Book Review: Secrecy and Deceit – A History of the Crypto-Jews

Secrecy and Deceit
By David Gitlitz, University of New Mexico Press, $32.95

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Secrecy and Deceit is a detailed chronicle of Crypto Judaism in Spain, Portugal and their colonies in Latin America . David Gitlitz’s voluminous book – 600+ footnoted pages, is a meticulous account (much of it gleaned from Inquisition records)that traces the history of Iberian Jews between 1238 to 1992.

A funny story I remember my childhood family physician telling us, went as follows:

“In a tribal area of India (where most Christian missionaries preached the gospel and still do), an entire village had converted to Christianity after persistent prodding and promises of cash and clothing. The villagers showed up every Sunday at the church in another nearby village and ostensibly did what they were expected to do as newly minted Christians. Some months later, the missionary came to check on the new converts in their own village and found to his horror that the villagers in their homes were going about their old ways, blithely performing Hindu rituals of offering food, flowers and lighting lamps at the shrine of the domestic deity. He asked with some indignation, “Why are you still indulging in heathenish ways? Didn’t you all become Christians?” The villagers replied, with some puzzlement, “So what if we became Christians? Does that mean we’ve lost our faith?”

Amin Maalouf would have extracted a whole chapter out of this exchange! The attitude of the Crypto Jews of Spain and Portugal was a bit like the villagers above except that their defiance was fraught with the risk of persecution and death. The pressure on the Jewish citizens to convert to Christianity, while common in most of Europe, was particularly acute in devout Catholic kingdoms like Spain and Portugal. A vital part of the urban commercial sector and advisers to kings and noblemen, Iberian Jews were held in high regard for their capabilities and education. But their prosperity and Jewish faith made them objects of suspicion, envy and contempt at the same time. Unable to withstand the pressures of being the perennial “other” of society, many Jews did in fact “voluntarily” convert for reasons that ranged from expediency, fear, the wish to belong and even out of a genuine conviction that Christ indeed was the Messiah of the Jews and hence Christianity was the logical culmination of what Judaism had taught and promised them. Voluntary conversion however soon gave way to coercion and intimidation that included curtailed civil rights and freedoms, extortion of cash and property, general humiliation in public places, ghettoizing, relentless proselytizing, imprisonment and even death. The only place where Spanish Jews were relatively free of religious persecution was in the mostly southern Andalusian regions under Islamic rule.

Soon after Ferdinand and Isabella re-conquered all of Spain, the notorious Spanish Inquisition was established. Under the rules of the Inquisition, all non-Christians were banished from Spain. Many chose to leave. Those who remained or were unable to leave had no choice but to convert to Christianity. The Inquisition had jurisdiction over all Christians but its focus was mostly directed toward ensuring the orthodoxy of the new converts (Jews and Muslims) who were known as Conversos or by the derogatory term Marranos. The zealots of the Inquisition installed spies to keep an eye on the new converts’ way of life in the privacy of their own homes – whether they reverted to their heretic ways when no one was watching. The spies were among anyone the converts came in contact with – neighbors, merchants, co-workers, domestic servants and even their own Converso relatives. Since many had converted under duress and not out of conviction, there indeed were lapses. They continued to practice the old faith in secret, sometimes subverting the tenets of the new religion to fit their old beliefs, thus making them crypto practitioners of their ancestral faith while leading a Christian life in public. (The history of Portuguese Crypto Jews is similar but followed a slightly different time line)

For the Jewish Conversos, some of the tell tale signs of Crypto Judaism that the spies looked for were:

  • Cleaning, bathing, wearing nice clothes on Saturdays
  • Lighting a candle on Friday nights in a secret place (basement, inside a clay pot or closet) not visible from outside
  • Fasting on Jewish high holidays, avoiding leavened bread at Passover
  • Sweeping toward the center of a room rather than toward the door
  • Separating utensils for milk and meat
  • Circumcision of male children in secret
  • Avoiding pork and not eating fish on Fridays
  • Praying while facing a wall

    The guilt and sadness of having to hide what they really believed took their toll on some new converts. The private rejection of the public lie sometimes expressed itself in the form of regret, apology, frustration and anger. For example, before entering the church many Crypto Jews would mutter a prayer which essentially said, “Lord, forgive me for what I am about to do inside. I do not worship sticks or stones nor do I see divinity in bread or wine. I believe only in the laws of Moses.” At other times, the reluctant Converso would just try to avoid Christian worship by faking illness on Sundays and other holy days. But equally often the practice took the form of outright denunciation of and derision for the central tenets of the new faith in private surroundings, among other Crypto Judaizers. The derision occasionally went beyond mere words and translated into actual desecration or mockery of Christian holy symbols – among them, the cross and Catholic statuary and icons. All this was quite naturally to be expected from a reluctant group of converts on whom Christianity had been forced under the threat of death, expulsion and extreme privation. What I found surprising however, was the fact that the Virgin Mary was the target of more vicious abuse than Jesus himself. The mockery of Mary, quite naturally always centered around the Christian belief in her virginity and the divine nature of her conception. One form of showing disrespect towards Mary consisted of throwing figs or making the sign of the fig at her statue or painting.

    Secrecy and Deceit is a register of the persecution of Crypto Jews under the draconian reach of the Inquisition. In a gargantuan enterprise, names, dates, nature of infractions and punishments are meticulously researched and recorded by the author. Within those details lie the history of the Iberian Jews and Christians and their uneasy co-existence. In his introduction to Gitlitz’s book, Ilan Stavans sums up the essence of Crypto-Judaism as follows:

    David Gitlitz’s encyclopedic volume is a tour through the palace thus described by Diderot in Jacques Le Fataliste et son Maitre: a magisterial citadel—from the French locution citadelle: “a city within a city”—made of tortuous alleyways, where no passerby ever finds his way across.

    The palace, of course, is a metaphor for the identity of crypto-Jews. Gitlitz offers a detailed catalogue of their manners: their hygiene, their birth customs, their liturgical rituals, their sexual interaction, their dietary laws and superstitions. These manners have been passed along from one generation to the next, with a sole purpose is mind: the concealment of truth. Their dishonesty isn’t reprehensible; instead, it is a strategy of survival. For these crypto-Jews, the reader is made to understand, are consummate actors; on the surface they appear to be average citizens, but really they are part of a clandestine club that enables them to exist in a parallel universe. The degree of furtiveness varies from generation to generation. It isn’t improbable, for instance, that for some of its members the club might be so secret an entity they might not be aware of their membership in it. In any case, for them Hamlet’s question, “To be or not to be?,” is turned, unapologetically, into an affirmation: “To be and not to be.”

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