The myth of la llave in crypto-Jewish Poetry

Posted by

By Editorial Intern Rachel Kaufman

In a 1996 Sage Junior College museum exhibition entitled “Llave: A Key to the Secret,” New Mexican poets, artists, and historians celebrated Sephardic Judaism’s presence in the New World by means of the myth of la llave (the key). The myth claims that when Jews left the Iberian Peninsula during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they took with them the keys to their homes “in the hope that they might some day return.” (Emma Moya Collection, Box 10, Folder 13) The keys perhaps no longer contain the hope of actual return (though some physical keys continue to be passed down through generations). Instead, la llave today serves as a symbol of a lost homeland and an emblem of renewed Jewish and Sephardic identity for crypto-Jews in the Southwest.

Crypto-Judaism, the secret practice and transmission of Jewish faith, originated on the Iberian Peninsula after a wave of pogroms in 1391. Hidden faith traveled through Jewish diaspora to the Ottoman Empire, Europe, and the Americas. The Spanish Inquisition followed fleeing Jews across the Atlantic, and the Mexican Inquisition was established in Mexico City in 1571. Increased Inquisitional presence in Mexico, along with colonial opportunity, pushed conversos north, into the region which would become New Mexico. But despite geographical distance from Mexico City, crypto-Jews continued to practice their religion secretly. Even following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, crypto-Judaism remained a hidden religion. Over the years, it mixed with other cultural or religious practices, creating a multicultural, multi-religious set of traditions.

Judaism could not flourish amongst hidden Jews in the New World from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. But crypto-Jewish life, passed covertly and sometimes unconsciously across generations, could survive through nostalgia and faith in a continuous Jewish past. Attempting to establish domicile in exile (see Yerushalmi’s use of “domicile” in “Exile and Expulsion in Jewish History”), these hidden Jews created an identity based in memory. One element of this claimed memory landscape was the myth of la llave.

The exhibition included a 1995 poem written by Dr. Isabelle Medina Sandoval, a New Mexico crypto-Jew, entitled “Trancas Abiertas” or “Opened Locks.” Sandoval’s family came to New Mexico in 1598, and her ancestors came from Toledo through Mexico to New Mexico. (Fractured Faiths, 218) Each stanza of the poem ends with a line about la llave, relating the object to escape, community, and homeland. Sandoval writes (and translates):

Las llaves de las puertas están en la cocina

para esconder secretos profundos de las cuartos

cerca del trastero que no compró tío Raquel

en una casa donde santos no miran por paredes

Raitos de luz escapan de la casita

​The keys of the doors are in the kitchen

to hide the profound secrets of the rooms

near the cupboard that Uncle Raquel bought for us

in a house where saints do not look through walls

Rays of light escape from the house

For Sandoval, the key represents hidden and lost identity, but in its journey to the present, the motif adopts registers of renewal and hope. The keys in the kitchen hide markings of Jewish identity, but when “saints” (presumably Catholic neighbors or Inquisitors) are not around, the light of Judaism escapes from hidden corners to the world outside. The poem continues:

Nos separamos y veinte años pasaron en

estados diferentes y juntamos y por la primera

vez hablando del sentido judío que tenemos

en el privado de nuestro entendimiento y ser

Llaves de pensamientos abren nuestra plâtica

We separated and twenty years passed

different states and we united for the first time

talking about the Jewish feeling we have

in the privateness of our understanding and being

Keys of thoughts open up our conversation

As Medieval scholar Mary Carruthers writes about the pearl-image in Middle English poem, Pearl, images can mutate, collecting symbolic meanings as time, or poetic time, progresses. (Carruthers, “Invention, Mnemonics, and Stylistic Ornament in Psychomachia and Pearl.”) The keys in “Opened Locks” begin confined in a home’s interior but soon serve to unlock the past and create room for identity reclamation—the keys “of thoughts” open up space for Jewish discussion. The poem ends:

Los sefarditos de España se escaparon con llave escondida

y sé dentro de mis huesos que ésta misma llave fue perdida

y que ya hemos encontrado la llave en la neshama dormida

The Sephardim of Spain escaped with a hidden Key

and I know deep in my bones that this same key was

and that now we have found the key to the

sleeping Neshama

The last line of the poem opens up the image to the spiritual world, the world of the Neshama, meaning “soul,” and the reader feels the movement from closed kitchen doors to present-day liberation. 

The 1996 exhibition also included a poem written by curator Nasrallah, entitled “Crypto-Jew,” that focuses on the discomforts of crypto-Jewish identity and the process of looking for an absent past. Nasrallah writes: I’m staring. / And, though I am entitled, / I feel like I’m prying. // I’m looking through a keyhole… / crouched in awe of wisdom, / expectant and hesitant. // I’m listening….lapping up the pearls of wisdom….as I squat, uncomfortable, / before the door to antiquity.

The speaker can and cannot access Jewish knowledge, within earshot but forbidden. The key to the past is missing, and the gaping keyhole creates distance between past and present. Unlike in Sandoval’s poem, the past is undefined and indistinct, described through a single word: “antiquity.” Nasrallah writes elsewhere in the exhibition that her mother and friends used to sing a song she assumed referred to the keys brought from Spain: “Donde esta la llave, matarilerilerile, donde esta la llave, matarilerileron. En el fondo del mar…” (“where is the key, gone forever at the bottom of the sea”). The lyrics belong to a Spanish children’s song with a longer narrative, but Nasrallah’s assumption remains plausible. The remembered excerpt emphasizes absence. Without a cultural key to the past, and perhaps without the myth of la llave, diasporic identity falters.

The myth of la llave connects crypto-Jews to a romanticized vision of their ancestral land. But the myth also supports faith and religiosity. In a 1992 article, “El leñador y los enanitos: A Crypto-Jewish version of a Spanish Folktale,” Roger Parks discusses the evolving adaptations of a Sephardi legend. He quotes Reginetta Haboucha, a collector of Judeo-Spanish tales in Israel: “Many of the judeo-spanish oral narratives contain, and therefore transmit, images of comfort and consolation. They give the assurance of divine justice…In spite of the dismal [images] of misery [they] show faith and hope in the face of adversity. The tales seem thus to have had an enormous social impact, providing the tellers with the necessary strength to endure a life of hardship with fortitude and resignation.” (Moya Collection, Box 10, Folder 14) Crypto-Jewish poems and songs recognize the dismalness of centuries of secrecy and oppression but ultimately present hope. The mythology of the llave translates to desire for faith and divine justice: “ya hemos encontrado la llave en la neshama dormida.” Even Nasrallah’s pessimistic poem contains an element of awe (“crouched in awe of wisdom, / expectant”).

Scholar Svetlana Boym defined nostalgia as “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed…a romance with one’s own fantasy.” Nostalgia selectively reconstructs places and times, creating an ideal version of the past. Amongst exiles who can only imagine their homelands, she continues, nostalgia must rely on the sensual: “on materiality of place, sensual perceptions, smells and sounds.” (Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 1, 258) These sensations, latent in objects like la llave, transport an immigrant and her descendants to a past homeland. In Cary Herz’s book, New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, crypto-Jew Gloria Trujillo says about her Jewish identity: “The thing was that all along I had the key. I knew inside of me all my life, but I hadn’t put it all together. The more I learned about my Jewish heritage, the more it all fits into place.” The key not only transports diasporic Trujillo back to her geographic homeland (or homelands) but it contains her innate tie to Judaism.

Boym also wrote that “the nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology.” (Boym, XV) Nostalgia does serve as a means of collective mythology and identity for New Mexico crypto-Jews, but because their nostalgia exists only in the private world of memory, it does not obliterate, or even alter, history. Boym distinguishes between restorative nostalgia, a “return home” by means of reconstruction of the homeland and monuments of the past, and reflective nostalgia, a “longing” which delays the return home by dwelling in the act of remembering and longing. New Mexico crypto-Jews practice reflective nostalgia. They attempt to patch up gaps in memory between New Mexico and Sepharad, but their work ultimately—as demonstrated through the preservation of the myth of la llave—functions as a means of dwelling in of itself.

To read more of Rachel Kaufman’s work on New Mexico crypto-Judaism, look for the forthcoming publication of her thesis, “New Mexico crypto-Jewish Memory, Origins to 2007” in the Yale Historical Review.

Feature image from the New Mexico Digital Collection.

Leave a Reply