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Interview with Seth Kunin, author of Juggling Identities: Identity and Authenticity among the Crypto-Jews

Juggling Identities, Seth KuninThe following is an interview with Seth Kunin, author of Juggling Identities: Identity and Authenticity among the Crypto-Jews.

Q: What is crypto-Judaism?

Seth Kunin: Crypto-Jews are individuals who claim to be descended from Jews who were forcibly (and nonforcibly) converted to Catholicism in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Spain and Portugal. Descendants of these converts are said to have dispersed to many corners of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires. In the latter half of the twentieth century (though there were some earlier discussions) crypto-Jewish communities and individuals have been found or come forward. These communities have been characterized by narratives of Jewish identity or origin and by practices interpreted as having come from earlier Jewish traditions. Although much of the discussion has focused on New Mexico, individuals claiming this identity and history are found throughout the Spanish and Portuguese diasporas (and indeed, in Spain and Portugal as well). The historical and religious authenticity of these communities and individuals has led to significant debate in academic, popular, and religious circles.

Q: What is special about crypto-Jewish identity, and what does it tell us about wider issues of identity?

SK: Unlike many presentations of crypto-Judaism in the popular press that depict crypto-Jews as a lost community of Jews who possess a very simple Jewish identity and wish to return to the community, this book argues that crypto-Judaism is a highly complex set of identities. Crypto-Judaism is the product of a complex history in which individual families and individuals within those families preserved and interpreted an idiosyncratic set of elements from Jewish culture and identity. It also became more complex as crypto-Jews took on aspects of Catholic and other Christian identities and elements from Native Americans and other ethnic groups present in the American Southwest. Each crypto-Jew is thus an amalgam of many different identities, ethnicities, and histories—with crypto-Jewish identities emerging from this complex tapestry.

The study, however, has also revealed the complex nature of identity in a larger sense. We often assume that individuals and communities have an identity that is relatively fixed. This book suggests that identity is actually much more fluid. Identity is the product of dialogue and interaction—as individuals move into different social contexts, their identities and their expression of them change both consciously and unconsciously. This type of fluidity is sometimes seen as part of postmodern identity.

Q: Why does the book focus on authenticity?

SK: Crypto-Judaism has been highly contested in both popular and academic discussions. Many of the discussions that have challenged the authenticity of crypto-Jewish identity have been taken up within the wider community and have been seen by some as demonstrating that crypto-Judaism is historically inauthentic. The book takes up this issue, as these arguments have directly challenged the communities’ sense of self and the self-understanding of individuals within the communities. This becomes both an academic and an ethical issue. It is essential in this ethical context to be very clear about what the evidence actually indicates and the limitations of the academic arguments. If we examine many of the arguments used by the critics we find two main approaches: one relating to the influence and penetration of Judaizing Christian traditions in New Mexico; and a second that attributes an effectively racist motivation to individuals claiming to be crypto-Jews, that is, that wishing not to be Mestizo, they are claiming to be of Jewish origin as a way of claiming to be white. Detailed analysis of both of these arguments shows they have little support. The historical evidence indicates little penetration of Judaizing Christian groups in New Mexico until the latter part of the twentieth century, thus too late to have the type of influence attributed to them; and the second argument is undermined by extensive interview evidence that has failed to find the suggested motivation. In fact, most crypto-Jews have emphasized the complex nature of their ethnic identity rather than attempting to minimize it.

Q: Do crypto-Jews have unique practices?

SK: Due to the complex nature of crypto-Jewish identity and history, crypto-Jews have a wide range of traditions that are highly distinctive. Much of this distinctiveness comes from the mix of cultural sources out of which crypto-Judaism has emerged, and perhaps even more importantly, from the secrecy that remains a significant aspect of the crypto-Jewish sense of self. One practice that highlights both of these elements is a life cycle ritual connected to birth. When a child was born, due to the public adherence to Catholicism, it was baptized in the Church. Afterward, the child was taken to the family home. The family gathered together and the child was ritually washed in perfume or water. Many individuals said that this was to wash off the baptism. The child was then given a secret name that usually came from the Hebrew Bible. This tradition illustrates the mix of cultures and the secrecy associated with crypto-Jewish identity and practice. Practices with a similar complex nature are found throughout New Mexico and are related to the life cycle, the ritual calendar, food rules, and the Shabbat.

Q: Why, in modern America, do crypto-Jews continue to maintain a secret identity?

SK: It is important to understand that secrecy is not merely a pragmatic necessity. Although this was partly true in the past, when the practice of crypto-Judaism could lead to persecution by the Inquisition, even then it also was increasingly significant as a constituent element of crypto-Jewish culture. As secrecy becomes a part of practice, it also becomes a constitutive part of identity. Thus for many crypto-Jews secrecy is as essential a part of their identity as is Catholicism and indeed Judaism. It is part of most crypto-Jewish practices, and is consistently part of crypto-Jewish narratives of self.

Q: Why should we be interested in crypto-Judaism?

SK: There are many reasons for interest. Crypto-Judaism presents us with a unique form of Judaism, different from any other form found in the world. It thus provides a new view of what Judaism can be and what it can mean. It is fascinating, for example, to see what crypto-Jews understand to be the central aspects of Judaism to be—very often these have little to do with the beliefs that are central to most mainstream Jewish communities. This provides an important insight into the nature of constructs like Judaism or Hispanic ethnicity (and indeed all ethnicities, religions, and cultures) and highlights their much more fluid and complex nature. On a different level, crypto-Judaism speaks to something in human nature that, despite external pressure and historical circumstance, chooses to go its own way and plow its unique and challenging historical and cultural path.