As a contemporary phenomenon in American culture, crypto-Judaism has its roots in medieval Spain. In response to the hostility, persecution, and forced conversion of the Spanish Jews (Sephardim) in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a segment of the Jewish converts (conversos) publicly accepted Christianity while secretly retaining Jewish beliefs and practices. This form of religious resistance came to be known as crypto-Judaism. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, crypto-Judaism expanded into Portugal and the colonized territories of the Americas as crypto-Jews (also known as marranos) fled to escape prosecution for heresy during the Spanish Inquisition. Crypto-Jewish populations settled in regions of Latin America and Mexico, as well as into areas of North America that now comprise Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas.
As fear of exposure continued to sustain the secrecy that surrounded Jewish-based rituals in Latino Catholic and Protestant families, this crypto-Jewish diaspora led to the creation of a hidden religious culture that has survived into the twentieth century. Although over time, Jewish practices became fragmented and their meanings obscured, contemporary scholars have found evidence of crypto-Jewish rituals in Latin America, Mexico, and the southwestern United States. Among the traditions that have survived are those relating to the observance of the Sabbath, dietary laws, family purity rites, and the celebrations of Chanukah (Hanukkah), Passover, and Purim.
With regard to the Jewish holidays, a syncretic form of ritual practice has developed through the blending of Jewish and Christian religious customs. In the twentieth century, this aspect of syncretism was found in rituals that appear to merge Passover with Easter and Purim with devotions to St. Esther. In comparison, the observance of the Sabbath among crypto-Jews tended to be less syncretic in nature. In accordance with Jewish tradition, candles or oil lamps were typically lit on Friday nights, although this custom was frequently performed in areas of the home that were shielded from public view.
A significant component of both historical and twentieth-century crypto-Judaism is the role that gender plays in cultural persistence. As medieval persecution led to the privatization (i.e., concealment) of Jewish religious practice, women assumed a significant function in the crypto-Jewish household through the practice of secret rituals and the transmission of religious culture. This pattern of gender and cultural survival has been found among modern descendants whose mothers, grandmothers, and aunts have been identified as those members of the family who hold the knowledge of Jewish ancestry and who sustain some of the Jewish customs that were observed by their forebears.
Over the last two decades, a current generation of crypto-Jewish descendants have been engaged in the recovery of their Spanish Jewish roots, sometimes joined by those whose ancestors were later-era conversos (i.e., those who had converted to crypto-Judaism in the Americas). Through the study of family genealogy, the identification of Jewish-based rituals in the home, and the disclosure of Jewish ancestry among surviving family members, individuals throughout the Americas are openly acknowledging their family's Jewish past. Furthermore, many of those who have established their Sephardic ancestry are also seeking to return to a Jewish faith perspective. This religious trend among modern descendants has contributed to the debate within Jewish law concerning who is a Jew and what defines Jewish practice and religiosity among a population of individuals who were raised as non-Jews but whose ancestry is Jewish in origin. In particular, the question of conversion has become a site of tension as both the descendants and the rabbinic authorities explore the contested terrain of crypto-Jewish heritage and its meaning for modern Jewish identity.
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Hordes, Stanley. "The Inquisition and the Crypto-Jewish Community in Colonial Spain and New Mexico." In Cultural Encounters: The Impact of the Inquisition in Spain and the New World, edited by Mary Elizabeth Perry and Anne J. Cruz. 1991.
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Janet L. Jacobs