The First Jewish Americans

New Book by Dr. Ronnie Perelis Examines Little-Known Stories of Crypto-Jewish Explorers in the Age of Columbus

In an age of rampant religious persecution, expanding global trade and tantalizing new horizons, how did crypto-Jews navigate the complex mazes of faith, opportunity and discovery? This question is at the heart of a new book by Dr. Ronnie Perelis, the Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Professor of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University. Titled Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic: Blood and Faith (Indiana University Press, 2016), the book weaves together three autobiographical texts written by Crypto-Jews in 16th and 17th century Spanish- and Portuguese-controlled lands, following each narrator on a remarkable journey of religious evolution at the raw edge of the known world.

YU News sat down with Perelis to discuss his own intellectual journey as he compiled these stories, their place in the larger sphere of Jewish history and what wisdom they offer to the modern Jewish reader—or anyone who’s ever itched to chart their own path into new territory.

In some ways, this book has been decades in the making. When did you first start thinking about these ideas?

In 1999 I had a summer job cataloging the Spanish and Portuguese books in the rare book room of the Jewish Theological Seminary library, and I started noticing these books on the shelves that had no obvious Jewish content, and yet they were there—about foreign travels to the east, to Africa. I was curious and started going through the texts and discovered that these were accounts of conversos [Jews who converted to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal] in the age of exploration. And I started to wonder: We have plenty of explorers who were also amazing writers. We already knew many of the people who came to Americas from Europe were from Spain and Portugal—and many of those were of converso origin. Among those conversos there were many known cases of Crypto-Jews. What was their experience of travel and discovery? How did encountering the strangeness of the New World impact their inner lives? On some level it began as a project that was looking for more human voices about the experience of Jews interested in traveling and exploring the New World.

Your book charts the international, personal and spiritual voyages of three very different crypto-Jews in the 16th and 17th centuries: the Spanish-Mexican Luis de Carvajal the Younger, the Portuguese Antonio de Montezinos and the Azorean Manuel Cardoso de Macedo. In your mind, what drew their stories together? What themes did they share?

They shared many things—their lives were ones of intense travel, crypto-Judaism and spiritual transformation. What I came to see after many years was that one of the things they share most deeply is the place of family in their lives—not just biological families, but there was also a sense of spiritual brotherhood. These were spiritual believers joined together to form a community beyond their ethnic ties. That also links them to the wider phenomenon of Sephardic Jewry at the time, where family networks were connected and extended through commercial activity, socio-economic bonds and religious commitments. Some people in their lives were family because of blood relations; others were family because of faith and shared belief.

What was the most intriguing discovery you made while writing this book?

From the get-go, the thing that struck me was the power of the texts themselves. It’s based on three autobiographical writings and I was drawn into them from the moment I started reading.

Cardoso is just one example. He starts his life as the son of a businessman in the Azores. He goes to England to study because his father does business there, then starts rethinking his life and religion. He rejects the Catholicism of his parents and countrymen and decides to become a Calvinist—this is his first transformation. When that’s found out, he gets arrested by the Inquisition and sent to prison in Lisbon, where he meets other prisoners accused of practicing Judaism. In prison his eyes are open to the possibility that Judaism was the true path he was looking for all along. After his release he escapes to Amsterdam and becomes a Jew.

This is what I mean by a story of spiritual transformation—these are people who give up so much for their beliefs. They remake their lives in order to follow their religious passion. I’m actually thinking of putting out translations of all of the narratives that are still in their original languages. Carvajal’s autobiography is available in English translation and I have had the honor to teach it at YU. Years later I have students tell me how inspired they were by reading it.

You actually incorporate these stories into your classes at YU. How has your teaching been influenced by your research, and vice versa?

I’ve been so enriched by my students at Stern College for Women, Yeshiva College and Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. They come with deep curiosity and raise fantastic questions, and sharing my research with them allows me to see it in new ways. I thank people like Revel Dean Dr. David Berger and Stern College Judaic Studies Chair Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel for giving me wide latitude in being able to share my passions and research, and believing that these things which may seem like a niche have wider reverberations.

My position is in Sephardic studies and one of the things I always do at the beginning of a class is ask, “What is Sephardic, how do you define it?” One of the things that I want to do in my courses is to amplify and redefine what we include in Jewish history, who we include, how we tell their stories. What’s the place of Spain and its Jews, and the Diaspora of Spain and its Jews, in the larger Jewish story? Another thing I emphasize to my students that they may not necessarily expect is that when you’re talking about the history of North American Judaism, those first Jews aren’t based in Philadelphia or South Carolina—they’re in the Caribbean, and they’re speaking Spanish and Portuguese.

I think these stories are especially relevant for Modern Orthodox university students as they’re trying to navigate their own Jewish identities. The Sephardic story is essential for that equation. These were Jews in medieval Spain who were both fully integrated and fully Jewish, speaking the language of their countries, involved in the sciences, but at the same time creating this super-rich culture of Torah for themselves. A clear inspiration for Torah Umadda. That’s why this isn’t just a history for the Sephardim—this is a history for all Jews and all people who are involved in that struggle of trying to cultivate and maintain their own identities while belonging to a larger community.

Yeshiva was at the forefront of championing the importance of Sephardic culture for the Jewish world. Dr. Herbert Dobrinsky worked with the chacham [scholar], Rabbi Dr. Solomon Gaón, z”l, to establish the first program in Sephardic Studies in the entire United States back in 1964. Dr. Dobrinsky and Rabbi Moshe Tessone have continued to enrich Sephardic life and culture on campus and help YU be a resource for the wider Sephardic world. It is because of their vision and hard work that we at Yeshiva can offer all our students an opportunity to explore the vitality of Sepahrdic culture and history both in the beit midrash under the leadership of Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Haim and in the academic realm. In addition to my classes they can explore the experience of Jews in the lands of Islam with my colleague and friend Professor Daniel Tsadik. Sephardic history in its complexity and richness plays a vibrant role in the education of our students of all backgrounds.

What lessons does Narratives From the Sephardic Atlantic hold for the modern Jewish reader?

It’s interesting—for myself, I’ve lately realized how autobiographical this research has been in part for me. When I was younger, my deepest interest was in the spiritual transformation of these individuals. But with time, as I became a father and saw my children grow up, I became much more interested in the nature of family, the nature of community, the way the individual is embedded in this larger, complex tapestry of people and interests and how they’re informed by them and have to break away from them.

In terms of contemporary religious life, we often think religion is driven by theology—what do you believe? We forget the power of tribe, of blood and of community in the making of what it means to be a religious person. You’re not alone with God. You’re always with someone, and we’re ultimately all hungry for brothers and sisters with whom we can share our faith. It’s so much about finding your own path and creating your own journey. One of the things these texts tell me is that these people who did so much to create their own religious path and break away from norms ultimately were so connected to their own blood families and spiritual families—the centrality and nourishment that community offers aren’t in contradiction with the individual journey. We often see them in tension, but I think they’re an inevitable dialectic, constantly informing and remaking each other.

Follow Perelis’s journey as he continues to explore these materials and other interactions between Jewish and Hispanic culture and history at Sephardiphilia.