17 February 2009

Hidden Jews: Report on meeting

Some 100 people attended Arthur Benveniste's February program, "Secret Jews: History and Culture of Crypto-Jews and Their Research for Jewish Roots and Identity," hosted by the Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley (JGSCV), near Los Angeles.

Tracing the Tribe informed readers about this program here. As regular readers know, this topic has always been of great interest to me personally.

The JGSCV newsletter, Venturings, reported the following:

Nearly 100 JGSCV members and meeting attendees experienced a fascinating, erudite and historical presentation by Arthur Benveniste on Secret Jews: History and Culture of Crypto-Jews and Their Research for Jewish Roots and Identity.

Arthur discussed the impact of the Inquistions in Spain and Portugal, and later in Brazil and Mexico, on the Jews who lived in those countries. The Inquisition required Jews to leave the country or convert to Catholism.

Many, who converted to Catholicism, maintained some Jewish traditions, albeit hiding them. Until more recent times, these traditions were not recognized by the descendants to be from their Jewish roots. The traditions include playing cards around a table on Friday nights—so that if someone came to the door they could put away their prayer books and looked as if they were playing cards, or consuming certain foods, or lighting eight candles in paper bags [luminarias] at Christmas time—the eight being for Chanukah… and more.

A recently released DNA study showed that 20 percent of today's Spanish population is of at least partial Jewish descent.

The audience asked very provocative questions and related their family stories. This included one attendee who told of her family in 1938 Germany having to do a family tree going back to 1481 to prove they were Catholic in order to survive. This individual wanted to know where she could research prior to 1481 to see if her family had been Jewish. (Arthur referred her to certain Archives in Spain.) [1481 was the year a Spanish Inquisitor was murdered and the converted Jews were blamed.]

Others related that their family made certain foods, such as "bourmules" [boumelos] (Crypto-Jewish potato or flour deep fried) or in Spanish today "banuleos" [banuelos] a special tortilla, indicating a tradition long-passed down through the generations.

The topic of hidden Jews, combined with the contemporary phenomenon of more and more hidden Jews (bnai anousim) coming out of centuries of silence as they search for their roots, always attracts large audiences.

"Until more recent times, these traditions were not recognized by the descendants to be from their Jewish roots," is not entirely accurate in my experience. Many of these families know exactly who they are, who their ancestors were and why they preserve and observe certain traditions - they just don't talk about them with outsiders as such traditions are private family matters.

In the post announcing the above meeting, I wrote:

I am fortunate to know many Converso families and am particularly interested in their preservation of Judaism, observance, customs and traditions within their families since their New World arrival in the early 1600s. Many Conversos have always known their history, while other Hispanics are just learning about their Jewish roots. Many are conflicted about how to handle this new information as to their heritage.
The quest for knowledge continues and, just this week, I have heard from Converso friends (who have preserved extensive knowledge in their own families) who are now being asked by their friends to answer questions and provide information about possible Jewish ancestry.

Those interested in this topic can visit the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies, see the group's newsletter Halapid, and look forward in the near future to the SCJS's new annual journal with academic, peer-reviewed papers: Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews.

The SCJS also holds an annual conference - this year, August 2-4, in Denver. I have been trying to attend this conference for several years, missing it to due to scheduling problems. Unfortunately, this year, it conflicts with the 29th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy (August 2-7, Philadelphia). I am hoping it won't conflict with the 2010 conference in Los Angeles - which should have a large Sephardic programming component - maybe I'll be able to attend the SCJS event then.

Tracing the Tribe encourages the leadership of all conferences focusing on Jewish heritage, Jewish genealogy, Jewish history and other areas of relevant research to check the calendar in an attempt to avoid head-on conflicts with other major events in the field. In the past there have been conflicts with conferences on Jewish names and other topics. Avoiding such conflicts means that important topics can be presented by the same experts to different venues and to larger audiences.

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