Friday, December 21, 2012

The Crypto-Jewish women of Castile

On Tues evening Prof. Renée Levine Melammed, a well-known expert on crypto-Jewry (secret Jews, "marranos" or Anusim in Hebrew) and especially on the role of women, gave a lecture at AACI Netanya.  Renée Melammed comes from NY and received her PhD from Brandeis University.   She has been the Dean of the Shechter Inst. for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and is currently going on sabbatical to the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies.  Her speciality is reading the original accounts of the Inquisition in medieval Spanish and providing analysis and commentary.  She has published several books on the subject, including Heretics or Daughters of Israel: Crypto-Jewish Women of Castile (Oxford University Press) for which she was awarded the National Jewish Book Award, and she also writes a column for the Jerusalem Post.
According to the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, it was the intention of the Church and the Spanish crown to rid Spain of all Jews so that they could not continue to instruct the conversos or New Christians, who were former Jews or their descendants who had converted to Christianity. The forced conversions started with the anti-Jewish riots of 1391 and continued in stages. The conversos and their descendants were subject to the rigors of the Inquisition that started effectively in 1481 and continued in various phases until 1830.   However, there were two periods when the focus of the Inquisition was on the conversos, from 1481-1550 and then from 1630-1730 when mainly Portuguese conversos were the target. 
By 1492, the conversos included those who opted not to leave Spain and there were thousands of investigations and trials of the Inquisition all over Spain and later elsewhere.  Many of the archives of these investigations were lost in wars and fires, but many remain and the notarial records are detailed and compelling.  After the Expulsion the judaizing conversos faced a challenge; their crypto-religion consisted of elements of Judaism, but they were bereft of the institutions and no longer had contact with normative Judaism.  There were no synagogues, no leaders or functionaries, no Hebrew learning or open discussion of anything to do with Judaism.  To engage in any of these activities was a capital offense, namely heresy, punishable by imprisonment, torture and death, often being burnt at the stake. 
Since men were unable to participate publicly in Jewish activities, much of the continuation of secret Judaism became the province of the women.  They continued the rites and practices as far as they remembered them, but oral transmission was limited and memories fade.  So elements of Judaic practices persisted among those women who continued to regard themselves as Jews, even though outwardly Catholic.  Thus, most aspects of Judaic life retreated into the home.  But, even the home was not safe, since almost everyone in Spain had servants who provided numerous witness testimonies to the Inquisitors, giving secrets of their mistresses' practices, often without realizing their significance. 
Such things as washing and wearing clean clothes on Friday, having a special meal Friday night, not eating pork, removing fat and the nerve from the leg from meat (kashering), fasting on certain days (Yom Kippur), making matzah (unleavened bread), celebrating after the birth of a baby (hadas, a medieval Spanish ceremony), sitting shiva and so on. There were even cases of de-baptizing, when a baby would be rinsed immediately after a baptism; this was seen as heretical as well. Lighting oil lamps or letting them burn out on their own on Fri night was often noticed by the servants.  Any one of these things could give away a family, resulting in horrific consequences. 
There were some defense tactics used in these trials.  For example, a defendant could argue that he or she had punished a servant, and therefore the servant was unreliable as he or she most likely was seeking revenge.  If this could be proven the case against the defendant might be dropped due to improper testimonies, although the accused was not declared to be innocent.  Once opened a case could be pursued if new witnesses were found. 
No wonder the crypto-Jews were unsure when and if to tell their secrets to their children, who could blurt out such secrets to anyone, including Inquisitors.  Women became the repository of Jewish memory, taking great risks in order to teach the next generation and ensure the continuation of Judaism as they saw it.  The fact that many remained loyal to their Jewish heritage throughout the centuries is proven by the number of descendants who still today are aware that they are descendants of crypto-Jews.


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