Ancient faith holds modern lessons (My Weekly Column)

Mysterious faith holds modern lessons

The Pueblo Chieftain Online

In the past few years, I’ve become interested in the unique cultural history of the region from Southern Colorado through northern New Mexico.

I’m particularly fascinated by the stories I hear of devout lifelong Catholics who also embrace certain practices and symbols identified with Judaism.

These so-called “Crypto-Jews” are plentiful from here to Santa Fe, N.M., and perhaps most interesting is that many of them have no explanation for their curious religious traditions. Many houses are adorned with Stars of David, menorahs, and some men even wear the traditional yarmulke head covering. One relative of mine says they know of a number of people who have attended Mass faithfully every Sunday, but not before going to temple the evening before.

There was a recent piece in The Pueblo Chieftain about a new book on Crypto-Judaism, which is one of many on the subject. The prefix “crypto” suggests something secretive about the faith practice, which may seem strange at first glance. After all, Jesus was a Jew, right? In claiming Christianity, don’t we also, in many ways, claim Judaism as our religious ancestry? What’s with the culture of secretiveness?

Actually, there’s plenty of historical justification for this somewhat underground religious phenomenon. During the time of the Spanish Inquisition, from the 11th to 13th centuries, Jews were driven into Turkey if they refused to convert to Christianity.

Even well into the 15th century, such persecution took place, as exemplified by the Alhambra decree of 1492, expelling all Jews from Spanish territories, and endowing all of their property to the Spanish throne.

Disheartened by increasing intolerance throughout Europe, some Jews fled to Spanish and Portuguese territories in Mexico where they believed they would find a more tolerant atmosphere. These immigrants were called conversos because they publicly claimed Christianity while still privately practicing Judaism. As their numbers grew, concern about their collective influence on Mexican culture followed. By 1497, all Jewish children in Portuguese territories were ordered either to be converted to the Christian faith or become property of the empire.

By the 16th century, the public practice of Judaism was outlawed in Mexico City, and new “blood purity” laws barred any new migrants in Spanish territories of Mexico if they could not prove their families had been Christians for at least three generations.

During this time, the Spanish Empire reached well into what is now the U.S. Southwest. Crypto-Jews fled north into these frontier territories in search of a safe haven where they could practice their faith in peace. By this time, many Jews practiced both Christianity and Judaism, partly out of self-preservation and also because dual religious identity had become a family tradition over several generations.

Today, many people my age or my parents’ age whose descendants are Crypto-Jews practice their faith more openly. However, there is a lingering atmosphere of mystery surrounding an aging generation that still carries with it many enigmatic practices from this culture of Jewish refugees: Catholics who observe Sabbath, icons of Judaism within devoutly Catholic households, and a residual secrecy from a time when one’s beliefs could mean the loss of all individual rights, or worse.

Now we face an atmosphere of increased religious polarization, particularly between Christians and Muslims. As certain ethnic groups are disproportionately profiled and religious organizations face increased scrutiny in the name of national security, we are reminded of the historical precedent set by this ancestry of Crypto-Judaism.

We may purge ourselves of the superficial symbols and public practices which we find most threatening, but in the end, there is no government authority that can change the heart of a person of faith, regardless of the religious discipline they claim.

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