"All of it just doesn't really hold up when you examine it carefully," said Neulander, who is now co-director of the Jewish Studies Program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
She concluded that the notion of a Jewish heritage must have been brought to the Southwest by evangelical Protestant missionaries from one of several small sects who considered themselves descendants of a lost tribe of Israel. Though rare today, such Christian groups follow many Jewish traditions while believing in Jesus, and consider themselves the world's only truly chosen people.
"There were probably many more sects like this in the early part of the 20th century," Neulander said.
The debate isn't just academic. People like Loya and Sanchez are constructing their religious lives around the assumption that their ancestors were Jewish: "You'll never have proof," Loya said. "You have these bits of evidence ... like bread crumbs."
Sanchez hopes to make the case with DNA. He estimates that more than half of the men he knows who have been tested have DNA signatures consistent with a Semitic ancestry.
Yet the only serious genetic study that has attempted to find Jewish ancestry among Hispanics in the Southwest reached a different conclusion.
"We just couldn't wait to find all these Jews," said Alec Knight, who was working in an anthropological genetics lab a Stanford University when he saw the crypto-Jew story in an in-flight magazine.
Knight recruited a handful of colleagues for a simple study. They took DNA samples from 139 men in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, most of whom could trace their family trees in the region back to the 17th century.
There were a few individuals who did have typically "Jewish" profiles, but no more than you would find in Spain, due to the presence of Jews there before 1492.
"Basically, it was a migration of Spaniards," said Knight, who recently left Stanford to teach science in Alpine, Texas, at the high school level.
When confronted with the genetic evidence, Hordes quickly points out that genes are not culture. Besides, he adds, he never claimed that the early European settlers of the Southwest were overwhelmingly Jewish.
But if there were never more than a handful of Jews among the first Southwesterners -- if any -- and they never left any visible impact on the culture beyond a few odd customs, why are people so eager to resurrect them?
"The notion that you're somehow indomitable, that there can be such a thing as a miraculous survival, is so comfortable, so buoyant to the spirit, that it's very hard to let go," Neulander said.
The crypto-Jew saga is one of cultural survival against the odds, a life-affirming counterpoint to the genocidal reality that Jews have faced throughout history. Those who embrace a crypto-Jewish identity see themselves as heirs to a legacy of survival against tremendous odds.
And what of the scholars like Hordes? Neulander accuses them of being seduced by the age-old fantasy of discovering a lost tribe.
The remote Southwest used to have such "tribes" in abundance. They lived in pueblos, remote mountain villages and on desert reservations, isolated from the outside world for centuries. But earlier generations of researchers have already done the job of documenting those more typical Southwestern traditions. What was once an exotic, almost foreign region of the country has witnessed an influx of retirees and second-home dwellers that has swelled its population and diluted its sense of place.
The crypto-Jew story injects fresh mystery into this increasingly humdrum world. In fact, the crypto-Jew phenomenon probably tells us more about life in the Southwest today than it does about what happened there hundreds of years ago.
No significant crypto-Jewish ancestry in Spanish Americans