Earlier this week our freezer went on the blink, and we had to call a repair man. Carlos showed up within a couple of hours and quickly diagnosed the problem—a blown condenser that would take about $400 to replace. Jane and I both had a good feeling about the guy and felt we should trust his diagnosis. I left the room while he and Jane worked out the details. Carlos noticed a print on our wall from the Israel Museum with the caption in Hebrew, and asked who the Hebrew was in our house. This led into a conversation that included him telling his own story. When he was a boy growing up in Guatemala, he remembered the men wearing little caps on their heads. His father converted to Catholicism at some point and it caused a family scandal. Carlos learned later that his father’s family had left Spain suddenly, leaving everything behind, and heard other family stories that convinced him that he had Sephardic Jewish ancestry.
We hear stories like this fairly often in New Mexico—although they’re usually local, not Guatemalan in origin. But this story was especially striking because we met Carlos the day after we’d visited an exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum entitled Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition & New World Identities.
Sepharad is the Jewish name for Spain, based on a reference in Obadiah 1:20, and Sephardic Jews have spread throughout the world since their final departure from Spain in 1492. This brings up another remarkable convergence about meeting Carlos, because it’s only a few days before Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both the first and second temples in Jerusalem in ancient times. Tisha B’Av also marks the day of most profound tragedy in the Sephardic legacy. The Jews of Spain had enjoyed a Golden Age in the years between about 900 and 1300, the time of La Convivencia, when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in what the exhibit called “a marriage of convenience,” creating a time of peace and prosperity that benefited all three communities. For Jews, this was the age of great poets, like Judah Ha-Levi, who typified his times by also being a great thinker and religious writer as well. It was the age of Maimonides, who began his life and career in Spain before moving on to Morocco and eventually Egypt, and of Nachmanides, who also left Spain toward the end of his life, as the period of relative tolerance and quiet was coming to an end.
For centuries Spain was the center of Jewish life for all of Europe and the Mediterranean world, and the source of Jewish thought and literature that has endured until today. Things began to change in the 14th century, which ended in a period of persecution and violence toward the Jewish population. Conditions worsened throughout the following century, as the Christian kingdoms of Iberia came into more dominance. Ferdinand, king of Aragon, married Isabella, queen of Castille, and together they took the final steps to form a unified Spain. Shortly after a decisive victory over the Muslims in Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella issued a decree on March 30, 1492, that all the Jews of Spain were to leave within four months. As the display at the New Mexico History Museum noted, this placed the expulsion date, July 30, 1492, within days of Tisha B’Av, adding to the tragic weight of that day.
The only way to avoid expulsion and the huge dislocation and material loss that it entailed was to convert to Catholicism, and many Jews took this option, at least externally. The museum website pictures the dilemma that the Jews of Sepharad faced:
What would you do? Repudiate the language, religion and customs of your people in order to stay in your home and with your family? Or walk away from all you owned, all you knew, and embark upon treacherous journeys across land and sea toward a life you could barely imagine?
Luis de Torres, originally Yosef ben Levi Ha-Ivri, converted shortly before the final edict of Ferdinand and Isabella. He joined the sailing expedition that departed from the Castilian port of Palos three days after the expulsion, on August 3, 1492. De Torres was to serve as an interpreter because of his knowledge of Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and Portuguese, but the expedition ended up in a new world where none of those languages was spoken. De Torres, the first Jew to set foot on the New World, was killed by natives in a dispute the following year, but the world he entered would prove to be a haven for the Jewish people in the coming centuries. At the same time, the integrated Jewish identity of the Sephardic Golden Age was fractured. Jews struggled to find another homeland where they could live in peace, both practicing their Judaism and engaging the wider world, as they had done in Spain.
Christopher Columbus, the leader of the 1492 expedition, had noted in his Journal,
In the same month in which their Majesties [Ferdinand and Isabella] issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.
Their Majesties wanted to drive the Jews out of Spanish territories as well as the kingdom itself, but many Jews fleeing the expulsion, or fleeing the Inquisition after converting, found their way to the New World—including my home state of New Mexico, which had a large population of conversos, Jewish converts to Catholicism, from the very beginning of the Spanish presence here.
This brings us to a final part of this story. The subtitle of the exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum is “Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition & New World Identities.” The Inquisition had authority only over conversos, not over the Jewish population in general, which in theory had already fled to other lands anyway. The Inquisition monitored the behavior of Catholics, or professed Catholics, to guard against any heretical activities, especially the heretical practice of Jewish customs. This oversight extended into the New World, where the Inquisition established an office in Mexico City in 1571. Conversos in remote regions of Mexico, and later New Mexico, were arrested and tried, and occasionally executed, for attempting to return to Jewish practice. In 1598, Don Juan de Onate, a Spanish nobleman whose mother descended from the illustrious Sephardic Jewish Ha-Levi family, led an expedition into New Mexico, joined by several other converso families, perhaps motivated by pressure from the Inquisition. New Mexico proved to be a place of refuge, but only if Jewish identity was kept hidden, thus creating the Crypto-Jews, or hidden Jews, whose story continues today.
For generations, Jews who succumbed to conversion struggled to find a new identity as Christians, or as Jews hiding out within Christianity. Some descendants of Sephardic Jews today are returning, or seeking to return, to an unambiguous Jewish identity. Some have gone beyond outward conversion to become genuine followers of Messiah Yeshua—and to find a way to incorporate faith in Messiah with their rekindled Jewish identity.
Our friend Carlos is a reminder that similar stories were experienced in other parts of the New World. As we commemorate Tisha B’Av this year, it’s appropriate to remember the Tisha B’Av of Sepharad, the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492, after centuries of peace and prosperity in the Iberian Peninsula.
The Messianic Jewish community includes many members of Hispanic background who are exploring, or laying claim to, a Sephardic legacy. We sometimes hear of exaggerated claims and blanket statements concerning this legacy and who has a share in it. Messianic Jewish leaders can be skeptical about the Sephardic story, but I’d suggest that we replace skepticism with discernment and support. We need to honor the legacy of Spanish Jewry. And we need to find ways to help and encourage those who find their way into our community, who are exploring their own connection to this legacy.