Crypto Jews and the Shabbat

July 12, 2013

Crypto Jews and the Shabbat

Nobel Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor/writer Eli Wiesel, in his Legends of Our Time, tells the story of meeting a man in Spain who showed him a mysterious document which he couldn’t read, and which had been a family heirloom for centuries. It turns out it was an ancient Hebrew document from the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and listed the names of family members who had converted to Christianity, and were “Crypto Jews” (hidden Jews) – they were also known as Conversos, or New Christians... and have also been called Maranos, a derogatory term meaning “pig.”

The amazing part of the story is that the man had no idea that he was the descendent of Jews hiding from the Inquisition! As odd as the story is, it’s actually not uncommon. Thousands of Jews in the 15th through the 17th  Centuries and beyond were forced to convert and pretend they were “true Christians.” For those who actually practiced Judaism in secret, the Shabbat was a particular problem. How could they observe the Shabbat without their neighbors noticing that they were different? If their normal evening meals were modest and their Friday night Shabbat dinners were more elaborate, would people notice? What about lighting Shabbat candles, or saying the Kiddush blessing over wine? Or saying a blessing over a special bread? All of those practices would put them in danger.

The story is often told of Spaniards who continue mysterious family traditions. My favorite story is of a family that would light candles in a cabinet every Friday night, then close the cabinet so no one could possibly see the candles. Even if the family leaves Spain, they often continue their mysterious practice. Often, on understanding their family background, these victims of acts of anti-Semitic discrimination from hundreds of years ago, choose to become Jews.

Shabbat Shalom

Are there particular Shabbat foods that are traditional in your family? Let us know! jhirsh@jccmilwaukee.org