Discovering A Jewish Past

Amidst the beauty of a high desert landscape, the sounds of Pueblo music, and the watercolors of Georgia O’Keeffe, what brought a Beth El Synagogue study group to New Mexico this May was a story that seemed unlikely to be true. But then we met Maria Apodoca.

Maria told us that when someone in her family died, she would cover the mirrors for seven days. When it came time for burial, she brought her own earth to the grave (to counter the effect of burying in a consecrated Christian cemetery). When her family slaughtered an animal, they drained the blood.

Initially, none of these things meant much to Maria. It’s just what her family did. She didn’t know they were Jewish. She had never met a Jew. But after meeting state historian Stanley Hordes, who had studied the Crypto-Jews, she realized that these rituals were holdovers from her family’s Jewish past. Maria began to research. And thanks to the careful record keeping of the Church’s Inquisition panel, she could trace her lineage back 500 years as she showed us in a detailed family tree.

Maria realized she was a Jew by ancestry. But what she should do with that knowledge was a separate question. For, to declare, “I am a Jew,” felt like a betrayal to a family secret. And with relatives practicing Christianity, she feared being ostracized.

Emotional scars from the Inquisition run deep. So it’s no wonder that most Crypto-Jews do not pursue their story. Few embrace their Jewish roots. But Maria was different. The ner tamid of the Jewish people burned in her soul. So eventually, she formally converted.

On Shavuot, we read the book of Ruth that tells the story of the most famous convert to Judaism, Ruth. One might think that Ruth would be venerated by Crypto-Jews. But she is not their biblical role model. Rather, they turn to a different woman and a different megillah.

Esther is the heroine with whom the Crypto-Jews identify for Esther, whose name means “hidden” was herself a closeted Jew. She kept her identity hidden. For example, commentators teach that Esther scheduled her maids in such a way so that none would question why she rested on Saturdays. Like the Crypto-Jews who bathed and changed clothes on Fridays and lit candles in the basement, Esther kept her secret. But deep down, she knew who she was.

So while we are months past Purim, in a way, Esther is also a Shavuot story. At the end of the Megillah, we are told that the Jews “established and accepted upon themselves and their future descendants” all of the laws. The rabbis ask, “didn’t the Jews already accept the Torah at Sinai? If so, what does it mean here that they “established and accepted the laws?” Rava answers, “they reestablished and reaffirmed what they had previously accepted” (Shabbat 88a). And so too with the Crypto-Jews.

Crypto-Jews like Maria do not use the term convert. After enduring forcible conversions at the hands if the Catholics, that language is forever tainted in their minds. Instead, they prefer to say that they are returning to Judaism. They are reaffirming an identity and a practice that was there from the beginning.

In New Mexico, we explored Pueblo villages and pottery, learned about Jewish physicists who worked at Los Alamos in the 1940s, recited Kaddish in the state’s oldest Jewish cemetery and danced on cliffs overlooking the Rio Grande. But it is Maria’s story that will stay with me.

For Maria, it was sacred rituals that preserved her Jewish identity and connected her to her people and her God. Let us who have little reason to hide our Judaism, joyfully embrace Jewish traditions and thus reaffirm our commitment to our people and our God so that 500 years from now, the flame lit at Sinai in the souls of our ancestors will continue to burn in our descendants.