In her New Mexico bedroom, a devout Roman Catholic woman keeps a menorah next to a sackful of soil from a pilgrimage site dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
A gravestone in a rural burial ground bears a professionally carved Christian cross -- and, hand-etched beneath it, two Stars of David.
In an 18th-century house in a Hispanic section of Old Town Albuquerque, workers uncover a 40- or 50-year-old mezuza -- a small box containing verses from the Torah, found in observant Jewish homes. But the 80-year-old Christian man who owned the house for decades denies seeing the mezuza before.
These are the secret signs of a covenant kept -- sometimes so covertly that its keepers did not know the meaning of their acts of devotion. For more than four centuries, the New World descendants of persecuted Spanish Jews retained the symbols of their faith, while baptizing their children in the Catholic cathedrals and burying their dead in the Catholic graveyards of New Mexico. Many did not know why they lighted candles at home Friday nights and refused to eat pork or shellfish -- until a Jewish historian from Maryland unearthed the hidden history of the people known as "Crypto-Jews," who concealed their faith out of a centuries-old fear of the Inquisition.
In three talks over the weekend, University of New Mexico researcher Stanley M. Hordes wove stories of a lost Jewish tribe that enthralled about 250 members of Har Sinai, a Reform congregation on Park Heights Avenue. The story touches on a central theme of Jewish history, he told his listeners: Jews are a people who keep their traditions alive "at considerable personal risk."
"There is a legacy of survival," said Hordes, a Silver Spring native. That legacy runs from "people with a set of residual practices that nobody really understood to people who knew exactly what they were," but kept their faith secret for generations in their small, overwhelmingly Catholic communities.
The Crypto-Jews' saga begins in 1492, with Columbus' discovery of the New World. Records of that first voyage show that a Spanish Jew, Luis de Torres, was on board as a Hebrew translator.
"Columbus thought he was going to China, and he thought there'd be people there who spoke Hebrew," Hordes said. "Let's just say when the expedition reached the Bahamas, Luis de Torres had to change his resume and look for other marketable skills."
That same year, the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the last Muslim Moorish rulers of Spain and issued their Edict of Expulsion, requiring Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Many Jews lost all traces of their original faith within a generation or two, Hordes said, but many more fled to the New World, where Jewish practices were ignored as long as they were kept private.
Then came a series of crackdowns by the Inquisition. In Spanish Mexico, several hundred people were arrested, interrogated and threatened with death.
Hordes became an expert on the Inquisition's meticulous records, which documented the survival of Jewish traditions: the lighting of Sabbath candles Friday nights, the circumcision of sons, the adherence to a kosher diet.
As a research professor at the University of New Mexico, Hordes began giving talks about his findings. What happened next surprised him.
"People came into my office, closed the door, looked one way and looked the other way and then they'd tell me, `So-and-so lights candles on Friday night.' `So-and-so doesn't eat pork.' "
One of the Inquisition's crackdowns coincided with the colonization of New Mexico, Hordes realized. Curiosity drove him down New Mexico's dusty back roads to rural, isolated Hispanic Catholic communities. He found tantalizing signs of Jewish influences: gravestones carved with Stars of David and menorahs -- the eight-branched Hanukkah candelabra -- or topped with the small stones that Jews often place there as tokens that the dead are not forgotten.
In a restored 18th-century church, he found two six-pointed stars prominently placed in the ornate ceiling. It was proof of nothing, he reasoned; such stars are not unique to Judaism.
Then the church caretaker approached him.
" `You were looking at the Stars of David, weren't you?' " Hordes recalled the man saying. " `Lots of us here are Jews. We just don't talk about it much.' "
As word of Hordes' findings spread, Hispanic Catholics approached him, wondering whether they, too, had Jewish roots. There's no telling how many Crypto-Jews there are, but several hundred people have been interviewed, he said.
Known to older generation
"The overwhelming majority are very, very comfortable with their Catholicism or their Protestantism, but there's a small number who want to be identified as Jews," he said.