By Mimi Pollack

Little is written in American history books about the hidden Jews of the Southwest, and many people have never heard of them. But some of the ancestors of present-day residents of New Mexico were “Conversos” from Spain, who secretly kept their Jewish faith when they emigrated to the New World.

During the time of the Inquisition, Conversos were Jews who pretended to convert to Catholicism to avoid being killed. Some really did convert, but many continued practicing their Sephardic Jewish traditions in secret in their new land for generations, sometimes without even knowing why.

Local filmmaker Isaac Artenstein’s new documentary, A Long Journey, The Hidden Jews of the Southwest, chronicles the journey of the Sephardic Jews scattered across New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, as well as the northern Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, detailing how they found their ancient roots and returned to the Jewish faith.

It includes the story of Tim Herrera, a New Mexican cattle rancher and proud Jew. Although not everyone in his mostly Catholic family approved, he rediscovered his Sephardic Jewish roots and converted to Judaism, as did his wife and children. He embraced his faith and roots so strongly that he is currently in the process of moving to Israel, where he wants to use his experience as a rancher to raise cattle in the Holy Land. Herrera is one of various Sephardic New Mexicans who have embraced Judaism, a theme the documentary explores.

This documentary came about after Artenstein finished a previous film, Challah Rising in the Desert — the Jews of New Mexico. Artenstein said that after showing that film at various screenings, so many people in the audience stayed after and talked with deep emotion about discovering their Sephardic roots and converting, that he and his long-time producer, Paula Amar Schwartz, decided to make a follow up documentary about these hidden Jews.

Artenstein and his crew traveled throughout New Mexico and and other parts of the Southwest to explore the world of the descendants of the Conversos and document how many of them are exploring their family trees and coming back to Judaism — not always an easy feat.

First, they have to research their ancestors and find the documentation that shows that they are descendants of Sephardic Jews. The Jewish Federation of New Mexico is one of the authorities in investigating and confirming a Sephardic background. Next, some have to contend with families who like Herrera’s family are dismayed that they are leaving the Catholic Church.

While filming, Artenstein and his crew met and interviewed many fascinating hidden Jews. There is the scholar, Ron D. Hart, who wrote the companion book for the film. There is the artist Charlie Carrillo, a Santero — one who draws saints or retablos — whose work is inspired by Spanish Jewish and Catholic imagery. Although Carrillo is Catholic, he is proud of the Sephardic roots many New Mexicans have. There is Blanca Carrasco who honestly speaks about grappling with not feeling accepted by some of the congregants at her previous synagogue and her road to Judaism.

But the most charismatic of all the people interviewed is Stephen Leon, the rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’Nai Zion in El Paso. A warm and jovial Ashkenazi Jew from New Jersey, he has made it his life’s mission to serve the Sephardic community of El Paso and also Ciudad Juarez across the border. He helped many in their conversion and assimilation.

Until last year, the Spanish government offered citizenship to those who could prove they had Sephardic blood. There was a rush of Jews from around the world that coveted Spanish citizenship who applied to the program. Many researched their ancestry to prove they had Sephardic blood and were able to obtain the citizenship. Some of this is discussed in the film.

The photography in the documentary is stunning, especially the aerial views.  It really gives the viewer a sense of the cultural and national landscape, especially New Mexico. Artenstein worked with his other long-time collaborator, his director of cinematography, Sergio Ulloa.

The official premiere of the documentary is Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. on KNME/NMPBS in New Mexico. Since it will be aired nationally, it is a good idea to check your local PBS affiliates for the exact air time.

A talented filmmaker, Artenstein is also known for his films, Tijuana Jews and To the Ends of the Earth, A Portrait of Jewish San Diego. His website is www.cinewest.net.

Mimi Pollack is a former English as a Second Language teacher and a freelance writer.

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