Kulanu: El Paso Anousim

El Paso and Ruidoso: Centers of Learning for Anousim

This article, which appeared in the spring, 2007 Kulanu newsletter, was incorrectly attributed to a different writer. The correct author is Harry A. Ezratty.

As I was called to an aliyah at El Paso's B'nai Zion synagogue, Rabbi Stephen Leon stepped back from the bimah. His place was taken by a New Mexican grandmother, Lupe Ramos. She proceeded to chant the parashah with skill and confidence. Lupe Ramos is one of a group in America's Southwest known as Anousim, Hebrew for “the forced ones.” She is a descendant of Spanish and Portuguese Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. After more than five centuries, she and others like her have returned to Judaism.

In the 17th century, Anousim or Crypto-Jews hoped to secretly practice their religion away from Spain and Portugal. They sailed to Mexico as colonizers, eventually settling in the remote mountains of New Mexico, far from the grasp of Spanish authorities and the Inquisition. It was a practice followed in Spanish and Portuguese colonies world-wide, wherever Crypto-Jews sought to escape the prying eyes of Church and Crown. Over the centuries, knowledge of their heritage faded. But a few still clung to some forms of Judaism through symbols and rites, vaguely conscious they were Jews. In the last two decades, however, many Anousim have stepped forward, publicly acknowledging their roots but not necessarily converting. They sift through centuries of family histories, curious about Judaism and their relationship to the Jews around them.

I was invited by Sonya Loya to participate at a joint meeting on Anousim held in El Paso, Texas, last August. Loya, a single mother with a ready smile, runs the Bat Zion Learning Center in the mountain town of Ruidoso (it means “noisy”), New Mexico, situated between Albuquerque, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas. She, like Lupe Ramos, has returned to Judaism.

“At Bat Zion I help Anousim who are interested in learning more about their backgrounds and Judaism. Once a month I invite lecturers to a Shabbat service, to introduce Judaism to those who are reluctant to go directly to a rabbi or a synagogue. Often it's the first step back,” she told me.

Loya also sponsors the Sephardic Anousim Conference, which is in its third year and was held a few days before the 16th annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Crypto-Judaism. In a flooded El Paso, the rainy weather could not dampen Loya's enthusiasm for her work with Anousim, who almost always begin the journey back to Judaism with curiosity and some confusion. “Those who seriously examine Judaism call it ‘the Journey.’ Those who convert call it ‘Returning,’” she explained. For Loya the “journey” began when she was 18, in 1978, and ended in her “return” 27 years later.

The floods also failed to daunt the Society for the Study of Crypto-Judaism, made up mostly of academicians and serious students dedicated to the investigation of the historic and social aspects of Crypto-Judaism. Their sessions were held at a hotel in El Paso's Sunland Park, a short drive from B'nai Zion synagogue.

During four days I made presentations at the two conferences and met men and women who had returned, most converted by Rabbi Leon. There were others not converted, examining their feelings, trying to understand where they fit in, if at all, with Judaism. Some were making the first hesitant steps towards “the Journey.” Certain threads, however, run through the lives of most Anousim. They recall being “different” from those around them; they remember candles lit on Friday nights without understanding why; they recall fast days, not eating pork, eating special bread during the spring, and mezuzahs on doorposts, and grandmothers slapping the hands of children who tried to pry mezuzahs loose. A few were told by parents or grandparents, usually in secret, that they were Jews. Many sought to verify that family names like Rodriguez, Garcia, and Martinez have Jewish roots — no easy task as medieval Spanish and Portuguese Jews assumed the same family names as their Gentile neighbors. The journey for many of them is filled with family indifference, antagonism, and rejection.

Sonya Loya's story is typical: “I felt as if I was home the first time I entered the synagogue,” she told me. She was pleased when I advised her that I had traced a branch of the Loyas to the legendary Sephardic city of Salonica, Greece. Her home, her facility for Anousim, and her shop are a 2.5-hour drive down the New Mexico mountains to Rabbi Leon in El Paso. It was here that she received her religious instruction and was “returned.”

Loya, who reads some Hebrew and peppers her salutations with biblical blessings, now helps guide her 22-year-old daughter Rachel and others down the same road to “return.”

One feature of the Anousim is their innate secretiveness, even in 21st century America, where no punishment is associated with being a Jew. One woman cornered my wife, Barbara and asked her in a low and conspiratorial whisper, “Can you help me find a book that will help me to be a good Orthodox Jew?” Others ask what would happen if neighbors and friends in their community learn that they are openly Jewish. “When they come to Bat Zion, they are not ready to discuss their backgrounds. It is a long process to get them to think about their past and then to do something positive about it,” says Sonya Loya.

I asked Dr. Stanley Hordes, a professor at the University of New Mexico, an expert on Crypto-Jews, and this year's moderator for the Society for the Study of Crypto-Judaism, about this phenomenon. He said: “Secrecy is an integral part of the religion as they perceive it.” Hordes, a native of Silver Spring, Maryland, is the author of To the End of the Earth, an indepth study of his many years investigating the Crypto-Jews of the Southwest. He is broadening his studies to unearth Crypto-Judaism in Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico, all of which have similar histories as the Southwest's Anousim.

Dr. Hordes chaired a full three-day program on Crypto-Judaism, which included a DNA lecture by Dr. Bennett Greenspan, a genetics expert from Houston, and a paper read by Dr. Abraham Lavender, a professor at Florida International University and President of the Society, titled: “Why the Reluctance to Accept Spanish-Portuguese Returnees to Judaism?” The slender, white bearded Lavender, a native North Carolinian, is investigating his own Sephardic roots. He believes his family name may derive from lavandar, to launder.

If all of this stunning information was not enough, my wife and I breakfasted one morning with Cary Herz, an outgoing professional photographer who has been taking photos of gravestones with Jewish symbols in the Catholic cemeteries of New Mexico for years. Some appear in Stanley Hordes' book. “I'm doing a new book on these special gravestones,” she told me. She pulled out a photo from her shoulder bag, saying, “This is for you.” It was a black and white photograph of a tall gravestone standing beside a steel cross. Carved into the top of the stone was a cross, set above four lines of Hebrew script. The picture was one of a series called Crypto-Jewish Burial Sites.

The facilities at B'nai Zion were perfect for Sonya Loya's conference. The synagogue's large social hall doubled as a conference and dining room where participants enjoyed a bagel and lox breakfast and lunches. Rabbi Leon led religious services in the smaller circular chapel, with arena-style stadium seating for about 200. The bimah is located in the center. Services were well attended and enhanced with B'nai Zion's young cantor, Marc Felipe De Rocca, who chanted many Sephardic liturgical melodies. When I mentioned how much I enjoyed them he thanked me and added, “My parents are both Spanish and French. The melodies come easy to me.” After services Lupe Ramos and I spent some time talking about the cantor's music and Ladino romanzas, songs and melodies with origins in medieval Spain. She is introducing them to other Crypto-Jews who have taken the “journey” with her.

Yet despite the facilities and enthusiasm, there are still problems for those who have already “returned” and others interested in going forward with the various stages of the “journey.” Most Anousim live so far from El Paso that Rabbi Leon often works with them by telephone with lengthy 90-minute sessions. Other congregations in the region are not as sympathetic to Crypto-Jews as B'nai Zion. Sonya Loya lacks the funds to carry on the programs and all the facilities she wants to provide. “I need a good library with more books on Judaism and money to invite speakers to orient those interested in returning,” she told me.

A large, affable man with a full dark beard surrendering to grey, Rabbi Stephen Leon, despite his family name, is not Sephardic. He told me, “I was born in Brooklyn of Eastern European parents. I believe the family name may have been De Leon at one time.” He has been the spiritual leader of this Conservative congregation on the Mexican border for 20 years. El Paso is separated from Mexico by the sluggish Rio Grande River. On the river's southern side sit Ciudad Juarez and some of the Jews he has converted over the years. As we talked over coffee, Rabbi Leon explained that his biggest obstacle is the lack of help necessary to go forward in assisting those interested in learning more about their roots: “Few people know the work we do here and we need people and funds to develop strong programs.” The rabbi's comments were echoed in Dr. Lavender's paper concerning the Jewish community's general reluctance to help and accept Anousim.

Despite the indifference, Rabbi Leon has converted 40 Crypto-Jews over the past two decades and has hosted many more who are seriously thinking about return. Although I heard no personal complaints from him, Loya and others at the conference told me that the dedicated rabbi works hard and long as spiritual leader to his congregation and shepherd to the Anousim.

Because of the storms and flooding during our stay, we could not visit the city, its other congregations, or Ciudad Juarez. El Paso had not experienced such heavy rains since 1888. There were even fears of the collapse of an earthen dam. Rain closed the airport when we arrived Friday afternoon, causing our plane to re-rout to Phoenix, Arizona. After refueling we made another, successful try at an El Paso landing, but the delay prevented us from attending Shabbat services. Even the puny Rio Grande threatened to rise above its banks. But when we left on Monday, the sun was finally shining — hopefully a good omen for Rabbi Leon, Sonya Loya, and the journeys of return for New Mexico's Anousim.