Women Ritual and Secrecy

This research focuses on the role of women in sustaining cryptoJudaism in twentiethcentury American society The historical significance of such women has been identified in the work of Cecil Roth (1932) and Renee Levine (1982) both of whom studied the role of women in sustaining hidden Judaism during the Spanish persecutions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries This study expands the gendered analysis through an investigation of the role that contemporary Latina women assume in preserving and maintaining cryptoJewish traditions My objective is to provide an understanding of the way in which gender informs the maintenance and transmission of religious culture under threatening and ad­verse social conditions

Using ethnographic methodology I examine the ways in which ritual and secrecy have been maintained by female descendants of cryptoJewish families The findings reveal that the survival of crypto Jewish culture is expressed through the privatization of religious practices that have been preserved primarily although not exclusively by women in the family These findings suggest that the preservation of crypto Judaism may have empow­ered female descendants in two ways: first by creating an informal system of matrilineal descent and second by establishing a separate sphere of spiritual practice over which women in the household maintained control

Methodology and Sample Characteristics

This research is based on an ethnographic study of descendants of crypto Jewish populations living in Arizona Colorado New Mexico and Texas Data for the study were collected through participant observation and indepth interviews with twentyeight individuals fifteen women and thirteen men who have identified themselves as descendants of cryptoJewish ances­tors Among the participants sixteen of the respondents emigrated from Mexico over the last 50 years The remaining sample population of twelve is comprised of individuals descended from crypto Jews who settled in the American Southwest in the sixteenth and seventeenth cen­turies

The majority of respondents were raised as Latino/a Catholics although in four cases the respondents families converted to Protestantism in the last century The level of commit­ment to Christianity varied across families With regard to current religious affiliation eight respondents have formally converted to Judaism twelve attend services and celebrate religious holidays although they have not for­mally converted and eight remain religiously identified with Christianity

The age of the respondents ranges from 38 to 65; the level of education ranges from eighth grade to advanced degrees in education and dentistry with the majority of respon­dents having completed high school and some college At the time of the interview all re­spondents were engaged in establishing genealogies and investigating family rituals and customs that were Sephardic in origin The link to crypto Jewish heritage was thus estab­lished through three indicators: the existence of Jewish ritual in the family of origin; the dis­closure of Jewish ancestry by mothers and grandmothers; and the development of family ge­nealogies that trace Jewish ancestry to Inquisition records in Mexico City Half relied on all three indicators while the other half determined their Jewish ancestry from one or two of these familial identifiers

Analysis of Findings

Findings indicate that with the exception of three cases women were the primary bearers of crypto Jewish culture in Latino families The data reveal that women performed this role through the preservation of Jewishbased rituals and the transmission of knowledge of Jewish ancestry Within this gendered framework of cultural preservation four related as­pects of modern crypto Judaism can be identified Each of these is elaborated below

Fear And The legacy of Persecution in The Formation of Crypto Judaism

Like the Holocaust the memory of the Inquisition is deeply embedded in the con­sciousness of individuals descended from Spanish Jewry Among the crypto Jewish whose families remained in Mexico until this century the fears associated with a history of persecution are especially strong as a female respondent 49 explained:

Beginning with the Romans starting with our exile there has been an obsession to destroy the Jews It is so ingrained in us who come from the anusim [forcibly converted] who is friend and who is foe who you trust and who you don’t That is our obsession You know we have survived 600 years because we have fought it our annihilation We survived because we keep it all inside the family we tell no one and never discuss our private lives with those outside

Another respondent also raised in Mexico recounted the stories of persecution that she was told as a child:

I remember when I was about five years old my grandmother would tell me about the Jewish people my an­cestors and how Catholicism came along and people were imprisoned and burned There was the fear we always had We knew we were Hebrews We were called Hebrews but it was very quiet because people who had Hebrew ancestors were executed in Mexico until recently My mother said that the most important thing was that we were descendants of Abraham and we had to keep the Sabbath But that was not something we could trust others to know If other people found out they would call us sabatistas which were Saturday morning worshippers

As oral tradition kept alive the memory of Jewish suffering succeeding generations of crypto Jews retained an awareness of the dangers associated with Jewish ancestry According to the respondents such dangers were given new meaning in the twentieth cen­tury with the advent of the Holocaust and the periodic resurgence of antiSemitic attacks on Jews or suspected Jews living in Mexico and the United States As one respondent ex­plained:

Whatever might have been more out in the open went underground after the war It was hidden after that just like in the old days because of the way the Jews were being treated in Germany and what was going on over there I think that silenced people like my great aunt who now tells me she knows we are Jewish even has proof in a trunk with papers and a Bible but refused to talk about it because her husband had been in the war had been to Germany and he saw what happened

Among the crypto Jewish descendants whose families left Mexico in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and settled in the American Southwest fears surrounding stigma and exclusion were also prevalent Here respondents expressed concerns that exposure could lead to loss of social position and status as ties to the community were determined by the centrality of the Church and of Catholicism in the social and economic lives of Hispanic Americans For these participants as well the specter of antiSemitism surrounded their families as respondents recalled growing up in a time when Jews were held accountable for the death of Christ A male participant 45 recalled his childhood in Denver:

We lived in an Hispanic neighborhood and the kids said the Jews were killers of Christ and that they started wars When they said things like that I knew they were talking shout me my mother I was about ten at the time so I asked my mom ” if we’re Jewish how come I don’t know anything about Jews?” She answered me in Spanish She said that I knew what I had to know I think she was trying to protect me

As these accounts suggest crypto Jewish culture weaved together the memory of his­torical atrocities with fears of antiSemitism in contemporary society Out of this conscious­ness of persecution a privatized form of ritual life was maintained by women as secrecy became the context through which connection to Jewish ancestry was sustained and transmitted across generations

Women Ritual and & Secrecy

The historical role of women in crypto Judaism has been studied by Levine (1982) who analyzed the Inquisition records of 111 women accused of the crime of Judaizing between the years 1492 and 1520 in Spain The trial records indicate that as persecution led to the elimination of Jewish public worship in Spain the survival of Judaism relied on the privatization of Jewish practice; this led to the expansion of women’s religious roles in the crypto Jewish home Thus Levine reports it was often the preservation of ritual by women that sustained the hidden Jewish culture of the Inquisition period

The ethnographic data from this study indicate that twentieth century women like their ancestors preserved the family’s connection to Jewish heritage The accounts of the respondents reveal that a body of ritual has survived which contains elements of Jewish practice and faith In this regard the participants report that women in the family performed rituals and customs relating to the Sabbath religious holidays and Jewish di­etary laws Within these categories of ritual practice norms of secrecy and concealment were observed among descendants of crypto Jewish families creating a separate sphere of female religious practice within the Latino family

Sabbath Observance Among the rituals remembered by crypto Jewish descendants Sabbath observance is perhaps the most important link between families and their Jewish past

The data on Sabbath observance reveals that crypto Jews engaged in covert acts of resistance similar to those described by James Scott (1990) in his analysis of ritual re­sponses to domination and oppression Within crypto Jewish families the lighting of oil lamps and candles on the Sabbath represents a form of covert behavior that challenges the theological hegemony of the dominant Christian culture In one of the earliest ethnographies of crypto Judaism in New Mexico a descendant describes the observance of these ritualistic aspects of the Sabbath as they were practiced in the early and middle twentieth century:

Women will shop on Fridays and try to get home as soon as supposedly Some of them light candles supposedly to the saints but they will never tell you which saints Instead of candles some will light a wick in a bowl of olive oil and this will burn for six to seven days (Nidel 1984:253)

The descendants of twentieth century crypto Jews living in Mexico report that the women sought a variety of means to conceal the lighting of the Sabbath candles Among their strategies was the practice of lighting Sabbath oil lamps in a church so that no one would suspect the family of being ” sabatistas ” A female respondent 55 offers this recollec­tion of her mother’s weekly ritual:

Every Friday my mother went to church and she always had She would pay the churchkeeper to pour the oil directly into the lamp on the highest altar and she always made sure that they had the oil burning from week to week It would be two or four in the afternoon The church was empty and she would go up to the altar and start praying And I said “Who are you praying to? There are so many saints in there and she would say “We are praying to ourselves Don’t speak don’t say anything in here We are praying to the Holiness” And she would never say God which is Dio in Spanish or Christ or anything But she always went there and prayed to the Holiness It was very confusing to me I knew that Christ was someone special but that he was not the same as God It seemed like we ware not really true Catholics

In the above account the actions of the crypto Jewish women manifest an element of subversion as a hidden Jewish ritual is performed within the sacred confines of the Catholic Church In this example of resistance the location of the Sabbath observance seems espe­cially significant as the Church became the site of ritual practices that affirmed the survival of Judaism

However rarely do such acts of resistance take place in the public domain More commonly they are carried out in localities beyond the surveillance of the dominant society As such the predominant forms of Sabbath worship were those observed within the home The crypto Jews and their descendants created what Albert Raboteau has termed “invisible” spaces in which to practice a forbidden religious tradition This phenomenon is especially evident in reports of Sabbath rituals involving the lighting of traditional Sabbath candles These practices were frequently observed in basements or in other shielded rooms in the house A female respondent 60 remembers her grandmother secretly lighting the candles each Friday night in their home in Mexico :

On Friday evenings my grandmother would change all her beds The house had to be clean She had a small table in her bedroom with two candles one on each side Every Friday evening she would light them and she would not allow anyone in her bedroom except for me And she would say some prayers in words that I did not understand

Similarly a male respondent raised in New Mexico offers this recollection of his grandmother’s Friday night ritual:

My grandmother used to light these candles by herself and when I was about ten years old I remember asking her “Why do you light them candles on Friday evening?” Like this woman is a very Christian woman and she was always willing to teach me prayers and here I am sitting with her and this is not my grandmother that I normally know

The relationship among women the Sabbath observance and the persistence of crypto Jewish culture can in part be explained by the separatespheres ideology governing traditional Jewish law According to this ideology women are obligated to perform those commandments such as the lighting of the Sabbath candles which can done at home and therefore do not interfere with domestic responsibilities (Hauptman 1974) Keeping the Sabbath thus became the woman’s responsibility in the crypto Jewish household This perspective on gender and cultural survival helps to explain the persistence of other rituals which like the Sabbath obligated women according to traditional Jewish law Among these obligations are the observance of Chanukah Passover and Purim (Hauptman 1974) three of the holidays forming the basis for crypto Jewish celebrations in modern culture

Religious Holidays and Festivals The ethnographic data on the celebrations of Chanukah Passover and Purim reveal that a syncretic form of ritual practice was devel­oped and observed by women in Latino families This phenomenon is most apparent in the social construction of the festival of Purim This festival still celebrated as the Fast of Queen Esther by the crypto Jewish in Portal (Canelo 1990) was at one time celebrated as the Festival of Saint Esther in New Mexico A crypto Jewish descendant describes this cele­bration:

The Festival of Saint Esther is mainly a women’s holiday in our way of doing things Usually this holiday is dedicated to mothers teaching their daughters the ways of the home and such Pastries rolled empananitas made with fried bread and pumpkin were prepared along with elaborate meals The women lit candles to Saint Esther and other saints It was held up to about twenty years ago At that time we had a bishop named Davis in New Mexico who started doing away with the socalled Jewish holidays and traditions in this instance by telling people that there was no Saint Esther in the Catholic religion claiming that Esther commemorated on Purim was part of the Jewish faith (Nidel 1984:254)

A similar form of syncretic ritual is found in the festival of Las Posadas a celebration that like the Festival of Saint Esther combines Catholic symbols with Jewish tradition A male respondent from New Mexico describes this holiday which coincides with the celebration of Chanukah

From the 16th to the 24th of December in my grandmother’s house we had to light a bonfire everyday On the 16th one bonfire; on the 17th two bonfires; and the 18th three bonfires; and so on Every day you had to light one until the ninth day and then you light the ninth fire and they say that it is a novena to the child Jesus But it really isn’t It’s the shamas the ninth candle on the menorah And my grandmother was very upset if these luminaries the bonfires were not lit She said you have to light nine candles if you don’t have wood

The syncretic forms of hidden worship found among crypto Jewish women like those of other colonial traditions emerged out of a cultural framework in which religious syn­cretism provided a means for preserving an ancestral religion threatened by forced acculturation The accounts of respondents suggest that while in some cases the original meaning of the Jewishbased rituals has been forgotten in many instances the Sephardic roots of the traditions are known although rarely spoken of even within the family

Additional evidence of syncretic practices among the descendants of crypto Jews is found in the celebration of Passover Unlike the festivals of Saint Esther and Las Posadas however the ritual aspects of Passover have been retained primarily through the prepara­tion of special foods rather than through the incorporation of saints and deities These spe­cial food preparations assume two forms capirotada and pan de semita ( Santos 1983) both of which are associated with the eating of matzah (unleavened bread) In New Mexico the preparation of capirotada was accompanied by other Passover rites as described in this ac­count

For Passover a bread pudding called sopa is made Among those who have some Marrano (crypto Jewish connection you will hear it called capirotada It’s made of layers of bread raisins cheese and syrup When my grandparents still lived on the farm they would sprinkle blood on the doors just a tiny bit because otherwise it would be too obvious to Hispanic Catholic community The sprinkling of blood is from the Bible (Nidel 1984:261)

Another descendant from New Mexico explained the preparation of capirotado and pan de semita in this way:

My mother makes capirotada with soda crackers She doesn’t make it with leavened bread In my mother’s household this was with crackers even though in New Mexico traditionally it is made with bread After my grandmother died I was seventeen I started asking my mother “Did Grandma make anything special for Easter Holy Week?” “Oh” she said “Yes we used to make this pan de semita ” and as a kid I always used to think semita was bran And this bread is heavy It doesn’t rise and my grandmother baked it in the outdoor oven and they called it pan de semita My friend and I looked up semita in the dictionary and it means semitic I thought it had always meant bran but it means semitic Pan de semita is semitic bread And this is what we used to eat during the Easter holidays

The food preparation associated with Passover represents a form of ritual adherence directly tied to the domestic sphere as food becomes the symbol system through which con­nection to a Jewish heritage is maintained In a recent study of elderly Kurdish women in Israel Susan Sered (1992) found that in nonobservant Jewish families grandmothers prepared holiday foods that served as a link to Jewish cultural heritage

For the female descendants of crypto Judaism the religious act of food preparation not only preserved a connection to Jewish roots but offered a path to privatized spirituality as well Within a culture of secrecy and concealment the preparation of ritual food became an autonomous act of observance clandestinely linking the individual to God as she ac­knowledged her Jewish ancestors in the special dishes she prepared for her family This in­terpretation is supported by the views of a female respondent whose family immigrated to Texas thirty years ago:

For us preparing food is very spiritual It is something only the women can do It is our connection to God Cooking is considered a sacred act That is why only the woman can cook

A further illustration of this phenomenon is found in the observance of dietary laws which like the preparation of ritual food represents an aspect of domestic culture that connected women to ancient Jewish tradition

Women and the Observance of Dietary Laws For many descendants of the crypto Jews dietary customs relating to the Jewish laws of kashrut are instrumental in recon­structing the evidence for Sephardic ancestry (Hernandez 1993; Hordes 1994; Santos 1983) Such customs include the separation of milk and meat in the household a preoccupation with “unclean” foods and materials examining uncooked eggs for the presence of blood in the yolk the drinking of kosher wine and an aversion to pork in a culture where such meat is a mainstay of traditional Hispanic cooking A woman in her fifties who was raised in Texas spoke of her mother’s extreme concern for cleanliness:

Oftentimes my mother would ask a lady In the neighborhood to come In and eat with us She would invite her to eat at our table because my mother thought she was poor and hungry But then she would say that this person was unclean and I would ask her “Well how do you know when somebody is unclean?” “Well” she answered “when people have our customs and our ways they are clean” And after the person left the dishes would be washed She had a large double sink All of the things that she considered unclean would only be washed on this side of the sink the ’nonkosher” side and then they would be boiled and paced under the sink

Here as in the preparation of ritual foods the women would offer little in the way of explanation for observing customs that clearly differentiated them from their neighbors The dietary rituals like the observance of the Sabbath and syncretic religious holidays con­tained elements of secrecy that further contributed to the aura of mystery that came to characterize the ritual life of women in the crypto Jewish family In some cases the mys­tique surrounding dietary customs was expressed through public violation rather than observance Women sometimes engaged in rituals intended to shield the family from discovery An example of this phenomenon was reported by a female respondent raised in Mexico :

We didn’t eat pork but my family always made sure that there were pigs in the yard because you don’t want to let the neighbors know that you don’t eat this meat We do a lot of things for show Like when strangers came to the dinner table that was the only time we would say Christian blessings and the only time pork would he placed on the table No one ever explained these things but you are told not to discuss anything about your family about what happens in your home when there is an outsider there If you begin to discuss this at the table you would he sent away immediately

Further a male respondent from New Mexico offered this explanation of a feast day that is celebrated by his family:

It always seemed odd to me We have this feast day that we celebrate on Saturday during the season of Lent Everyone else celebrates it on Friday Not us; we have this big elaborate feast on Saturday so that we can have ham on our feast day because if it were on Friday you couldn’t eat meat This is a carryover from Passover meals from the Sephardic crypto Jews You always had a piece of ham on your place so that no one would suspect you of being Jewish and to this day you may not have chicken or turkey but there is always ham Growing up I always wondered about this ritual why we were so different than everyone else Now I think I understand

The findings with respect to the public violation of Jewish custom suggest that women used ritual not only to maintain a hidden and privatized connection to ancient Jewish roots but to disguise this connection as well In both instances ritual became the means through which women sought to preserve secret identities and conceal religious difference

Secrecy and the Disclosure of Jewish Ancestry In keeping with the clandestine behav­ior that governed the practice of Jewishbased rituals knowledge of Jewish ancestry was of­ten communicated through a context of secrecy that focused on concern for privacy and a fear of exposure The patterns of disclosure reported by respondents reveal that in some cases this knowledge was passed on in childhood while in others the descendants learned of their Jewish background in adulthood Among those participants whose families remained in Mexico until this century a common approach was to tell children that their ancestors were Jewish typically with a warning that such information was to remain inside the fam­ily A female respondent describes how she learned of her Jewish background while still a child in Mexico :

My grandmother would tell me about the Hebrews why they are special and why we mustn’t practice on the outside because it was like a covenant you know and we had to practice very secretly because God had decided that we had to keep contact between Him and us She would say “Remember we are Hebrew and even though our husbands are Christians and our children we still pass down that we are Hebrews to our children because we have a covenant a very personal and sacred relationship with God” And she would tell me stories and they would be about the Hebrews who had a lot of problems They never were wanted anywhere so they had to go everywhere And she used to tell me this story of the wandering Jew and she would say “No he is not going to rest For a long time we are not going to have a place of our own We have to continue to follow the Divine’s rules before the world is mended”

In the above account the importance of religious heritage is framed within the context of a covenant the special relationship that the Jew has maintained with food throughout cen­turies of persecution Thus for women crypto Judaism is understood as a personal relationship between the individual and God which of necessity must remain hidden As such the experience of this respondent illustrates the way in which secrecy and fear of antiSemitism contextualized the transmission of Jewish culture to young children within the crypto Jewish family

Among those respondents who learned of their Jewish ancestry in adulthood (50%) many were told only as their mothers and/or grandmothers neared death Such revelations served to confirm the suspicions of the respondents the majority of whom had already begun to explore family history and rituals linked to a Sephardic past Thus one woman age 50 reported the following:

All the time I could remember mother talking about the holidays She would say the “holidays are coming” and she’d show me the calendar “It’s such and such a date” she would say and she would mean Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah the Jewish high holidays It’s something she always did but never explained ’Then she became ill a couple of years ago and she was in the hospital By then I was thinking that maybe we were Jewish so I had checked outs lot of books on Judaism and I had them in my arms and went into her hospital room She looked at the books and she said “You need to go to the synagogue over there by the Greek Church on Alameda You need to go there and they’ll teach you everything you need to know” She said this right before she died

Another respondent spoke of a similar event in her life when she questioned her 83yearold mother a few months before her death:

I finally felt comfortable enough to approach my mother I finally worked up my nerve It was an afternoon I remember clearly She was sitting in her room rocking I pulled up the ottoman to her and I sat in front of her and I looked her right in the eye and I said in Spanish “Are you a Jew?” And she said “Why do you ask me?” And I said “You have a lot of Jewish customs” And she said “Si yes I had been told when I was a little girl” And she couldn’t tell me exactly who had her revealed this to her but the next thing she said to me was “But it’s better if you don’t tell anybody: ” And the thing that surprised me was that she blushed when I asked her if she was a Jew s though a rush had come to her face and it was something that had been hidden for a long time

As these case studies illustrate women often waited until the end of their lives to disclose the secret of their Jewish heritage Such deathbed revelations held great significance for the re­spondents who believed that through disclosure their mothers and grandmothers not only made peace with the food of their ancestors but also offered their children the gift of a hid­den past As one woman poignantly explained:

I think my mother wanted me to know It was her way of giving me back my roots of telling me to find my Judaism and not to let it die with her

Discussions of Findings

The findings of this research raise some important questions concerning the role of women in cultural survival From a historical perspective it is not difficult to understand the behavior and motivations of the crypto Jewish women of the Inquisition period As Levine (1982) points out these women took risks and preserved a forbidden faith because of their commitment to a religious tradition to which they were deeply connected both through their families and through their beliefs In evaluating the more contemporary phenomenon it is less clear why women continued to preserve crypto Judaism particularly as the culture moved further and further away from its Sephardic origins One explanation for such com­mitment can be found in the role that women assume as bearers of culture (Fichter 1954) Like their ancestors the female descendants of crypto Jews sustained the customs of their mothers and grandmothers thereby fulfilling the traditional woman’s role of culture bearing in the patriarchal family

This explanation appears to be consistent with the cultural norms of both Sephardic and Hispanic traditions Thus as crypto Judaism has been adapted and reproduced the role of women as bearers of culture has been sustained through the conver­gence of Sephardic Judaism and traditional Hispanic society as each culture emphasizes women’s responsibility for the preservation of cultural heritage and ethnic identity

In addition among modern descendants the preservation of crypto Judaism even in a fragmented form has kept alive a religious tradition offering women a basis of power within the family Within the secret world of crypto Jewish life women primarily maintain control over the transmission of knowledge and the practice of ritual As such an informal system of matrilineal descent has emerged out of this unique religious phenomenon wherein both ancestry and faith have been carried and transmitted through women in the family Significantly this gendered aspect of contemporary crypto Judaism replicates the laws of Jewish culture whereby Jewish lineage is inherited solely through the bloodline of the mother In the crypto Jewish manifestation of this ancient matrilineal system not only biological maternity places women at the center of culture but also a knowledge of religious ritual and beliefs that in more traditional settings would fall within the male sphere of re­ligious adherence

This perspective on culture bearing within crypto Judaism suggests that women con­tinued to maintain the traditions of the past because this role empowered women in a soci­ety where male domination strongly prevailed Further the practice of cryptoJudaism of­fered women a privatized path to spirituality that was female defined Through centuries of clandestine observance women created and maintained sacred spaces that existed outside the boundaries of both patriarchal Judaism and patriarchal Christianity Within this sepa­rate sphere of religious worship they alone defined their relationship to God and to the memory of their Jewish ancestors Thus the survival of crypto Jewish culture can be under­stood in part through an analysis of gender and power relations as women sought to pre­serve a religious legacy that over centuries evolved into a special province of female spirituality and cultural connection

This research is supported by an Impart grant from the university of Colorado and by a grant from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture Janet Liebman Jacobs is an associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Colorado Boulder 

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