Conference on Crypto-Jews Docks in Philly This Weekend


The Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies is holding its 27th annual conference for the first time in the northeastern part of the country, and for the first time in Philadelphia.

The secular, national academic organization focuses on the history of the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Christianity during each empire’s respective Inquisitions.

The conference, from Nov. 5 to 7, will include workshops and presentations on genealogy, diaspora history and various religious practices under the main theme of “The Crypto-Jewish Experience in the Americas.”

These lectures will be held at citywide locations, including the National Museum of American Jewish History and Congregation Mikveh Israel, a synagogue with historic Spanish-Portuguese roots.

Ronit Treatman, a member of the society, said the conference usually takes place on the West Coast or Florida, so this is an opportunity for more academics from the Northeast region to attend and “showcase our city.”

Keynote addresses will be delivered by Ron Perelis, the Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay in Sephardic Studies chair and an associate professor of Sephardic studies at Yeshiva University, and David Gitlitz, an anthropologist, professor and author. Gitlitz will present “The First Practicing Crypto-Jewish Family in Mexico.”

Half a millenium after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, thoughts of returning to countries of ancestry and no longer remaining in hiding are out in the open.

“Many people had no idea that [Crypto-Jews] existed,” Treatman explained. “There was a lot of fear in that community.”

Treatman herself was born in Israel and grew up in Venezuela. The Crypto-Jews she knew growing up kept that part of themselves hidden.

“All I was told was once upon a time there was a big community in Spain and then those who were expelled left, and the ones who didn’t leave were forced to convert,” she said.

The conversation stopped there in her youth, though she recalled playing at a friend’s house as a child. The family was Catholic — crosses and Catholic icons were a main theme of the decor — and when the father heard Treatman was from Israel, he said, “We were Jews once.”

She laughed. He wasn’t joking. His family was from a Jewish settlement in Spain, Tudela, and he visited Israel in the ’80s “to see what I could have been.”

But conversations heightened during the 1990s, she noted, as Crypto-Jewish traditions became more prominent. The fear of discussing it dissipated.

With the advancement of DNA testing, some might even be surprised to learn their history traces back to Sephardic Jewry. Treatman’s lineage goes back to Poland and Bukhara, a part of the historic Persian Empire that is now Uzbekistan.

“It turns out many Ashkenazim were in Spain and Portugal before the expulsion,” she said. Half of her family escaped the Catalonia region during the 1500s, went north and remained secretly Jewish, she discovered, while the other half were forced to convert and eventually moved to Brazil.

Aside from sharing this history — personally and from the conference — Treatman hopes bringing it to the forefront will make others realize Crypto-Jewry still exist.

“The Jewish world has been closed to them for a long time,” she said. “The way that now Sephardic Jews are being given the right to apply for Spanish and Portuguese citizenship, we feel that it’s only right that it’s time now to allow anyone — any descendants for Crypto-Jews who wish to return to Judaism, who wish to come to Israel — that they should be allowed to.” 

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