Poems and Prayers Reveal the Inner Lives of the Hidden Jews of Mexico

After the Spanish monarchy outlawed Judaism in 1492, many Jewish converts to Catholicism and their descendants who sought to practice their religion in secret fled to the New World, hoping to be far from the watchful eyes of neighbors and ecclesiastical authorities. But the inquisition soon followed them, and was established in Mexico in 1521—where it was not abolished until 1820. Mark Schneegurt discusses what the poems and prayers of Mexican crypto-Jews reveal about their inner lives:

The sacred writings of crypto-Jews in Mexico 400 years ago ring with a desperation tempered by deep faith in the God of their ancestors. It was, [in their eyes] their own sin—turning their backs on the Law [and outwardly embracing Christianity]—that led to their suffering. Despite it all, they called out in repentance, hoping, knowing that God would in some way hear their cry—if sincere—and then generously shine His favor upon them once again.

The Carvajal family in Mexico was led by Luis de Carvajal, the younger, an alumbrado, or mystic. His family and friends became embroiled in the inquisition. Many of them, including Luis, were finally martyred at the auto-da-fé of 1596 in Mexico City.

Luis wrote a number of religious poems in Spanish; Schneegurt presents one in English translation:

As for myself, I have a heart enameled
with the name of the Lord, holy and blessed,
and as much as I feel faint,
in just thinking of Him my spirit rejoices. . . .
Remind me of the time that teaches me,
it was to deliver me from Egypt,
and to see that He that was then is now.
I hope for better times, I pray.

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More about: Inquisition, Judaism, Marranos, Mexico, Poetry

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy