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“Palestine, New Mexico”: Crypto Judaism and More

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Crypto Judaism, one’s own or others’, has inspired works in literature, film, music and literature. I saw and was delighted by a work of theater this week that grew out of Playwright Richard Montoya’s exploration of his family’s potential Sephardic Jewish roots, “Palestine, New Mexico,” at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.

My delight came from the vibrancy of the performances, warming the stage with fresh expressions of themes familiar to me–peace over war and our human and spiritual connectedness. The latter theme is implicit in the reality of people having to hide their ancestral and religious identities to survive physically and, long after that need is no more, to survive socially and psychically. “Palestine, New Mexico” takes place beyond even this: these old needs are no longer needed for survival; moreover, they don’t serve valid purposes in the present, and are injurious to those maintaining them. The message seems to be no more secrets if they bring us isolation and separation from each other, on the personal and familial, as well as on the racial and global levels.

In a question and answer session with the audience at Sunday’s matinee on January 3, Montoya, member of the theater group Culture Clash, spoke of his family’s roots in New Mexico and the legends about their Jewish origins. In an interview in the Los Angeles Times (December 19, 2009), Reed Johnson refers to Montoya’s weaving of this into his “comedic drama, in which strands of Chicano, Jewish and Native American history are knotted together in one thick, complex braid.” And in Naomi Pfefferman’s interview in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal (December 18-24, 2009), Montoya gives his “Justification for the piece”:

“I’d like to try to answer some questions so my children will know that their great-great-grandfather might be from Damacscus but your great-great-grandmother may have lit Shabbat candles on Friday night. That takes the issue off the newspaper headlines and the lefty blogosphere so that I can take a beat and a moment and explore this question of my family. It just surprises me that so many people don’t want me to do that.”

Crypto Judaism is a subject included in “The Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal” in accounts of the diaspora after 1492 to Spain’s New World colonies. If you’re in LA or nearby, I recommend an evening or afternoon at the theater with “Palestine, New Mexico.” It’s a fresh look at the phenomenon with insight and humor.


One Comment

  1. Posted February 8, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Very very interesting! I’m eager to speak personally…who knows, maybe in August!!

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