06 November 2006

A look at books

While visiting Houston, friends told me that the biggest Jewish book fair in North America was in session. The 34th Jewish book and arts fair runs for two weeks here, and it was standing room only when we took a look on Sunday.

Throughout the event, more than 30 important authors were scheduled, including Daniel Mendelsohn (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million), Rabbi Joseph Telulshkin (A Code of Jewish Ethics), Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) and Tom Reiss (The Orientalist).

There were films, children's events, performing groups and an amazing room full of hundreds of titles, along with book signings.

We hit the jackpot on our visit: Dr. Stanley Hordes (To the End of the Earth), Ellen Frankel (Folktales of the Jews, Volume I, Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion) and Alan Dershowitz (What Israel Means to Me by 80 Prominent Writers, Performers, Scholars, Politicians and Journalists).

Due to scheduling conflicts, alas, we could only hear my friend Stanley Hordes, who discussed his new book on the history of Crypto-Jews in New Mexico.

A former New Mexico State historian, Hordes began to hear whispered stories from visitors to his office when he took that job. Stories of people lighting candles on Friday nights, of families "allergic" to pork. Finally, he says, "the lightbulb went on."

This wasn't just dead history he was studying, he realized. Five hundred years later there were still remnants of Jewish traditions surviving all over the American Southwest, with credible stories and preservation of customs.

As Hordes puts it, these Crypto-Jews run the gamut from those who know something about their Jewish roots but don't act on them, to those who have maintained customs throughout the centuries while still living in isolation from those who have made full returns to mainstream Judaism.

The book represents masterful scholarship on Hordes' part, digging through historical records, and conducting painstaking genealogical research in America, in Mexico and in Spain. He covers conversos among the colonial settlers in Mexico and the Southwest, even though "officially" there were no such people.

Among the traditions he discussed were candlelighting, aversion to pork and circumcision. "While candles can be explained away - everyone lights candles - or not eating pork, it is very difficult to explain the continuation of circumcision in a very Catholic-dominated culture," he says.

When asked why more people don't come forward today, Hordes said, "After 500 years of secrecy, that secrecy becomes part of the religion." There are many individuals who will never talk to Hordes or other researchers.

Hordes' next book will be on the Crypto-Jewish presence in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and another will be on the Philipines.

The line for his book signing was so long that the book sold out.

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