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Juggling Identities: Identity and Authenticity Among Crypto-Jews, by Seth D. Kunin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 278 pp. $50.00.
This book discusses the diversity and the complexity of its subject, and in some ways acts rather like a review article in describing and criticizing the approaches to the topic adopted by different scholars. Some of the latter have denied absolutely that Crypto-Jewish practices of some people in the United States Southwest have any connection with New Christian and Judaizing ancestors who fled northwards from the Inquisition in Mexico itself, while others take the opposite view. Professor Kunin’s admitted goal is “to indicate how these arguments have shaped Crypto-Jews’ self-understanding and presentation of self, particularly in the public sphere, not to suggest that they are either historically or sociologically supportable.” This presents a serious problem for those who want to know whether the Jewish customs practiced have indeed been handed down the generations.
One major problem is the contradiction inherent in the term “Crypto-Judaism” itself. If secrecy is one of its primary constituents, how is it possible to use the term to refer to individuals who “acknowledge” some form of Jewish identity or association? If they claim that their Jewish practices prove their descent from those who are of Jewish descent in the female line, they are no longer “secret.” Another issue which needs to be recognized and discussed, though this book does mention it in passing, is that Jewish communities and rabbis recognize as Jews only converts to Judaism, though what constitutes “conversion” is disputed, and those who are descended in the female line from Jews. The latter are Jews whatever the circumstances of their conception or indeed their religious upbringing and practice.
A major plank in the argument put forward by those who do not accept that the Crypto-Jews are in fact descended from 17th century Judaizers fleeing from the Holy Office is that the Jewish customs they practice constitute behavior learned from varied late-nineteenth-century Pentecostal and Adventist missionaries. In his attack on Judith Neulander’s view that Crypto-Jewish practices were learnt in this way Kunin produces some very convincing arguments, in particular that some of the practices are not found in those particular versions of Christianity.
One senses that Professor Kunin leans more to the view that how Crypto-Jews look at themselves and interpret their lives is more significant than the historical facts of their descent. He argues that self-definition is central. He writes of Crypto-Jews that “if they regard the practice as expressive of their Jewish identity, then that is its meaning.” However, is this not tantamount to saying that if one wants to be Jewish, then any of one’s religious practices can be called Jewish?
Professor Kunin underlines that the counter-arguments of Neulander and others challenge Crypto-Jews’ sense of self. His aim is to clarify the meaning of the evidence. Among the large number of examples he discusses is the use of the dreidl or top which children play with at Hanukkah. This is clearly recent, because it is never mentioned in Inquisition trials and in any case is Ashkenazi in origin, but Kunin insists that the Crypto-Jews may well have adopted it as a Jewish form of the quita y pon game and therefore have chosen it as a method of reinforcing their Jewish identity.
Professor Kunin not only stresses the limitations of those academic arguments that are based on the influence of evangelical Christian groups on the Crypto-Jews but also attacks the theory that claiming to be of Jewish descent somehow helps people to convince themselves that they are white Europeans rather than mestizos. He argues at length that neither of these arguments has a sound basis.
Professor Kunin is thus harsh on those who deny authenticity to the self-understanding of the communities under study. One cannot help feeling some sympathy for his view, given the rigidity of most Orthodox rabbis in keeping out people who want to be Jews, marry Jews, and adopt Jewish practices. But when Professor Kunin says that “[h]istorical authenticity . . . is outside the scope of this study,” one wonders what the whole discussion is about. He claims that “some ancestors of individuals who claim to be Crypto-Jews were of Jewish descent and, in some cases, were called before the Inquisition on charges of Judaizing.” But how do we know this? Do some Crypto-Jews have reliable family trees? While he accepts that there is a gap of two hundred years in the records (actually over 250 years since the hunt for Judaizers ceased, quite a long time before the abolition of the Holy Office itself), and that very few if any people can identify an ancestor tried by the Inquisition, Professor Kunin writes that it is “highly plausible” that traditions of identity could have been passed down and thereby form the basis of the modern expression of Crypto-Jewish identity and culture. It may be so in some cases, but the argument is so hedged about with “ifs” and “buts” and “mays” that this historian ends up not knowing what to think, except that the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico are unlike the Chuetas of Majorca, for the latter are identifiable as descendants of a number of families heavily punished by the Inquisition at the end of the 17th century and forced into endogamous marriage by social isolation until contemporary times. Nor are the New Mexican Crypto-Jews comparable with Portuguese Marranos, who emerged to public light in the 1920s but whose presence was noted in earlier Portuguese sources. It would seem that Professor Kunin, with his concern with self-perception, is giving a meaning to the term “Jewish” rather unlike what most people would understand, but this does not necessarily mean he is wrong.
University of Westminster