Challenging Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Sephardi’ claims

The Judaism the crypto-Jews brought go the colonies, beginning in the early 1500s, was as diluted as the one they left behind.

By
December 23, 2018 02:26
4 minute read.
US Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) walks up to participate in drawing a lottery

US Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) walks up to participate in drawing a lottery number for her new office on Capitol Hill November 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

 
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Ashley Perry’s article, “What the Ocasio-Cortez ‘coming out’ can teach us,” published in Friday’s edition of this paper, is a study in naivete.

At a party on the final night of Hanukkah, Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected New York congresswoman, told guests that she had Sephardi heritage.

Her ludicrous claim cannot stand a rigorous historical and rabbinical examination. And, Perry, who is an activist and not a historian, does not challenge her but rather goes along with the charade.

He writes: “And while I am sure she is the product of an interesting array of ancestries and cultures, her Jewish heritage was maintained in fear and secrecy.”

By saying “fear and secrecy,” Perry is implying that practicing Judaism in secrecy, also known as crypto-Judaism, shaped the life of Ocasio-Cortez’s family and possibly that of others in Puerto Rico, where they hail from.

Judaism and Catholicism are practiced openly today in Portugal, Spain and the Americas, and there are no inquisitions to hide from. Although “fear and secrecy” make Ocasio-Cortez’s story more attractive, it is not historically faithful.

The only Latin American countries where crypto-Jews, also known as marranos, conversos or secret Jews, were found and tried were Mexico and Peru in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

During that period no cases of crypto-Judaism where found in Puerto Rico, which was under the jurisdiction of the Cartagena, Colombia tribunal of the Inquisition.

A quick chronological overview shows why the claims of Ocasio-Cortez and others Hispanics who claim an alleged Sephardi heritage do not agree with serious historical research.

The first wave of forced conversions of Jews to Catholicism took place in Spain after the massacres of 1391. The second took place in 1492 when they were confronted with the dilemma of staying as Catholics or leaving the country.

After 1492, when thousands of Jews left Spain, institutions like synagogues and schools practically disappeared and owning Hebrew books, like the Talmud, the Mishna and other sacred texts, was dangerous and evidence of Judaizing. Besides, after two generations, many conversos had lost touch with traditional Judaism.

The conversos began to rely on the Old Testament, which was available in Latin, or on others with a flimsy knowledge of Judaism. Historians note that few were versed in Hebrew. Rabbis and mohels were no longer available either.

As time passed, whatever form of Judaism they had retained, had been influenced decidedly by Catholicism. As historian Martin Cohen, an expert on crypto-Judaism in the Spanish colonies, said that by 1580 Spanish New Christians had been successfully absorbed into Catholicism and had all been baptized.

Fast forward to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the Americas, among them Puerto Rico, between 1493 and 1825. It cannot be denied that the presence of conversos had a great influence on their economic development and their presence in the early days of the colonial period was appreciable. Tribunals of the Inquisition were established in the vice-royalty of Peru (all of South America, except Brazil), the vice-royalty of New Spain (Mexico, the southwestern US, Central America, the Caribbean and the Philippines) and Cartagena, Colombia after the Spanish crown learned that Jews had settled in the colonies. As mentioned before, several were burned at stake in Mexico and Peru, while others reconciled.

The Judaism the crypto-Jews brought go the colonies, beginning in the early 1500s, was as diluted as the one they left behind.

Allan Metz, writing in Sephardim in the Americans, confirms that when he writes that the Judaizers of the colonial period regarded their beliefs as authentic Judaism, but “were really a wild blend of biblical Judaism, post-biblical reminiscences and Catholic influences.”

Another scholar, David Glitz, also takes a skeptical position when he writes in Secrecy and Deceit: The religion of the Crypto-Jews around the mid-twentieth century unverified legends of remnant crypto-Jews surfaced through Latin American and the southwestern US, details of which suggest that the “self-labeled marranos are not cultural descendants of the seventeenth century crypto-Jews.”

He adds that these sorts of vestiges may indicate a “reintroduction of Judaizing customs from recent Ashkenazi models at hand into communities that have some “vestigial memories of their remote converso ancestry.”

Seymour Liebman, author of New World Jewry, 1493-1825, weighs in and writes that “the Jews of Latin American and the Caribbean islands of this century are not the descendants of the Sephardi colonial Jews.

They are mostly Ashkenazim who migrated to the New World beginning in the 1800s. There are some descendants of the colonial Jews, but they are now Catholic or Protestants. Many admit to having Jewish ancestry.”

To make things more bizarre, the day she “came out,” Ocasio-Cortez also told the guests that in Puerto Rico “people [would] open their closets, there would be this small menorah inside].”

Seriously? Hanukkah “appears to have been of minor significance around the time in pre or post-Explusion Iberia and references to it after the Expulsion are rare, according to Gitlitz, only two pre-Expulsion Spanish hanukkiyot are known to have survived, he writes.

Ocasio-Cortez’s claims and their defense have historians are scratching their heads.

Daniel Santacruz is an editor and translator living in Maale Adumim. He is the translator of The Alhambra Decree (Carmi House Press), a novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and The Cavalier of Malaga (Carmi House Press), a novel about life in Inquisitorial Spain. He edits site devoted to Ladino and Sephardic Jews (http://www.kolsefardim.net/).

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