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‘Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic’: Crypto-Jews and Inquisition at center of Teaneck professor’s new book

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In a way, the new book by Dr. Ronnie Perelis of Teaneck already has been a major museum exhibition.

His book, “Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic: Blood and Faith,” looks at three first-person accounts of life in the 15th and 16th centuries. It tells the stories of the spiritual drama of descendants of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity and later persecuted by the Inquisition as those Jews came into contact with the world-expanding discovery of the New World and burgeoning transatlantic trade that soon followed.

The first of the three narratives Dr. Perelis examines is the story of Luis de Carvajal the younger.

If the name sounds familiar to you even if you don’t specialize in 16th century Mexican Jewish history, that’s because the diary is on display in the New York Historical Society’s exhibit, “The First Jewish Americans.”

The diary recently surfaced on the collector’s market, decades after it was stolen from the archives of the Inquisition in Mexico City. Fortunately for Dr. Pereles and other historians in 1932 the diary had been transcribed.

The theft was not the diary’s first brush with crime. You might say that the diary killed its author.

But before we get to Luis de Carvajal’s sad, even tragic, and certainly painful ending, a few words about Dr. Perelis. Although he is a professor of Sephardic studies at Yeshiva University, he is “a total Ashkenazi,” albeit one “who loves Sephardic history and culture.”

His entree to the world of the Sephardim came courtesy of his great-grandparents and grandparents, who found a haven from eastern Europe in Cuba, beginning in the 1920s. Both of his parents were born in Cuba, but they emigrated to Miami in 1960, shortly after they were married and not long after Fidel Castro came to power.

In Miami, Dr. Perelis grew up “in a very Latin Jewish environment,” he said. “Miami is a very Hispanic place and for the Jewish community, a very Jewish Latino space.”

He went to Israel for his college education, studying philosophy at Bar Ilan University. Next, he earned his Ph.D. from New York University’s Spanish department.

“They were very accommodating and encouraging of my research in a multidisciplinary way,” Dr. Perelis said. It was that research that is the core of “Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic.” In the book, though not in the dissertation for which he first examined the material, he focuses on what the narratives reveal about family, both biological and spiritual. It is a focus that Dr. Perelis admits draws in part from changes in his own life since he wrote the dissertation. He now has a family of his own. He is married to Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz, who teaches Judaic studies at the SAR High School in Riverdale; the couple has four children.

Fittingly, his interest in this material began with a book that Ronnie found on his father’s bookshelf: “The Carvajal Family.”

“It was this big thick book in Spanish with a menorah on the cover of it,” he said. At the time, he was taking a seminar in colonial Latin America literature and thought he might use the book for a paper.

And that is how he discovered Luis de Carvajal.

Luis was born in Spain in 1566 and was raised as a Catholic. But when he was 13 years old, on Yom Kippur, his mother revealed that they were Jews — they believed in the Torah and in the one true God, and not in the Catholic faith. It had been more than 70 years since King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had barred the practice of Judaism in their Christian kingdom, expelling people who would not convert. But many of the converts in fact were crypto-Jews — secretly believing in Judaism and passing their faith on to their children. (These secret Jews are also variously known as conversos, anusim — from the Hebrew word for forced — and the derogatory marranos, from the Spanish word for pig.)

Soon after, Luis de Carvajal and his immediate family, along with many cousins, moved to Mexico, where his uncle had been named governor of the New Kingdom of Leon. The uncle, who was the first Spaniard to cross the Rio Grande into what is now Texas, had no children, and named Luis his heir.

“He picks Luis as his right-hand man and teaches him the ropes of being a colonial governor,” Dr. Perelis said.

One problem: “The governor is a devout Catholic. Luis is a passionate crypto-Jew.”

(How passionate? In his diary, Luis reported that not long after arriving in Mexico, he read the story of Abraham’s circumcision in the Bible. Struck with terror, he circumcised himself in a ravine with a pair of blunted and worn shears.) In 1589, the Inquisition — which had a strong presence in Spanish Mexico — arrested Luis and his sisters and mother. (His father already was dead.)

Being arrested by the Inquisition wasn’t fatal.

Dr. Ronnie Perelis

Dr. Ronnie Perelis

“The first time around, the Inquisition let you plead for mercy and confess — which included telling them about other people who practiced Judaism with you,” Dr. Perelis said. “Then you would be released and penanced — which generally meant you lost all your property and you worked for a year or two in some sort of charity situation like a hospital or an orphanage under the benevolent eye of a spiritual person.

“Luis got a position as a scribe and teacher of Latin in a special school on the outskirts of Mexico City. While he’s ostensibly being watched by the rector, he’s sneaking into the library and copying Jewish sources out of Latin books. He found classic medieval polemical works which argued with rabbis about the meaning of the Torah. The authors would quote long passages of midrash or Rashi or Maimonides and then critique it. This allowed Luis to poach all this rabbinic material for his community of crypto-Jews. He was able to create anthologies.

“He says at one point, ‘I have come to discover the truth of the 13 Principles of Faith, something nobody knew in these lands of captivity.’

“The head of the school loves him so much that when it’s time for him to be done with penances, he gives Luis letters giving him access to all the monasteries in Mexico to help him collect money to pay his final fine,” Dr. Perelis said.

Some people might take their escape from the clutches of the Inquisition as a warning that they should be more cautious.

In fact, Dr. Perelis said, most people who did the penance didn’t talk about it afterward. “They were embarrassed. You can see it come up in different ways. There was a debate in Amsterdam” — where Jews were free to practice their ancestral faith — “over memorial prayers for family members killed by the Inquisition.”

Do you remember the victims? Or do you hide from the shame of having converted and then being caught?

Luis de Carvajal, however, took his escape as sign of Divine favor, and so he began keeping his diary.

“He wanted to create a record of God’s kindness and providence in his life and the life of all the Jews in Mexico,” Dr. Perelis said. “He was going to send it to his brother, who had escaped to the safety of Italy.”

He wrote the diary in the third person. “He didn’t use his legal name. He used his Jewish name, Joseph the Luminous. There’s a very clear Joseph narrative that’s being played out. He reads his experience and that of his family as a biblical drama unfolding in New Spain. He describes many events in over-the-top theological terms.

“When his sisters are engaged to wealthy converso merchants, he describes the arrival of the grooms with trumpets playing, and tambourines being rung,” said Dr. Perelis.

The diary “was very important for his spiritual sanity and the formation of his own identity, which was religiously very idiosyncratic. It was actually read by members of his circle, almost as a book of inspiration. They would read it along with other prayers that he wrote.”

Six years after his first arrest, Luis was arrested again. His diary was used as evidence against him — and against the other people he wrote about.

On December 8, 1596, he was burnt at the stake, along with his mother and five sisters.

Antonio de Montezinos lived half a century later than Luis de Carvajal, but his story is no less fascinating.

“He was a merchant in South America,” Dr. Perelis said. “He tells the story about his travels where he encounters the lost tribe of Reuben. He goes to Amsterdam to tell the Jews, all former conversos. The Christians were fascinated. The rabbi of Amsterdam wrote a book, ‘Mikveh Israel,’ using this travel story as the center.

“I focus on de Montezinos’ story. I read it as a travel story, someone who starts out one way and ends up in a very different place through his journey. What does it mean to see oneself in the other? What does it mean to be a brother? It’s a very loaded, very powerful work.

“There the issue of family is much more a question of spiritual family. He is briefly imprisoned by the Inquisition in Colombia. He writes that he was saying his morning blessings. He said, Blessed are you our God, who has not made me — you would expect him to say, non-Jew or slave or woman.

“Instead, he says, has not made me a heathen, an Indian, a black person. Because access to Jewish books was prohibited by the Inquisition, conversos who desired to recite Jewish prayers often relied on oral traditions. Inevitably, their fragile memories involved considerable distortions of the originals.

“Each time he got to the word Indian, he became overtaken by the thought that the Indians are Hebrews. He can’t get that out of his head until he finds the Indians he met and finds out their true story.”

Was the tribe of South American Indians he found really the lost tribe of Reuben?

“I don’t think about it as a true or false story,” Dr. Perelis said. “One of the things you see when you read a lot of colonial narratives is that there are things like this text that are presented in a very factual way that nonetheless strain belief. Sometimes we know they’re actually true. Sometimes we know they’re stretched. Sometimes we know they’re completely made up.

“We’re dealing with this brave new world, and people are wrapping their heads around it the best they can.

“I believe that he did not lie. I don’t believe he fabricated it. He got nothing out of it. He seemed very sincere. I don’t think he’s trying to make something up.

“My good friend Jonathan Schorsch devotes the last chapter of his book ‘Swimming the Christian Atlantic’ to this text. He tries to think about it ethnologically. What do we know about that part of South America at that time?

“He starts thinking about runaway Indian colonies. Some of the runaway tribes who went out to the mountains and constituted a new society were already Christianized by the time they did that. They spoke in very antinomian biblical terms about the end of days, about the justice that would rain down on the Spanish. These messianic ideas might have been part of what de Montezinos encountered.

“The other thing to remember is that there is a long history of people reporting to have met, or to be, members of lost tribes of Israel.

“One of the problems that the Europeans had when they came to America was figuring out where to place the native Americans in their anthropological scheme. Are they part of the descendants of the children of Noah? If they are, why haven’t we heard of them? Where do we put them?

“One of the theories that was very popular is that they’re the lost tribes. It was a pretty common conjecture. People would find common practices between Judaism and the tribes, linguistic proofs. They’re not convincing to me, but at the time they seemed to have worked,” Dr. Perelis said.

The third memoir Dr. Perelis writes about in “Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic” is not written by a converso, but rather by “an Old Christian,” the term for those Catholics in the Spanish-Portuguese world who were not of converted stock. His name was Manuel Cardoso de Macedo.

“He starts his life as the son of a well-to-do merchant in the Azores,” said Dr. Perelis. “His father does a lot of business with England, so he sends his 14-year-old son there to study English. It was the end of the 16th century. He sent this good Catholic kid to one of the centers of Protestant radicalism. The boy loved it. He loved reading the Bible on his own. He went to London and bought seven books of the seven sects and read them all to decide what to be.

“He led a double life. Eventually word got out and he was confronted by the bishop. He declared his faith in Calvin’s ideas. He’s in the Inquisition for a couple of weeks and he meets a converso.

“That changed his life. He realized there are Jews who actually exist in the world. He had never met anyone who kept the things that the Bible said. After his release in Portugal, he connects with the converso’s family members and decides he wants to live like a Jew. He arranges their escape from Portugal very heroically. He goes to Hamburg, becomes circumcised, eventually makes it to Amsterdam where he writes his life down.”

If this all sounds fascinating to you— Dr. Perelis said he is often advised to turn it into a screenplay — Dr. Perelis won’t disagree.

“I feel I’ve been so lucky,” he said. “So many people who write books get so sick of their material by the end. I still find the stories powerful and eye-opening.”