The Yale Historical Review has chosen Rachel Kaufman's essay for the Best of 2020 series, a respository of the most excellent pieces published by SUHP member journals from the 2020 calendar year.


In her 2007 book, New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, Cary Herz documents photos and testimonies of the contemporary Southwestern community. The individuals represented in her book detail the secrecy of their religious lives, telling stories of hidden cellar rooms used for worship and “somos judíos” (“we are Jews”) whispered from one generation to the next. Judaism, in its more complete or more diluted forms, could not and did not flourish amongst hidden Jews in the New World from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. But crypto- Jewish life, passed covertly and sometimes unconsciously across generations, could be filled with cultural nostalgia, filtered preservation, and intent belief in a shared Jewish past. Attempting to establish domicile in exile, these hidden Jews created an identity reliant on and based in memory.
Through explorations of documents and mythologies from the past five centuries, Rachel Kaufman’s (TC ’19) senior essay asserts that New Mexico and Mexico crypto-Jews remember the past as a series of connected events, adopting the histories of distant Jewish communities to place their identities within a more extensive framework of ancestry and origin. This borrowing of collective memory is valuable, enriching rather than detracting from cultural identity formation within a larger ethnic and religious landscape. For New Mexico crypto-Jews, visions of historical memory overlap with and are contained within the continuities of personal memory, collapsing history into the individual and the community.

By Rachel Kaufman, TC ’19
Written for “The Senior Essay”
Advised by Professor David Sorkin
Edited by Henry Jacob, SY ’21 and Matthew Sáenz, DC ’21


While writing this paper, I learned about process—how to uncover, digest, complicate—and about sensitivity—how to record the world through complex, often contradictory, evidence and a heightened attention to language.

I would like to thank David Sorkin, this project’s advisor, for his generous support and guidance and for encouraging me to work ‘by my own lights.’ Thank you to Peter Cole for his attention to sound and music and for the knowledge he imparted about poetry and history.

I am grateful to Adina Hoffman for her astute comments and insightful conversation and to Allyson Gonzalez for her incisive methods of reframing.

Thank you to the librarians and archivists at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections and the American Jewish Historical Society for making this work possible, and thank you to my editors at The Yale Historical Review for their dedication.


In 2017, the New Mexico History Museum mounted an exhibition entitled, Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition, and New World Identities. The “first of its kind,” this exhibition “[connected] Spain’s Jewish culture to New Mexico’s colonial and contemporary history,” exploring Spanish Sephardic identity prior to 1391 through late twentieth-century crypto-Jewish identity in New Mexico.[1] The collection presented the history of Sephardic and converso Jews as a continuous procession and displayed historical and cultural objects that verify Iberian Jews’ diaspora from Spain to Mexico to New Mexico. Written in both English and Spanish, the catalogue to the exhibition demonstrates the curators’ interest in identity construction and perception, asking “who is a Spanish Jew and who is not?” and “how has the Jewish community responded to crypto-Jews?” The curators, like crypto-Jews themselves—as this paper will explore—looked to the distant past to find their answers. Ultimately, the exhibition demonstrated the hybridity and fragmented nature of New Mexico crypto-Jewish history and identity.

Though it is important to relay the history of crypto-Jewish presence in the New World, this paper primarily engages with the memory practices of crypto-Jews. Historian David Gitlitz and social anthropologist Seth Kunin argue that crypto-Jewish religion and identity are memory-based.[2] This paper not only examines crypto-Jews’ reliance on memory, but how crypto-Jews remember. I will argue that New Mexico crypto-Jewish identity relies on remembering the past as a continuous and coherent line. Crypto-Jewish voices adopt the histories of distant Jewish communities to place their identity within a more extensive framework of ancestry and origin. This borrowing of collective memory is valuable and, I will contend, enriches rather than detracts from cultural identity formation within a larger ethnic and religious landscape.

Crypto-Jewish identity begins with the creation of Sepharad, a geographic entity of the ninth century that served as a site of Jewish cultural identity formation. First mentioned in the Bible in the book of Obadiah, Sepharad became synonymous with Spain by the Middle Ages and was a site of cultural and religious harmony and violence between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Though some forced conversions of Jews took place in the late sixth and early seventh centuries on the Iberian Peninsula, a wave of violence post-1391 resulted in the widespread emergence of crypto-Judaism.[3] In 1391, a year of pogroms led to the murder or conversion of the majority of the Spanish Jewish population and crypto-Judaism—secret religious practice and a “new social group….called conversos [converts], or New Christians”—emerged.[4] In the fifteenth century, the enmity of many old Christians toward Jews shifted into distrust of conversos, supposed fake Christians with impure racial lineages, culminating in the Spanish Inquisition around 1478. The Decree of Alhambra, proclaimed by the Catholic Monarchy in 1492, ordered all Jews not already converted to convert, or if they refused baptism, to be expelled.

Although most expelled Jews went to the Ottoman Empire, some conversos went to the New World.[5] Converso conquistadores fled to the new land, including Luis de Carvajal, the governor who was granted the region of Nuevo León in 1571 and brought over many family members, some of them actively practicing crypto-Jews. Most of his family was later killed in the Mexican Inquisition, a branch of the Spanish Inquisition established in Mexico City in 1571. Christopher Columbus brought many conversos to the New World—possibly as many as eighty-six.[6] Conversos also accompanied Hernán Cortés during his 1519 expedition and conquest of Mexico. The majority of Inquisition trials, or autos-de-fé (acts of faith), which occurred in the New World, took place during the 1580s-90s and the 1640s. These trials of public penance demanded that conversos reconcile with the Church and give up their properties. The trials enumerated the decrees of the Inquisition, emphasizing the statute of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood). Increased Inquisitional presence in Mexico and colonial opportunity pushed conversos north, into the region which would become New Mexico.[7]

Scholars disagree over whether crypto-Jewish presence has existed continuously in the Southwest since their sixteenth-century arrival. There is little evidence of crypto-Jewish practice or punishment following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821.[8] However, in his “Fractured Faithspaper, Stanley Hordes, the historian who initiated research on New Mexico crypto-Jewry in the late twentieth century, discusses a mid-nineteenth century sermon that listed the open practice of Judaism as a sin.[9] For Hordes, this textual evidence proves there was open, and therefore also secret, practice of Jewish traditions at the time. Hordes also argues that crypto-Jewish presence in New Mexico in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be verified by tracing Inquisition last names and traditions of circumcision through family trees, and by examining gravestones with menorahs or Hebrew inscriptions placed alongside doves and crucifixes.

Anthropologist Seth Kunin’s Fractured Faiths exhibition paper follows in Hordes’ footsteps, arguing for the authenticity of crypto-Jewish identity by asserting that cultural authenticity falls upon those who claim it.[10][11] Kunin highlights the intersectionality and fluidity of crypto-Jewish practices, writing about the process of bricolage in which “new cultural practices [are] created utilizing elements from all of the available cultures surrounding crypto-Jews.”[12] Kunin argues that more important than these elements are the meanings and uses extracted from them.[13]Not included in the museum exhibition were scholars such as Judith Neulander, who claims that customs observed amongst families in New Mexico are actually remnants of a branch of Protestantism.[14] According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, about 24,000 Jews live in the state—twice the expected number—and four percent of these Jews identity as crypto-Jews.[15]

In support of Hordes and his colleagues, this paper presents a newspaper entitled El Sabado Secreto, published in 1889 in Mexico City, which illustrates a community of crypto-Jews attempting to revitalize and make public their history and traditions. This document substantiates Hordes’s claim of continuous crypto-Jewish presence in the region. Because the borders of Mexico and New Mexico changed frequently during the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries, this paper will view the geographies as deeply connected and intertwined; El Sabado Secreto can therefore stand next to evidence from farther north or west.

More recently, genetic testing has served to substantiate Hordes’s claims.[16] Genes most often linked to European Jewry, even markers of the Cohanim gene, have been revealed amongst Hispano-Catholic families in the Southwest.[17] A 2018 genetic study has solidified the presence of crypto-Jewish descendants in the New World: “The Atlantic published a takedown of [Southwest crypto-Jewish identity] attributing the Jewish-seeming customs of ‘hidden Jews’ in New Mexico to folk beliefs and the Church of God Seventh-Day. DNA has borne out the fact that the conversos were ancestors to people in Latin American and the American Southwest today.”[18] Though this paper dwells more on the internal cultural identities of New Mexico crypto-Jews, genetic research serves as a valuable piece of evidence supporting the lineage which many individuals, through memory, claim.

Like crypto-Jewish identity, “Sephardic identity [is] ever dependent on both ancestral pride and religious and cultural flexibility.”[19] According to scholar Jonathan Ray, both identity groups “display….the hallmarks of modern diasporas….[including] issues of dispersion, mobility, cultural hybridity, and a continued and complex relationship with their Iberian homeland.”[20] Crypto-Jews experienced a similar diaspora to many Sephardic Jews but received and transmitted a different understanding of Jewish identity, leading to the creation of a dynamic collective knowledge that often contained elements of other cultures and religions.[21] Their diaspora, like the diasporas of many other modern communities, “is defined not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity, diversity; by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite difference….constantly producing and reproducing [itself] anew, through transformation” and hybridity.[22] For New Mexico crypto-Jews, the “secondary homeland,” a term which Ray defines as the diasporic homeland for which sub-ethnic Jewish groups long, becomes the primary homeland. Iberia, mythologized and imagined, serves as crypto-Jews’ primary object of longing. Yosef Yerushalmi claims that diasporic Jews can often create domicile in exile, but his projection falls short for crypto-Jews who, unable to create a Jewish home in exile, must instead turn to past domicile in a mythic and ancestral homeland. To reach this homeland, New Mexico crypto-Jews claim an identity grounded in continuous and coherent memory.

The idea that individuals rely on memory is not unique to this paper. Students and scholars of the Medieval period learned through visual memory, crafting mnemonic devices as a means to knowledge and language transmission.[23] In 1989, historian Pierre Nora located memory within the ‘memory-individual,’ who must bear her identity as a result of her memories.[24] In 1992, philosopher Maurice Halbwachs situated the individual’s memory within a societal, collective framework: “the mind reconstructs its memories under the pressure of society.”[25] Collective cultural and ethnic identities are visibly grounded in memory; families and institutions pass down customs, oral histories, stories—all of which form the basis of a new generation’s identity. Memory attempts to be truthful; usually, one does not try to remember the past incorrectly, though nations and communities have certainly manipulated memory to produce false or selective histories. Philosopher Paul Riceour wrote in 2010, “to memory is tied an ambition, a claim—that of being faithful to the past.” [26]Crypto-Jewish identity not only practices but relies on memory.

In her study of Holocaust memory, Barbara Zelizer emphasizes the importance of photography and language as forms of material testimony. These testimonials physicalize and stabilize memories of a traumatic past for a new generation. Zelizer defines this collective memory as a “means of coping with distance.”[27] For New Mexico crypto-Jews, memory formation is a means of coping with absence of all sorts—spatial, temporal, generational, communal. The first chapter of this work will explore the ways in which New Mexico and Mexico crypto-Jews string events of the past together in memory, though not in history, to claim an inheritance of Jewish ancestry. The chapter begins with the 1889 newspaper, El Sabado Secreto, and ends with contemporary crypto-Jewish voices. The second chapter explores notions of nostalgia and homeland by examining the myth of la llave (key) in both a crypto-Jewish and Spanish context. The third chapter investigates continuities between the Inquisition and Holocaust preserved within crypto-Jewish memory, and the final chapter interrogates non-crypto-Jewish voices, tracing colonial and empathetic perspectives of the twentieth century.

While researching and writing this paper, I also wrote a collection of historical poetry. The poems draw from my research, renewing and transforming archival language and rhetoric and exploring themes of mythology, translation, and memory. In powerful historical poetry, history is enlivened and renewed; in turn, the creative form is enriched by (and weighted with) the task of truthfully carrying the past into the present. Poetry can serve as a means to empathy, preserving archival voices and words while bringing them into the present to mingle, wander, and adapt. Following the conclusion of this paper is a short appendix of poetry in which each poem corresponds to a chapter. These poems can be read alongside their respective chapters or as a second conclusion to the larger work. The poetic line, intimate and revelatory, seems to bring the past a bit closer...

If you want to read more, check out the full article here.