Preserving the heritage

How the Jewish holidays were observed by crypto-Jewish women.

old 88 (photo credit: )
old 88
(photo credit: )
Observance of Jewish holidays presented crypto-Jewish women of Spain with a major challenge. While a woman who had been born as a Jew (and then converted) still retained memories of her life as a Jewess, she who was born after the forced conversions of 1391 had to rely on information gleaned either from friends, from family members or from Jews, at least until their expulsion in 1492. Once the Inquisition was established in 1478 and began actively functioning in 1481, any observance of Judaism became extremely dangerous, for one never knew who was a potential informer and thus lead to one's downfall; the Church would consider the observer a heretic who had to stand trial. Rosh Hashana, so central to the life of the modern Jew, was extremely difficult for the judaizer to observe in the 15th and 16th centuries. One could not blow a shofar without attracting attention, and the truth is that relatively few books were in the possession of the judaizers, especially after 1492. Without a proper prayer book or knowledge of Hebrew, the New Year celebration became a rare occurrence. Once the Inquisition was established, attempts to congregate and celebrate on two consecutive days would have been extremely unwise. As a result, there are very few references to Rosh Hashana in Inquisition trials. ON THE other hand, Yom Kippur, coming on the 10th day of this High Holy Day season, did not fall by the wayside. The psychological need to repent played a significant role here, as did the hope that this single day of observance would serve to cancel out the rest of the days of the year when it was impossible to observe properly. One bold woman, Blanca Rodr guez of Guadalajara, even spent the entire day of the Ayuno Mayor (Great Fast) with Jews. In 1487 Beatriz Gonz lez was accused in her trial of participating in numerous activities related to Yom Kippur; these included bathing, cutting her nails, wearing clean clothes, going barefoot, asking for forgiveness of others, “and some nights before the Great Fast, she went to the synagogue to pray, that which only the most devoted of Jews do.” Thus she attended the synagogue service during the pre-Yom Kippur period when the Selihot prayers are recited in the wee hours of the night. It is interesting to note that the Jews in the synagogue did not object to the presence of a baptized Christian, albeit of Jewish heritage. WHILE TODAY we are free to attend the Kol Nidre prayer on Yom Kippur eve, this was not the case for the crypto-Jews. Nevertheless, Elvira L pez confessed in 1486 that she once went inside a synagogue to witness this service on the eve of Yom Kippur. Later, in 1498, In s Rodr guez was charged by the prosecution with celebrating “the Day of Atonement as being a major holiday and one of great devotion among the Jews; on the eve of the fast, she would go and went to the synagogue to hear the prayers that were prayed there by the Jews, believing that on this day they would be forgiven their sins, and that all that they requested of the Lord would be granted them as the Jews believe.” Numerous conversas were accused of having fasted on Yom Kippur; the fast was easy to remember and to carry out, although it was not always easy to conceal, especially if there were servants afoot. Some conversas were barefoot the entire day; others wore holiday clothes in its honor. Many asked forgiveness of others on this day. Charges by the prosecution might also specify that the crypto-Jewish woman waited for the stars to emerge before breaking her fast; many referred to breaking the fast with a meat meal that was sometimes communal and thus more risky. THE FESTIVAL of Succot, the third in this succession of holidays, presented a serious problem for the crypto-Jew. Building a succa or purchasing a lulav and etrog would be tantamount to publicly declaring one's rejection of the Church; these options were simply too dangerous for even the most pious judaizer. In the early years, a few conversos went out into the fields to build booths, but such bold actions soon desisted. On the other hand, while Jews were still present on Spanish soil, some crypto-Jews took advantage of this opportunity and, for example, visited their succot. Elvira Mart nez of Toledo confessed in 1509 that she went to a succa by herself “not on account of the ceremony but rather in order to see the said booth and when I was there, they distributed refreshment and I believe that they gave me toasted chickpeas.” Beatriz Gonz lez was accused of making booths at home and confessed to occasionally visiting the succot of Jews and eating fruit in them; she was not alone in this act, for other women also frequented their Jewish neighbors' booths where they were offered refreshments. During the festival of Succot, there seems to have been quite a bit of interaction between members of the two communities, who were often related to one another and living side by side. According to the prosecutor at her trial, Elvira L pez “lent Jews clothing for the booths, essentially in order to honor and celebrate the Festival of the Booths of the Jews.” In her confession, the defendant admitted that she had lent cloth to the Jews for making or adorning the succa. Similarly, in 1504, Juana Rodr guez “remembered well how she had lent a rug and a bordered sheet to a Jew so that he could make his booth, all of which I did in honor of, and in keeping with the law of the Jews, thinking that I would be saved by it.” The sheet was probably used for a side or entrance to the booth while the rug was most likely placed on the floor. Women were lending cloth as well as clothing and the wealthier conversas were even lending their jewelry to Jewish women as did In s Gonz lez in 1485. This implies a great deal of trust, for lending sheets is far easier to do than lending one's personal jewelry. Here is an example of a conversa who was helping her Jewish sister celebrate in the style that she would have done herself, had she been able to do so. Crypto-Jewish life was fraught with danger, but these women were determined to observe what they could, and most managed at the very least, to fast on Yom Kippur. The writer is the assistant dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. Her most recent book is A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective.