Duo delivers lecture, cooking demo on crypto-Jews of medieval Spanish Inquisition

Last Wednesday, the husband-and-wife scholarly team of David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson gave a lecture entitled “The Secret Jews of Spain.” Gitlitz and Davidson have written numerous books on topics such as pilgrimage and the history and culture of the “crypto-Jews,” the Jews forced into hiding by the Spanish Inquisition.

The pair started their lecture by mentioning that Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. At that time, Jews were given four months to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. Spanish Jews reacted to this law in several ways; according to Gitlitz and Davidson, the 1492 decree served as a “sorting device,” forcing Jews to evaluate how important their Jewish identity was, and how much they would allow it to affect their lifestyle. Those for whom Judaism was of paramount importance emigrated. Some Jews converted to Catholicism; others intermarried and gradually assimilated into Spain’s intensely Christian society, and some Jews decided to stay in Spain and live a double life, practicing Catholicism in public and Judaism at home.

At first, this choice did not cause a drastic change in the lifestyle of the crypto-Jews. Throughout the 15th century, first-generation Catholics had lived near Jewish communities, and were thus able to maintain contact with extended family and Jewish schools, synagogues and customs. However, when everyone who was openly Jewish either emigrated or converted, those who decided to stay and practice Judaism in secret were left with no community and no social models to follow.

Crypto-Jews had three sources of Jewish knowledge. The essential prayers, which every educated Jew memorized, were passed down orally from person to person. The Old Testament was also used as a reference. The Inquisition employed converts from Judaism to write so-called “edicts of grace:” detailed lists of customs by which Jews could be recognized. The premise for documenting Jewish practices was to enable people to easily recognize Judaism in their neighbors and turn them in to the Inquisition. However, these edicts of grace served as a textbook for any crypto-Jews who needed more information about what would make them Jewish in action.

It was during this time that the Jewish idea of the importance of belief over practice began. As fear of discovery increased, more crypto-Jews had to adjust their actions to look more like their genuinely Catholic neighbors. One crypto-Jew testified in his Inquisition trial, “I did [remain Jewish] in my heart because my salvation depends on it.”

Fear also dictated which customs survived to be passed on to the next generation. Those holidays which involved abstaining from something (such as Yom Kippur) were more likely to be perpetuated than those that required a special ritual. Purim became the Feast of Esther, much like many other saints’ days on the Catholic calendar.

Passover, since it is celebrated in the home and occurs near Easter, was also relatively easy to celebrate. Parents were able to transmit the story of Passover to their children by reading Exodus from the Old Testament. Shabbat was an important holiday as well, but its weekly abstention from work was difficult to hide and many crypto-Jews developed creative ways of excusing themselves from working on Saturday.

As time passed, central tenets of Judaism grew closer to Christian ideas. Christian saints were adopted as Jewish saints, who were objects of prayer in a similar way, and the Jewish idea of salvation – the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland – became similar to the Christian concept of personal salvation through belief in Jesus. “One of the most interesting parts of the presentation was the idea of how the crypto-Jews of Spain changed their religion in subtle ways in order to fit in with the Christians living around them. They began to see Moses as an almost Jesus-like figure to whom they looked for their salvation, an idea that is not usually part of Jewish thought,” Elissa Hardy ’06 said.

According to Gitlitz, the measure of success of the crypto-Jews was how well those who escaped detection, were forgotten. The Inquisition was active from 1492 to the 1830s, and it is estimated that a mere one-tenth of crypto-Jews was discovered. From 1780 to 1820, the Inquisition heard 5,000 cases; only six of those were crypto-Jews on trial for practicing Judaism. The rest were trials of predatory priests who had violated confession. Although crypto-Jewish culture remained strong for over 200 years before it began to decline, little is known about it aside from the Inquisition records and the edicts of grace.

Despite the necessity for keeping to themselves, crypto-Jews affected Spanish culture. During the 16th century, the novel began as a form of expression in Spain. Common themes in novels include the examination of life and self, deceit and the consequences of one’s actions. Because the crypto-Jews were constantly watching themselves from all angles and analyzing the ways in which others observed them, they made natural novelists. Converts also dominated the genres of theater and prose fiction.

Gitlitz and Davidson’s lecture on Wednesday was followed up by a demonstration of Sephardic cooking on Thursday. The recipes cooked there came from their new book, A Drizzle of Honey, which was compiled from Inquisition records of the confessions of crypto-Jews. Since much of Judaism is passed on through cultural traditions, including cooking, crypto-Jews had to be careful that their compliance with Jewish food-preparation laws was not observed by watchful neighbors or servants. “Food is something that many of us take for granted, and the presenters showed how traditional foods could be a matter of life and death,” Anjuli Lebowitz ’03 said.

Soledad Fox, assistant professor of Romance Languages, helped to promote the lecture and organize the demonstration. She said that the cooking helped bring together Spanish and Jewish culture in a way that many people may not have associated the two.