Summary of the 20th Conference of the SCJS, San Antonio, Texas, August 1-3, 2010
By Rachel Amado Bortnick
SCJS Conference reports
This year‟s annual Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies (SCJS) conference took place August 1-3, 2010 at the hotel Hilton Palacio Del Rio in San Antonio, Texas. The conference not only
enriched us intellectually, socially, and culturally, but artistically as well. Besides lectures and discussions, it featured an exhibition of works by three visual artists who artistically portrayed the crypto
-Jewish experience. The conference also featured the third concert of Sephardic songs in memory of Judy Frankel, our dear friend with the crystalline voice, who passed away in March of 2008.
(Both events were made possible by grant from Martin Sosin-Stratton-Petit Foundation.) As always, there were also author tables, vendors of Judaica and other items. For the meals, the SCJS provided special meals (kosher, vegetarian, etc.) for those who had previously submitted their dietary requests ahead of time. To make the preparations, the organizers of the conference arrived a day or two early, as did some of us eager to have extra time to sight-see in San Antonio and socialize with friends. I had the special pleasure of meeting in person a longtime “virtual” acquaintance from Ladinokomunita, Dr. Charles Baruch Abraham (see photo) and his lovely wife Rivka, who also attended the conference.You may not think that holding the SCJS conference in Texas the beginning of August would be advantageous, but believe me, it was! After being in the overly-chilled conference rooms of the hotel for a few hours, it felt good to step outside into the steaming summer‟s heat of the famed River Walk along the Rio del San Antonio, where the hotel was located. Of course you can also consider it from another point of view: it was so hot outside that we preferred to stay inside the hotel to listen to the lectures! I hope that the following summary of the 2010 SCJS twentieth annual conference will bring back good memories for all who were present, and inspire all of those who were unable to attend to make plans to come to next year‟s conference in San Diego, California.
Sunday, August 1
The tone of a pleasant time to come was set at the registration table in the afternoon, where all conference attendees were met by Helen Hordes and Diana Zertuche. There we picked up our innovative name tags and programs designed by Diana Zertuche. The name tags and programs were made out of lotería cards (from the Mexican game of chance, similar to bingo), which were then tied with festive red-white-and-green satin ribbons. As in a real game of lotería, some conference participants did indeed win prizes:
Edward García won a bottle of fine Texas red wine, and Helen Hordes and Abigail Seldin each won a large bottle of authentic vanilla essence.Dinner began at 6:00 p.m., with welcoming words from Seth Ward (in absentia) read by Art Benveniste, as well as from the conference chair, Stanley M.
Hordes and the SCJS President, Kathleen J. Alcalá. Marie-Theresa Hernández, Presidential Fellow at the University of Houston, was the keynote speaker. She spoke on “The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Secret Jews in the Mexican Church.” Her research was based on the unpublished papers of Manuel Espinosa de los Monteros (1773-1838), which she discovered in the archives of the New York Public Library. Manuel Espinosa de los Monteros was a Catholic priest, who, from 1835 until his death in 1838, worked as the official archivist for the Collegiata, commonly known as the Sanctuario de la Virgen de
Guadalupe (after partial restoration in the year 2000, the church was renamed Templo Expiatorio a Cristo Rey). In 1835, it was Mexico‟s most important Catholic Sanctuary. In the late nineteenth century, the church became the most important sanctuary in the Americas. Prior to his archival duties at the Collegiata, Monteros completed Interpretación del Misterio Guadalupano in 1825. Hernández argued that Monteros‟ work is clearly a Jewish inspired text. She demonstrated how Monteros spoke of Guadalupe as representing the Jewish nation and about how he showed that Guadalupe will restore the nation of Israel to its former glory. Hernández noted that the manuscript provides an analysis of the Pentateuch along with the narrative of Guadalupe. Hernández explained that the text is a testament to Judaism surviving in the hearts and minds of those who faced persecution for outwardly practicing Judaism, and yet remained in isolation from outwardly practicing Jews. Hernández also noted that Monteros‟ writing is significant because it is a testament to the strong Jewish influence “…located in the heart of the Mexican colonial church almost two hundred years after the great Auto-da-fé of 1649.” Following the lecture and discussion, we all enjoyed visiting the SCJS Art Gallery, with works by Mercedes Gail Gutierrez (Nitzah Avigayil), from Netanya, Israel and Davis, CA; Laura Cesana, from Lisbon, Portugal; and Dan RiiS Grife, from Coupland, Texas.
Monday, August 2
The first panel, 9:30-10:30 a.m., included three presentations followed by a question and answer period. David Ben Yosef (see photo), of the Spertus Institute, delivered the first paper, which was entitled, “Maimonides‟ Letter on Apostasy and H. Solveichik‟s critique.” Ben Yosef discussed how Maimonides addressed the issue of the anusim in Iggeret ha-Shemad (Letter on Apostasy). Ben Yosef explained how during the 12th century, Spanish and Western North African Jewry faced forced conversion to Islam. In his epistle, Maimonides discusses the status of apostatized secret Jews from the perspective of Jewish law; specifically, whether or not they are to be considered apostates and idolaters. The Rambam‟s letter was written in response to a letter from another rabbi, who had condemned the Jews of Morocco as heretics. The contemporary halachic scholar Haym Soloveitchik agrees with that rabbi. Ben Yosef compared these two positions, and also examined Maimonides‟ work Hilchot Teshuva, which addressed the reinstatement of the anusim to Judaism. The second speaker was Juan Marcos Bejaranno Gutierrez (see photo insert), also of the Spertus Institute. He reviewed Samuel Usque‟s Consolations for the Tribulations of Israel. Usque‟s work was written after the expulsion from Spain and the subsequent forced conversions that occurred in Portugal; Gutierrez explained how Usque saw history as serving the “divine purpose” and that it should be used to alleviate the suffering of crypto-Jews. In doing so, Gutierrez explained how Usque tried to console the crypto-Jews and how he urged them to openly return to Judaism. Then spoke Kathleen Alcalá, of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, on “The Illegal Alien as flâneur.” She pointed out commonalities between the 19th century flâneur and the 21st century Mexican immigrants to the United
States. Alcalá used the term flâneur as it was used by Charles Baudelaire to mean “a person who walks the city in order to experience it” as well as to indicate a border-crosser. Both definitions denote individuals trying to survive in a society and an economy which is in constant flux, while at the same time such individuals live on the fringes of the larger society. The second panel, 11:00 -12:00, featured only two speakers, Martin Salvucci, from the University of Chicago, and Abigail Seldin, from the University of Oxford. (See inset photo.) Salvucci‟s paper was entitled, “Leo Strauss, Baruch Spinoza, & the Theoretical Foundations of Crypto-Judaism,” and dealt with the critique by Leo Strauss (1899-1973) of Baruch Spinoza‟s (1632-1677) universalistic rhetoric, and its importance to the development of crypto-Judaism. Salvucci argued that Jewish religious tenets as well as philosophical concerns motivated Strauss‟ criticism of Spinoza‟s line of thinking. Spinoza‟s political objective, Strauss argued, was the assimilation of the Jewish people at the cost of annihilating the Jewish faith. Salvucci linked Strauss‟ interpretation of Spinoza with the development of crypto-Judaism. Seldin‟s paper was entitled, “Exploring Politics of Emergence in New Mexico: Work in Progress.” Seldin is just commencing field work for her doctoral dissertation (autumn of 2010); specifically, she will be exploring “the roles [that] various interested constituencies (including anthropologists) play in the authentication of „new‟ old identities” among crypto-Jews in New
Mexico and throughout the southwestern United States. She added that “the consequences of academic research in legitimizing new identities may alter the ways in which anthropologists approach groups pursuing identity-related agendas, and change perceptions of the implications for that kind of research.”
Panel three activities started after lunch, with the visual artists‟ panel, “Self and Image in the Converso Journey” at 1:30–2:15 p.m., followed by a walk through the SCJS Art Gallery with the artists. Mercedes Gail Gutierrez (Nitzah Avigayil), born in Los Angeles of secret Jewish ancestry on her mother‟s side, has been an art professional for the last 45 years. Gutierrez formally returned to Judaism through conversion in 1997 and emigrated to Israel in 2007. In Israel, she exhibits her work under her Hebrew name, Nitzah Avigayil. Her current work is related to the conflicts in her self-identity between her social identity and her ancestral works. Her exhibit at the conference centered around an installation she is doing on Doña Gracia Nasi y Mendes, on the 500th year of the anniversary of her birth. Laura Cesana, from Lisbon, Portugal, has exhibited her art internationally, and has authored the book Jewish Vestiges in Portugal, Travels of a Painter, inspired by site research in crypto-Judaic communities in northern Portugal. Much of her art is
“dedicated to aspects of Judaism, such as crypto-Judaism, candles, roots, signs and blessings …[as well as] interiors, elements in space, walls, women and fantasies.” Cesana also spoke on Tuesday with
a PowerPoint presentation on An Artist‟s Journey: An Update of Judaism in Portugal.
Dan RiiS Grife, of Coupland, Texas, who has a BFA from the University of New Mexico, grew-up amidst the multicultural diversity of the Central Rio Grande Valley. The imagery in his art, especially in his most recent work, reflects his personal journey of return to Judaism, and his multitude of cultural influences.
Panel Four, 3:30-4:30 p.m., featured Professor Stanley M. Hordes,
from the Latin American and Iberian Institute, at the University of
New Mexico, whose paper was entitled, “The Sephardic Legacy in
the Spanish Caribbean: A History of the Crypto-Jews of Cuba,
Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and pre-British Jamaica” and
Professor Abe Lavender from the Florida International University,
whose talk was entitled, “The Secret Jews and New Christians of
Hordes discussed the crypto-Jews of the Caribbean islands under
Spanish rule. He discussed their demographic, occupational and
migration patterns; their significant role in commerce throughout
the region; the position of converso merchants as economic and
cultural links between Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, and the
Iberian Peninsula; the role of Cuban, Dominican, Jamaican, and
Puerto Rican conversos in the slave trade; and the extent to which
crypto-Jews interacted with openly-practicing Jews living on the
British, French, Dutch, and Danish Islands.
In speaking about Brazil, which “probably has more descendants of
New Christians than any other country in the world,” Dr. Lavender
discussed the debated over the future of these descendants –particularly the effect that both Brazilian Catholicism and
Brazilian Judaism have in the debate, as well as the controversies over the approach to their conversions or return to Judaism.
This session was followed by some free time to visit exhibits and
author tables. After dinner, we attended the Judy Frankel
Memorial Concert, “Songs of Sefarad: From Folk to Classical,”
performed by Debbie Bussineau-King, soprano, and Ruth
Friedberg, pianist. Extra chairs had to be brought in, as more
people from the general public attended the concert, which ended
with a standing ovation for the performers. This was my first
concert named in honor of my dear friend Judy, and it was difficult
to hold back tears as I remembered our shared times, her sweet
voice, and her faithful rendering of our Ladino songs.
Tuesday, August 3
Panel Five speakers included Laura Cesana, Diana Zertuche, and
Miriam Herrara, who all focused on their own personal
Laura Cesana, was one of the exhibiting artists in the SCJS art gallery. She gave an illustrated presentation titled “An Artist‟s Journey: An Update of Judaism in Portugal,” giving examples of the Portuguese Jewish legacy in secular and religious manifestations, and how she has depicted some of these in her work. Cesana is also is also author of a
bilingual book, Jewish Vestiges in
Portugal: Travels of a Painter.
Diana Zertuche, of Del Rio, Texas, gave a very lively talk on the
subject of “Nopalitos: The Crypto Jewish Remnants Along The
Texas Borderlands,” exuding her intense love and appreciation of
life, and her commitment to better the lives of the people in her
community who, as she explained, are descendants of Sephardic
Jews who had settled in the Northern Parts of Mexico, especially in
Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas beginning in 1530. She said, “Today the remnants are still alive in the synagogues in
Monterrey and Saltillo, in our cemeteries, our food, our customs, our rituals and in many of our daily dichos (sayings)!” For the
last three years she has been informing and inspiring people via the weekly column she writes for the Del Rio News Herald newspaper under the heading “Nopalitos.” Having researched the local dichos and comparing them with those of the 17th century settlers, she concludes that “…we have been missing a link to our very important history of Tejas/Texas.”
The next presentation was a prose/poetry piece by Miriam Herrera,
of Malta, New York, on making her first altar for El Dia de los
Muertos (Day of the Dead). She described how she
transformed the traditional Mexican holiday into her own ritual,
one that both appeased and honored her crypto-Jewish traditions.
After a fifteen minute break, it was time for the last discussion
panel, on “Publishing Fact and Fiction about Crypto-Jews.” Abe
Lavender spoke on the issues he faced in publishing the Journal of
editor of HaLapid and in charge of the SCJS Website, reviewed the history and evolution of both publications. Dolores Sloan, of Mount St. Mary‟s College, Los Angeles, discussed the proliferation of published works of fiction, memoir, and creative nonfiction with crypto-Judaic content, and how to decide which works are of value and worth reading.
In short, the entire event was a great success, for which we
congratulate everyone involved in its organization and direction.
The entire conference proceeded smoothly; the speakers graciously
concluded their presentations at the end of their allotted time, and
every session and activity stayed on schedule. We hope that
everyone is looking forward to next year‟s conference in San
Rachel Amado Bortnick, a native of Izmir, Turkey, is a retired ESOL teacher in Dallas, Texas. She has been promoting, writing, and teaching about Sephardic culture for many years, and she is the founder of “Ladinokomunita,” a Ladinoonly correspondence group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Ladinokomunita/