Out of hiding

Using musical theater to tell the dark story of Spain’s Jews.

The cast of ‘HIDDEN: The Secret Jews of Spain’ – 65 women from ages 10 to 70. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The cast of ‘HIDDEN: The Secret Jews of Spain’ – 65 women from ages 10 to 70.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
After successfully creating a musical based on the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah, Efrat residents Sharon Katz and Avital Macales actively searched for ideas for a new musical theater production.
Ultimately, they went in a decidedly non-biblical direction. Macales told In Jerusalem, “I Googled ‘Jewish heroines’ in hopes that we’d be inspired by one of the search results. And in fact we were, but not directly.
“One of the names that popped up was Dona Gracia Nasssi, a woman who was born into a Converso [secretly Jewish] family in Portugal and eventually helped many Conversos escape the claws of the Inquisition.”
The Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem is bringing the story of one such family to the stage. Set in 18th-century Spain, the fictional Aguilar family were living as Christians in public while maintaining a secret life as Jews. Playwrights Katz and Macales based their new, original musical production Hidden: The Secret Jews of Spain, on The Family Aguilar, a classic book of historical fiction written by Rabbi Marcus Lehmann.
The Spanish Inquisition might seem like an unlikely topic for musical theater, but Macales was captivated by a fresh idea. “There needs to be a musical about the secret Jews of Spain,” she thought as she read about Dona Gracia Nasi. “The theater medium needs to tell this story, after seeing it being told in books and movies.”
Katz and Macales took their research exceedingly seriously, flying to Spain to answer the question that gnawed at them during the development of the script.
“As we were writing Hidden,” Katz explained, “One question kept popping into our minds. Why didn’t they leave? Their lives were in jeopardy every day. Why didn’t they leave? We talked about it constantly. We had to find out for ourselves what kept them there during the window of opportunity when they could have left.
“We found the answer in the gorgeous sunshine, the majestic mountain range, the hope that the good times would come back again, the vast culture, the dignity and elegance of the caballeros [the courtly Spanish knights].”
DESPITE THE grandeur of the Spanish scenery, the pair, accompanied by Katz’s daughter and associate producer Bati Katz, were distraught by much of what they witnessed in Spain.
“Our first day in Granada almost ruined the entire trip. The magnificent Alhambra, the palace of King Ferdinand and Isabella, boasted gorgeous grounds, spectacular architecture, international beauty. And from this unequaled palace came the Edict of Expulsion.
Thinking of the edict and the feverish desire of Ferdinand and Isabella to rid Spain of its Jews at all costs was very depressing. This was our first day in Spain,” Katz recounted.
“Our visit to Granada’s Juderia [Jewish Quarter] was totally devoid of Jews. In fact, the only Jewish thing about all the Juderias we visited was the word Juderia. There were no Jews anywhere. Even the staff at the Jewish museums were non-Jews. Even the museum guide who sang Ladino to us was non-Jewish.
“In Granada, the Inquisition was everywhere – from the Alhambra to the Museum of the Inquisition.” Katz was particularly struck by “the souvenir shops where they sold Inquisition implement key chains and hooded Inquisitors (made to look like Granada’s mascots) in every color and size.
“The first day in Granada, we passed today’s Hall of Justice, which was the Inquisition headquarters. The building is imposing and frightening. The door is so high, you just keep looking up. It gave us the creeps.”
The pair created a show with a deeply Jewish message. Katz commented, “I don’t want to sound like the Haggada, but its words are true: In every generation, they rise up to destroy us. Each enemy in his own way, with his own methods, or methods that were inspired by enemies before them. What happened in 1492 happened again in 1942. We just changed the name of the enemy.
“Despite the fact that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in Spain during the Inquisition and the century before, despite the fact that Ferdinand and Isabella were certain that they had done away with the Jewish problem, today there are 14.5 million Jews in the world. And there are 100 million people who claim to have been descended from the Anousim (forced ones) of Spain.
“Our message to our audience and to Jews or descendants of Jews around the world is, ‘Don’t forget who you are!’ Don’t let anyone take your past, your essence or your heritage away from you.”
“The Bnei Anousim [descendants of the forced converts] today want justice. Ferdinand and Isabella stole their identity. They should get their identity back, by finding out what it means to be a Jew. ‘Don’t forget who you are. You are descendants of a chosen people, a priestly nation,’” Katz proclaimed.
THE PRODUCTION of Hidden has already begun to have an impact, even before its premiere performance. Gracia Serrano-Fenn, president of Sephardim Hope International, visited an early rehearsal of Hidden.
She told IJ her story.
“We are Israel’s lost Jews from a 500-year slumber and separation from Israel. This play will tell our story.
“The story of the ‘lost Jews of Spain’ and the whole Iberian Peninsula, due to the Inquisition, is only recently being discovered by Israel and many others in the world. It is an amazing awakening that needs to be told.
“I am from the Bnei Anousim who returned to my Jewish/Sephardi roots after my true identity was shockingly revealed by Hashem [God], upon my first visit to Israel in 1999.
“It took me about year of research to confirm this truth [which was] then verified by my family in Texas. We had been raised ‘Jewish’ on the ‘Old Testament’ and never became Catholic. My parents lived as crypto- Jews, with Jewish customs, but as children, we did not know or recognize that we were Jewish.” Serrano-Fenn explained that Serrano, her maiden name, “is a recognized Jewish name in Spain.”
She wrote Anousim Awake! The Story of a Hidden Jewess in order, “to document this journey and share my personal awakening.” She wants people to know that the descendants of the survivors of the Inquisition have not, “disappeared. We only went underground to survive as Jews.”
Serrano-Fenn’s Sephardim Hope International reaches out to those who are becoming aware of their Jewish heritage. Among its other projects, Sephardim Hope helps connect Bnei Anousim online, encouraging them to do DNA testing and research their family surnames.
“We are working on building a database to help those who write to us wanting assistance to connect them with Israel. We work with a few approved Conservative and Orthodox rabbis that are open to helping the Bnei Anousim return process. “There are not, as yet, enough ‘approved rabbis’ by Israel, with the understanding to help in return ceremonies or conversions,” she lamented.
DUE TO its dark nature, Hidden presented Katz and Macales with a number of challenges. For example, Macales noted the need for a creative approach to designing the sets.
“Another challenge we’ve faced was in creating the scenes that take place in the church, without using Christian paraphernalia, such as crosses and idols. We believe that the robes in which our ‘priests’ are dressed, the pipe organ sound we use in the songs, and the elegant backdrops are enough to give over the church feeling while still being sensitive to some of our cast and audience members.”
Macales continued, “Hidden is a historical play, so accuracy is key. We had to stick with the time period music-wise, costume-wise, historical facts-wise, and more. We’re still taking some liberties in Hidden. For example, we have the congregation of secret Jews praying in Hebrew, even though in 1700 they probably didn’t know much Hebrew or many prayers anymore. We did this to give expression to what was likely in the hearts of Conversos at that time.
“In this show, we could actually meet people who are closely connected to this story. We’ve been blessed to meet and hear the stories of descendants of Conversos who are returning to their roots. Every time we do, we are astounded that these things really happened.”
There were other, even more emotionally laden challenges. “The hardest song for me to write for the show,” Macales said, “was ‘The Auto-da-Fe.’ That is what the church called the act of burning heretics at the stake. This was the ultimate punishment for Conversos who were caught keeping Jewish customs.
“When I sat down to write it, I thought, ‘Oh no, what have I done to myself?’ It was so deeply painful. And I was going to be causing pain to audience members.
“For me the song was not just about the Inquisition period, but about the suffering of the Jewish people throughout the generations. One of the phrases that repeats throughout this song is ‘until when?’
“After struggling to write the song, I had an internal dialogue with myself: Either you don’t write the song, and you save a lot of people from a lot of pain, or you do write it, and allow people to connect with those who have suffered. That seemed like the right thing to do.
“With the talents of our creative team, the song has evolved into the most epic scene in the show. We have made sure to be gentle, symbolic and respectful in depicting this tragic period in Jewish history,” Macales related.
Katz shared some sobering history. “The story of our brethren in Spain is so mysterious. When folks speak of the Spanish Inquisition, they speak in hushed tones. They also have the impression that it happened in 1492 and lasted a short while. The first Inquisition occurred in the 1320s. According to historian Cecil Roth, the last victim of the Spanish Inquisition was killed in 1826. For 500 years, the Jewish people suffered torture, fear and death.”
According to Prof. David Gitlitz, scholar of Sephardic history at the University of Rhode Island, Jews had been on the Iberian Peninsula since the days of King Solomon.
For all the darkness surrounding the history, Katz and Macales believe that audiences will fall in love with the final production. Katz concluded by saying, “The music is amazing. The story is spine-tingling and then glorious. The dancing is innovative and brilliant.
“No matter how it seems, Ferdinand and Isabella had a giant fail in 1492. They expelled their hard-working middle class, so their economy collapsed. They tried to destroy Judaism. They tried to rid Spain of Jewish blood, and today one out of every 20 people in Spain have Jewish blood.
“Where are Ferdinand and Isabella today? And where are we?
“Am Yisrael hai.”
Hidden: The Secret Jews of Spain opens in the theater of the Israel Arts and Science Academy near the Biblical Zoo on November 11 for six performances. For women only. Tickets are available at: wpcjerusalem.wixsite.com/wpcjerusalem/tickets.