An Ancient Presence

I had read any number of books about the long, tragic history of the Marranos, the secret Jews who were forced by the Inquisition, in Spain and elsewhere, to practice their religion in hiding. But when I learned in the mid-1990s, mostly through books like The Mezuzah in the Madonna's Foot and The Marrano Legacy by author Trudy Alexi, about present-day Marranos still practicing a clandestine form of Judaism, I was taken aback.

Alexi had chosen the subject of her first book because of her own troubled past during World War II, when she and her family suppressed any trace of their heritage in order to survive in Hitler's Europe. Her long journey to full acceptance of her Jewishness is powerfully rendered in that narrative.

But her personal history was merely a prelude to stories of present-day Marranos throughout the world. One of these individuals, whom she called "Matthew," was a crypto-Jewish priest who could trace his family back to 14th century Spain, and who, five days a week, performed his priestly duties, returning to Judaism only on the weekends, when he davened with a group of Orthodox Jews who knew all about his secret.

Matthew's story was retold in Marrano Legacy, but this time as prelude to the story of another crypto-Jewish priest, whom Alexi called "Simon." His story was even-more spectacular in its details than Matthew's.

He was born and lived in Latin America — he first contacted Alexi only via e-mail, so she knew few particulars about him — and he told the author that when he read her first book, he was struck by how the descriptions reminded him of his family. He explained that his forebears had arrived in Latin America in the 17th century, changed their Jewish name to be accepted, but strove to remember their Jewish roots. Kosher customs were passed from generation to generation, with his grandfather teaching him to use tallit and tefillin.

At the time of Simon's first contact, he was a member of a large, secret Jewish community of 300 members. "Believe it or not," he wrote, "we have our own secret temples, our own rabbi, we try to adapt our practices to modern Judaism, but we live as Catholics, … trying to live in peace, … and always with fear."

It sounded astonishing to Alexi in the 1990s, though she soon found that it was all verifiable. The amazing thing is that it still sounds unbelievable 10 years later.

Now photographer Cary Herz has put a face to this mysterious phenomenon, through various individuals pictured and profiled in her book called New Mexico's Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, published by University of New Mexico Press. Granted, the locale may be different from Alexi's, but the stories of a vague ancestral past handed down through the generations echo the tales that Alexi gathered. (There is even a crypto-Jewish priest, of sorts, the Rev. William E. Sanchez.)

The crypto-Jews Herz encountered were, she tells us in her preface, "descendants of conversos who came to Nueva España (New Spain), now Mexico and its former territories, in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. They came to Nueva España and then north to New Mexico with the conquistadors… ."

Herz says that her book was composed to honor the descendants of the hidden Jews, those who held on to their religion and beliefs in whatever fashion, over more than 500 years — and despite "threats of persecution, ostracism, punishment or even death from the Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican Inquisitors. Among my subjects are those who knew about their Jewish pasts through family oral history and practice, those who have only recently become interested in exploring their families' customs and practices, and those who knew nothing about their ancestry and are only now beginning to examine their possible Jewish heritage."

Herz admits that there is controversy over whether crypto-Jewish activity actually exists in New Mexico. But, as she points out, she is not writing a history; rather, she's putting together a photographic diary.

And many of her photos are evocative and resonant. She has wonderful faces and personalities to work with, and she makes the most, as well, of the New Mexican terrain wherever possible. Take Dennis Duran. He is shown at his family's grave sites in northern New Mexico, saying Kaddish while standing against a stark, hilly landscape and beneath an appropriately brooding sky, all of it rendered in wonderful black-and-white gradations. Duran told Herz that both sides of his family originated in Portugal and came to New Mexico in 1598 with one of the conquistadores, Juan de Oñate.

Writes Herz: "Dennis converted to Judaism in 1977, long before he traced his family's ancestry back to the Sephardic Jews of the 16th century. He said, 'It felt right.' As others do, he associates certain customs from his upbringing with the Jewish faith. Dennis' paternal grandfather followed practices with kosher overtones, such as 'slaughtering of animals, never allowing his children to eat at others' homes and always eating lamb.' "

Dennis' father and older brother told him that they'd always known the truth, and that it was not such a grand revelation to them that they were Jews. They were aware of it growing up.

Then there is the photo of Lorenzo Dominguez, who is also pictured on the book's striking cover. He is shown standing behind his mother, Felima, who is a practicing Catholic, but acknowledges the family's Jewish ancestry.

In the photo, Lorenzo wears his tallit, and Felima has on her grandmother's black shawl. Felima told Herz: "From the time he was young my son has always felt that he was Jewish. I have a daughter who feels the same way. For me, as long as they, my children, pray to God, as long as you live your life in a good way, that is all that matters."

The faces in the book — like those you sometimes pass on the street in Spanish countries — bear distinct traces of an ancient Jewish presence.


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