Preservation Case Studies

Intro to MIAP
Profs. Besser and Harris

Aimée Castenell
Lindsay Herron
Kara Van Malssen

The Hidden Jews of New Mexico

by Nan Rubin and Ben Shapiro

The Creator:
Nan Rubin is both a public radio producer and a social activist.  For more than 20 years, she has been involved in media management, nonprofit development, and public broadcast production.  She has acted as either producer or project director for many widely-acclaimed and award-winning media projects that deal with topics such as prejudice, race, and religion.  Her most recent project, “Living Voices,” is a public radio series of profiles of American Indians, produced through The National Museum of the American Indian/Smithsonian Institution. Rubin also runs Community Media Services, a business that provides management, fundraising, and technical services to various media organizations. Rubin is Jewish, and she is very active in issues of rights and equality for Jewish people worldwide. She is a founder and secretary of the Board of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a New York City organization that addresses issues relating to race within the Jewish community and racism within the city as a whole.  

The Program:
For this case study, we focused on one of Rubin's more controversial and lauded programs, created in collaboration with award-winning producer Ben Shapiro. “The Hidden Jews of New Mexico” is a three-part series of thirty-minute public radio broadcasts that was produced over a period of ten years.   This program explores the legacy of the Jews of Spain, who were forced by the Inquisition to emigrate or convert in 1492.  About half the Jews in Spain converted, and about half of these “conversos” were crypto-Jews, individuals who had the outward appearance of being Catholic but secretly continued to practice Jewish rituals in their homes and passed their true faith down to their children.   Other Jews immigrated to Mexico, and from Mexico to New Mexico as the Inquisition expanded to Mexico City.

“The Hidden Jews of New Mexico” explores the heritage of a community of people living in New Mexico who believe they are descendents of hidden Jews, Sephardic Jews who ostensibly converted to Catholicism but secretly passed down a legacy of Jewish practices.  Though at first these people were reluctant to share their 500-year-old secret, the success of the first program prompted more and more people to come out and say they, too, are hidden Jews and want to know more about their history.  Even though the program was completed in 1996, and hasn't aired since 1998, Nan Rubin still gets multiple calls, e-mails, and letters every week from people who want to know more. “The Hidden Jews” was noted about a decade ago to be the third most popular program ever to be aired on NPR, and it has generated an enormous amount of interest and controversy worldwide. It has become an important part of the scholarly debate on “who is a Jew?,” a question that will be the subject of Rubin and Shapiro’s next radio program.    It should be noted that many some academics believe that the stories of people who say they are crypto-Jews do not prove the existence of such a community and the whole idea of hidden Jews in New Mexico is bogus.

Process and Retention:
In 1986, Nan Rubin was living in Denver and Ben Shapiro was in Albuquerque.   Rumors of secret Jews living in the region reached them, and they resolved to hunt down answers. As they began their search, Shapiro met Stanley Hordes, former state historian of New Mexico, who was putting together a team of researchers at the University of New Mexico to explore this subject, and the two producers were permitted to join the team.  The colonial history of New Mexico was well documented, and they knew that many of the early settlers were Jewish.  The question was whether they remained Jewish for five hundred years.  Through this research team, Shapiro and Rubin were able to find people willing to share their stories, though they wished to remain anonymous.  

It was conceived as only a single program when production began in 1986.  The first program, “Search for the Buried Past: The Hidden Jews of New Mexico,” was initially broadcast in 1988.  There were two versions of this original piece: a twelve-minute version broadcast on National Public Radio's All Things Considered and a thirty-minute piece for distribution.  The initial broadcast on NPR received such a huge response that the producers decided to put the program out on satellite for local stations to air.  They decided the best way to promote the program would be to air it around Yom Kippur.  It was so well received that the program was aired again in the spring around Passover and continued to air every year afterward, with an increasing number of stations picking it up each time.   

Rubin and Shapiro were then approached by some of the original subjects they had interviewed about doing another program in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain.  Many events were planned in Spain as the Jews were invited to come back and the Edict of Expulsion was finally officially rescinded.  Dennis Duran, who spoke on the first part of “The Hidden Jews,” attended these events and brought back audio for the second program, “The Hidden Jews of New Mexico: Rekindling the Spirit.”  After this broadcast in 1992, Nan Rubin received a flood of letters from people who thought they were secret Jews and had amazing stories.   This response prompted the
original interviewees to change their minds about their anonymity.  Subsequently, they allowed Nan Rubin to give out their personal information to those interested in learning more.  

Another interesting result of the broadcast was the creation of an organization called The Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies.  This society received an invitation to meet with the crypto-Jews of Portugal in a community called Belmonte. For political reasons in 1497, the king of Portugal forced the Jews there to convert and gave them a 50-year grace period to do so.  Many converted superficially but secretly continued to practice Judaism. In 1995, Rubin and Shapiro traveled with two of the original interview subjects, Gloria Trujillo and Ramon Salas, along with a cameraman, to Spain and Portugal, where they began production of the third program, “The Hidden Jews of New Mexico: Return to Iberia.”  In this part of the series, Gloria and Ramon explored the Spanish archives to find traces of their family lineage and hopefully evidence of their Jewish heritage.   They also visited Belmonte and learned the history of the hidden Jews there.  This final section of the program was broadcast in 1996.

Because they didn't quite know how to organize the 30+ hours of sound recorded for each program, transcripts were made of the original interviews, and decisions on what to use were based on a careful review of these.  A script for narration was created after final selections were made and a general story outline emerged, sometimes with the assistance of advisor Jay Allison.  Ultimately, the final programs came to fruition in the editing room. There are four types of sound recorded for the programs: narration, actuality, ambiance, and music. The actuality and the ambiance were primarily recorded on location on broadcast quality cassette, while most of the narration was recorded in the studio on 1/4" reel-to-reel audio tape.  All sounds were transferred to 1/4" tape for editing. The three segments of the program were edited manually in Ben Shapiro’s studio in a process called multi-tracking, which involves the physical cutting of tape with a razor blade, transferring the cuts to a master mix, then tweaking the various tracks on a mixer.

For the music, Rubin and Shapiro worked with ethnomusicologist Rowena Rivera.  She had been doing research on music of the Southwest and brought in some very interesting recordings both from the holdings at the University of New Mexico and from her own private collection.  She believes that much of New Mexico's traditional music was influenced by the colonial Jews. The music Shapiro and Rubin used was on vinyl (78s and 33s) and 1/4" tapes of contemporary musicians.  This material also had to be transferred to 1/4" tape for editing.  All of the original audio content used in the three programs was recorded specifically for these shows.  They did not use any material from a sound library or foley sound.

The interviews in their entirety, final narration, recordings of the music, and final ambient sounds are currently in Ben Shapiro’s possession, and Rubin doesn’t know how he is storing them (though he is aware of recommended methods of storing audio tape and, presumably, is following them). Shapiro also has footage recorded during the 1995 trip to Spain and Portugal; he had entertained the possibility of developing it into a television documentary, so a cameraman accompanied Rubin and Shapiro on their journey. Rubin isn’t sure in which format these recordings were made.

Rubin retains the still photographs she took on their trip to Spain and Portugal; she has the original slides in her office and a few hard copies on file. She also keeps a sub-master copy of the original audio recording programs on a broadcast-quality audio cassette (for use in dubbing copies on an as-needed basis).  These are kept in a box in her office.  A dub house called Sound Greetings also maintains a high-quality master cassette that can be used for making copies.  They specialize in audio and video duplication, and Rubin has relied on them in the past to mass-produce copies for distribution; however, the version of the recordings that they have on file contains the wrong credits. In addition, Rubin has on file paper copies of fundraising materials, letters and e-mails she received, publicity materials she created, and budgets, payments, and other administrative paperwork. Individual consumers can purchase transcripts or cassettes of the series (to date, more than 1,000 copies of the series have been sold); clips are available online; and Nan Rubin’s Web site,, provides an overview of the series and its production.

As Nan Rubin says, “There’s something about the power of audio that reaches people in this deep emotional place.”  This is evident in the ongoing impact of these programs.  Today, years after they were originally aired, people are requesting copies and are being affected by the works.  The fact that controversies rage over whether or not the Crypto-Jews exist in New Mexico and the over the question of “who is a Jew?” show that these works will prove important artifacts in the history of the evolution of the Jewish identity.  Not only are these programs useful to individuals grappling with their own search for history and identity, but the stories and the resources cited in these works may also be useful to scholars of Jewish history, colonial history, or related disciplines. As such, Rubin makes a point of keeping her bibliography updated and readily available for any interested individuals. The programs are also vital recordings of an exciting moment in New Mexican history: the uncovering of a new layer of meaning, a new culture brought to light, a new aspect added to the rich history of New Mexico.  Finally, the search for identity, for a connection to the past and one’s place in the present, is a theme that isn’t confined to Jewish or Hispanic families in New Mexico. It resonates today as an industrial, transglobal world increasingly estranges people from the unique traditions and beliefs of their heritage. “The Hidden Jews of New Mexico” is a romantic story of searching for and finding one’s roots, of establishing a connection with the past in a world dominated by evolving technologies and populated by McDonald’s.

Preservation Issues:
Due to the unstable nature of 1/4” magnetic tape and the impending obsolescence of the required playback machines, we advise that Rubin and Shaprio look into storage alternatives for these recordings.  She suggested transfer onto CD for use in dubbing and to save wear-and-tear on the original masters.  We also suggest that they investigate appropriate storage for the original works in a climate-controlled facility.  We advise that they update the credits on the copy being held by Sound Greetings, as Rubin mentioned specifically that the new credits are important to the work.  As for the more important extant paper objects, such as photographs, faxes, letters, transcripts, scripts, and fundraising proposals, we suggest they look into back-up preservation solutions for these fragile documents.

Had we been working with Rubin and Shapiro from the onset of this project, we would have kept the original recordings and master copies, as they have.  We would have also maintained the paper library that Rubin has in her office, but with increased organization.   Rubin discussed their reasons for not keeping, for example, the bad takes of narration recording--basically, that it has no practical, symbolic, or preservational use.  We agree with this statement and agree that material such as this could be safely discarded.  Overall, Rubin and Shapiro have kept the crucial elements of the production. Only the most important paper materials should be saved, such as the transcripts, scripts, faxes, fundraising letters, promotional materials (which always delight media studies scholars), and perhaps a few of the letters of response that people have sent.  The content of the two very full drawers in Rubin's office would have to be carefully looked through to determine which materials have the most value.