When is a top just a top?

While the interdisciplinary study examining the existence of the cryptoJewish community of the Southwest United States is less than twentyfive years old it has already become a focus of scholarly controversy Some scholars accept the authenticity of the Jewish heritage of the community while others question the realities of these claim suggesting fabrication and misrepresentation of the existing evidence Interpretation of the slim thread of material cultural evidence plays an important role in the controversy For some scholars for example a simple top lends material weight to the claim of authenticity while to others the same top proves that the community is a fabrication This scholarly controversy lends an added impetus to the search for unambiguous material evidence to find the proverbial mezuzah in the Madonna’s foot proving once and for all the truth claims of the community Perhaps however some of the scholars from both sides in the controversy are asking some of the wrong questions in regards to the material cultural evidence Indeed concepts of absolute interpretation of the meaning of evidence fails to take into account the possibility that objects can bear a whole matrix of meanings depending on the cultural needs of the possessor or interpreter Therefore semiotics and the concept of bricolage can lead to a entire new set of questions in the understanding of the material evidence as it is utilized to examine the authenticity of the cryptoJudaic community

Roland Barthes has defined aims of semiotics [in his terms semiology] as “to take in any system of signs what ever their substance or limits; images gestures musical sounds objects and the complex associations of all these which form the content of ritual convention or public entertainment: these constitute if not languages at least systems of signification At its most basic level therefore semiotics examines the relationship between signs and their meanings

Within a society or group within a society people function a variety of means of communication be they sets of symbols language denoted as mediums When a medium is widely used within a culture group it creates an almost unconscious layer of mediation between the person and the signs that he is using or interpreting imposing to a great extent a meaning onto the sign A medium can also shape the direction of thought or creation because every medium has its own series of signs and methods which limit the user of the medium especially if he hopes to be understood by others The society or subgroup can also impose a degree of implicit mediation on the signs used within it Words for example even in the same language can have very different meanings among communities in close proximity and within the same general culture one to another It is therefore important to look the objects of communication (be they words images icons etc) not as having fixed meanings but rather even within a single complex community as having large matrix of potential meanings

Within a semiotic model signs are the constituent objects of thought Human beings take objects words sounds etc and invest them with meaning The sign is the combination of object and meaning and these two constituent parts denoted as the signifier and the signified are the basic units of Semiotics The signifier is the form of the sign be it a word gesture or an object The signified is the concept that the sign represents The relationship between these two is referred to as signification whereby the signifier is invested by the one who sees or uses it with the signified that is to say meaning

There is not however a one to one correspondence between signifier and signified as the relationship between the two is totally arbitrary Indeed even the notion that there are fixed signifieds is arbitrary Meanings of signs within a single society are arbitrary in themselves and also in their relationship with other signs Indeed there can be a multiplicity of signifieds to a single sign Within a single cultural group the meaning of a sign can change based on its proximity The word [signifier] open for example if placed in the window of a store signifies that the store is open for business while if it is printed on the lid of a box it can indicate how the box should be opened While between cultural groups the meaning imposed on a signifier can be quite different So for example for many people living in Canada white is a symbol of joy and purity while in Japan white is a sign of mourning and perhaps in a third society white can mean nothing at all This serves to deessentialize all signs suggesting that no sign has an essential meaning It is therefore dangerous to assume any meaning to a particular signifier and to suggest that the meaning is fixed for all time Indeed there is no intrinsic or necessary connection between the signifier and the signified; as we have noted it is clear that even within a larger community subgroups can invest a single signifier with a multiplicity of significations

The anthropologist LeviStrauss identifies the process of bricolage as a means whereby sets of signs – cultural objects – are invested with meaning He suggested that the key aspect of the process of creating meaning is not based on a conscious selection of the best materials the might be used for the purpose but rather is the unconscious adaption of materials that are on hand which fit into the underlying structure of the society The material used may be recycled and reused again within the same society or within different societies to express vastly different ideas While LeviStrauss focused his concept of bricolage on the creation of mythological thought it has also been extended by others to other societal expressions be they rituals or aspects of interpretation of material culture It is important to emphasize that bricologe is an unconscious process by which the cultural elements used for construction are unimportant and only the underlying structural patterns which establish signification for the community are important Seth Kunin adds a degree of agency to LeviStrauss’s theory of bricologe through the concept of j onglerie or juggling of identity: ” Jonglerie highlights the fact that to some extent individuals and groups consciously negotiate their sense of identity”

Human identity perforce is constructed of a variety of contested elements which are constantly in a process of negotiation At different moments of life there are both conscious and unconscious emphasis on differing aspects of ones identity

Having now established the theoretical foundations of this paper we will use them to examine ethnographic evidence and the controversies surrounding the cryptoJudaic community It will be demonstrated that they are especially effective in providing new approaches to the analysis of material culture

The crypto Jews of the American Southwest claim descent from families who while forcibly converted to Catholicism between 1390 and 1492 yet continued to practice Judaism in secret It has been suggested that following the European discovery of America this Judaizing tendency was harshly persecuted by the Inquisition and led to many fleeing to the peripheries of the Spanish Empire; areas whose remoteness made it less likely that the they would be found and punished Groups claiming cryptoJewish descent have been identified in areas as diverse as Spain Portugal the Americas Following the discovery of the Americas CryptoJewish families fled to Mexico to escape from the Inquisition The Inquisition however was soon established in Mexico and in 1642 began an active campaign against the New Christians (the Spanish term for Jews who had converted to Christianity) With the increase in persecution many of these same families fled progressively northwards ultimately to New Mexico the furthest periphery of the Empire Evidence of these migrations both from Spain to Mexico and from Mexico to New Mexico is attested to both in Inquisition and genealogical records13 It has been suggested that these families and their descendants continued to live openly as Catholics and secretly as Jews

The cryptoJewish community of the Southwest was largely unknown until the mid 70’s It has since been the subject of scholarly research and debate Some scholars most notably Judith Neulander and Michael Carroll question both the authenticity of the community and even the scholarly methodology of those who accept the veracity of cryptoJewish identity Neulander suggests that those claiming cryptoJudaic descent are actually descendants of people who became (and subsequently forgot) SeventhDay Adventists in the late nineteenth century soon after the conquest of the territory by the United States She also implies that the methodology of research by the historians and ethnographers was flaw misinterpreting the data and asking the wrong questions She suggests that these “untrained” ethnographers saw similarities ignored differences and immediately made the correlation to the Jewish practice

Carroll implicitly accepts Neulander’s critique of the scholarly methodology of those that accepted the authenticity of the cryptoJewish community and adds a further theoretical level to it He suggests that the scholarship is flawed because it is constructed on the foundation of orientalism Carroll suggests that New Mexico has long been the subject of orientalization beginning with American attitudes towards the Pueblo Indians viewed as a timeless culture in opposition to the fast moving culture of the United States and expressed especially in Sante Fe which he claims is a “Pueblo Spanish fantasy” Carroll claims that Anglos have continued to view New Mexico and its Hispanic culture as exotic and that the idea of cryptoJudaism is but another aspect of this orientalist discourse He suggests that the suggestion of Jewishness literally orientalize Hispanic culture through the Jewish connection to the Middle East and that the secretive nature and hidden observance of rituals attributed to the crypto Jews creates a timelessness which renders the community both exotic and feminine

The study of material culture plays a major role in this debate both for Neulander and for Carroll Neulander for example questions the ethnographic methodology used in the examination of purported cryptoJudaic material culture while Carroll echoes this analysis and also suggests that the dearth of obvious and clearly identifiable CryptoJudaic artefacts calls into question the existence of the community He also suggests however that even if a large cache of clearly identifiable Sephardic Jewish artefacts was discovered that his hypophysis rejecting the reality of the cryptoJewish phenomenon would stand due to implicit orientalization by scholars

The most quoted attack on the authenticity of the cryptoJudaic phenomenon was based on an early analysis of a foursided top called a trumpito or a pon y seca Ethnographic evidence suggested that this top was used during the winter months and was connected by crypto Jews to the dreidle a four sided top used during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah Neulander critiqued this interpretation in several ways Claiming that the original ethnographic material was collected using flawed folklore techniques she pointed out that the pon y seca was a form of teetotum a four sided gambling top which had wide usage in the community She also noted that the dreidle was not generally used within existing Sephardic community as it was a custom more associated with the Askenazic communities of Eastern Europe She suggests that the mere similarity between the dreidle and the pon y seca led to the misidentification

While Neulander is convincing in her analysis that the dreidle does not have its roots in preexpulsion Spain her rejection of any Jewish meaning attaching itself to the pon y seca is less persuasive As Kunin notes the process of ritual development and bricolage did not end in 1492 rather it is a constant process of negotiation Informants claiming cryptoJudaic descent sited by Hordes and Kunin clearly connect their usage of the pon y seca with Hanukkah and their Jewish identity and suggest that its origins go back to the early years of the twentieth century – a time when Jews or Ashkenazic origin could be found in New Mexico He suggests that it is not unlikely that crypto Jews would unconsciously connect material from their own culture with a preexisting custom from people easily identifiable as Jews Kunin also suggests that connection of pon y seca as dreidle has now become an element of cryptoJudaic identity It is now used during the winter months explicitly because of its perceived connection with the dreidle and therefore as a means of reinforcing and as an expression of Jewishness He suggests that this is an example of conceptual bricolage

Indeed semiotics can add an additional layer to this analysis Neulander and Carroll implicitly assume that the pon y seca has only one signified universally accepted by all the people in the region Yet there is no reason to assume that this is necessarily true The four sided top is an arbitrary sign to which a multiplicity of meanings can be attached even within the same region or general community Even if the pon y seca was once just a gambling top for all the Hispano community that does not imply that the signification is fixed for all time Indeed as demonstrated above signification can change over time as communities use and see the signs in new ways The fact that cryptoJudaic informants equate the sign pon y seca with dreidle and that it serves that purpose within their community lends it authenticity To them (and for their ancestors who created the association) the pon y seca is indeed now a dreidle

Supporters of authenticity have also succumbed to the temptation to assign absolute meanings to signs Some have suggested for example that every example of a sixpointed star is evidence of cryptoJudaism while others suggest that a sixpointed flower on a gravestone indicates a cryptoJewish identity These signifiers are ambiguous by their very nature and only gain meaning when interpreted by those who created them (or commissioned their creation) or by those who view them To a cryptoJew a six pointed star can serve as an affirmation of his identity and history even if the six pointed star was carved for a different purpose While as an actual statement about the deceased the flower sign on the gravestone only signifies cryptoJudaism if it can be independently verified that it was carved for that purpose grave symbols also serve as an affirmation of cryptoJudaic identity Some informants from the community spend a great deal of effort searching out gravestones identifying carved figures such as the six sided flower referred to above which they suggest are markers of a cryptoJudaic identity While Neulander and others would rightly discount their methods of ethnographic and folklore investigation what they are really engaged in is an implicit and perhaps unconscious process through the assignment of cryptoJudaic signifiers to these figures of affirmation of their identity

The process of bricolage and semiotic transformation in relation to material culture among the crypto Jews is evident through other customs practiced by the crypto Jews Kunin identifies rituals which exhibit a negotiation between concurrently living a Catholic and Jewish life One of these includes an absolute transformation in the meaning of the sign An informant reported that all the crypto Jews in her village attempted to unobtrusively observe the Jewish tradition of affixing a mezzuzah on their doorposts Instead however of using the traditional box and scroll (to which they would have no access and perhaps no knowledge) a crucifix was utilized To them the signifier crucifix no longer signified Christianity instead it was subverted to signify their Jewish identity This custom also exemplifies the process of bricolage as the community utilized baggage from their cultural milieu and transformed it to fit with their underlying structure

The dearth of explicitly and unambiguously Jewish material evidence is seen as a challenge by scholars supporting authenticity and as a justification for scholars who deny it There is therefore a constant search for unambiguous evidence tying the community to its preexile roots In popular literature this is referred to as a search for “The Mezuzah in the Madonna’s Foot” In reality it is a search for seemingly apocryphal prayer books and Torah scrolls which are mentioned by informants but never shown; and it is a search for objects that either are survivals from Spain or explicitly demonstrate Sephardic influences It may be however that the search for Sephardic survivals is a distraction rather then help in the search to find cryptoJewish material evidence

Annette Frome and others have searched museums and other repositories of material culture to identify unambiguous Sephardic survivals The fact that none have been found could be interpreted as support for those that believe that the cryptoJewish community is a modern fabrication Yet while there is always the possibility that someday evidence of this nature will appear the five hundred years that separate the modern community from Spain and the history of the community mitigates this possibility Not only did the ancestors of New Mexico’s crypto Jews illegally flee from Spain and Portugal to the New World but were again forced by renewed activity of the Inquisition to flee from Mexico to New Mexico These clandestine moves may well have made it difficult to transport large amounts of material possessions Indeed possession of Jewish ritual objects would place the owner a risk visá vis the Inquisition In addition the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 led to the quick abandonment of the colony and a thirteen year exile of the Spanish colonists in El Paso Taken together these suggest that the survival of material objects created in Spain and therefore by people with a direct connection to Sephardic traditions is highly unlikely

While the discovery of material cultural artefacts with a direct lineal connection to traditions of the Jewish community of Spain is unlikely this does not imply that cryptoJudaic artefacts are not to be found Rather it may imply a different set of questions and criteria regarding material cultural remains Kunin and others have identified a number of rituals eg the kiddush (blessing over the wine) or candle lighting which are or were common practices among Crypto Jews of New Mexico Each of these rituals utilizes ritual objects namely a cup and candlesticks Are Jewish ritual objects required to have an externally defined “Jewish” or “Sephardic” look? Both are categories which are nearly impossible to quantify It is much more likely that local objects produced by local artisans in local styles were utilized by the cryptoJewish community Cup and candlestick do not gain their signification because they are created in a “Sephardic” or Jewish style rather they gain their signification from the people who used them for the fulfillment of the ritual If this is true it may render the search for unambiguous ritual objects nearly impossible but it will also render it unnecessary

The search for and interpretation of material culture has served as a focus both by scholars who support and scholars who reject the authenticity of the cryptoJewish community of the Southwestern United States Much of this discussion however rests on absolute interpretations which fail to take the possibility ambiguity multiplicity of meaning and transformations of signification into account Semiotic theory however rejects the contention that meaning is absolute signs are built from signifiers which can have innumerable signifieds Therefore semiotics and bricolage which allow and understanding the processes of creating signs demonstrate the meaning of signs in this case material cultural objects is quite contextual The objects gain their meaning not in absolute terms but rather based on the understandings and needs (whether conscious or unconscious) of those who utilize or interpret them A top therefore can at once be a pon y seca a dreidle or just a top

End Notes


    1. Quoted in Chandler “Introduction” in Semiotics for Beginners [WWW document] URL http://wwwaberacuk/media/documents/S4B/ 12/04/2005 p 2 2 Ibid p 4


    1. The semiotic approach adopted in this paper is based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotics developed in Ferdinand de Saussure’s (trans Roy Harris) Course in General Linguistics (London: Duckworth Press 1972)


    1. Claude LeviStrauss The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1966) p 19


    1. Seth Kunin “Juggling Identities among the Crypto Jews of the American Southwest” in Religion (2001) 31 p 42


    1. For example in Neulander J “The CryptoJudaic Canon: Choosing to be Chosen” in Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review 18:1959 1996 (as well as other articles and an unpublished PhD manuscript “Cannibles Castes and Crypto Jews: Premillenial Cosmology in Post Colonial Mexico” [Indiana University 1994])


    1. Michael Carroll “The Debate over a cryptoJewish presence in New Mexico: The Role of Ethnographic Allegory And Orientalization” in Sociology of Religion 63 (2002) (WWW Document) URL http://findarticlescom/p/articles/mim0SOR/isl63/ai84396056/print 11/29/05 p 8


    1. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to extensively analyze Carroll’s


    1. concept of orientalization the lack of clear cut differentiation in power raises serious question – at least between the scholars and the crypto Jews all of whom live in America and are American citizens Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality may also be a better explanation of the (so called) Santa Fe phenomena


    1. Stan Hordes To The End of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press 2005) p 248; Kunin p 56


    1. Kunin p 56


    1. This issue was raised and analysed by Hordes and Kunin as discussed in Hordes pp 259262


  1. Kunin pp 5254