Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Holidays as observed by Crypto-Jewish women

A reader has forwarded me a fascinating article by Prof. Renee Levine Melammed, the Assistant Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, about how Crypto-Jewish women managed to observe some Chaggim in Spain of the 15th century. I'm busy finding out whether it's published online anywhere, but in the meanwhile, here are some excerpts:

Rosh Hashana, so central to the life of the modern Jew, was extremely difficult for the judaizer to observe in the fifteenth and sixteenth 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.... As a result, there are very few references to Rosh Hashana in Inquisition trials.
On the other hand, Yom Kippur, coming on the tenth day of this High Holiday 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 Rodriguez of Guadalajara, even spent the entire day of the Ayuno Mayor ("Great Fast") with Jews. In 1487 Beatriz Gonzalez 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 or prayers of forgiveness 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...
[Succot:] 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 Jewish sukkah booths.
Elvira Martiez of Toledo confessed in 1509 that she went to a booth 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 Gonzalez was accused of making booths at home and confessed to occasionally visiting the booths 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 Sukkot, 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 Lopez "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
sukkah. Similarly, in 1504, Juana Rodriguez "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."

UPDATE: Can't find this article on the web. However, by a strange coincidence, I see that the author is profiled this week in The Jerusalem Post's regular column on immigrant.

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