Mystery Kiddush Cups. Photo by Rachel Stevens. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015
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.
Hebrew letters that translate as Borei P’ri Hagafen. Prayer for the blessing of the wine. Photo by Rachel Stevens. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
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.
Stones on grave at St. Genevieve’s Cemetery. Photo by Rachel Spector. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Stones on grave at St. Genevieve’s Cemetery.
Photo by Rachel Spector. © Norine Dresser Photo collection, 2015.
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.