A big red sign. I should have known that meant bad news. The Cordoba Casa de Sefarad Jewish museum boasted a big red sign about the holidays celebrated (or barely celebrated) by Marranos.
The sign explained that as the Dark Ages wore on for Spain’s hidden Jews, their observance of holidays simply faded with their memories. Pretending to be faithful Christians, the conversos/ cryptoJews/ marranos/ annusim/ etc. were looked upon with disdain by many Jews and with suspicion by the Catholic church.
With every passing year, the conversos kept less and less mitzvot, and limited even those to whatever could be practiced in absolute privacy. Heartbreaking. As in other periods of Jewish history, often only the women were able to keep the flame burning (literally).
Over the four hundred years of the Inquisition, the conversos mostly forgot Hebrew, Torah learning, prayers, and the customs that were usually celebrated publically. Still, Shabbat became a Friday night social gathering followed by prayers, Purim “Saint Esterica” was treasured, Pesach “The Lamb Easter” was rescheduled to coincide with the Easter holiday, and Yom Kippur remained “The Great Day”.
Yom Kippur was the conversos’ most important holiday. They called it “The Great Day” with “The Forgiveness Fast,” and they celebrated it on September 10, instead of 10 Tishrei, when all suspected Jews were watched like a hawk. Yom Kippur was the day that kept them going for the rest of the year.
I first learned these facts two weeks ago on a research trip to Spain for an upcoming musical that I am co-writing with the talented Avital Macales. “HIDDEN – The Secret Jews of Spain” follows a faithful Jewish family in Andalusia, as it suffers the consequences of the infamous Inquisition. We had so many questions about the lives of conversos, the horror-filled Inquisition and the insistence by so many to remain in Spain at the risk of their lives, that we decided to explore these questions close-up. Joining in our Spanish adventure was HIDDEN’s associate producer Bati Katz.
In a whirlwind trip, we visited Juderios (Jewish quarters), the existing Jewish museums, an Inquisition museum that we could barely complete, and Spanish and Moorish palaces. We searched for the very few signs of Jewish heritage and tried to absorb the Sierra Nevada mountains into our souls. Many of our questions were left unanswered in Spain, but we came home with a respect for those Jews who were forced to live a lie, and who often died for the truth.
The essential prayer for conversos was the holiday’s pre-amble, Kol Nidre. Well, no surprise there, Kol Nidre is a critical prayer for Jews the world over.
My son, the rabbi told me that Kol Nidre was written for the converso Jews. Forcibly converted to Christianity or voluntarily doing so to save themselves from the horrors of the Inquisition, they sought a Divine pardon for the Christian vows and acts that they undertook. Kol Nidre, they felt, cleansed their souls.
Ashley Perry, head of the Reconectar organization, which aims to reconnect the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities and the Jewish world, added this, “In the Yom Kippur Machzor of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, Western Sephardim, minhag London, we [still] say during a Mi Sheberach prayer immediately after Kol Nidre: ‘A todos nossos Irmaos, prezos pela Inquisicao’ (For our brothers and sisters held in the prisons of The Inquisition)… while the Inquisition may not be physically active, its effect carries on today with millions … still cut off from their people.“
MYSTERY TO KOL NIDRE’S ORIGINS
My son and generations of rabbis indeed believed that Kol Nidre was created in response to the conversos’ plight and their need to nullify their conversion vows. However, its true origins are a mystery.
Some believe that Kol Nidre was introduced in 613 CE (613, really) when the Visigoths forced 90,000 Spanish Jews to convert to Christianity. Some point to the period of forced conversions to Islam by Spain’s Almohads of 1146. Others say that Kol Nidre was the answer to the dilemma of the Jews of the Inquisition, beginning 1478.
Still, others completely negate any Spanish connection and contend that Kol Nidre’s origins lie in Babylonia of the 6th and 7th centuries.
Perhaps we’ll never find out who inserted the Kol Nidre declaration as a preface to the Yom Kippur service. However, if we just read the words slowly for a moment, we can almost imagine the converso Jews intoning these utterances with tears in their eyes. And whether Kol Nidre was written with the conversos of Spain in mind or any other threatened Jews of any century or country, it really doesn’t matter. Kol Nidre allowed tormented Jews or hidden Jews to rid themselves of the burden of a false faith, at least for that night.
“With the approval of the Omnipresent and with the approval of the congregation; in the convocation of the Court above and in the convocation of the Court below, we sanction prayer with the transgressors. Kol Nidre, all vows, prohibitions, oaths…we regret them henceforth…Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.”
Gmar chatima tova.