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Purim and Spain's Hidden Jews

February 9, 2010 | by Libi Astaire

Why Purim best expressed their loyalty to their Jewish heritage.

It’s a holiday that is marked by fasting and sincere regret over one’s past mistakes. But if you think that day is called Yom Kippur, think again. And meet the Purim of the Anusim – Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, and who became the target of the Spanish Inquisition because of their secret loyalty to the Jewish faith.

Why was Purim such a solemn holiday for the Anusim? And why did they single out Purim as the holiday that best expressed their loyalty to their Jewish heritage? To answer these questions, we must travel to a world where it was forbidden to light Shabbos candles, pray in a synagogue, or have a Pesach Seder: the world of medieval Spain.

A World Turned Upside Down

No one knows when the first Jews set foot on the Iberian Peninsula, but we do know that by the 800s Spain’s Jews were experiencing a Golden Age that was to last for approximately 500 years. During that fabled era Jews were prominent in business, government, science, and the arts. Flourishing Torah centers produced some of Judaism’s greatest scholars and leaders: the Rambam (Maimonides), the Ramban (Nachmanides), Yehuda HaLevi, the author of The Kuzari, and many others.

The good times began to sour in the 1200s, when the Jews were forced to wear yellow badges and live in Juderias, Spain’s equivalent of the Italian ghetto. Things went from bad to worse in the century that followed, culminating in the Massacre of 1391, when mobs burned down Seville’s Juderia and murdered any Jew who refused to be baptized.

Many of these “New Christians” turned out to be “Old Jews.”

The riots spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula, and thousands of Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to save their lives. But this turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for the Catholic Church, since many of these “New Christians” turned out to be “Old Jews” in disguise. On the outside they pretended to be like their Christian neighbors, but within the privacy of their homes their secretly clung to the customs and traditions of their Jewish faith.

During the 1400s, both the clergy and the Spanish nobility were flabbergasted to see that the New Christians had once again risen to the top of Spanish society, where they filled important roles in government and commerce. And so when Ferdinand and Isabella ascended the throne of a newly unified Spain, the Church and the State joined forces to solve their “Jewish Problem” for once and for all. Those who had remained Jews were expelled from the monarchs’ kingdom in 1492, while the Spanish Inquisition was established to take care of the “heretics.”

A Jew by Any Other Name

The Spanish Inquisition was relentless in its efforts to hunt down the Anusim, who were also known as Marranos and crypto-Jews. But by whatever name they were called, they responded by stubbornly going further under cover.

Was it too dangerous to have a Jewish prayer book in the house? No problem. They would memorize the prayers.

Was it too dangerous to openly light Shabbos candles? No problem. They would hide the lit candle in a cupboard, the chimney, or an earthenware jar.

Was it too dangerous to celebrate the Jewish holidays on their real dates? No problem. They would trick their pursuers by celebrating a few days – or months - before or after the real date.

The Anusim became accustomed to living in a world of secrecy.

The Anusim therefore gradually became accustomed to living in a world where secrecy was the norm and disguise was a way of life. But despite their efforts and good intentions, they did have a problem. Their connection to the rest of the Jewish world had been severed. Without access to Jewish books, or even a Jewish calendar, it became harder and harder to remember all the prayers and laws. And there were many commandments that they couldn’t perform or were forced to transgress because the danger was too great.

To compensate, over time the Anusim began to develop their own unique culture, complete with special prayers and customs. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than with the holiday of Purim.

The “Fast” Lane to Redemption

Traditionally, the Purim holiday is comprised of two parts: the Fast of Esther, a one-day fast that takes place the day before Purim, and Purim itself, a busy day filled with lots of mitzvot (commandments) and noise and laughter. But what is good fun for us was a day fraught with danger if you were a Hidden Jew.

Drown out Haman’s name with noisemakers during the public reading in synagogue of Megillat Esther? Not in a community that scrupulously kept the location of their underground synagogues a secret.

Get so drunk at the festive Purim meal that you can’t tell the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman”? Not unless you wanted to wake up the next day to a personal invitation to appear before the court of the Spanish Inquisition.

So what could the Anusim do? In a word, fast. They looked into the megillah and saw that when the Jewish people were threatened with annihilation, Queen Esther ordered a three-day fast for everyone. So the Anusim – who lived with that threat every day of their lives - decided to fast for three days, too.

The Inquisition’s records provide us with some fascinating details about this unique custom. For one thing, the fast was mainly done by women, who felt a special connection to the heroine of the Purim story, Queen Esther. But since a three-day fast could be dangerous to a person’s health, the women found ingenious ways to observe the fast without endangering their lives.

Gabriel de Granada, for instance, a thirteen-year-old boy who was interrogated by Mexico’s Inquisition in 1643, revealed that the women of his family would sometimes split the three days between them. Some members of the family would fast on the first day, others would fast on the second day, and the rest on the third day.

Leonor de Pina, a Portuguese woman who was arrested in 1619 for being a “Judaizer,” offers another explanation for how the three-day fast was observed. She told her interrogators that she and her daughters fasted for three days “without eating if it was not dark, or else eating things other than meat.” In other words, they fasted during the day, but ate at night, or their fast consisted of refraining from eating meat for three days.

Whether the women fasted the entire three days, observed a partial fast for three days, or split the days of the fast between them, what is clear from the historical record is that the Fast of Esther was taken very seriously. But why did they feel a need to fast for three days, when the rest of the Jewish world felt that one day would do?

Scholars who have studied the Anusim and their customs suggest various reasons. The fast, which could be done in the privacy of one’s home, was perhaps a substitute for the mitzvot that they couldn’t observe, such as having a public megillah reading or sending gifts of food to friends.

In addition, Professor Moshe Orfali, dean of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Jewish Studies, has pointed out that the Anusim tended to fast quite often. He surmises that since the Anusim were forced to violate the laws of the Torah every day, they felt they needed to fast frequently to be cleansed of their sins. On a special holiday like Purim, they tripled their efforts in the hope to achieve a personal redemption, as well as the Final Redemption for all the Jewish people.

Of course, Purim wasn’t an entirely solemn holiday. The family most likely gathered together to hear the megillah read, quietly. They would also have a special meal, behind locked doors. But as the centuries passed, Purim took on a surprising character that was unique to the Anusim.

Holy “Saint” Esther

The Spanish Inquisition hunted down the Anusim for more than three centuries, and it was a chase that was carried out not only in Europe, but also in Central and South America and the wild territories that later became the American Southwest.

When the Spanish Inquisition came to an official end in the year 1835, one might think that the Anusim heaved a collective sigh of relief and returned, en masse, to the Jewish people. But even though some did convert to Judaism, a surprising number of them chose to remain hidden in their villages, where they clung to their secret customs.

How did Judaism’s Queen Esther turn into a Catholic saint?

While many Anusim living in Spain and Portugal retained the memory that they were descended from Jews, those who settled in the New World gradually forgot who their ancestors were. All they knew was that they had customs that were different from those of their neighbors – for instance, they didn’t eat pork and the only “saint” to whom they offered prayers was the Holy “Saint” Esther.

How did Judaism’s Queen Esther turn into a Catholic saint? According to Professor Janet Liebman Jacobs, who made an ethnographic study of descendents of the Anusim who live in the American Southwest, sometimes the only way that an oppressed people can survive spiritually is to disguise their own religiously important figures within the garb of the dominant religious culture. Since the Spanish settlers brought both Catholicism and the Inquisition with them to the New World, Queen Esther had to go into hiding along with the Anusim - and the holiday of Purim was turned into the Festival of Saint Esther.

One of the women that Prof. Jacobs interviewed, who lives in New Mexico, explained that the Festival of Saint Esther was mainly a women’s holiday that was dedicated to mothers teaching daughters the way to run a home according to their unique customs. It was also a day where an elaborate meal was prepared, which was probably a distant memory of the special Purim meal that their ancestors had eaten back in Spain or Portugal.

As for why Queen Esther was chosen as the symbol of Purim, and not her cousin Mordechai, who was the leader of the Jewish people at that time, the answer is simple. Esther had to keep her Jewish identity a secret in the royal palace; but once the wicked Haman put into motion his plan to annihilate the Jewish people, her life, too, was in great danger. Queen Esther therefore became an inspiring role model for the Anusim, both for her courageousness and because she also was a Hidden Jew.

These Days of Purim ...

Although much of their Jewish heritage was lost over the centuries, the Anusim never forgot their connection to Queen Esther. And so in one way or another -- and in unexpected places such as New Mexico or Peru -- the words of the megillah are still being fulfilled: “These days of Purim will never leave the Jews, nor will their remembrance ever be lost from their descendants.”

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