The forced conversions of the Jews in Spain that occurred in 1391 changed the face of Spanish Jewry as well as of Spanish history. The random attacks on Jewish communities throughout the country resulted in destruction of property, loss of life and general havoc. Whereas there had previously been Jews and Catholics, now there were Jews, Catholics and converts or conversos. Some of the converts continued to live a Jewish life to the best of their abilities, despite the fact that they now had to attend church and abide by its dogma. Others opted to live as Christians in the hope that new opportunities would await them. Yet others wavered between the two religious lifestyles or opted to follow neither. During the first half of the fifteenth century, the original group of conversos was joined by disillusioned Jews who chose to convert and others who were persuaded to do so in the wake of the rigged Disputation of Tortosa (1413–1414). In the long run, the converso population changed tremendously after nearly a third of the total remaining Jewish population chose to convert in 1492 rather than to face exile. In other words, by the end of the fifteenth century the converso community included descendants of the original forced converts of 1391, descendants of voluntary converts, Jews who chose to remain in Spain as Catholics and even some exiles who returned home within seven years of the fateful decree.
There is little information available concerning the lives of the first generations of conversos or of the crypto-Jews who chose to continue observing Judaism in secret prior to the establishment of the Inquisition in 1478. Once the Holy Tribunal began to function, it declared a grace period of one to three months in order to gather information. In this pre-trial period, the court prepared Books of Testimonies as well as Books of Confessions. The former were provided by potential witnesses, while the latter were obtained from conversos who were encouraged to repent, confess and be reconciled to the Church. These confessions also reveal information about judaizing activities from earlier years, dating back to the middle of the fifteenth century. After the Holy Tribunal began formal proceedings in 1481, it maintained precise and confidential records of each trial. From these sources, one can gain insight into the lives and mentality of the conversos who faced the Inquisition.
The women who were tried by the Spanish Inquisition were accused of judaizing, of observing Jewish law and rites, and of believing that salvation would be attained in this manner. Such actions were heretical in the eyes of the Church, for those being judged were baptized Catholics and not Jews. The Tribunal emphasized the importance of both the act and the intent since the latter reflected a state of mind that was central to one’s religious loyalty. For example, upon returning from the baptismal font with her infant, a conversa might wash off the holy water or “debaptize” her child. This was clearly not a Jewish rite of any sort, but rather an act of rebellion and rejection and a clear statement of intent on the part of the conversa. Nevertheless, the Church viewed it as a bona fide heretical act.
Because of the clandestine nature of crypto-Judaism, it is characterized by additions (such as debaptizing) as well as by lacunae. The latter might occur as the result of the passage of time, lack of knowledge or because some of the more public-oriented rituals could not be observed. For example, male children were no longer circumcised automatically and, after 1481, the risk was simply too great; a sukkah or a mikveh could rarely be furtively built. After the Expulsion, the Jewish community was no longer available to provide a living example of Judaism, to offer knowledge or books or to provide functionaries such as ritual slaughterers, circumcisers, rabbis, and teachers. Families that had previously been provided with kosher meat or wine, mazzah or other foods, books, instructions, inspiration, or even mere moral support, could no longer receive them. The crypto-Jews ultimately had to rely upon their memory and upon oral transmission, both intrinsically tricky and unreliable.
Once the Inquisition was established, observance became dangerous as well as difficult. The challenge of observing was formidable; even one’s home was no longer a safe refuge, for every domicile had servants and every servant was a potential informant for the Inquisition. However, once there were no Jewish institutions extant, the home became the only remaining institution in which one could observe. Since the home was traditionally the woman’s domain, her central role there became magnified in importance. Consequently women became active in crypto-Judaism, as teachers as well as observers of the religion.
Interestingly enough, the Inquisition also discerned the centrality of women in crypto-Judaism. There is a preponderance of women being called to appear before the Holy Tribunal; there is also a distinct difference between the choice of wording by the prosecutors in many of the accusations. The judaizing conversas were more active than their husbands: for instance, they would be actively lighting Sabbath candles or preparing Jewish foods and the like while their partners were passively allowing them to do so or simply eating the foods prepared. The Inquisition realized that the women presented a serious challenge to the Church, for they steadfastly continued to observe their ancestral customs despite the threat of trial and the prospect of being burned at the stake. Even the language of the prosecution reflects its resentment of what it perceived to be the subversive activities of the women.
Each conversa dealt differently when accused of judaizing. Some confessed immediately; others denied all charges until the very end of the trial. Some were evasive and tried to defend their actions, for example by claiming that they were not judaizing but rather fastidious and meticulous in their housekeeping or cooking. Others claimed that they had been encouraged, cajoled, or forced by their mothers or by others to observe. Each defendant was assigned a defense attorney, who usually made a serious effort to defend the accused. In the early years, the defense tactics included abonos as an attempt to prove that the defendant was a devout Catholic; numerous witnesses, including clergymen, would attest to their steadfastness in the faith. The problem with this approach was inherent to the very nature of crypto-Judaism: a successful judaizer would appear to be a devout Catholic while surreptitiously managing to observe Judaism as well. The other defense tactic was the tacha, whereby an attempt was made to invalidate the witnesses’ testimonies. This was an onerous task because the identity of these witnesses was not revealed either to the defense lawyer or to the defendant; as a result, they were essentially groping in the dark as they made lists of prospective informers, anxious to succeed in their guesswork. Anyone and everyone who might have tangled with the defendant at any time was a prospective informer. The lists that were prepared included specific names together with the reasons for suspecting each individual; the names of family members, neighbors, business associates and servants filled these lists, together with descriptions of the friction encountered in daily life between peers, mistresses and maidservants, employers and employees and family. Thus, in many ways, the most interesting aspect of the tacha process for the researcher is the uncovering of layers of social interaction on the part of the defendants. Because of the preponderance of servants in conversa households, and because of the rapid turnover rate of these often untrustworthy employees, one also learns how the conversa ran her home and functioned as its head.
The two most frequent observances of crypto-Jewish women were of the Sabbath and of the dietary laws, both of which play a central role in Jewish life. While they are easier to remember because they are frequently observed, either weekly or daily, they are also most easily noticed, especially by anyone working or residing in the household. While no one file contains a full description of normative Jewish life, there are some descriptions that approach this level; at the same time, there were women who observed only a few practices, but they too were suspect and often judged guilty of apostasy.
In the realm of Sabbath observance, one can find women who lit lamps with clean or new wicks, had their lamps cleaned, and replaced the oil with fresh oil. These lamps were lit earlier than usual, and were not extinguished by either the servants or by their masters, unlike on other nights of the week; the crypto-Jews also retired earlier on Friday nights. Judaizing women wore clean or holiday clothes in honor of this day and bathed before sundown. Bathing was not a daily activity, and because there was no running water available, the servants who prepared the mistress’s bath were involved in and aware of this ritual. By the same token, the servants knew precisely when their mistresses wore clean clothes, for they had been instructed to wash her dress or blouse; a medieval wardrobe was limited and one might own two or three blouses at most. One witness explained that some women would “wear good clothes, the very same clothes that this witness saw them wear on Sundays and by-and-by on the following Monday they would wear other non-holiday garb such as that which they wore all week until Saturday.” Conversas would clean their homes or have them cleaned by their servants in honor of the Sabbath, and bake hallah, even removing and burning a piece of dough as is required by Jewish law.
These women were aware of the fact that the Sabbath is the day of rest, but it was not so easy to honor this precept. Women who worked outside the home might invent excuses in an attempt to avoid working. For example, one storekeeper never had the requested item for her customers available on Saturdays although her store was ostensibly open. In this way, she did not handle money or actually engage in work. Since the average woman engaged daily in spinning, weaving, or embroidery, abstaining from these activities was apt to arouse suspicion. There were women who miraculously developed arthritic pains every Saturday, or who opted to do some light rather than heavy work in an attempt to partly observe their day of rest. Some visited friends or family, even taking their handiwork with them; however, the astute observer would notice that no progress had been made at all! Women and their families would meet, especially in order to have communal meals. The traditional Sabbath stew was served as the meal for the Sabbath day; some ate it cold, whereas others left it to simmer through the night. Needless to say, the servants noticed the change of menu, diet, cooking habits, and cuisine that took place each week. There are also descriptions of these stews that include specific ingredients, ranging from cheese, eggplant and parsley in a vegetarian recipe to meat and spice, and to a stew that included pork.
In the earlier periods, when prayer books were available or memories still retained the prayers by heart, groups of crypto-Jews would gather to pray together. The Spanish language even has a verb, sabadear, which refers to praying on the Sabbath, for the unknowing Christian assumed that the swaying motion of the Jew during the Amidah was a special part of the Sabbath prayer.
As noted, dietary laws were frequently observed, but not necessarily with precision. Women would attempt to eat meat that was ritually slaughtered, and some even slaughtered birds themselves. Many would take care to remove the sciatic nerve and the fat portions attached to the stomach and intestines from their meat, and some even washed and koshered their meat as well. Many took care not to eat pork and pork products—something extremely difficult in light of Spanish cooking habits. One accusation stated that the defendant neither ate bacon “nor those things that were cooked with it nor those food in which pork happened to be, and she had separate plates and bowls for herself which had not come into contact with bacon.” Equally difficult was abstaining from eating non-kosher seafood, which is also frequent in the Spanish kitchen. Lists of accusations include avoiding eating squid, octopus, eel and conger-eel as well as rabbit, hare or wild boar. Judaizing women might claim that part of the meat was needed for medicine or that the cat had run off with the missing nerve or fat; others claimed that their health did not allow them to eat pork or shellfish. The judaizing women exercised their imagination and ingenuity in their attempts not to be caught in the act.
Some women had separate dishes, one for the food that came into contact with pork and one for the pork-less dishes; separate milk and meat dishes did not and could not exist. Some families observed together and others did not; when couples did not, it clearly made life more difficult and confusing. Needless to say, the servants were suspicious of all these strange kitchen customs. They would bring home fatty legs of lamb from the butcher and later discover that it was lean and devoid of fat. They would be sent out of the kitchen on errands so as not to be present while meat was being koshered or while certain dishes were being prepared. Some were strongly reprimanded and even beaten for mixing up the dishes; sometimes these servants were dismissed and later vented their bitterness as they testified as witnesses for the prosecution.
Many a conversa observed the fast of Yom Kippur, viewing this act as redeeming her as a Jew despite the fact that she was unable to observe Judaism properly throughout the year. Some prayed and many asked forgiveness of their close friends and family; many went barefoot so as to avoid wearing leather. The majority of those fasting broke their fast with a meat meal. In addition to Yom Kippur, there were conversas who fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, from sunrise to sundown. This ancient ritual was revived during the messianic fervor that reigned between 1497 and 1503. A young woman from Herrera named Inés had visions of redemption and, together with two other converso prophets, Mari Gómez of Chillón and a butcher named Luis Alfonso, succeeded in infecting the conversos of Extremadura. Because of the imminent arrival of the messiah, bi-weekly fasting was deemed an appropriate activity in which extremely young girls were even encouraged to participate.
Other holiday observances included Passover, although the traditional seder disappeared fairly quickly from most homes in Spain. A few women knew that different utensils were needed, but it was difficult to continue this rite in a household with servants. Mazzah was obtained from Jews prior to 1492 and numerous attempts were made to bake it afterwards. The most outstanding example of women baking mazzah can be found in the community of Belmonte in Portugal where the women still dress in white, reciting lengthy prayers as they ceremonially prepare the mazzah while the men stand guard outside the houses. (In this particular community, the women knew and transmitted many prayers for five centuries). Most of the other holidays unfortunately fell by the wayside; in the early years there were references to the festivals of Sukkot and to Rosh Ha-Shanah, but without a sukkah to build or the four species or a prayer book for guidance during a prayer service, observance of these days became extremely rare.
On the other hand, birth and purity rituals were often secretly observed. One unique ritual was called hadas or a celebration on the eighth night after the birth of a male or female child; the infant was usually dressed in white and a collation was served while the participants engaged in singing. The de-baptism ritual already referred to was another crypto-Jewish creative addition. On a more traditional note, many women would bathe after childbirth and after menstruation, obviously in place of the required visit to the mikveh. Some trimmed and pared their nails as well, as they attempted to retain some of the laws of purity.
Death and burial rituals also played a substantial role in crypto-Jewish life and while they ranged from halakhic to superstitious, they were all based on past Jewish practices. Attempts were made to bathe the deceased ritually and numerous conversas observed the week of mourning or visited and cooked for others who were in mourning. The women were particularly active as keeners and as those who washed the dead; sometimes they also prepared shrouds. At the post-funeral meal or cohuerzo, round foods such as eggs and lentils were eaten at low tables. A typical witness account might refer to a widow “behind closed door for some days ... seated without doing any labor” or how the mourners would “begin to cry and lament and sing and clap their hands, crying for a while and singing for a while.” The non-Jews eventually learned to recognize these unusual Jewish customs of their neighbors.
The aforementioned customs reflect some of the crypto-Jewish women’s observances. There are tens of thousands of trials that have yet to be read and analyzed, especially from the archives of Portugal. One would expect to uncover an even richer mine of information there because the entirety of Portuguese Jewry, which was comprised of a majority of Spanish exiles, was forcibly converted in 1497; thus this group of conversos was far more homogeneous than that of Spain and the judaizers among them had more recent access to their heritage. In addition, there were conversas in the New World as well, such as the women from the Carvajal family in Mexico. While not all of the conversas were crypto-Jews, those who did observe were aware of the risk entailed; nevertheless they believed that their ancestral religion provided the path to salvation for them as they opted to identify with the Jewish people rather than with the Catholic Church.
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How to cite this page
Melammed, Renee Levine. "Conversas." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 18, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/conversas>.