Cross Ways

A few weeks before America eats Thanksgiving dinner each year, another harvest festival is celebrated: the Jewish holiday Sukkoth. The Hebrew word translates to "feast of tabernacles," in honor of the temporary, tentlike rooms that families and synagogues build to observe the holiday. An American sukkah (the singular form of sukkoth) looks like a cross between a toolshed and the crisper drawer in your refrigerator. It's usually made of plywood, and the roof is decked with tree branches hung with apples, oranges and bananas.

Most Jews ooh and aah at the sight of a bit of fruit dangling on strings in autumn. But most of them haven't seen a sukkah like the one that gets built every year on Stiles Street in the Harrisburg neighborhood just north of downtown. There, a congregation hangs so much fruit that it makes the whole sanctuary dark. Besides the usual brown-bag fare, there are mangoes, papayas, pears, pineapples, coconuts, grapes and even watermelons. Not to mention other harvest bounty like fat poblano chiles and peanuts, strung together in long peanut-shell lines, the lines fastened in dozens of rows to make dense peanut curtains. It's a sukkah to beat all sukkoth. And the congregation is quite different from most. As members enact the ancient rites of the Old Testament, they also worship the biggest hero of the New Testament: Jesus Christ.

Loretta Levi discovered the congregation on Stiles Street almost ten years ago. A teacher of English as a second language in Houston public schools, she went to her Bellaire synagogue, Brith Shalom, one evening. She noticed six Hispanic-looking men on the back row, waiting to hear a concert of Sephardic music. "Sephardic" refers to descendants of Inquisition-era Jews of Spain and Portugal who were expelled from Iberia in the 15th century because they refused to become Catholics. Many Sephardic Jews fled to countries like Turkey and Greece. They took their Don Quixote-era language with them and mixed it with whatever was spoken in their newly adopted countries. Today, that language is called Ladino, and it still sounds very much like Spanish. Levi's parents were Sephardic Jews from Greece who survived the holocaust and ended up in Houston. She had come to the concert to get closer to her roots.

Levi looked at the dark-skinned Mexican men and wondered if they were workers at Brith Shalom -- janitors, perhaps. But when she spoke Spanish with them, they told her they belonged to a congregation on Stiles Street called the Iglesia de Dios Israelita, Church of God Israelite. The men said they thought their church had Jewish roots. For instance, they celebrated the day of rest on Saturday, not Sunday. They kept some dietary laws that Jews call kosher -- they did not eat pork, shellfish and other foods forbidden in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Further, they celebrated Passover instead of Easter -- and also Sukkoth.

Levi was puzzled. But she already knew that in the Southwest, many Hispanics had been coming forward and claiming they were descendants of "crypto-Jews," Jews who converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition but who secretly continued to practice Judaism.

In fact, many of the thousands of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted did secretly hold on to their old religion, especially when they came to the New World as colonizers. In northern Mexico near Monterrey, several members of the prominent Carbajal family were burned at the stake in the 1500s after they confessed to being covert Jews. During the same period, the area that is now South Texas probably was home to many people who embraced Catholicism after giving up their Jewish faith, as well as to others who practiced Judaism on the sly. This second group often lit Sabbath candles on Friday nights, in secret rooms, and recited Jewish prayers. They ate tortillas during Passover, since tortillas have no yeast. They circumcised their sons.

Until recently, historians believed that crypto-Judaism died out within a few generations after the forced conversions, and that its beliefs and rituals had completely disappeared by the early 1700s. But by the time Levi met the Iglesia de Dios Israelita congregants, a new movement was afoot in the Southwest. Many Mexican-Americans were starting to claim that their great-grandparents, grandparents and even parents had kept the crypto-Jewish faith of their forefathers, even into the 20th century. Adults were recalling childhood memories of elders doing strange things such as shunning pork, lighting candles in the garage on Friday night and baking bread without yeast in the spring. Some remembered prayers that mentioned Moses, and dying relatives whose last words to the family were "Children, we are really Israelites."

Levi put the Iglesia de Dios Israelita members in touch with one of those people with such memories, a young man named Ramón Salas. He is from New Mexico, where people claiming to be crypto-Jews have become especially vocal and organized since the late 1980s. Back then, Salas began talking about a frequently recited Spanish-language prayer in his family that said, "May God and the law of Moses protect us." Salas soon came to believe that he was descended from crypto-Jews who fled Mexico for the New Mexico wilderness in the 1500s, to get as far away as possible from the claws of the Inquisition.

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Debbie Nathan