Highlights of the 1999 SCJS
Conference in Los Angeles

by Ruth Silverman*

The recent Los Angeles conference of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies was memorable for its scholarly presentations, poignant personal stories, artistic elements and the warmth of new and old friends united in their common interest.

Prior to Sunday evening's opening sessions, many attendees were fortunate enough to spend Friday night celebrating Shabbat at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. During the service, members of SCJS and B'nai Anousim (descendants of those who were forced to convert) were recognized by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila. The youthful rabbi conducted the Friday night service and extended heartfelt words of welcome to all who were there. Many of them had no idea that in his spare time he serves as head basketball coach of the Shalhevet School girls basketball team.

Guest speaker Rabbi Joshua A. Stampfer described challenges facing those discovering crypto-Jewish ancestors. He affirmed his view that those wishing to return to Judaism should be welcomed without having to prove ancestry. A founder and former President of SCJS, Rabbi Stampfer has ministered to and worked with crypto-Jewish groups, including the congregation in Belmonte, Portugal. He now serves as SCJS Treasurer, and is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Neveh Shalom, Portland, OR.

The temple, an architectural blend of rough-hewn white stone walls, fine woods, stained glass and Oriental rugs, also opened its doors on Monday night for a tour, led by SCJS Member Bob Hattem and Temple Official Hy Arnesty, and a dinner, with special blessing by Rabbi Bouskila.

Welcoming remarks by Stanley Hordes, former president and a founder of SCJS, and current president Gloria Trujillo, opened the conference on Sunday, and introduced keynote speaker Seth Ward, Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and History, University of Denver.

"The culture continues to enrich itself, every day," noted Dr. Ward, who is also president of the Hispano Crypto-Jewish Resource Center, Denver. He showed videos of interviews of crypto Jews, made in the course of his research.

The group also enjoyed a multi-disciplinary presentation, Memorial de Tres Hermanicas, featuring artist Diana Bryer, singer Judy Frankel and poet Isabelle Medina Sandoval.

Eduardo Dias shared insights on the crypto Jews of Portugal, from the beginning of the forced conversions to the recent developments in Belmonte. Residents secretly maintained Jewish traditions while isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. The former UCLA professor is author of the forthcoming Portugal's Secret Jews: the End of an Era

Among the many interesting practices on which he commented was one which involved rites for the dead similar to those in Judaism, performed by the women of the community. When finished with the rites, the women would call a priest to perform "last rites," making sure the subject had already died before he arrived. The women would then "purify" the house because a priest had been there.

"For the Jewish world and for crypto-Jews, this is an age of diversity in Jewish life," in much the same way that the broader world is experiencing multi-culturalism, Adaire Klein, Director of Library Services, Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, told the conferees.

"This is a time for crypto Jews to create an awareness of their own identity and to take advantage of technology, research, writing and publishing," she said. "Make ethnic diversity a source of unity instead of divisiveness."

Trudi Alexy, author, The Mezuzah in the Madonna's Foot, shared the astonishing story of her on-going correspondence with a crypto-Jewish Catholic priest, in an area that cannot yet be identified to protect his safety. He lives in fear of retribution from his church and his family.

As a young teen, he celebrated a Bar Mitzvah, wearing a tallit and tefillin, crying as he recited the Shema. Monday through Friday he studied at a Catholic seminary; on weekends, he studied Judaism with his grandfather. His story continues to unfold.

"Only when he was out of his country could he shed his identity and live openly as a Jew," Alexy stated. “He says, ‘Secret Jews do not survive; they adapt.’"

Photographer Cary Herz' slide presentation of her photos of gravestones of crypto Jews in the Southwest evoked soft comments of wonderment. A "trialogue" facilitated by author and Halapid Co-editor Dolores Sloan brought Doña Gracia Nasi to life. Other participants were historian and womens studies instructor Rosalinda Mendez González and artist Barbara Mendes. Ms. Mendes' large, complex painting visually tracked the remarkable travels of the sixteenth century Sephardic heroine.

Another personal story, with a happy ending, was that of Magnolia Albalat, who talked of lighting an oil lamp every Friday night, though she attended a Catholic school. She now lights candles, proudly and openly, as a member of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Following were presentations by filmmaker Jeremy Siefer of portions of his work in progress, Signs of Solomon: Crypto Jewish Roots and Revival in the Brazilian Northeast; Father Stafford Poole on Limpieza de Sangre, Spanish purity of blood laws; and independent researcher Charles Myers, on Elizabethan Jews in England.

Author Marc Talbert described his process as a writer creating Star of Luís, childrens' book about a boy with crypto-Jewish roots. This preceded comments by Dr. Hordes on recent research, including description of the intricate process of tracking sixteenth century roots in Mexico of a contemporary New Mexico family.

David Hirsch, Jewish and Middle Eastern Studies Bibliographer at UCLA's University Research Libray, talked about his recent visit with Jews in Cuba, followed by Airport Guide Floyd Montoya's personal glimpses into his crypto-Jewish childhood in New Mexico

A business meeting closed the conference. Future conference sites and conference chairs are Northern New Mexico, 2000, Isabelle Sandoval; Pueblo, CO, 2001, Michael Atlas-Acuña; and Mexico, 2002, Dolores Sloan.

*Ruth Silverman is a writer and publicist from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, where she writes for The Daily Herald.

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