Persisting on the Shadows

Review of Schulamith Halevy’s Doctoral Thesis on Conversos Neoleoneses

By David Ramírez


Photo credits: Antashyan, Karen. Schulamith Chava Halevy. 2013. Web. Oct. 12 2016; Crost. Cerro de la Silla, Monterrey Nuevo León, Mexico. 2008. Web. Oct 12 2016.

In the course of Converso[1] related history, the subjects mostly studied have been the lives of few famous Converso individuals or clans, and their persecution by the Inquisition—where its trial documents form a formidable source, mostly spanning the early modern period from late 15th to the 17th century. These documents record the continuation of Jewish practice among the descendants of forcibly-converted Sephardic Jews to Christianity. There are scant historical documents from that century on, primarily because of the waning of Inquisitorial activity, attributed to either the disappearance of Jewish practice in the Converso population or lack of resources in the Inquisition coffers with which to continue their dogmatically-inspired purging activities. Jewish and non-Jewish scholarship which has dealt with this subject from the 19th to the first half of the 20th century operated under the assumption that Conversos had disappeared completely through assimilation to Christian Luso-Hispanic society.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, there has been an emergence of people who claim such ancestry, which has fueled the academia of Jewish and Luso-Hispanic studies to retake the subject. However, these studies mainly concentrate on the past via the existing sources, and not the live testimonies of alleged Conversos. In other words, scholars have made no effort to seriously study the testimonies of Jewish practice survival among the modern-day Conversos and connect them to the historical documents. The doctoral thesis of Schulamith Chava Halevy, titled Descendants of the Anusim (Crypto-Jews) in Contemporary Mexico (Hebrew University, 2009),[2] creates a new benchmark in Converso studies in this regard.

Now Professor Halevy, a third-generation Israeli Jew of Algerian-Sephardic background, began her quest of discovering these practices back in 1992,[3] and has since participated in numerous conventions on the so-called Crypto-Jewish or Anusim studies, as well as having written articles on the Converso subject. She has taken special interest in the Converso population of the state of Nuevo León, Mexico. This is what forms the bulk of her thesis.

Nuevo León is located in the northeast of Mexico, south of Texas. Today’s Nuevo León is famed in Converso Jewish studies for having being a place where New Christians of Jewish extraction were allowed to settle, whereas the rest of the Spanish kingdoms in America Conversos were forbidden to enter (this however did not stop them from settling all over the New World). The land-grant was requested, negotiated and provided to Luis de Carvajal by King Phillip II of Spain in 1578. A good majority of the first settlers, labeled by the crown as pobladores, whom Carvajal brought with him were Portuguese Conversos, mostly relatives of his.

Halevy’s thesis is structured in ten parts. The first part gives us an introduction on the historical sources, past and present; documentary, rabbinic, academic and local. The second explains the methodology she undertook, which was a composite of interviews and gaining access to individuals who know the oral history of Converso presence in this region, including Church priests and local untrained historians called cronistas. More importantly, she spent time living with some of her interviewees, which gave her access to their day to day routines. The third part is a testimony exposure of members carrying a surname of long-standing repute in this region, many of whom know themselves to be Jews in their family’s oral tradition, surname that the historical documents corroborate of being of Jewish ancestry. The fourth part, which is the core of her thesis, is a very thorough list of Jewish halakhic practices, or hints thereof, held by present-day Conversos Neoleoneses. In the fifth she analyses the different ways oral transmission of Jewish identity or practice happens in this population. The sixth part is dedicated to interviews she held with local Church priests, some of whom claimed to be of Converso stock. The seventh recounts national and local exposés which identify the Neoleoneses as being of Jewish stock, which happened during the 20th century; it also analyses how Conversos come or do not come to terms with their Jewish identity. The eighth part, Halevy describes different mythologies and superstitions these Conversos hold. The ninth part is a miscellanea of different unfinished narratives. The tenth is a conclusion where she digresses on her findings.

Overall, the narrative of her thesis is very anecdotal, and it reads like a travel lodge. As such, it distances itself from an abstract academic language, and instead tries to make it personable and relatable. It is evident that Professor Halevy became emotionally involved with many of her interviewees, as well as with the subject matter. This however did not prevent her to present her findings in an objective way as much as her frame of reference permitted her, trying to separate fact from myth, and not make overall assumptions or over-speculations. She is at pains to let her subjects speak for themselves, and permits the reader to enter into the psychological make-up of the Converso Neoleonés.

Her gathering of testimonies in regards of the Converso’s Jewish halakhic practice is particularly important and of note. For anyone familiar with Gitliz’ Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, it is clear Halevy uses his work as a reference to organize such practices, and gives us the added benefit to identify its rabbinic source. She is particularly interested to point out to us those practices that could not have been obtained just by reading the Biblical text alone, and even more interesting to underline Jewish practices that are not even recorded in Inquisition trials.

What would have been helpful though is to have an introduction what these halakhic practices mean in a Jewish context. For the benefit of non-Jews or unlearned Jews, and more importantly the very Converso audience that might come to read her work, she does not offer any introductions of what Jewish Law is, its historic importance in Jewish existence, why would these practices be condemned and persecuted by the Church—just to name a few.

This is disappointing because knowing the importance of the survival of these practices among the Conversos after five centuries, in an age when the vast majority of Jews have pretty much freely abandoned daily halakhic minutiae observance, would have bolstered their confidence and sense of Jewish self. Even aware of the skepticism among her peers regarding the survival of Jewish practices in Converso populations,[4] in my opinion Halevy does not place enough emphasis on the subject of Jewish Law and its historic place in Jewish identity which could have strengthened her argument.

Also missing is any statistical information regarding these practices; what ages were the people who seemed to hold halakhic practice; gender, the distribution per generation, population centers, economic status, etc. For the cultural anthropologists, this information would have held a lot of value.

There are other things that could be improved.

Her discussion on the ethnic complexity and identities of Mexicans is very lacking. Though she tries to bolster the Converso case for endogamy by exemplifying the clan intermarriage of her informants, Halevy could have used a wealth of research already done by American Hispanists on the patterns of endogamy, the caste system, ethnic identity politics and transformations, and the such during the viceregal period, to come up with a better contextualization of her informants’ testimonies in this regard.

Anyone familiar with ethnic identity politics in Latin America will find odd Halevy’s use of the nomenclatures New Christian and Old Christian, as if these distinctions were still in use in modern-day Iberia and Iberoamerica. Maybe these anachronisms were used for the benefit of her Jewish academes on the doctoral thesis panel, but it makes no sense to apply them in our days. Instead, what could have been underlined is the set of customs that differentiate the varied ethnic groups or social strata in Mexico, and how this is put to use in social interactions and suffusions to establish or limit relationships.

Moving on, Halevy’s thesis makes no mention of the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish Diaspora. Halevy follows a pattern common in Ashkenazi-led scholarship in Converso history, which portrays a gulf between the Conversos in the age of the Inquisition and those of today.

Though she cites two scholars who have done research on returning Conversos in the early modern period, Miriam Bodian and Yosef Yerushalmi, there is no effort whatsoever to bring this knowledge to fore. So this is not a case of ignorance, but deliberate omission. She could have used Bodian’s Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation  (Indiana University Press, 1999) to explain the sense of nobility among modern-day Conversos Neoleoneses, and Yerushalmi’s From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto (University of Washington, 1981) to explain their ambivalence about returning to Judaism. These two scholars explain volumes about the psychological complexity of the Conversos returning to Judaism on their own and forming their own communities, as well as their resolve and sense of autonomy.

More importantly, though this is found in more rare sources, the continuous presence of returning Conversos all the way to the 20th century[5] begs the question whether this issue can be described as a “phenomenon” at all, as Halevy and other scholars have repeatedly put it. With all this in mind, Halevy’s concern for grounding the Jewish identity of the modern-day Converso, found in the last chapter, sounds very insincere.

Also missing is any use of José Faur’s work on Conversos. Faur, a Syrian Sephardi from Argentina—who is both an academic and rabbinic scholar of a very high caliber—, brings a much needed Sephardic, rabbinic and Hispanist view point that analyses Conversos within their intellectual makeup and full historical context that no historian has ever attempted. Faur rescues the Conversos from the Ashkenazi ghetto-framework they’ve been straitjacketed in— a framework of persisting shadows, fears of the outside and persecutions—and brings luminescence to the daring and progressive attitude of these Sephardim under the cross.

Besides the huge absence of Sephardic scholarship, there is almost none of Halevy’s own Sephardic background informing her writing. Sephardim in general, and the Spanish & Portuguese community in particular, hold certain traditions regarding the Conversos, which unfortunately are dying out. So besides being treated to the modern-day Converso sense of loss and disconnect to Judaism, we are also in the presence of a case of Halevy’s own loss and disconnection to Sephardic culture.

To know more about the loss of Sephardic culture in our days, please read Sephardic activist David Shasha’s “A Broken Frame.”[6]

Had Halevy been culturally informed by Sephardic idiosyncrasies, she would not have misinterpreted the reluctance of the Converso Neoleonés to give up intimate details about their private lives out of a sense of fear to be “outed,” but rather of an over-zealous privacy, which is a very common trait among older Sephardim still alive. Likewise, she would have known that testing the knife for ritual slaughter on the nail of the finger—one of the halakhic precepts still practiced by today’s Conversos—has been continuously practiced by Sephardic communities all over the Diaspora until very recent, as per the Talmudic prescriptions followed to the letter by the Geonim, Maimonides and Yosef Caro. Furthermore, giving health and hygiene explanations for keeping the ritual diet (kashruth) and ritual purity laws is not some odd “custom” exclusive to the Conversos to cloak its transmission, but this very attitude to find rationalizations for the Biblical precepts is something that the Geonim to Maimonides encouraged their students to do!!

Interestingly enough, the rare rabbinic practices that Halevy picks up from the modern-day Converso Neoleonés, and which escaped the eyes of the Inquisition—much of them no longer practiced by religious Jews today—give way to another interesting finding. Given that most Conversos leaving Spain and Portugal to the New World were mainly coming from Extremadura and Andalusia (even those labeled “Portuguese”), it points out how the Maimonidean tradition was still prevalent in southern Iberia in pre and post Expulsion times. There are a lot more of those “rare” Jewish practices that escaped Halevy’s eyes, which we can find encoded by Maimonides in his Hilekhót De’ot (Laws of Behavior) chapter to his Mishnéh Toráh, among others.

This and much more can be said in order to enrich and contextualize the framework of crypto-Jewish practice, but connecting the present traditions and oral histories of the Conversos to the historical documents is a frontward jump in the right direction, and the Jewish academia has to thank Halevy for her arduous and caring illuminating work.

We should be looking forward to the day when one of these modern-day Conversos, fully educated and returned to Sephardic tradition, should give us the next quantum leap of connecting all the still missing dots, thus finally liberating these Sepharadim under the cross from the shadows of history.


[1] I shall use the nomenclature “Converso,” rather than the oft utilized “anusim” by Halevy. The term “anús” in Jewish Law points to a transitional status that can be applied to any Jew, modern or ancient. I go into depth about the halakhic meaning of this term and its application in my “Conversos and Maskilim: Similar Issue, Different Approaches.” To use the word “anús/anusím” exclusively and repeatedly on the Converso population as an identity marker is a mischaracterization and misapplication of the term. “Converso,” on the other hand, points more accurately to an identifiable historical group sharing a destiny.

[2] Halevy, Schulamith Chava. Descendants of the Anusim (Crypto-Jews) in Contemporary Mexico. Doctoral thesis. Hebrew University, 2009. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

[3] Telstsch, Kathleen. “After 500 Years, Discovering Jewish Ties That Bind.” The New York Times 29 Nov. 1992. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

[4] See Halevy’s Descendants of the Anusim (Crypto-Jews) in Contemporary Mexico, p. 224.

[5] Here I am thinking of the family histories of Rev. Sabato Morais and the DeSola’s, both of whom claim to be of returning Conversos in the 18th century, one via Italy, the other via England. Also, we have the participation of British and American Spanish-Portuguese Jewish congregations, via the agency of Rev. David de Sola Pool, to help the Conversos of Oporto return to Judaism. Though Halevy mentions the Oporto Conversos, and Samuel Schwarz’ participation in “discovering” them, she is silent on the role of the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish communities.

[6] Shasha, David. “A Broken Frame: Sephardi Occlusion and the Repairing of Jewish Dysfunction.” Sephardic Heritage Update, Jun. 20 2011. Web. Oct. 31 2016.


2 responses to “Persisting on the Shadows

  1. Pingback: Descendants of the Anusim (Crypto-Jews) in Contemporary Mexico | B'nei Anusim Center for Education·

  2. Pingback: The Sabbatean Prophets | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher·

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