Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Biological Take on Identity Politics

From The Association of Crypto-Jews

One summer when I was a grad student at Indiana University, Bloomington, I sent an email out over the folklore listserve: would anyone like to watch the annual, August, Perseid meteor shower with me?

I proposed a trip to Morning Glory Farm on Bethel Lane, owned by my friend Charley. The farm was off the beaten track, away from city lights, and I hoped we'd see many Perseids there.

A fellow folklore student responded to my email. Her name was Judith Neulander. We met, drove out to Charley's farm, and sat on a hillside, watching Perseids streak earthward.

Later I mentioned this outing to friends.

"YOU went stargazing with JUDITH NEULANDER!!!???"

"Um … yeah … "

"MY GOD! She's even more hated than you!"

At the time I was working on my dissertation, which became the book, "Bieganski." Thus the hate I was confronting.

What about Judith? A petite, charming, mature woman. She seemed pretty harmless. I was so naïve!

Why was Judith hated? Her work was fascinating, essential, brilliant, honest, and unique.

Long story short: In the 1980s, New Mexico State Historian Stanley Hordes claimed that he had discovered cypto-, or hidden, Jews in New Mexico. These crypto-Jews had been raised religiously Catholic and culturally Spanish, aka Hispanic or Latino. These apparently Hispanic Catholics approached Stanley Hordes and confessed to him that they were really Jewish. They had been hiding their Jewishness all their lives. They had been hiding because their ancestors were Jews who had been persecuted in the Inquisition, and in New Mexico they had been burned at the stake for being Jewish.

They preserved their identity by naming their children "Adonai," by hiding stars of David in the design of their ostensibly Catholic churches and tombstones, and by saying prayers in Hebrew.

Some had less appealing ways of asserting their hidden Jewishness. "I know I am Jewish because most Hispanics are not very smart and my family members have always read books." "I know I am Jewish because we are good with money."

One man, Juan Sandoval, told a poignant tale of the persecution he faced as a crypto-Jew. His neighbors shot at him and he took financial losses. He devoted his artwork to his ancestry, traveling the country.

Judith, an eager grad student and researcher, traveled to New Mexico. Her mission? To become the "Queen of the Crypto-Jews."

What Judith discovered in New Mexico derailed this ambition. Hordes' work was rife with basic ethnographic errors. Stars of David are not unheard of in many artworks of many faiths, and are proof of nothing. One tombstone featuring a Star of David was selected by a visiting Irish priest. Jews do not give their children first names like "Adonai." Rather, this can be compared to the Hispanic custom of naming a child after Jesus. Records show that no one was burned at the stake in New Mexico. Juan Sandoval was a phony exposed by his own family members. As he traveled the country with his Jewish-themed art (a Rabbi chia pet), he conned money and other favors from naïve Jewish women.

In short, the crypto-Jews were not really Jewish at all. Why were they insisting that they were? Judith suggests it might be a way for Hispanics, often with Native American ancestry, to overcome prejudice they face among fellow Hispanics, for not having pure European ancestry, and among Anglos.

What's really interesting about this story is reaction to it. Jewish audiences ate it up. The NPR coverage of Stanley Hordes' claims became the most requested NPR story ever. His claims were covered on PBS and in mainstream media. University presses rushed to cover this story.


Some argue that the crypto-Jew story, in spite of its being thoroughly debunked by Judith Neulander's scholarly work, became so popular because it fed a desire among some Jews, obviously not all, to romanticize and emphasize identity as be-all and end-all. The crypto-Jew narrative reinforced many desired aspects of identity. It depicts Jews and non-Jews as essentially different, non-Jews as perpetually persecuting Jews, from the Inquisition to the burnings at the stake in New Mexico to the neighbors who shot at and robbed Juan Sandoval, and Jewish identity as so potent it can survive all this.

This is not a narrative that emphasizes an alternate take on Jewish identity, one in which faith in God and fealty to God's covenant are primary. It's often said by Jewish commentators (many of whom are quoted in "Bieganski") that religious Jews are less likely to engage in identity politics. I don't know if that is true, and I don't know if anyone has done the research to back it up.

But those Jews for whom Jewish observance is part of daily life, it is argued, require less identity politics to shore up their own identity. They know who they are: they are people in a Biblically-mandated relationship with God.

In this critique, increasing secularization has increased the need for identity politics. Eating pork, not keeping the Sabbath, etc, have vitiated a desired sense of Jewish identity. Other sources of identity are needed. Bieganski the Brute Polak is one source. The crypto-Jew narrative is another.


I thought of Judith's work today when I read an article in the New York Times. In the August 17th, 2012 New York Times, in the article "On the Trail of Inherited Memories," Doreen Carvajal identifies herself as a former crypto-Jew. She reports that her goal is "to take new stock of my identity by reclaiming ancestral memories, history and DNA." It's that last term, "DNA," that rouses my concern.

Here are some quotes from the article:

"The history of our ancestors is somehow a part of us, inherited in unexpected ways through a vast chemical network in our cells that controls genes, switching them on and off. At the heart of the field, known as epigenetics, is the notion that genes have memory and that the lives of our grandparents — what they breathed, saw and ate — can directly affect us decades later …

I’m intrigued by the notion that generations pass on particular survival skills and an unconscious sense of identity that stands the test of centuries…

The French psychologist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger, now in her 90s, has spent decades studying what she calls the ancestor syndrome – that we are links in a chain of generations, unconsciously affected by their suffering or unfinished business until we acknowledge the past…

In the 1990s Dina Wardi, a psychotherapist in Jerusalem, worked with the children of Holocaust survivors and developed the theory that survivor parents often designated certain children as memorial candles who took on the mission of serving as a link to preserve the past and connect the future. The children of survivors who actively struggled against the Nazis, she found, had a compulsive ambition to achieve…

My fantasy, of course, was that I could somehow tap these ancestral memories. I have recently made the acquaintance of another Carvajal in Spain, an actor who remembers that even though he was raised Catholic he always insisted to his mother that he was Jewish. He said he started making the claim when he was about 6 years old…

Reality is even stranger. Dr. Darold A. Treffert, a psychiatrist in Wisconsin, maintains a registry of about 300 savants who through a head injury or dementia acquire skills they never learned. Conceivably, he says, those skills, like music, mathematics, art and calendar calculating, were buried deep in their brains. He calls it genetic memory, or “factory-installed software,” a huge reservoir of dormant knowledge that can emerge when a damaged brain rewires itself to recover from injuries…

In the red leather folder where I keep my reporter’s notebook and business cards, I always keep a photograph of the old Inquisition jail in Arcos de la Frontera…I found out that Aunt Luz sometimes dreamed about Andalusia."


These excerpts give me the creeps. I don't feel like I'm reading a poignant essay about rediscovered identity. I feel like I'm reading dystopic science fiction.

I think of three men who have had a big impact on this blog: John Guzlowski, Arno Lowi and Otto Gross, of Polish Catholic, Polish Jewish, and German Lutheran ancestry. Each one of these men suffered because of the deification and the biological concept of identity.

I want these three men, and me, and everyone else, to have tomorrow. To have a world where you can walk away from your identity if you choose to. Where you don't have to relive the Inquisition in order to feel alive.

Me? I'm proud to be Polish-Slovak-American. And I'm happy not to be Polish when it isn't called for. I lived in Nepal and spoke and Nepali and ate Nepali food and wore Nepali clothes. I don't have to be Polish 24-7. I don't have to keep reliving Katyn, Warsaw, the invasion of the Swedes, the Turks, the Kossaks, the Battle of Grunwald.

I do not believe that my grandfathers' suffering in the coal mines is in my genes. I do not believe that the Hungarian lash on my serf ancestors' backs is in my genes. As Jan Lechon said, "In the spring, let me see spring, not Poland."

I have to wonder what has brought Doreen Carvajal to the point where she wants to believe that her presumed ancestors' presumed suffering is inextricably located in her genes.

And why does it have to be her ancestors' suffering? Maybe one of her ancestors really, really enjoyed an ice cream cone once. Or a sunny day. Or a soft kitten. Could that not be in her genes? Heck, even that idea gives me the willies.

Essential ideas of identity are behind some of the worst atrocities humans have ever committed. I've read the intellectual, cultural, and moral foundations of Nazism, going back to Herder and the Grimms and up to Madison Grant. All these thinkers insisted on an inescapable, biological basis for identity. Can we at least just remember that if we are to proceed with this new attempt to locate identity in genes?


In other news:

I am more grateful than I can say for your prayers for me. I have meditated on your prayers again and again: during the tests (which can be terrifying), just before surgery, and during lonely moments when the dark forces seem insurmountable. Your prayers make a very positive difference in this world, and if you care to, I hope you will keep them coming. I will let you know when I am out of the woods, but, let's face it, when have I not been in the woods?

And much gratitude to Otto for helping with the blog when I was otherwise indisposed.


  1. It's a weird world we live in. This sort of nonsense about reincarnation (the story here is simply a variant) is pretty wide spread and has manifested itself in recovered memories during the sex abuse scares of the early 90s, the belief that indigenous peoples have some secret, metaphysical gateway to higher knowledge and so on.

    Identity is a cultural construct but people don't want to believe it if they don't have to and so invent circumstances where they are free to imagine anything at all that suits them about their identity. The twist here is that they want to identify as descendants of people who suffered persecution.

    Currently, being of Celtic descent is quite fashionable among some groups in Europe and all sorts of claims are being made for the breadth of Celtic influence across Europe pre the Roman conquest.The result of such wishful thinking is that apparently in book fairs in places there are stalls set out by publishers with popular tomes about the spread of Celtic culture and associated issues, with locals forming large groups browsing this stuff which is based on either the flimsiest evidence stretched to breaking point or coincidence rather than evidence.

    All the best for continued recovery.

  2. A genetic memory, eh?

    I think not, but maybe I was a Polish candle for my father, a repository for all the memories of Modliborzyce, the Jewish tavern with a red-head woman barkeep he loved, the gypsy woman who recommended a poultice of pollen which finally healed him, the friends lost to the ovens, and before that the small boy in rural leadbelt Missouri terroized by adults in the community who wanted his people, my people OUT. (as other around the globe still want this one or that out/dead/gone>)
    That's not what is in my genes, thank you for pointing this out so well Danusha, but those stories and more are most definitely in my heart.

    Christina Pacosz

  3. Good to hear you're still with us, Danusha, and writing.

    On the issue of genetic memory, I think most people have the opposite: genetic forgetting. They forget what has come before, the sorrow and terror their fathers and mothers and ancestors experienced.

    I think every teacher knows this who has asked his students to write about the generations that have come before.

  4. Your account of certain Hispanics assuming that they must be Jewish because they are good in business, like books, are intelligent, etc., reminds me of those WWII Nazi Germans who believed that Poles who exhibit traits such as punctuality, cleanliness, and a sense of order are self-evidently of German descent, even if independent evidence of German ancestry is lacking.

    Consider also the question if any modern peoples are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. My review of one scholarly work on this topic can be accessed by clicking my name on this specific posting.

  5. Re Celts in mainland Europe: I thought that it was pretty much a given that Celts used to inhabit most of Europe at some point in time? I'm very vague about the timeframe, as I USED to be very interested in archaeology about 20+ years ago, and I can only recall disjointed fragments of information now... Nevertheless, even if Celts used to live all over the place, it was so long ago that most modern Europeans have no, or only the tiniest, "connection" with these peoples. It's nice to look back and think about them once being there, but that's about it. ;-)
    It's interesting that while most Polish families in Poland tend to talk to kids about the past and share past experiences both trivial and historical, from what I have personally learnt, most American families tend to live in a sort of eternal present - the grandparents go silent to their graves, their house and possessions, including photos and other personal items, are sold off in a yard sale, and everyone moves on. Nobody remembers who they were or what they went through. This is of course a generalisation, but when talking to Americans I have often heard them say "I wish grandpa had told me about his life at the front during WW2" or similar things. I cannot imagine my grandpa NOT telling me about such stuff. Is it really true that Americans are unable of cherishing / handing down their history (history that is created from the lives of individuals, not the big History that you get packaged from the bookstore)? Or is that only my personal misconception?

    1. Magdalena, your observation meshes with my own experience. Americans do tend to live in an eternal present. if others have different experiences, I hope they will speak up.

  6. You may find this BBC documentary interesting (

    The whole thing reminds me of Frank Herbert's Dune back from 1965. It should probably stay there - in sci-fi books, that is.

    I'd like you to know that you have people praying for you and your recovery all over the world.

    1. Anonymous, I'm very deeply moved by your mention of prayers. I really hold on to those words. Thank you.

      here's an update on that front:

  7. Careful - not a topic you want to be involved with - as Theo Sarazzin found out; right or wrong don't make a difference here;

    remember: identity politics is EVERYTHING. it's just that your "gang" is weaker than the other gangs.


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