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‘Harper’s’ Writer Finds U.S. Crypto-Jews

Finds descendents of Inquistion-era forced converts in New Mexico

Sara Ivry
November 12, 2009

Curiosity sparked by a children’s book about a Hispanic boy descended from Crypto-Jews (those forced to convert during the Inquisition to Catholicism who secretly kept up various Jewish practices)—and by his own childhood, in which his mother asked him to pretend that he was Unitarian so neighbors in their Bible Belt town wouldn’t ostracize him—Theodore Ross headed to New Mexico in search of genuine American Crypto-Jews. He offers a chronicle of what he found in the December issue of Harper’s Magazine; the expansive article is currently available in print only.

Some folks he met remember relatives lighting Friday night candles, attending religious services on Saturday not Sunday, and avoiding shellfish and pork—practices they thought were local customs, not Jewish ones, until they learned they were part of this semi-obscure demographic. Ross also met a Catholic priest who took a DNA test that confirms he descends from the priestly caste of kohanim and a rabbi who oversees the conversions of Crypto-Jews back to traditional Judaism so they can, under Israel’s law of return, move there and create, Ross writes, “a sort of anti-Muslim neutron bomb”—that is, populate the country.

There are a few problems in Ross’s piece. He admits to having projected onto Crypto-Jews a “needful hope in their existence,” but never fully explores the source of that need. Though generally meticulous in defining Hebrew terms, going as far as calling the tzitzit by its proper name, tallit katan (small prayer shawl), he gets Judaism’s essential prayer, the Shema, wrong, misquoting its first words as “Hashem yisrael” rather than, “Shema yisrael.” (We concede that could’ve been a typo overlooked by a negligent fact-checker.) Finally, though, by reporting on a Messianic Jew who wears a yarmulke embroidered with the Hebrew words “Yeshua Ha’mashiach” (Jesus the Messiah) alongside the stories of real descendants of those forced to convert to Catholicism, Ross undermines the seriousness of his piece. He lumps legitimate historical claims and personal histories in with what seems to us to be little more than religious quackery, casting a somewhat cynical light on his whole enterprise.

UPDATE, November 16: Theodore Ross writes: “Just wanted to briefly respond to Sara Ivry’s blog post on my article ‘Shalom on the Range’ (‘Harper’s writer finds U.S. Crypto-Jews”). Sara correctly noticed the inaccuracy of the rendering of the Shema in the article. However, in defense of my stalwart fact-checker, I feel compelled to point out that the version used in the piece, with the word ‘Hashem’ rather than ‘Shema,’ is exactly the prayer as delivered by Father William Sanchez. It was my belief that readers would catch the mistake and enjoy the small joke of a Catholic priest leading me in a Jewish prayer and getting it wrong.”

Shalom on the Range [Harper’s]

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.

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