Religious Life

Converso “Conversion”

Converso “Conversion”
2 Sivan 5777 • Bamidbar • May 17, 2017
Rabbi Alexander Davis


From Manchester, to the President at the Kotel, to the investigation into Russian meddling, there is much to consider. But sometimes it is also important to be able to put aside the daily newswire and be transported to a different time and place. And that’s what I’d like to do this morning.

With your permission, I’d like to reflect on the coming holiday of Shavuot by telling you about my recent American Jewish Heritage trip to New Mexico. Now I know that may strike some as a non-sequetor. New Mexico hardly sounds like a place to go for a Jewish tour. With one of the lowest affiliation rates, it is in some ways just the opposite- a place people go to get away from their Judaism. But you don’t have to dig far beneath the surface to discover a very different story.

Amidst the beauty of the high desert landscape, the sounds of Pueblo music, and the watercolors of Georgia O’Keeffe, the story that brought us to New Mexico was a story that seemed fantastical, unlikely to be true. But then we hopped in an Uber.

After landing in Albuquerque, we headed toward the hotel. On the way, the driver asked members of our group what they were doing in town. Assuming New Mexico’s Jewish history would be unfamiliar to the driver, they slowly explained that they were part of a synagogue study group of 27 people from Minnesota and they came to learn more about the crypto (hidden) Jews to which the driver matter-of-factly announced, “sure, my dad told me we have Jewish roots. But he died before I got additional information. So I am gonna have to speak with my uncle to get the full story.” Right then we knew it was going to be an interesting trip.

A bit of history: Conversos means “converted.” A better term is the Hebrew, “anusim” which mean “forced.” Both terms refer to Jews forcibly converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition in the 14-15th centuries. Thousands were killed. Hundreds of thousands did convert. And many more fled. But remarkably, some took their Judaism underground (literally). They went in the basement or in the attic to secretly practice Jewish tradition and not be caught.

And so it went- first in Spain. Then it was carried to Portugal, then the Caribbean, then Mexico, and then north to New Spain which eventually became New Mexico. For 500 years they were closeted Jews who preserved their identity by keeping their tradition. But could it really be? Could Judaism survive under those conditions? The story seemed far-fetched. And we wondered if it was really true. But then we met Maria Apodoca.

Maria told us that growing up, she remembered that when someone in her family died they would cover the mirrors for seven days. And when it came time for burial, they brought their own earth to the grave to seemingly counteract the effect of being buried in a consecrated Christian cemetery. When they made tortillas, they separated a piece of dough and burned it and they drained the blood after slaughtering an animal.

Now understand, none of these things meant anything to Maria. It’s just what her family did. She didn’t know they were rituals rooted in Jewish tradition. She had no idea what Judaism was. She had never met a Jew. She didn’t do DNA testing like some are doing today. Rather, she embodied the principle, naaseh v’nishma. Generations of her family had practiced Jewish rituals without understanding why, naaseh. And then nishma, what it all meant, the meaning of these traditions was revealed to her and became meaningful to her.

For Maria, that happened when she met Stanley Hordes. Hordes was the state’s historian and beginning in the 1980s, he started recording these common stories and doing research in the archives and in the field. Once he made the connection that these were rituals held over from a family’s Jewish past, he started to help people discover and recover their roots. And thanks to the careful record keeping of the Church’s Inquisition panels, people like Maria can trace their lineage back 500 years. Indeed, she literally unrolled before us her family tree that stretches back to medieval Spain.

After meeting with Hordes, there was no doubt, Maria was a Jew. But that is not the end of the story. It is really only the beginning. You see, Maria realized she was a Jew by ancestry. But what she should do with that knowledge was a separate question.

Understand that to be a Crypto Jew is to be in the closet. I use that term deliberately to capture the agony and personal turmoil it creates for people like Maria. For, to come out and declare, “I am a Jew,” after hiding it for 500 years feels like a betrayal of a family secret. And not just the family secret, it feels like a betrayal of the family tradition. Many extended family members have no interest in exploring or even acknowledging their Jewish roots. Many are practicing Christianity. Some are even priests. So to come out threatens the unity of the family, it might result in being ostracized. And it also just feels risky. As one person told us, it only took soldiers returning with stories of Nazi Germany to reinforce a 500 year old message: to be a Jew in public is dangerous. Better to keep it secret.

As you can hear, the emotional scars from the Inquisition run deep. So it’s no wonder that most Crypto Jews do not pursue the story. Few embrace their Jewish roots. But Maria was one. The heart of the Jewish people beat strongly in her. Jewish rituals had preserved a ner tamid, the eternal flame of her n’shama. And so she formally and halakhicly converted or better, “returned.” And it is that choice of words that takes us to the upcoming holiday.

On Shavuot, we read the book of Ruth and tell the story of the most famous convert to Judaism. Ruth is a paradigm of a gioret tzedek, a righteous convert who eagerly throws her lot in with the Jewish people. Given this, you might think that she would be venerated by the Crypto-Jews of America’s Southwest. But Ruth is not their biblical role model. They do not turn to her for inspiration rather to a different woman and a different megillah, megilat Esther.

Esther is the heroine with whom the Crypto-Jews identify for Esther, whose name means “hidden” was herself a closeted Jew. She kept her identity hidden. The Talmud, for example, explains that she scheduled her maids in such a way that none would question why she was not working on Saturdays. Like the Crypto-Jews who bathed and changed clothes Fridays and lit candles in the basement, Esther kept her secret but deep down, she knew who she was.

And so while we are months past Purim, in a way, Esther it every bit a Shavuot story. You see, at the end of the Megillah we are told that the Jews “established and accepted upon themselves and their future descendants” all of the laws. The rabbis ask, “didn’t the Jews already accept the Torah at Sinai? If so, what does it mean, kimu v’kiblu, they established and accepted the laws?” Rava answers, “kimu masheh kvar kiblu, they reaffirmed what they had previously accepted.” And so with the Crypto-Jews.

Crypto-Jews like Maria do not use the term convert. After enduring forcible conversions at the hands of the Catholics, that language is tainted. Instead, they prefer to say that they are returning to Judaism. Kimu v’kiblu, they are reaffirming an identity and a practice that was there from the beginning.

Today, Maria is vice-president of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies. She was just one of the many speakers we heard. I don’t have time to tell you about how we met Elijah the prophet at the state’s oldest Jewish cemetery, or our lecture by America’s only theoretical physicist rabbi in Los Alamos, our spontaneous dancing on cliffs overlooking the Rio Grande, or my mystical experience in an Albuquerque gift shop. We’ll save those for another time. I’ll only invite you to keep your eyes out next year for information on future trips through the Center for Learning.

For now, let me conclude with a story: When Shavuot approached, Reb Yakov ben Eliezer remembered a promise he had made that year to pray from a Sephardi siddur that had been left in the beit hamidrash (study hall). The night before erev Shavuot, Reb Yakov had a vivid dream. In it, he was dressed for yontif and was praying on Shavuot. And although he was certain that he had never before heard that prayer, at the same time, he found that he knew its words and its melody by heart. He found that he understood that prayer to the roots of his soul. The melody haunted him. He knew it must be of Sephardi origin. Well, Reb Yakov got lost in the melody that lifted him and took him to the supernal realms. And when he reached the heights, he descended to the earth and then woke up. And although he remembered the dream in detail, he could neither recall the prayer or its melody, nor could he find such a prayer in any book.

The next night when Shavuot began, Reb Yakov took out the Sephardi prayer book and began to pray. And when he read from the book, he was able to recall the melody he had heard in his dream. But the minute he lifted his eyes from the book, the melody vanished and only the faintest traces remained. But when he brought his eyes back to the book, the melody returned.

That night, Reb Yakov had another dream. In his dream, he encountered Reb Aaron ben Pinchas and told him the whole story of the prayer, the melody, the prayer book. Reb Aaron listened intently and then said: “That such a dream has come to you can only mean that your soul, Reb Yakov, must have been one of the six hundred thousand neshamas at Mt Sinai at the Giving of the Torah. For at Sinai, b’nai Yisrael heard every prayer that existed and even prayers that had not yet been heard in this world. For everything comes from above. And when the time has come for something to be disclosed, then it is sent to one of these souls so that it can be revealed.

For Reb Yakov it was laying his eyes on a siddur, for Maria, it was practicing Jewish rituals that connected them to their people and to their God. Let us who have little reason to hide, joyfully embrace our texts and our traditions and thus reaffirm our commitment to our people and our God so that 500 years from now, the flame lit at Sinai in the souls of our ancestors will continue to burn in souls of our descendants.