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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What are Crypto-Judaic Studies?

I am back at the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies (IAJGS) Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah for the second day. Most of my day will be spent helping out at the Utah Genealogical Association table in the Exhibitors Section of the Conference. Before the Exhibit floor opens, I have an opportunity to attend one class since the classes begin at 7:30 am. The class is entitled, "Crypto-Judaic Studies Panel, Part 1." It looks like I will miss part two. I must admit, I choose this presentation because I wanted to find out about the topic. So, what are crypto-Judaic studies? The presentation is being moderated by my fellow blogger, Schelly Talalay Dardashti. Here is the class description from the Conference:
This panel will bring together leaders in the field, as it raises awareness of specific issues. Panelists will include moderator Schelly Talalay Dardashti (Society for CryptoJudaic Studies board member), Genie Milgrom (JGS of Miami president Society for CryptoJudaic Studies vice president), Art Benveniste (JGSLA, Society for CryptoJudaic Studies treasurer), and Bennett Greenspan ( CEO/president). Other panel participants will be added as confirmed.
Essentially, as I found out, the Cryto-Jews are explained as follows from the presentation handout:
While most crypto-Jewish communities are generally related to the Iberian Inquisition and the terrible events of 1391 and 1492, there are groups in other countries with no connection to Spain, such as the Mashadi community of Iran.
Part of the explanation also comes from the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies which states:
The Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies (SCJS) fosters the research of the historical and contemporary development of crypto-Jews of Iberian origin. Additionally, it provides a venue for the descendants of crypto-Jews, scholars, and other interested parties to network and discuss pertinent issues. The society was founded 1991 by Rabbi Joshua Stampfer of Portland, Oregon; Dr. Stanley Hordes of Santa Fe, New Mexico; and playright Rena Down of New York City.
These are Jews of sephardic origin who have practiced their religion and culture in secret due to persecution. Wikipedia defines crypto-judaism as follows:
Crypto-Judaism is the secret adherence to Judaism while publicly professing to be of another faith; practitioners are referred to as "crypto-Jews" (origin from Greek kryptos - κρυπτός, 'hidden'). The term crypto-Jew is also used to describe descendants who maintain some Jewish traditions of their ancestors while publicly adhering to other faiths. The term is especially applied historically to European Jews who professed Catholicism.[1][2][3][4][5] The phenomenon is especially associated with early modern Spain, following the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.[6] 
I left in all of the links to the sources.

Genealogical research in this community is difficult due to its secretive nature. The Sephardim are defined in a blog post entitled, "What do we mean by the term, "Sephardim." Here is the explanation:
Spanish Jews are called Sephardim; the singular is "Sephardi." The Hebrew "sephardi" or "sepharadi" refers either to a single Spanish Jew, or is used as an adjective meaning pertaining to the Sephardim. For example, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) called himself Moses… the Sephardi. "Sephardic" is used in English as an adjective, not a noun: someone may be Sephardic, but the people should be called "Sephardim" rather than "Sephardics;" 
Up to the fifteenth century, "Sephardi" was used primarily to refer to the Jewish community in the Iberian peninsula itself, or to someone who was born there. Thus Maimonides called himself "the Sephardi," but his son Abraham, born in Egypt, did not. This changed in the fifteenth and especially sixteenth centuries, primarily as a result of the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.
If you are interested in pursuing this subject or if you suspect that you have a Crypto-Jewish heritage, please visit,, and the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies (on Facebook or the website at Also, there is the IberianAshkenaz DNA Project at


  1. Thanks, James.Thank you for such a great blog post. We appreciate the fact that you were there. However, for resources, I would suggest the name search engine at,, and the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies (on Facebook or the website at Sephardic SIG at JewishGen does not have much information and neither does JewishGen which is mainly Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jews) in its focus. Also, there is the IberianAshkenaz DNA Project at Wish you had been there to hear Bennett Greenspan in Part II.

    1. I wish I had been there also, but I was committed to help at the Utah Genealogical Association table in the Exhibit Hall the entire day Tuesday. Thanks for the additional links.

    2. I have a question- does the term “crypto-Jews” refer only to those Jews of the Iberian peninsula? I have a suspicion that my East European ancestors were Jewish. My name ‘Blefko’ is not found on any ship manifests to Ellis Island. I have seen the name Lefkowitz many times, most recently a book review by Eliot Lefkowitz of the book “Secret Jews” which is about the crypto-Jews of Spain and Portugal. Anyway, this is an very important to me personally. I would really like to find out if indeed my ancestors dropped the ‘Witz’ in Lefkowitz (which then became Blefko) perhaps because they were so tired of the violence and persecution meted out to them in Europe. It may sound a bit flighty, or like wild, mystical conjecture, but when I listen to klezmer music, I feel such an uncanny connection, the music gives me goosebumps, like as if I have an affinity and ancient connection to this music. Well, if anyone reading this comment can steer me in the direction of someone or some organization which could help me if indeed I have some Jewish ancestors in my Eastern European background I would greatly appreciate it!

    3. No, a crypto-jew is a person who secretly practices Judaism while officially converting, under duress, to either Christianity or Islam. Please see the previous comment for a list of websites that can help you with your search.