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SCJS Conference 2019

SCJS Conference Recap

By Ron Rubin


The 28th Annual Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies (SCJS) conference, with the theme of “Place & Identity: Redefining the Crypto-Judaic Experience in the New World,” was held June 30-July 2, 2019 in Denver. Scholars and performers from all around the world participated, and Temple Aaron attended and hosted a table to share information.


The conference recounted both well-researched, documented histories as well as experiential accounts of Jews after the expulsion from Spain, Portugal, and other countries, starting in the 14th century and more dramatically in the 15th century (1490’s). There were personal accounts of anusim (forced), also called Crypto-Jews or conversos (those who converted but sometimes kept their Jewish traditions hidden from the Spanish authorities). The Honorary consul of Spain, Jose Luis Parrado, gave a presentation and, in effect, apologized for the treatment of Jews so many centuries ago, and he also told of the ability of Jews—even this many centuries past the Inquisition—to become Spanish citizens if certain criteria are met (the window for this application may end in October of this year). The expulsion began in 1492 and wasn't revoked in Spain until 1968.


The conference had fabulous entertainment by Hal Aqua and the Lost Tribe, a klezmer group who performed songs in English, Ladino, Yiddish, etc. There was a one-man play by Israeli-American Ami Dayan called "Conviction," which broached the incendiary chapter of Jews in Franco's 1960s Madrid. It alluded to the systematic genocide to rid Spain of 500,000 Jews during the 15th century, forcing them to abandon their core identity and convert rather than be burned (which thousands were). This may have been the largest mass conversion in theological history, even though many did it half-heartedly. There was a flamenco instrumental titled "In Memory of Those Who Perished by Fire, by musician Grish Nisnevitch, as well as other music and poetry.


The panel sessions covered topics such as Crypto-Jews in the sugar trade and coffee trade, and the story Dona Gracia Nasi, who may have been the conversos' greatest leader. Born in 1510 in Istanbul, Nasi helped many escape before her death in 1569. Another topic was the Crypto-Jews in Portugal, where the Jews of Spain first sought refuge, until Portugal also eventually expelled them. Crypto-Jewish language and dialects were discussed. Jews in hiding, sometimes in plain sight, persisted; many came to the New World (Mexico and islands and South American), and eventually to the United States, primarily New Mexico and South Central Colorado (San Luis Valley).


Many Jews remained in Spain and converted, which some say was for the best because others who scattered throughout Europe (such as those welcomed in Livorno, Italy), may have been killed eventually in the Holocaust. There was a talk on Jews in the chocolate culture of 18th century New York and Newport, as well as the culinary recovery of exile. So much was discussed and presented, and personal stories made the conference complete, such as those with ancestors and living parents and grandparents who told their succeeding generations that they were Jews - sometimes on their deathbeds.


One of the great discussions concerned Jews who converted and remained Catholic, and the question of whether they should be considered Jews without needing to convert back to Judaism (since they were, at one time, Jews). If they continued practicing Catholicism and did not try to return to Judaism, should they be required to go through a full conversion because they abandoned their Jewish roots? Some view it that way, while others feel that Crypto-Jews simply need to state they are Jews based on their family lineage, and this would be sufficient. This was a highly controversial topic, and one that will undoubtedly continue to be debated for time to come.


Temple Aaron was a sponsor of the SCJS conference, and Corinne Brown, the organizer, gave us great thanks and mentioned us numerous times. She believes there may be a link with Crypto-Jews to Temple Aaron, although that is not yet clear. Many attendees stopped at Temple Aaron’s sponsorship table to talk and request more information.



To me, it can't be denied that there are thousands of Crypto-Judaic descendants looking for clues, roots, and acceptance. Some have completely returned to Judaism, while others are still exploring. (One such Crypto-Judaic descendant is Donna Medina, a Temple Aaron supporter, who was recently interviewed on CPR’s Colorado Matters – hear her story partway through the June 27, 2019 episode of Colorado Matters here.)


Coming to terms with one’s history is a very personal journey; some have been excluded from their families and their siblings because they have embraced Judaism. It was mentioned that fully one third of those who converted to Judaism did so before even realizing their families were Jewish many centuries before...they just never felt comfortable with Christianity, the Trinity, and Jesus as their savior. 


Some have brought their stories or the belief in Crypto-Jews to their Rabbis, only to have the Rabbis refuse to discuss it and deny them permission to speak to their congregations. Clearly this is a very controversial subject that elicits many different responses from Jews and Gentiles alike. But knowledge of Crypto-Judaic history is clearly spreading, particularly since the extensive documentation from the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries is drawing increasing study by scholars worldwide.

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