Purim is a favorite holiday for many Jews. But I think one of the communities in Jewish history that had the closest relationship with this particular holiday were the so-called crypto Jews, sometimes known as the Muranos, although that term has fallen out of favor because it is a derogatory term. It means pigs, and it was a term that was used by those who looked down upon the so-called crypto Jews, or conversos. Let’s explain what those terms mean. So who are these crypto Jews, and why did they find Puram so fascinating?
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History of Jews in Spain
So many of you are familiar, of course, with the infamous expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the year 1492. But less well known is the backstory to that 100 years earlier, there were a series of spontaneous pogroms in which there were hundreds of Jews who were forcibly baptized, perhaps thousands of Jews. And according to church doctrine, even though it was forbidden to engage in forced baptism, if a person was baptized, then that person actually became Christian. This is what they say in Latin as Bidievid, they became Christian. So you had this really bizarre situation in which there were all kinds of people who regarded themselves as being Jewish, but nevertheless had all the rights and privileges of Spanish Christians.
And that meant that they were free to attend institutions of higher education. They could move wherever they wanted, they could take any jobs or open any businesses they wanted. And there were all kinds of really pragmatic reasons for having this kind of Christian driver’s license, even though you could still go on living your Jewish life and eating kosher food and marrying other Jews or other Jews who had been forcibly converted and so on. And this went on for a century in Spain. And surprisingly. Perhaps those Jews who were forcibly baptized and their descendants ended up occupying very prominent positions in the Spanish economy and its culture and its leadership all over the place.
The Spanish Inquisition
So this prompted the Spanish rulers to bring in the Inquisition, the dreaded Spanish Inquisition, which was not, strictly speaking, directed at Jews, that is, those Jews who had not been forcibly converted, but rather at those so called new Christians who were ostensibly Christian but were still doing everything Jewish. And this Inquisition, like the term means to inquire, was basically an investigation that was designed to root out any of these private Jewish practices and make sure that they stayed true to Christian doctrine.
It ended up creating this horrific purge like mentality in Spanish society. It involved torture and forced confessions and, of course, the Otto Dafe, the public burnings. So this spread later to Portugal because in 1497, a lot of the refugees from the Spanish expulsion were forcibly converted as well. And the Inquisition was later brought to that part of the Iberian peninsula as well. So what this means is for the next several hundred years, the Inquisition was not formally ended until the 19th century.
You had generations upon generations of these people who were externally Christian, would go to church, would wear a crucifix, would say the right things, and so on. But in the privacy of their home, they would have some degree of Jewish activity. There’s, of course, a spectrum. Some were deeply resentful of all this, others would accommodate it, others were true believers. But basically, you had this large population of people who frequently only found out that they were Jewish much later in life because it was very uncommon to tell children that they were Jewish. It was a very dangerous thing.
And by the way, women were incredibly important to the survival of the Jewish content of the lives of these individuals. And we know quite a bit about the role of women in the lives of crypto Jews because we have inquisition trial transcripts in which there’s long, long descriptions of the forced confessions that were drawn out of these women after torture.
Purim and Crypto-Jews
Really horrific stories. Now, how does this all relate to Purim? So let’s just think about this for a second. If you’re living in the middle of the 16th century and Judaism has been totally banned in your country and you know from your parents, you found out when you were a teenager that you’re actually Jewish, what do you do to learn about Judaism? There are no rabbis allowed. There are no Hebrew books in circulation anywhere. The only exception, incidentally, were medical textbooks, which were often written in Hebrew, and doctors were allowed to own those. Many doctors were also crypto Jews, some of the most famous ones of the centuries. With the limited resources for learning about Judaism, Jews could turn to the Christian bible. The Christian basically is the Tanakh and a few additional stories attached to it in the end. When you have Tanakh, you can also learn about the Book of Esther, which provides a detailed and clear description of the main Mitzvot associated with Purim. Thus, Crypto-Jews would try to do the things mentioned in the Book of Esther.
Featured Image: Esther Scroll | (c) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purim