Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, The Inquisition, and New World Identities, ground-breaking and controversial exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum
During the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain that spanned 500 years, Jews, Muslims and Christians collaborated in astronomy, medicine, philosophy, poetry and letters, and many Jews from other parts of Europe were drawn to Spain, adding to those who had arrived after the destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
Then the Black Death, which killed up to a half of the population of Europe in the mid-1300’s, struck. It created a social and political upheaval during which Jews were especially scapegoated, accused of poisoning wells.
At the time no one knew the cause of the plague. Historians now believe that fleas, brought by rats on ships from Asia, were the repeated source of the virus. And because Jews were slower to be affected – they lived in isolation and washed and changed their straw bedding on Fridays – they became the object of suspicion, and anti-Semitism spread throughout Europe along with the plague. The Jews of Germany were wiped out.
The plague decimated the population of Spain, and in 1391 pograms against Jews, starting in Seville, killed thousands. Many Jews then left Spain or converted to Catholicism under duress. A hundred years later, the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 forced the entire remaining Jewish population of Spain, an estimated quarter of a million Jews, to leave or else be forcibly converted. The Muslims there soon met a similar fate.
Showing that one had limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, proof of family ancestry going back two or sometimes even four generations to show no taint of Jewish ancestry, was a requirement to board boats for the New World from Spain, but forgeries were common. When the Inquisition reached New Spain in full force, Jews were persecuted and burned at the stake in autos-da-fé in Mexico City for Judaizing, for being conversos who secretly practiced Judaism.
Being burned at the stake was called being “relaxed.”
There were Jews who fled north to the farthest ends of New Spain, (now northern New Mexico and southern Colorado), where persecution might be diminished, and maintained Jewish customs in hiding. The threat of persecution and the need to blend in with Catholicism made the secret practices take on different mixtures of Judaism and Christianity, unique to each family.
In some families, the secrecy became so great that the secret was only passed on, principally through the women, by one family member to another of the next generation. However, as author and lecturer Norma Libman, who has interviewed over fifty conversos in the last twenty years, points out, each of the practices vary widely from family to family.
Norma Libman will be the speaker at our NM Interfaith Dialogue monthly meeting in November, speaking about conversos and Crypto-Jews. Mark your calendars to attend on Thursday, November 17 from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. at Congregation Albert, 3800 Louisiana Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, NM.
For more information about the Fractured Faiths exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, continuing through December 31, 2016, click here.