Monday, November 24, 2008

American Crypto-Jews and Consuelo Luz

A Crypto-Jewish SukkotI was taken aback this morning. I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room leafing through the October 2008 issue of Smithsonian Magazine and ran across an article titled "The 'Secret Jews' of San Luis Valley: In Colorado, the gene linked to a virulent form of breast cancer found mainly in Jewish women is discovered in Hispanic Catholics." The article discusses the possibility that a region of New Mexico and Colorodo were settled by "crypto-Jews," Jews who had been forced to hide there beliefs and heritage by the Spanish Inquisition. Here's Smithsonian's description of that settling process, which summaries research by Stanley M. Hordes presented in his 2005 book, To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico. Hordes is a professor at the University of New Mexico and was New Mexico's official state historian during the 1980's.
" Following the Jews' expulsion from Spain, crypto-Jews were among the early settlers of Mexico. The Spanish in Mexico periodically tried to root out the "Judaizers," but it is clear from the records of trials that Jewish practices endured, even in the face of executions. According to Hordes' research, settlers who were crypto-Jews or descended from Jews ventured up the Rio Grande to frontier outposts in New Mexico. For 300 years, as the territory passed from Spanish to Mexican to United States hands, there was almost nothing in the historical record about crypto-Jews. Then, because of probing by younger relatives, the stories trickled out. "It was only when their suspicions were aroused decades later," Hordes writes, "that they asked their elders, who reluctantly answered, 'Eramos judíos' ('We were Jews')."
So, this is another chance for me to demonstrate my ignorance in public. I had heard the term crypto-Jew a number of times before, but always in the context of the Jewish expulsion from Spain in the 1490's. The story, in the versions I'd been aware of, always trailed off pretty soon after that. One block of Jews, who became the Sephardic community were able to flee to the northern and southern Medeteranian. The other group, for some by choice and for many by lack of choice, officially converted to Catholocism and were absorbed into Spanish culture, holding on to some remenants of Jewish tradition but largely forgotten by history. Guess I'm way off on that last part. It turns out that there are self-aware communities, and many not-so-self-aware communities, of crypto-Jews scattered around the globe.

As someone mildly obsessed with Jewish music, I sprang into action. From an academic perspective, the primary work on Crypto-Jewish music seems to have been conducted by Dr. Judith Cohen though I could not find much useful information on line. Dr. Cohen notes that, speaking of the Crypto-Jews of Portugal, that "They have very, very few songs which are not common to everyone else in the areas they live in." I'll keep digging. I'm sure there is better information out there and I'll report in as I find it.

Adio album coverIn terms of contemporary music, I found a lovely recording by Consuelo Luz, a "Cuban-Chilean singer-songwriter." Her new album, Adio, deals with the Crypto-Jewish experience. The official album description notes that "Crypto Jews" is a term used to describe those "hidden" Jews, who, for survival's sake, needed to hide their heritage. Today a movement is emerging of Crypto Jews, especially in the US Southwest, wanting to explore their Sephardic Jewish background and sometimes integrate it with their Indo-American heritage. This CD "Adio" is a musical reflection of this desire for integration, combining Latin, Middle Eastern, Flamenco and Indigenous elements to evoke a historic journey, a fusion of traditions and the Sephardic soul's survival and path of transcendence." And, it's quite lovely. You can listen to it at CD Baby.


M. Miriam Herrera said...

There are many of us Spanish Crypto Jews out here--and also many musicians singing our music. Find out more about the late Judy Frankl and the wonderful contemporary Vanessa Paloma. For more info, consult my pages on Anusim at or the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies at
We've had many wonderful converso musicians perform at our conferences.

Jack said...


Thanks so much for writing and sharing your resources. I am familiar with both Frankl and Paloma, but did not know that Paloma comes from Spanish Crypto Jewish heritage. Her essay "Hanging By a Wick" is both moving and very educational. I am looking forward to learning more about and writing more about Crypto Jewish musicians & music in the future. Any suggestions you have are greatly appreciated.

And, by the way, I love your poem Kaddish for Columbus.