The exhibition hall for the Fractured Faiths exhibit is designed to evoke the interior of the Santa Maria La Blanca Synagogue, built under Christian rule by Islamic architects for Jewish use in Toledo, Spain in 1180 and is the oldest synagogue in Europe still standing. [photo © Diane Joy Schmidt]
Inquisition records of Dona Leonar Carvajal, Mexico City, 1595 [photo © Diane Joy Schmidt]
- Ketubah Tudela Spain Aug 18 1300 CE
photo © Diane Joy Schmidt
Co-curator Roger L. Martínez-Dávila
photo © Diane Joy Schmidt
New Mexico History Museum Director Andy Wulf and Josef Díaz, curator of Spanish Colonial Art and History, stand in the space being constructed for the Fractured Faiths exhibit prior to its opening. photo © Diane Joy Schmidt
L to R standing Roger L. Martínez-Dávila, Josef Díaz; front row, Stanley M. Hordes, Ron D. Hart, Frances Levine, Alicia Gojman Goldberg de Backal. Essayists in the book
photo © Diane Joy Schmidt
Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, The Inquisition, and New World Identities, ground-breaking and controversial exhibit
at the New Mexico History Museum
Story by Diane Joy Schmidt
During the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain that spanned 500 years, Jews, Muslims and Christians collaborated in astronomy, medicine, philosophy, poetry and letters, and many Jews from other parts of Europe were drawn to Spain, adding to those who had arrived after the destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
Then the Black Death, which killed up to a half of the population of Europe in the mid-1300’s, struck. It created a social and political upheaval during which Jews were especially scapegoated, accused of poisoning wells.
At the time no one knew the cause of the plague. Historians now believe that fleas, brought by rats on ships from Asia, were the repeated source of the virus. And because Jews were slower to be affected – they lived in isolation and washed and changed their straw bedding on Fridays – they became the object of suspicion, and anti-Semitism spread throughout Europe along with the plague. The Jews of Germany were wiped out. The plague decimated the population of Spain, and in 1391 pograms against Jews, starting in Seville, killed thousands. Many Jews then left Spain or converted to Catholicism under duress. A hundred years later, the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 forced the entire remaining Jewish population of Spain, an estimated quarter of a million Jews, to leave or else be forcibly converted. The Muslims there soon met a similar fate.
Showing that one had limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, proof of family ancestry going back two or sometimes even four generations to show no taint of Jewish ancestry, was a requirement to board boats for the New World from Spain, but forgeries were common. When the Inquisition reached New Spain in full force, Jews were persecuted and burned at the stake in autos-da-fé in Mexico City for Judaizing, for being conversos who secretly practiced Judaism.
Being burned at the stake was called being “relaxed.”
There were Jews who fled north to the farthest ends of New Spain, (now northern New Mexico and southern Colorado), where persecution might be diminished, and maintained Jewish customs in hiding. The threat of persecution and the need to blend in with Catholicism made the secret practices take on different mixtures of Judaism and Christianity, unique to each family. In some families, the secrecy became so great that the secret was only passed on, principally through the women, by one family member to another of the next generation. However, as author and lecturer Norma Libman, who has interviewed over fifty conversos in the last twenty years, points out, each of the practices vary widely from family to family.
The communities in New Mexico were remote and insular and intermarriages within the small communities of converso families was common. Cancer clusters have been identified in these communities today, caused by the deadly BRCA-1 gene. A number of other rare genetic diseases are being found within this population, which have been associated with Sephardic or Ashkenazic Jews.
This history is told in the ground-breaking exhibition, “Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, The Inquisition, and New World Identities,” at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico through December 31st. More than 175 items are included that document Jewish heritage and persecution, including centuries-old objects, books, documents, and paintings from museums and private collections in Spain, Mexico and the United States, and an exhibit of the 20th century photographs by Cary Herz, who documented the present-day conversos and cemetery markings.
A full-color, bi-lingual hard-cover catalog brings details of the story to life through essays and stories told by an international group of seven scholars and historians, including historian and former New Mexico State Historian Stanley M. Hordes, author of “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico,” Fran Levine, the museum’s former director, now president of the Missouri History Museum at St. Louis, and cultural anthropologist Ron D. Hart.
Five years ago, Seymour and Helene Singer Merrin initiated the idea of this unique exhibit that would trace the Sephardic journey from Spain through Mexico to New Mexico, and their generous seminal gift and additional donations from the Jewish community made it possible. The hunt began across two continents to search out these hidden Jewish relics and documents, and to make this vision a reality.
The challenges posed by this exhibit are unusual.
Historian and co-curator Roger L. Martínez-Dávila, assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and Josef Díaz, curator of Spanish colonial arts and history at the museum, continued the search for artifacts. Díaz said the museum had to prove it could provide climate controlled cases, regulated by temperature, light and humidity. Certain pieces on vellum require a different special level of humidity be maintained in their cases. A library in Spain is sending a collections specialist to turn the page of a document after three months, because the paper can only be exposed to light for a limited amount of time.
Martínez-Dávila, in Spain this last year on a research grant, in communicating with Libman (Legacy, Winter 2015) about the importance of the exhibit, said, “We are not only able to highlight Sephardic Jewish history and culture, but also able to explore the creation of Jewish converts to Catholicism in the Americas, and present intriguing evidence that suggests the crypto-Jews of New Mexico hail from a Sephardic past.”
In the blood-red cloth-covered catalog, co-authored by Martínez-Dávila, Díaz and Hart, and underwritten by Stephen and Jane Hochberg, Levine’s essay tells the story of what befell a new governor of New Mexico in 1659, Bernardo López de Mendizábal, and more particularly, his wife, Doña Teresa Aguilera y Rocha. The governor’s ‘arrogance’ ran afoul of local politics and church officials: he prohibited the Franciscan priests from forcing the Native Americans to work if they were not paid a salary and he recognized their right to practice their ceremonial dances and religion. Within a few years, he was arrested, accused of Judaizing and brought in shackles from Santa Fe to the dark Palace of the Inquisition in Mexico City.
His wife, Doña Teresa, soon was also taken from her airy rooms in the Palace of the Governors on the plaza in Santa Fe, and brought to the prison. Highly literate, there Doña Teresa asked for paper and pen, and in her cell in 1664 wrote a testimony of the corruption in the new colony, which saved her life at trial. Her husband would not be so lucky—he had already died at age 43 in the dank prison.
Levine said that “what makes Doña Teresa’s story so outstanding is that it is complete, real and rare because it is in the voice and the pen of a woman.” It is also one of the few surviving documents describing life prior to the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico in 1680. Her viewpoint differed freshly from the other few testimonials of the time, such as the “Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides” in 1630, who painted a rosy picture for Spain of happy, dutiful Indians. When the Pueblos drove the Spanish colonizers completely out of New Mexico for twelve years, they destroyed virtually all traces of their oppressors, a piece of history that is often overlooked.
Levine has written a book, “Doña Teresa Confronts the Spanish Inquisition: A Seventeenth-Century New Mexico Drama” (University of Oklahoma Press) and will give a talk and book signing at the museum July 24.
Doña Teresa’s remarkable case documents have been housed in Mexico City at the Archivo General de la Nación, itself a former prison that dominates the landscape and where many documents are stored in temperature-controlled former cells. Curator Josef Díaz had photographed the manuscripts there, along with some of the highly important Carvajal Inquisition records (ten members of the Carvajal family were burned at the stake in Mexico City on December 8, 1596), but until almost the last moment, he didn’t know whether he could secure permission to take them out of the country.
On a Tuesday morning, three weeks before the exhibition opening on May 22, I was interviewing Díaz over ice tea at a coffee house in Corrales, New Mexico when he was interrupted by an important call. He became animated – the Inquisition trial records of Doña Teresa and Governor Mendizábal had finally been approved for travel and would arrive in Santa Fe just in time for the exhibit.
Díaz said that there are three copies of the Edict of Expulsion in museums in Spain. One, he explained, would soon be coming from the Archivo General de Simancas north of Madrid, arriving, he noted drily, “on Friday the 13th.” An illuminated manuscript of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed would arrive the next day. On September 9th and 10th a symposium will be presented at the museum featuring all the essayists in the catalogue.
The exhibit, along with the recent announcement of Spain’s offer of citizenship to Sephardim who were expelled 500 years ago (After 523 years, Spain offers citizenship to descendants of those who fled Inquisition NM Jewish Link, Winter 2016), has stirred a lot of new activity. Ron D. Hart has written Sephardic Jews (Gaon Books), which traces their complex history and contributions from their origins in Spain to the many places throughout the world where they settled after the Expulsion; and Martínez-Dávila is completing Blood, Faith, and Fate: Jews, Conversos, and Old Christian in Early Modern Spain and Colonial Spanish America, to be published by Notre Dame Press. Stan Hordes is continuing his research with further Inquisition trial documents from Mexico and elsewhere.
Three different Jewish historical societies will hold their annual conferences in Santa Fe in conjunction with the exhibit during the year. There will be a special exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum about 20th century Jews in New Mexico that is opening November 19th. A mini documentary is being shot by author and lecturer Daniel Díaz-Huerta, celebrating the Festival of Saint Esther, patron saint of the crypto-Jewish community whose Fiesta of St. Esther has been celebrated in churches in New Mexico around Purim. A documentary about the Jews of New Mexico which begins with the converso story, “Challah Rising in the Desert” produced by Paula Amar Schwartz with director Isaac Artenstein, is well under way (see The Challah Will Rise eLink Spring).
Intermountain Jewish News, May 12, 2016 Today’s Life feature
New Mexico Jewish Link Summer 2016 updated