Jewish Without Knowing It

Folklorist Norine Dresser is the author of "Multicultural Manners" (Wiley, 1996). E-mail:

Officemates Silvia and Susan were reminiscing. Puerto Rican-born Silvia recalled that she got into trouble when she wore a Jewish star to Catholic school. The nuns made her remove it, so Silvia's grandmother came to school and requested that she be allowed to wear it because Jesus had been Jewish. Silvia remembered other practices that had made her seem different from her classmates. Her family always lit candles on Friday nights; her grandmother refused to eat pork; when someone in the family died, the grandmother covered the mirrors.

What did it mean?

Susan was Jewish, and when she mentioned that the customs Silvia had described were Jewish, Silvia was surprised. As far as Silvia knew, her family had migrated from Spain to Puerto Rico generations before, and no one had ever mentioned a Jewish connection. Silvia's ancestors may well have been Jews who, rather than face death during the Inquisition, converted to Catholicism between the 14th and 16th centuries in Spain and Portugal. Like Silvia and without understanding why, some of their descendents still observe Jewish rituals.

These Jews are known as crypto-Jews (hidden Jews) or conversos (converts) and numerous family descendants live in Arizona and New Mexico. Some observe the same Jewish traditions as Silvia's family including circumcision of male infants and owning menorahs or amulets bearing the Ten Commandments.

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