“Expressions of Complex Identities” @ the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Over the course of fall 2011 and winter 2012, several members of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies have collaborated with New Mexico History Museum (Santa Fe, New Mexico) on the initial conceptualization of a new exhibition on Sephardic Jews, conversos, and crypto-Jews. After seeking guidance from Dr. Stanley Hordes, Dr. Ron Duncan Hart, and Dr. David Gitlitz, on how to approach the exhibition, I am pleased to report that the New Mexico History Museum (NMHM)’s curatorial team is readying to begin preparing the exhibition, which is tentatively titled, Expressions of Complex Identities: Sephardic Jews, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews (1391-2015), and scheduled to open in May 2015. The exhibition will focus on the cultural and religious history of Sephardic Jews, conversos, and crypto-Jews in Iberia as well as the New World (in particular, New Mexico) from the 14th through 21st centuries. The exhibition is being developed under the direct leadership of the museum’s director, Dr. Frances Levine, the museum’s chief curator, Mr. Josef Diaz, and guest curator, Dr. Roger L. Martinez-Davila. This brief article discusses (1) the rationale for why this exhibition is a significant history to relay; (2) the exhibition’s topical, thematic, and time period coverage; (3) the museum’s approach to locating and selecting materials to display in the exhibition; and (4) the museum’s request for assistance in locating material artifacts, documents, and family histories that may be featured in the exhibition.
Relaying a Significant and Resonant History
Among the most compelling histories of dislocated cultural communities is the story of the Sephardic Jews and their descendants. The history of the Sephardim is one characterized by a six hundred year process of identity transformation in the wake of severe communal strain. Prior to this Jewish transition, the Sephardim were a relatively cohesive community in medieval al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) and the independent Catholic kingdoms in Iberia. However, from the fourteenth century forward, their history is one punctuated by multiple jarring circumstances that created the conditions for the splintering of the Sephardim into a diverse and disconnected community of Jews, Jewish converts to Catholicism (conversos), and those who practiced Judaism in secret (crypto-Jews). Among the more prominent moments that facilitated this shift and diversification of identities were the anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1390s that led to massive deaths, conversions, and the flight of Jews from Spain; the mid-fifteenth century blood purity statutes that prohibited the descendants of Jews from holding public and church offices; the formation of the Spanish Inquisition in 1480 that sought out false converts to Catholicism; and the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, which initiated the Sephardic diaspora from Spain and Portugal and the community’s future settlement in the Atlantic world and ultimately, New Mexico. It is only within the context of these religious and cultural attacks that the complex, fragmented identities of Sephardic Jews and their descendants can be fully understood.
The Exhibition: Its Focus and Scope
The exhibition, which will be presented in Spanish and English, will focus on the cultural and religious history of Sephardic Jews, conversos, and crypto-Jews. It will explore the period from the late medieval to modern periods (late 14th through 21st centuries) and will journey from Spain, into the Atlantic world, and reach its final destinations in Mexico and New Mexico. The exhibition will be developed with partners in Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and New Mexico and will trace the conditions of Jewish life in Spain that led to the diaspora from the Iberian Peninsula. The showing will include documents and artifacts from Spanish, Portuguese, Mexican, and New Mexican sources, as well as photographs, paintings, and other art forms that present the Sephardic experience and the formation and persistence of Jewish identity in New Mexico. Lastly, the (New Mexico History Museum) NMHM will hopefully collaborate with other museums in the United States so that this traveling exhibition will be on display on both the west and east coasts.
For the purposes of the exhibit, the curators have defined Sephardic history as including all cultural, religious, political, economic, and social elements of Jews, and their descendants, who resided in or originated from Spain and Portugal. In order to define the scope of the exhibition, the NMHM describes Sephardic history as including Jewish émigrés’ (and their descendants) that originated in the Middle East and settled in the Iberian Peninsula. The emigration of this specific Jewish people, whom would become known as the “Sephardim” during the early Middle Ages, began as early as 1,100 b.c.e. After the Spanish and Portuguese crowns expelled the Sephardic Jews from Iberia, they continued to retain this distinct identity and thus they can be delineated from other Jewish communities, such as the Ashkenazim. Due to the special circumstances relating to the official state and church persecution of Spanish Jews, Sephardic history typically also describes those persons who converted from Judaism to Catholicism, whether those who converted (conversos) were forced (anusim) or did so willingly (meshumadim). It is important to note that some conversos acculturated to Catholic culture over time and that they lost their cultural and religious connections to Judaism. On the other hand, some converts did retain linkages to their Jewish identities, some of whom would later be referred to as crypto-Jews, as evidenced by the records of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.
Crypto-Jewish history can be viewed as a subset of Sephardic history, and it typically relates to the identities, practices, and beliefs of the Sephardic peoples who actively shielded their Jewish origins while publicly practicing Catholicism. Crypto-Judaism manifested itself not only in Spain and Portugal, before and after the Spanish Edict of Expulsion of 1492 c.e and the Portuguese Edict of Expulsion in 1497 c.e., but also in the colonial dependencies of Spain and Portugal, including New Spain (present-day Mexico and the American Southwest), the Philippines, Macao, Goa, Central America, and colonial Brazil.
The NMHM will use several thematic lenses to evaluate the history of the Sephardim—these include:
- Tracing the geographic movement, displacement, and incorporation of peoples (i.e, diaspora);
- Deciphering personal, familial, and religious identities (especially, exterior vs. interior);
- Mapping family genealogies and extended family networks;
- Demonstrating the maintenance of family and communal connections through economic and trade networks;
- Exploring religious beliefs and practices, especially public vs. private and syncretic Catholic-Jewish forms;
- Documenting cultural beliefs and practices, such as life cycle events, customs, and religious laws;
- Highlighting the influences, blending, and vestiges of language in the broader Mediterranean and Atlantic worlds (Hebrew, Spanish, Ladino);
- Capturing the resilience of values and beliefs as expressed in music and arts;
- Comparing official governmental histories, such as familial nobility records, versus private histories, as in the case of familial testaments and dowry letters; and
- Evaluating the extent to which religious pluralism (Muslim, Christian, and Jewish co-existence) existed in medieval al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) and medieval Catholic Spain.
Thus, the exhibition will provide a comprehensive evaluation of Sephardic, converso, and crypto-Jewish histories that extends from the Iberian Peninsula to New Mexico. In terms of the exhibitions’ presentation, the curators have initially organized it into the following six respective sections:
- Introduction: The History, Culture, and Identity of the Sephardim. The introduction will explore the key periods of Sephardic history (from the Roman Era until modernity), its major cultural expressions (religion, humanities, arts, and sciences), and the transition of Sephardic community that created multiple forms of identity (Jewish, converso, and crypto-Jewish).
- Communal Integrity and Identity: Sephardic Jewish Life Prior to 1391. In this section, the catalogue will describe the Jewish community in Spain and Portugal prior to the anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1390s. This section will include an exploration of the community’s cultural achievements during the Sephardic “Golden Age”, a period when the Sephardim generated extensive religious, linguistic, philosophical, and artistic products. This portion of the exhibit will also explore the religious pluralism of medieval Islamic al-Andalus and Catholic Spain. In particular, this section’s text and artifacts will focus on the community’s strong sense of communal identity.
- Assault and Fragmentation: Emergent Identities from 1391 to 1492. This section of the catalogue will explore the period of intensive anti-Jewish persecution in Iberia that spanned from the pogroms until the Spanish Edict of Expulsion of 1492. As previously discussed, it will highlight why some Jews fled Iberia while others converted to Catholicism. Primarily this section will explore the Sephardic community’s fragmentation and the creation of overlapping Jewish and converso identities.
- Diaspora: New Identities, New Opportunities, and Renewed Persecutions from 1492 to 1649. In this section, the catalogue will evaluate the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 (and from Portugal in 1497) just as Spain was simultaneously unified under Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand and Cristobal Colon encountered the Americas. During this Sephardic diaspora from Spain and Portugal, many Jews and their descendants found their way to the Americas, including colonial Mexico and New Mexico, even though in 1522 Emperor Carlos prohibited conversos from immigrating. While most conversos were practicing Catholics, others continued to worship as Jews in secret. The Holy Office of the Inquisition relentlessly pursued these crypto-Jews until the 1640s. This section will concentrate on the diversification of the Sephardic experience, with particular attention paid to two distinct identities—Catholic conversos and crypto-Jews—in Iberia and the Americas.
- Between Catholicism and Crypto-Judaism: Different Pathways from 1598 to 1900. This section will primarily discuss the history of Catholic conversos and crypto-Jews in New Mexico from the colonial through the eighteenth century. This portion of the text will re-evaluate the Spanish exploration and settlement of New Mexico under Juan de Oñate, Juan de Vargas, and the Franciscan missionaries through the lens of Sephardic history.
- Fluid Identities: Late 20th through Early 21st Centuries. This final section will explore the identities and genealogies of contemporary New Mexican families with converso roots as well as those New Mexican families that retain Jewish cultural practices and those who identify as secret-Jews.
Accompanying the exhibition, and largely mirroring the museum presentation, will be a large format “coffee table” exhibition catalogue. This bilingual English-Spanish catalogue will engage the viewer and reader into a dialogue with the history and identity of Sephardic Jews, conversos, and crypto-Jews. Conceptually, the catalogue should be thought as an extended narration and exploration of the exhibit, with the added benefit of expertly crafted papers and essays that appeal to a broad range of readers. The catalogue will be arranged in seven distinct sections that focus on the evolution of Sephardic identity from the late medieval to modern era. These include the identities of pre-expulsion Iberian Jews and conversos, as well as post-expulsion Jews, conversos, and crypto-Jews in Iberia and the Americas. Each section will communicate central themes that suggest the experiences of the Sephardim. Further, each section will include: (a) an essay that describes the pertinent exhibition material artifacts and documents, (b) a descriptive pictorial inventory of these exhibition artifacts and documents, and (c) one to three papers on pertinent topics.
Strategies for Curating the Exhibition
Ideally, the NMHM will display Sephardic Jewish and crypto-Jewish material culture from Iberia, Mexico, Latin America, and the United States. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of Sephardic artifacts to present as evidenced by several proceeding international museum exhibitions. To some extent, the absence of objects reflects medieval and early modern Sephardic Jews’ de-emphasize of the “material”, unlike Spanish Catholics’ focused attention on art, architecture, and religious items (for example, reliquaries).
Due to the scarcity of Sephardic material evidence, the NMHM will enhance the exhibition with original manuscripts (and facsimiles), such as inquisitorial records and family genealogies. The NMHM is currently exploring borrowing objects from the Hispanic Society of America (New York, NY), the Magnes Collection at the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley, the Jewish Theological Seminary (New York, NY), the Huntington Museum (San Marino, CA), the National Museum of Jewish History (Philadelphia, PA), the Archivo General de la Nacion (Mexico City, Mexico), the Archivo General de Indias (Sevilla, Spain), the Archivo Historico Nacional (Madrid, Spain), the Archivo Nacional Historico-Seccion Nobleza (Toledo, Spain), the Sinagoga del Transito (Toledo, Spain), the Israel Museum (Jerusalem, Israel), and several private institutions/collectors in Mexico, Spain, and Turkey.
In addition, the NMHM will seek to locate and identify crypto-Jewish materials that are privately held in Mexico, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas. Of course, the NMHM will carefully address issues of provenance and authenticity. As the museum locates Jewish and crypto-Jewish artifacts from New Mexico and the surrounding regions, curators will be initially very open-minded about the possibility that the objects are truly what they are reported to be. In some cases, the museum will need to assist the owners of the objects in preparing the necessary documentation (i.e., recording and verifying oral histories, researching and developing historical evidence) to validate the objects.
Even with limited material culture, the history of the crypto-Jews can be told from the perspective of how the New Mexican community “feels” that they are the modern remnants of the colonial crypto-Jews. Further, that crypto-Jews now model their behaviors on those Jews at hand—often Ashkenazis—as touchstones of their sense of identity. This approach legitimizes the incorporation of items and practices that are often considered meaningful in the New Mexican context (gravestones and churches with 6-pointed stars, for example).
Lastly, it will be necessary to conceive of the exhibition that illustrates key elements of Sephardic and crypto-Jewish history using novel sensory approaches. That is, we should use historical items and documents as a departure point to create new ways of “viewing”, “hearing”, “feeling”, and “experiencing” Sephardic and crypto-Jewish history. For example, a family genealogy documented in Inquisition records could be displayed as a three-dimensional tree of lights that physically connects physical representations of the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas. Visitors to the exhibit would walk into this space and experience one or more family trees and read short exerts from Inquisition records. In this manner, visitors would experience geographies, distances, connections, and distinct identities.
Locating Artifacts, Documents, and Families
As the NMHM curatorial team moves forward with the development of the exhibition, it requests assistance from the membership of the Society for Crypto-Jewish Studies, as well as from the broader community of crypto-Jews, Sephardic Jews, and the descendants of Sephardic Jews. Specifically, the NMHM would welcome any suggestions and contact information for those individuals and institutions that may possess crypto-Jewish and Sephardic heritage materials. For example, if during your travels and through your personal associations you have encountered particularly intriguing historical or contemporary items relating the Sephardim, the NMHM would greatly appreciate you sharing this knowledge with us. We would also encourage you to ask owners of these artifacts to notify us about their potential interest in lending these objects to the museum for the exhibition.
Likewise, if there are individual families from New Mexico, or close by regions, who identify themselves as crypto-Jews (or are of Sephardic descent) and have very good documentation and/or oral histories that detail their genealogies and family histories, the NMHM would be pleased to be contacted by these families. One of the elements of the exhibition will involve telling, documenting, and relaying the family histories of both crypto-Jewish families, some of whom may practice Judaism, as well as Sephardic descent families who are Catholics or of other Christian denominations. With this blended approach to communicating the history of families, the NMHM hopes to reunite and re-amalgamate the broader historical record of the Sephardic community of New Mexico.
Please direct your inquiries and any information regarding artifacts, documents, and families to either Dr. Roger L. Martinez, guest curator, or Dr. Frances Levine, director of the NMHM. Dr. Martinez can be contacted via email at email@example.com or by mail at: 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Department of History, The University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80918. Dr. Levine can be contacted by mail at: The New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Avenue, Santa Fe, NM 87501.
Frances Levine, Ph.D., Director, NMHM, firstname.lastname@example.org. The director of the NMHM since 2002, Dr. Levine has led a major capitol expansion project developing this award-winning history museum. Dr. Levine attended the Getty Museum Leadership Institute in 2009. A native of Connecticut, Frances received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Southern Methodist University, Dallas. She is the author, co-editor or contributor to several award-winning books.
Josef B. Díaz, M.A., Curator of Southwest and Mexican Colonial Collections, NMHM, email@example.com. Mr. Díaz received his B.A. in non-western art history from San Francisco State University and his M.A. in Sixteenth Century Mesoamerican/Spanish Colonial Art from the University of New Mexico. He has curated several exhibitions at the Palace of the Governors that include: The Old Spanish Trail, Tesoros de Devócion, Santa Fe Found: Fragments of Time, El Hilo de la Memoria, and served on the Core Exhibit Committee of the New Mexico History Museum. He has written and published essays on Spanish colonial art and history.
Roger L. Martínez-Davila, Ph.D., Guest Curator, NMHM and Asst. Professor of History, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Martínez earned his Ph.D. in May 2008 from the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Martínez specializes in the study of medieval and early modern Spain, Jewish religious minorities and converts in Spain, and Spanish trans-Atlantic migration. An expert in Spanish paleography, he has conducted research in approximately 35 local, ecclesiastical, and national archives in Spain, Mexico, Bolivia, and the U.S. for his dissertation and current book project.