in Spain in 1481 not to convert the Jews, as I had always thought, but to eradicate what were believed to be large numbers of surreptitiously still-Jewish families among the conversos, both anusim and meshumadim (willing converts). Some of those persecuted fled for locations throughout Europe, while others made their way to the New World. Semi-open communities of Crypto-Jews thrived in the Spanish imperial possessions until the late 1500s, when the Inquisition arrived in the colonies. Trials, interrogations, and autos-da-fé ensued, and within a century the Crypto-Jews were no more.
That, at least, is the conventional history. But what if Jacobo’s grandmother was to be believed? What if some of her ancestors had evaded the Inquisition in Mexico and infiltrated the conquistador party that later settled the northern wilderness that became New Mexico? Could they possibly have remained in the Southwest ever since, covertly maintaining their religion, avoiding pork in their burritos, substituting tortillas for matzos, co-opting Mexican serapes for Jewish prayer shawls, and somehow hiding in plain sight? Certainly their Judaism would have changed with time, evolving into something not immediately recognizable as such, even to those practicing it, but could it actually exist?
At first, I had a great deal of difficulty believing it could. I had always felt an ironic affinity for the world’s communities of supposed “Lost Jews” (the Hebrews of Cape Verde, Kaifeng, and Timbuktu), but these American anusim seemed altogether different. The idea of hidden Judaism in Santa Fe had the feel of a tall tale, of yetis and UFOs and Atlantis.
Yet articles on the Crypto-Jews had appeared in practically every major American newspaper; in academic journals; in Jewish publications such as Shofar, Hadassah, andThe Forward; and in a slew of books with God-awful New Age titles like The Marrano Legacy, Suddenly Jewish, and Sephardic Destiny: A Latino Quest. Unfortunately, finding an actual living, talking, davening Crypto-Jew proved a challenge. Neither the academics who had studied them nor the authors who had attempted their history were willing to introduce me to one, usually citing concerns for their privacy.
Then I caught a break. I found an email address for a man named Daniel Yocum, who had revealed to the New York Times in 1990 that he was a Crypto-Jew. He agreed to speak to me by phone. Yocum had been raised in Albuquerque’s Atrisco Valley, an insular tract of ranch and farmland that had been absorbed by the city only in his lifetime. Raised Catholic, Yocum didn’t know he was Jewish growing up, though he told me that “there were always rumors around.” The men of his family, he said, used to gather each Friday night in the morada, the chapterhouse of a secret society of Catholic flagellants. They would cover the santos—wooden images of the saints—with gunnysacks, light candles, and conduct a modified Sabbath service, reading from a handwritten Book of Psalms. Daniel, who now lived in Colorado, told me that he had learned these practices were Judaic in nature only as an adult. As a child, he thought they were part of the Catholic rituals specific to rural New Mexico. After learning the truth, he said, he had begun to live openly as a Jew. He now attended synagogue regularly, kept kosher, read his Torah portion, and wore a yarmulke. When I asked him if he would help me contact his Crypto-Jewish relatives and friends in New Mexico, he agreed. I thanked him and booked my ticket to Albuquerque…