Visu­al Arts

New Mex­i­co’s Cryp­to-Jews: Image and Memory

Cary Herz, pho­tographs; Ori Z. Soltes and Mona Her­nan­des, essays

  • Review
By – January 23, 2012

It often takes a con­flu­ence of events to awak­en a new sen­si­tiv­i­ty or moti­vate a height­ened inter­est in an area of study — as an exam­ple, the grow­ing inter­est in hid­den Jews.” These are not the hid­den Jews of the Holo­caust, although there is a con­nec­tion, but the hid­den Jews among us now. It began, for this review­er, with Trudy Alexy’s book: The Mezuzah in the Madonna’s Foot: Mar­ra­nos and Oth­er Secret Jews (Harp­er, p.b.1993) which pro­vid­ed oral his­to­ries that explored 500 years in the para­dox­i­cal rela­tion­ship of Spain and the Jews, with an empha­sis dur­ing the peri­od of the Third Reich when Europe’s Jew­ish refugees often found a sort of haven in Spain and Por­tu­gal. It began for Cary Herz with her vis­it in 1979 to a friend in San­ta Fé, New Mex­i­co, where she was so intrigued by an area in which there were lawyers who were rais­ing goats, so that she began to take pho­tographs in the state.

But it was not until she was tak­ing pic­tures at the ceme­tery of Con­gre­ga­tion Mon­te­fiore in Las Vegas, New Mex­i­co that Herz first heard about the oth­er peo­ple,” the Cryp­to Jews — Sephardic Jews who had con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism 500 years ago to avoid per­se­cu­tion, tor­ture, and death. She pho­tographed tomb­stones dis­play­ing the Jew­ish star, meno­rah, or shroud rep­re­sent­ing a tal­lit next to or near the Chris­t­ian cross. She dis­cov­ered that some of these peo­ple embraced the Chris­t­ian faith, while oth­ers prac­ticed their Jew­ish faith secret­ly. Slow­ly, Herz became friends with those whose traces of pos­si­ble Judaism she uncov­ered, and as she did so, she con­nect­ed their sur­vival of the Inqui­si­tion with her own past. 

She writes: As I get old­er (she is now in her 80s) I feel more keen­ly my own mem­o­ries” of many things about which I do not have all the facts. I am a child of refugees from the Holo­caust. Nei­ther my par­ents nor my extend­ed fam­i­ly spoke much about how their lives were affect­ed by it,… [but] my par­ents expe­ri­enced fear, flight, secre­cy, pover­ty in their late teens and ear­ly twen­ties…” She cred­its this with her always being inter­est­ed in and feel­ing at ease with oth­ers.” 

Herz has cre­at­ed a pho­to­graph­ic diary of indi­vid­u­als who have a hid­den past that they ques­tion, embrace and treasure.” 

This book is about their dis­cov­er­ies. Herz tells some of their sto­ries, and acts as a wit­ness to their his­to­ry. Her goal is to put a face on the invis­i­ble ones,” the Anusim, and to open a small win­dow into their world, to show their pride and diver­si­ty. To these Cryp­to-Jews of Span­ish and Por­tuguese ori­gin, the hor­ren­dous Inqui­si­tion was a lit­er­al bane on their exis­tence. Hold­ing their sacred tra­di­tions secret for cen­turies, they had set­tled in New Mex­i­co. They qui­et­ly left behind pho­tographs of descen­dants of Inqui­si­tion sur­vivors kiss­ing the fin­gers and touch­ing the invis­i­ble mezuzah on res­i­den­tial door­posts and oth­er indi­ca­tions of being Jews. These and oth­er small indi­ca­tions are pow­er­ful rem­nants of their faith. Many of their descen­dants have returned to open wor­ship and the prac­tice of their Jew­ish her­itage. Then there are Chris­t­ian priests who now prac­tice a form of both reli­gions. The pho­tographs are so artis­ti­cal­ly com­posed, and the sto­ries so fas­ci­nat­ing, that this book is not one to be missed, or as Ori Z. Soltes, of George­town Uni­ver­si­ty writes in his pref­ace The photographer’s eye inter­twines the threads of narrative…with an exquis­ite artistry that is not impos­ing, but enrich­ing…” The pho­tographs and essays exhib­it the strength, pas­sion and devo­tion sure to move the pride of Jews through­out the world.”

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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