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Dr. Ronnie Perelis Gives a Talk on Crypto-Judaism

Ronnie PerelisDr. Ronnie Perelis is the Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Chair, associate professor of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and director of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs.

On Feb. 13, 2020, he gave a talk on “Crypto-Judaism in the Americas: The Case of Luis de Carvajal, a New World Jewish Thinker (Mexico 1580-1596)” at Temple Moses in Miami Beach, Florida.

Temple Moses is the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Miami founded by Cuban Jews fleeing Castro’s communist regime in 1960. “It is a special community,” said Dr. Perelis, “now led by the dynamic Rabbi Daniel Hadar, who has invigorated the community with a renewed appreciation of the power of their Sephardic heritage.”

Dr. Perelis spoke about a long-lost manuscript that was recently rediscovered after its theft from the Mexican National Archives in 1932: the religious writings of  Luis de Carvajal, a Mexican Crypto-Jew from the 16th century.

Luis de Carvajal was a religious visionary who reconstructed his Judaism while living under the watchful eye of the Mexican Inquisition. Using his Jewish pen name of Joseph Lumbroso—Joseph the Enlightened—Carvajal wrote extensively about his secret faith in a series of manuscripts as he traveled around colonial Mexico.

When he was eventually arrested by the Inquisition in 1595, these precious documents were confiscated by the Inquisitorial authorities and preserved as evidence against Carvajal as proof of his heresy. These manuscripts were kept in an archive until 1932, when a mysterious visitor stole them. They only resurfaced in 2016.

Final page of Luis de Carvajal’s spiritual autobiography, c. 1596 (Princeton University Digital Library)

The talk centered on Carvajal’s religious creativity and spiritual audacity while living under the Inquisition’s persecution, and Dr. Perelis used concrete examples of Carvajal’s religious ideas as reflected in these manuscripts to show what they can tell us about Jewish life in the New World. “It was a particular pleasure to be able to share sections of the original Spanish manuscript, written in Carvajal’s elegant hand, with this audience, most of whom could appreciate the subtle beauty of his writing in their native tongue.”