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Reclaiming a Jewish Hero from the Spanish Inquisition

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Luis de Carvajal, the younger, was not a typical Jewish hero. He did not establish a rabbinic dynasty; in fact, he has no known direct descendants. No one alive today knew him or was moved to take action by the eloquence of his words. In fact, outside some circles of scholarship, few even know such a person ever existed. And yet, his life and his legacy are the very stuff of the American Jewish experience.

When King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabel I issued the decree driving the Jewish people from Spain and its territories, Jews of wealth or means found ways to flee Spain. Those who stayed – by want or circumstance – found themselves converted to Christianity by royal fiat. Some embraced this new faith; others lived outwardly as committed Catholics, but inwardly their hearts remained turned toward Zion. Such Jews were frequently referred to as Marranos, a term with pejorative connotations. Today, scholars prefer terms such as crypto-Jews, “conversos” (from the Spanish word meaning “converts”), or anusim (from the Hebrew work anus, meaning “forced”).

Luis de Carvajal moved with his family to Colonial Mexico in 1579. His uncle – and namesake – Luis de Carvajal, the elder, had been made governor of a huge swath of territory that today comprises much of North Central Mexico and sizeable portions of the states of New Mexico and Texas. At the time, the younger Luis had no idea of his family’s status as conversos, nor that they still practiced Judaism in secret; it was common for youngsters not to be initiated into the family’s tenets until they reached an age at which they could practice the discretion necessary to hide the truth from unsympathetic neighbors. That his family came to the Americas was no accident. New Spain had become a magnet for crypto-Jews; far away from the prying eyes of the Inquisition, they could find a modicum of anonymity and freedom of practice.

When Luis was taught the truth of his ancestry – an event he later described as his bar mitzvah – he embraced Judaism to the extent he was able. The Judaism of the anusim was partial and incomplete in large part because educated Jews who could escape from Spain had done so, leaving behind those who tended to be both less learned and less observant. Moreover, books on theological issues – and even bibles – were difficult if not impossible to access in 16th-century Spain. Those who clung to their ancestral faith practiced a hodgepodge of Judaism, borrowing liberally from Catholicism and even pre-Columbian practices discovered in the New World. Luis sought out everything he could about the tenets of his faith, quite literally taking matters into his own hands. During his teen years, as he would later describe it, he took a pair of shears and circumcised himself on a riverbank.

Eventually, the Inquisition came to New Spain, and Luis and his family were denounced. At the time, ironically, Luis was making final preparations to flee from New Spain with two of his brothers. He was reconciled to the Church after publicly repudiating Judaism at an auto-da-fé, though inwardly, he still maintained his faith. As part of his penance, he was sentenced to work in a school, using his new position and access to books to learn and study even more. In 1595, he again was denounced to the Inquisition and once more remanded into custody. As a two-time lapsed heretic, Luis would receive no leniency. He was tried and tortured a second time, and burned at the stake on December 11, 1596.

By 1649, most of New Spain was essentially Judenrein (without Jews), though echoes of a secret past remain. Rabbis in Arizona and New Mexico frequently tell stories of meeting people of Hispanic ancestry who discover that their families’ odd practices point to hidden Jewish ancestry – including a belief that family members are allergic to pork and daughters who were taught to light two candles on Friday nights and place them under a table covered by a cloth to hide the light.

The trials and martyrdom of Luis de Carvajal and that of his family are by no means unique. Nonetheless, as both an unknown chapter in our Jewish history and part and parcel of our experience, it is worthy of being repeated and remembered. Perhaps most of all, his story reminds us never to take for granted the gift of Judaism we have been given.

Rabbi Anthony Fratello is a 1994 graduate of Pomona College and was ordained at the Cincinnati Campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1999. Since 2000, he has been the rabbi of Temple Shaarei Shalom, a 560-family congregation in Boynton Beach, FL. He has served as a board and executive board member of numerous community agencies and is a highly sought and well-regarded speaker, teacher, and lecturer.