Sefardi Crypto-Jews: Real Jews or Remnants of a Distant Past?

When Jews forced into hiding by the 15th-century Spanish Inquisition now want to affirm their Jewish identity, we should welcome and support them.

When I was a new rabbi in my first congregation, a dark-skinned gentleman came regularly to Shabbat services, sat in the back, prayed hesitatingly and enthusiastically, and left immediately after services. One afternoon, he lingered and asked to meet with me privately.

“My name is José Gonçalves Ribeiro,[1] and I am a Jew, though you may not believe me,” he said.

“I believe you,” I responded.

Then José told me his story. José had returned to his home — Brazil — to visit his dying father. His father, Elias, told him, “You are my oldest son, and I am dying. Now you must carry the secret. We are Jews, not Catholics. Our family came to Brazil after the expulsion from Spain. We originally came from Saragossa. Look under the bed for a small box and take it out.”

In the box, José found a brass key, a ripped parchment document (which I later ascertained to be dated from the 15th century and was a remnant of a deed to a home in Saragossa) and a torn klaf (parchment) from a mezuzah.

“These are from our home in Spain that our grandfather Benjamin brought with him to Brazil. They are proof that we are Jews. Now you must carry the secret and the Legacy. You must carry on our faith.”

After his father’s death, José returned to the United States, sought out our synagogue and began to practice Judaism.

“You must teach me Judaism, Rabbi. Please.” And I did. Every Shabbat afternoon for three years, José and I met together, and I taught him about the Shabbat prayers and melodies, the holidays and our people’s minhagim (customs). This was avodat halev (service of the heart).  Along the way, I learned Jose´s story — that he and his brothers were circumcised when many in his village were not, that his grandmother and mother lit candles on Friday nights in the rear room of their small house, that they changed into white shirts on Friday afternoon and many more practices.

We discussed the differences between Sefardi and Ashkenazi Jews, and José shared with me his frustration that there seemed nowhere to go in Pennsylvania, where we lived, to find a community of “Jews like him” (as José put it), where his family history and their customs were honored and practiced.

I told José about the crypto-Jews hiding in the 17th century from the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition in what was still New Spain (now Mexico). Eventually, in the mid-17th century, these escondidos (hidden ones) migrated to the American Southwest — to the regions that are now the states of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and California.[2] There they remained hidden, clandestinely continuing what they knew of Jewish practice in their homes, but publicly acting as Catholics, openly expressing the Catholic faith, by attending church, becoming baptized, etc.

These Jews lived as they had lived for several generations as they had in Spain, quietly baking galletitas de Pascua — thin crackers during Easter time (matzah), celebrating the saint day of the “Santa Estér,” even though there was no such day in the official Catholic hagiography, spinning tops near Christmas time, placing odd symbols on their tombstones like six-pointed stars, constructing spigots for water at the exits of their cemeteries in arid deserts, raising indoor canopies on wedding days and more.

At times of loss, the crypto-Jews rent their clothing in a traditional form of kri’ah, they ate the meal of mourning — eggs and cheese, symbols of life and offered a huevo haminado (a roasted brown egg) to the first “gentile” who entered the house, so that the non-Jew could take away the sting of the family’s grief.

For centuries, they practiced a high rate of endogamy, entering into business practices with others like themselves and maintaining their Jewish practices to the greatest extent possible. All this while the crypto-Jews were publicly living in the Hispanic society around them as Catholics, participating in the religio-socio-cultural life of the Hispanic community. Yet, as the last quarter of the 20th century arrived, many came to discover through various means that the quaint practices they had inherited from their grandparents were Jewish practices, and that back in Old Spain, before and during the Inquisition, they had been Jews.

Slowly, tens, then dozens, and ultimately, a few thousand “came out” and sought rabbis and Jewish communities to help them find their way back into Judaism as did my congregant and friend José. By the early 21st century, there was a population of a few thousand conversos scattered throughout the American Southwest entering “mainstream” Jewish communities while still somewhat clandestinely maintaining their crypto-Jewish ways.

There are many challenges questions that returning crypto-Jews pose to the established Jewish community:

First, and perhaps most centrally, we must ask: Are these conversos “Jews” simply because centuries ago their ancestors were Jews? Are they remnants of a long-gone Judaism, or can they be considered Jews today? What does it mean to be a Jew in the 21st century when only quaint vestiges of Jewish practice remain in one’s family? What are the criteria upon which we judge legitimate “Jewishness” in our time? Is it halakhic continuity? Is it continuity of practice of Jewish rituals and customs? Is it communal acceptance? Is it self-identity?

These are the questions that have occupied Jewish communities for centuries, especially in the modern era. How does a movement like Reconstructionism, which claims that the halakhic past as a “vote” but not a “veto,” respond to such questions?

My sense is that individual Reconstructionist rabbis have welcomed conversos into their communities and have encouraged them, like I did with José, to immerse themselves in Jewish community, ritual and practice. I don’t think we have faced this issue officially as a movement, and I believed we should do so. I have taken my guidance from the Iggeret Teiman (Epistle to Yemen, 1173-1174) pf Maimonides (the Rambam), in which he sympathizes with and encourages Yemenite Jews who had converted to Islam under duress, and who fervently wished to return to the Jewish fold and be accepted as Jews, now that the danger was over. Here are the Rambam’s words:

Therefore, my coreligionists, be strong and let your heart take courage, all of you who wait for the Lord (Psalms 32:25). Strengthen one another, affirm your faith in the Expected One, may He speedily appear in your midst.

Four centuries later, when the conversos who left Spain after the Expulsion in 1492, arrived in northern Europe, especially in Amsterdam, the Rambam’s words and sentiments in the Iggeret Teiman were influential as the Dutch community accepted these Sefardi Jews.

Second, another question to consider is the conversos’ Jewish legitimacy and authenticity. How can these crypto-Jews “prove” that they are authentically Jews? Unlike José, most do not have tangible proof of their Jewish identity and can only attest to the practices that they and their ancestors have continually practiced for centuries. It is up to the contemporary Jewish community to determine whether this is enough.

In my mind, given the civilizational approach that Reconstructionism espouses, these practices should be enough proof, especially given these individuals’ desire to expand on and deepen their Jewish practice. The very fact that many crypto-Jews wish to enter Jewish communities, worship as Jews, and practice the rites and rituals of Judaism is enough for me. I will welcome them in their authenticity. The question of halakhic acceptance is another matter, which I will not debate here. It is my hope that, as they address their legitimacy as Jews, the halakhically-bound world community will be open-minded and creative in finding ways to accept the crypto-Jews as she’eirit Yisrael (a Remnant of Israel) and embrace them.

Third, the question of matrilineality and patrilineality arises here, too. In José’s case, his mother’s lineage was Catholic for centuries as far as he could tell, but when he researched his father’s line, he found Jews in Amsterdam and Recife, Brazil. For a movement like ours that recognizes patrilineality in Judaism, this offers another avenue for acceptance.

Fourth, another question that emerges is: How can the Jewish, mostly “Ashkenormative,” community welcome these Jews without stripping them entirely of their Sefardi identity? The end of José’s story is that he finally left my Reconstructionist shul and sought out a Sefardi Orthodox synagogue where he felt that his original heritage was more honored, and he could practice in a manner that was more consistent with that of his ancestors. The halakhically-observant congregation he joined embraced him, based on his “proof” of Jewishness — the klaf to his home mezuzah in Saragossa and the fact that he was circumcised. He did have to undergo a hatafat dam brit (drawing of a drop of blood) to formalize his Judaism.

I am happy for José, but the dilemma for most “mainstream” rabbis and congregations is that they welcome the converso into a world of Eastern European heritage with perhaps a few token Sefardi or Ladino melodies or poetry. The “soul” of Sefardic heritage, however, is lost. Of course, we cannot transform our Ashkenazi communities into what we are not, but in the same way that predominantly Caucasian Jewish communities cannot suddenly transform ourselves into communities of color, we can and should be more sensitive to the needs of Jews of Color and Sefardi Jews. How we do that cries out for deep exploration, learning and dialogue.

How can the leaders of Ashkenormative communities assist converso Jews to connect to Judaism in ways that are authentic and meaningful to them?We must demonstrate to any Jew — “a new Jew,” “a Jew-by-choice,” a “Jew of color” — that Judaism is a big tent. This means offering the conversos and others a wide array of opportunities to experience Jews and Judaism in synagogues of all denominations and movements. This means creating inclusive liturgy, offering inclusive programming and frequent and “natural” reference to Jews of all backgrounds. This will teach Jews of different ethnicities, histories and gender identities that they, too, are authentic Jews. This will bring home the message that there are many forms of Judaism and many ways to practice Judaism.

Additionally, in an age of virtual connection and Internet ubiquity, connecting converso Jews to sites that celebrate Sefardi and Hispanic Jewry (which didn’t exist when I was working with José decades ago), we must offer them these opportunities.

In an age when we hope for the expansion and deepening of Jewish communities and Judaism itself, we must do everything within our power to answer the question of “who is a Jew” with wisdom, compassion and acceptance.


[1] Name changed for anonymity

[2] Some of these crypto-Jews have migrated throughout the United States and I have encountered many of them on the East Coast.

One Response

  1. Sephardic Jews never played dreidel, it was an Ashkenazi practice. Playing with tops at Christmas was a Portuguese custom and had nothing to do with Jews.

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