Exile. Banishment. Assimilation. Remembrance. Pesach: celebration! Usually we remember only the exile from Egypt thousands of years ago in our Passover celebration of freedom. But some of the depth and richness of the full global Jewish experience in exile happened at other times in our incomparably long history. This year I have been thinking most particularly of an exile of Jews from Europe to the Americas in the era of the Renaissance: The Inquisition and the story of crypto Jews.
It began in 1412, when Jews were well established in the merchant class of Spain and Portugal, making significant cultural contributions in the arts, poetry and music, and in finance as consultants to gentry and royalty. At that time, Spain and Portugal were at the end of centuries of wars attempting to eject the Moors (Muslims) from the territory and, because the Moors were also at the core of the Iberian economy, their exit and the burden of paying for the wars left the area impoverished.
The Crusades were also very costly and the gentry were looking around for ways to improve the economic situation. Jews came under suspicion as the Church tightened its grip on the area with a view to taking control of the royalty, trade and the major sources of income for the area.
By the time pious, Catholic, 17-year-old Queen Isabella acceded to the throne in the late 1480s, the Inquisition was in full swing, with all Jews being forced to convert or be tortured to death or killed outright. Many Jews fled to Scandinavia or parts of France and Italy, to live as underground Jews as the Inquisition spread across Europe. Others became “conversos,” and secretly practiced their faith in Spain and Portugal while engaging in elaborate ruses to fool the Church into believing their conversions were real.
In 1492 Torquemada, the leader of the Inquisition in Spain and a close confidant of Isabella and her husband Ferdinand, exiled all the Jews from Spain. Portugal quickly followed suit.
Not insignificant to the theme of our story, Columbus opened the route to the New World in the same year and within a decade, conversos fleeing Spain and Portugal took the arduous journey across the Atlantic, settling in Mexico, Central America and Brazil, hoping to find freedom from oppression just as the Jews fleeing Pharaoh hoped to find freedom across the Sea of Reeds.
It was not to be. The Church rapidly established itself in the new world under the flags of both Spain and Portugal. The Inquisition followed the fleeing Jews, keeping them underground and practicing secretly until the conversos evolved into “crypto Jews” or non-practicing Jews — oftentimes practicing Catholics — with oddly traditional quasi-Jewish practices passed down in their families. As more research into these forgotten Jews comes to light, some poignant and fascinating stories emerge.
In Portugal, in the village of Belemonte, a group of about 200 people still practice a very ancient form of Judaism, half secret and half “emerged.” The women light two candles on Friday nights in a vessel with a cover to hide the light. They bake and eat unleavened bread at the beginning of April and celebrate Passover in attics similar to the ancestral Samaritans (Jews who believe they are the tribe of Israel that never left the ancient land, they live at the foot of Mt. Gerizim near Nablus and celebrate Pesach as it was done in Temple times, lamb sacrifice included). They wear all-white clothes, as in Temple days, and tell the story of the exile from Egypt in Portuguese, with only the word “Adonai” identifying them as Jews.
In the early 1900s, these cryptos and a similar village in Majorca were visited by Jews from the outside. The cryptos distrusted their visitors, believing it was a trick to get them to reveal their Jewish identities. But when they recognized “Adonai” in the spoken Hebrew prayers of the visitors, they finally believed in their Judaism and were shocked to learn of the millions of practicing Jews all over the world.
The Inquisition continued in the New World for 350 years, to the early 1800s, making it even more incredible that many conversos practiced their Judaism in secret with a passion that invested their ancestors, some of whom no longer knew they were Jews, with an internal commitment to continue family traditions without knowing the significance.
A large population of crypto Jews in the American Southwest, mostly in New Mexico and southwestern Texas, eschews the Catholic tradition of eating fish on Fridays, but also refrains from eating pork, rabbit, venison or shellfish and slaughter meats traditionally at home, using a special highly sharpened knife. Just like with kosher slaughter, they bleed the animals completely (saying the blood is cargado, charged, without knowing what that means) before washing and thoroughly salting the meat.
Some do have the knowledge that they are Jews and pass the “burden” (in a hugely Catholic society) on to their sons on their 12th or 13th birthday, saying, “Tue res judio,” you are Jewish, “somos judios,” we are Jewish, and pouring water over the child’s head to “wash off” their baptism into the church. On Passover, without knowing why, families will give up regular tortillas and bread and make very crisp “unleavened” wheat tortillas, which they eat for a week. Some have vestigial mezuzot on their doorposts, little bags filled with earth that they kiss when entering and leaving the house. One man in Albuquerque remembers his grandmother having a statue of a Madonna whose foot she would often kiss. When she died, the family opened the foot and found a silver mezuzah she had hidden inside.
So, in this lovely season of spring and celebration of Passover, I would like to give you a recipe in remembrance of some of our brethren who are still with us from our past, some converting to Judaism when they realize their past, some saying, “I don’t need to convert, I have always been Jewish, since my exile from Spain, 500 years ago!”
Escabeche is essentially marinating raw fish in vinegar and spices until it is “cooked” by the acid, much like ceviche. In the Renaissance, fowl were marinated in the same way after cooking, or sometimes cooked in a marinade as we do today. Here is a recipe for fish escabeche as done in the late 1500s in Spain.
Escabeche of Fish or Fowl
1-1/2 lbs of halibut, salmon or snapper
Juice of 1 lemon plus zest if desired
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup orange juice plus zest if desired
1 large pinch saffron
2 whole cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. freshly ground or crushed black pepper
1 tsp. kosher salt
Combine all the ingredients except the fish. Cut the fish into 2” pieces and marinate in the mixture for about an hour. Heat gently in a non-reactive pan just until the fish flakes when gently pressed. Chill completely. Serve the fish with some of the marinade and spring greens such as scallions, green garlic or chives.
Serves 6 as a Passover fish course