Academic journal article Shofar

Conversa Heritage, Crypto-Jewish Practice and Women's Rituals

Academic journal article Shofar

Conversa Heritage, Crypto-Jewish Practice and Women's Rituals

Article excerpt

Conversa Heritage, Crypto-Jewish Practice and Women's Rituals(1)

This paper examines the role of ritual purification in the lives of female descendants of the Spanish crypro-Jews. For some descendants, the discovery of crypto-Jewish heritage has led to a desire to reclaim the Sephardic faith of their ancestors. At the heart of this reclamation process is the adoption and practice of Jewish rituals and customs. Among the rituals that have become especially important for female descendants is the act of ritual immersion. Through an ethnographic study of crypto-Jewish culture in the Americas, this research analyzes the role of mikveh in the lives of women who have chosen ritual immersion as a symbolic act of return to Judaism.

Introduction

Over the last decade the study of crypto-Judaism has become an increasingly important field of research within the literature on the Jewish Diaspora. As this area of research has grown, the study of crypto-Judaism has expanded to include modern descendants of the medieval conversos/as whose families have sustained some aspect of crypto-Jewish culture since the forced conversions of the Inquisition period.(2) For some of these descendants, the discovery of crypto-Jewish heritage has led to a desire to reclaim the

Sephardic faith of their Jewish ancestors. At the heart of this reclamation process is the adoption and practice of Jewish rituals and customs. Among the rituals that have become especially important for female descendants of the crypto-Jews is the act of ritual immersion. The research that is presented here examines the role of mikveh in the lives of women who have specifically chosen ritual immersion as their symbolic teentry into Judaism.

Research Methodology and Sample Population

The study is based on an ethnographic study of descendants of crypto-Jewish populations living primarily, although not exclusively, in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Data for the study were collected through participant observation and indepth interviews with 50 individuals, 25 women and 25 men, who identified themselves as descendants of crypto-Jewish ancestors. Among the participants, 18 of the respondents' families emigrated from Mexico and other areas of Latin America over the last fifty years. The remaining sample population comprises individuals who are descended from crypto-Jews who settled in the American Southwest in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Participants for the study were obtained through referrals from two organizations, the National Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies and the Hispano Crypto-Jewish Research Center in Denver. In addition, respondents were also obtained through snowball sampling, whereby descendants provided referrals to other individuals who were of crypto-Jewish background.

Participant observation for the research was conducted at a number of field sites where crypto-Jewish descendants came together at designated conferences to discuss their backgrounds in an open and public setting. Panel presentations at these conferences included first-person accounts by descendants who were currently exploring their Sephardic roots and who, in their participation at the conference, were making a conscious decision to end the secrecy that had characterized their family history for centuries. The personal narratives recorded at these field sites added to the ethnographic material gathered during the interview process.

Other sources of data were derived from the rich materials and resources produced by the crypto-Jewish descendants. These materials include extensive genealogies, poetry, artwork, essays, and three self-published autobiographies which chronicled the history of their families and the discovery of Jewish ancestry. Among the descendants, three indicators of Sephardic roots were used: the existence of Jewish rituals in the family of origin; the existence of Inquisition records bearing Jewish family names; and the oral transmission of Jewish ancestry by family members. …

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