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.”