A Link to the Past: Recently Found 400-year-old Manuscript Highlights Little-Known Period in Jewish History


A Link to the Past: Recently Found 400-year-old Manuscript Highlights Little-Known Period in Jewish History

Aaron Feigenbaum

Carvajal manuscript

Carvajal manuscript. Photo: Government of Mexico

After more than 75 years, one of the oldest and most significant documents relating to Jewish life in the New World has been found and will be returned to its rightful home in Mexico. The document, which was stolen from Mexico’s National Archives in 1932, is an autobiography of a high-ranking 16th-century converso named Luis de Carvajal.

Born in Portugal, Carvajal became the governor of the present-day Mexican province of Nuevo Leon. His enemies learned of his secret Jewish identity and reported him to the Spanish Inquisition. According to the New York Historical Society, he was put on trial for hiding his true faith and denounced 120 other secretly-practicing Jews for the same “crime.”

The “Memorias” manuscript includes Carvajal’s memoirs, a collection of prayers, and a book of psalms and commandments. Carvajal wrote under a pseudonym when describing his Jewish faith. After his imprisonment, a fellow prisoner found his manuscript and alerted the authorities. Carvajal was tortured and eventually killed in 1596.

The manuscript was loaned to the New York Historical Society by the Mexican government after it resurfaced on the auction circuit in 2015. Thanks to the work of prominent Judaica collector Leonard Milberg, the document will be returned to Mexico later this month. The Mexican Consul General Diego Gomez Pickering lauded the “cultural and historical significance” that the document represents for Mexico and for Jewish history in the Americas.

To better understand this significance, it’s worth taking a brief look at how the first Jews came to settle in the Americas, the kind of culture they developed, and the important role they played in developing the New World’s society and economy.

Alhambra Decree

Alhambra Decree ordering the Jews of Spain to either convert or be expelled

The Jewish history of the New World begins with the infamous Alhambra Decree of 1492, which ordered the Jews of Spain to either convert or be expelled. This single act prompted the migration of thousands of Jews to places like Holland, the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and Portugal (which also expelled its Jews several years later). A further impetus to leave Spain was the dreaded Inquisition, which was established in 1478 to persecute crypto-Jews.

Jews began migrating to the Spanish colonies of the New World in the 1500s. Many of them believed that they would find freedom from religious persecution, as well as better economic opportunities. However, in 1571, King Philip II ordered the establishment of the Inquisition in Mexico. On November 4th that year, everyone in Mexico City of age 12 and over was forced to congregate in the cathedral square to hear the first “Edict of Faith,” which threatened severe punishment for those suspected of “Judaizing.” In the weeks following, over 400 denunciations were reported to the Inquisition, which led to the opening of over 120 investigations. Anyone convicted of heresy, whether it be “Judaizing”, gambling, or witchcraft, was subject to the loss of their property, imprisonment, and even burning at the stake.

Things turned from bad to worse when a wave of persecutions broke out in the 1590s in Mexico City – the same wave which ultimately took the life of Carvajal and those of his family. In total, it’s estimated that at least 50 people were killed in the Mexican Inquisition, 29 of which were so-called “Judaizers” (those who practiced Judaism in secret).

inquisition hearing. Engraving by artist Constantino Escalante

Inquisition hearing. Engraving by artist Constantino Escalante

Another one of the most famous Mexican Inquisition cases was that of Dona Teresa, a highly educated woman born in Italy to the governor of Cartagena (in present-day Colombia). She was married to the Spanish governor of New Mexico, Don Bernardo Lopez de Mendizabal. Mendizabal had frequent disputes with the local church over their interference in state affairs. Rumors were spread that his wife was secretly a practicing Jew. At the end of Mendizabal’s term, the incoming governor took the side of Mendizabal’s opponent, Father Alonso de Posada, and in 1662 had the former governor and his wife arrested on the charge that she was secretly Jewish. Dona Teresa gave a vigorous defense against the Inquisition, even to the point of firing her defense attorneys and writing her own defense documents. She was released two years later, having been found neither guilty nor innocent. She was unsuccessful in retrieving her confiscated property and clearing her family’s name.

Stories like these are what motivated the 85-year-old Milberg to invest thousands of dollars in securing the Carvajal manuscript from the auction house (Swann’s) that was planning to sell it. In Milberg’s words, “I wanted to show that Jews were part of the fabric of life in the New World. This book was written before the Pilgrims arrived.” Milberg has also arranged for digital copies of the manuscript to be sent to Princeton and the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue of Manhattan.

Despite the Inquisition’s attempts at rooting out Judaism from the New World, the recent exhibit at the New York Historical Society showcases the enormous contributions Jews made to the New World in the areas of religion, art, culture, politics, and economics. With the rediscovery of the oldest Jewish document of the New World, it’s time for these contributions to be given some long overdue recognition.