My husband, Harold Dresser, died on February 2, 2007. For the 10 year anniversary of his death, I wanted to commemorate the occasion in a special way.
I had his name and death date engraved on a gold plated marker that hangs on a Memorial Wall inside the Alevy Chabad Center, an Orthodox Jewish place of worship here in Las Cruces. On the date of his death, the light adjacent to his name will burn brightly. Then for the rest of the month the light will merely flicker.
Recently, when I went to see the marker for the first time, the rabbi kindly turned on the light so that I could take a photo to send to my non-local offspring. Harold’s name alone stirred sorrow within me, but with the adjacent glowing light, the sadness intensified.
There are many ways to remember a deceased loved one. In Cruces, I often see memorial car rear windshields as exemplified below.
Commonly, fatal auto wrecks are commemorated with floral displays and crosses at the site of the carnage.
Back to the Jewish tradition, every year we light a candle (Yahrzeit candle) that burns for 24 hours marking the death date. But with my night prowler cat, Sweetie Beattie, it is dangerous having an unattended burning candle while I sleep, so I have switched to an electric one that does the job safely.
What are the ways in which you memorialize a deceased loved one? I would like to know and share the information with others.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist feeling sad at this time of the year.
What would you do if the religion you practiced were outlawed and death was the penalty for not converting to the mainstream religion?
Would you leave the country you loved where you had family and property? Would you comply with the new law? Or would you overtly practice the new religion but worship covertly?
In a nutshell, that was the dilemma for hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims living in Spain and Portugal in the 15th century during the Inquisition when Spain forced Christianity upon its population.
Historians disagree as to how many were murdered – from 6,000 to 31,000, in one example. Another estimate has Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, single-handedly responsible for the deaths of 35,000. Those Jews who remained and converted to Catholicism were called New Christians, Conversos or Anusim and even held government and church positions. Those Muslims who claimed to convert to Catholicism but practiced their faith secretly were called Moriscos.
The expelled Jews fled to North Africa, the Middle East, Europe as far north as Scandinavia. Others traveled to the Caribbean and Mexico. Alas! The Inquisition occurred in the New World, as well, so many Jews journeyed from Mexico into Northern New Mexico to escape scrutiny. Nonetheless, they were still wary of openly practicing Judaism for fear of being discovered. So it was that for centuries Crypto-Jews (Hidden Jews) lit Sabbath candles in concealed parts of their homes, abstained from eating pork, practiced male circumcision, placed Jewish symbols on gravestones, and heralded the Sabbath by blessing the bread and drinking wine from sacred goblets, called “Kiddush Cups.”
Knowing the above history, can you imagine my excitement when hearing about Rachel Stevens, a Las Crucen art professor at NMSU, who had two mysterious Kiddush cups (pictured above) given to her by a former student who found them abandoned in an old apartment?
As a member of the Society for Crypto-Judaic studies, I immediately assumed that these cups might be evidence of Crypto-Jews living in Las Cruces. I envisioned all kinds of horrendous scenarios. So imagine my disappointment when I actually saw the Kiddush Cups and realized that these were not ancient relics. Instead they were manufactured in recent times – most likely the 20th century.
New questions arise:
When were the cups manufactured and where?
Why were they discarded?
What happened to the owners?
Is it possible that they lost or misplaced the cups?
Is it possible that someone surreptitiously took them? If so,
why did they not end up in a pawn shop?
Despite my let-down, I still have hopes of discovering a Crypto-Judaic presence here in Las Cruces. Accordingly, my colleague, Rachel Spector, and I visited a large Catholic cemetery. Although the omnipresence of Christian symbols prevailed, we still spotted small rocks deliberately placed on or next to memorial stones on several graves. Putting stones on grave markers is a Jewish custom to mark one’s visit to the departed.
Is it just a coincidence that these stones are there?
Or is this a secret way to let insiders know that the family has Jewish roots?
Speculation is the core of research. And although at this time there is no way to positively ascertain the meaning of these anonymous rocks, I long to discover the truth.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist, who as a child, enjoyed listening to a radio show called, “I Love a Mystery.” Although that program no longer exists, she still loves a mystery.