Yom Kippur and Spain’s Hidden Jews

03 Sep 2020

The high holidays are upon us. A package deal – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the days of repentance in between. Across the globe and across time, these days have been commemorated with great reverence by all traditional Jews who were able to observe them.

As anti-Semitism grows internationally, outward celebration may diminish. This is nothing new for the Jewish people. More than 50 years ago faith-filled Soviet Jews had to pray in private apartments, leaving the big beautiful synagogues to grandfathers and KGB agents.

Travel back in time to the Spanish Inquisition. It was easier for a Jew to clandestinely fast than to celebrate. Rosh Hashana, called the Festival of the Horn (la Pascua del cuerno) ceased its public commemoration in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella oversaw the conversion to Christianity of a third of Spain’s Jewish population, the expulsion of another third and the death or execution of the rest. In fact, shofar blowing became illegal throughout the country.

Crypto Jews still recalled the Horn that was blown at the creation of the world and the ram that was substituted for Isaac on the altar, but memories of the sound of the shofar grew fainter every year.
Yom Kippur, on the other hand, was the most solemn and important holiday to hidden Jews, whether they were called New Christians, conversos or marranos (swine – a derogatory term by Catholics). Jewish calendars were no longer available, so Crypto-Jews began observing Yom Kippur on the tenth of September, instead of the tenth of Tishrei. They called the holiday “Quipur”, “equipuz”, “antepur”, “cinquepur”, “The Great Day”, and most often “The Great Fast”, according to Professor David Gitlitz, Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at the University of Rhode Island.

Secret Jews bathed, dressed in clean clothing and covered their table with a clean cloth, distributed charity, carefully lit candles, including a memorial candle and asked forgiveness from one another. Professor GItlitz said, we know that fathers put their hands on their children’s heads and blessed them, because a memorandum to Inquisitors described it as such, “May you be blessed by G-d and by me for keeping the Laws of Moses and its ceremonies.”

Over the years Hebrew had virtually disappeared in Spain and countries under its influence, but in private homes, small groups of Crypto-Jews recited whatever fragments of prayer they remembered from their family’s tradition, and most often prayed in the vernacular – simple prayers from the heart, “O Al-mighty, for the sake of Thy Holy Name and for Thy Great Day, which You have made so that we might fast and repent our sins, pardon us and have mercy on us.”

The upcoming movie, HIDDEN: The Secret Jews of Spain, a filmed version of the stage play, produced by OU Israel and the Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem in 2018 begins with secret Jews reciting the Kol Nidre prayer. This was the most important prayer to converso Jews, who in order to conceal their true faith, were forced to swear allegiance to false gods, and make vows and oaths contrary to Jewish law.

Some believe that Kol Nidre was introduced in 613 CD when the Visigoths forced 90,000 Spanish Jews to convert to Christianity. One theory notes that its words may have been created in response to the conversos’ plight and their need to nullify their conversion vows. Others say Kol Nidre may have been written after the forced conversion to Islam in 1146, and yet others say it answered the dilemma of the Jews of the Inquisition, beginning in 1478. [There are also theories that link Kol Nidre with Babylonia of the sixth and seventh centuries.]

No matter where Kol Nidre emanated, its words, sanctioning “prayer with the transgressors” allowed Crypto-Jews to feel that they had a chance for repentance. All vows…will be “canceled, null and void, without power and without standing.” Kol Nidre allowed the spiritually tormented hidden Jews to rid themselves of the burden of a false faith, at least for one night.

On the September 21, 8 PM, as Tzom Gedalia ends, OU Israel and The Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem will release to screens across the world, the filmed version of the original stage musical HIDDEN – The Secret Jews of Spain. For women only.

The epic musical presented more than 60 women in a spine-tingling story based on the classic novel, The Family Aguilar by Rabbi Marcus Lehmann, and was brought to the stage with the permission of Feldheim Publishers.
Hailed by audience and media alike as “stunning”, “engaging”, “incredible”, “moving”, “inspiring”, HIDDEN is the second musical by the creative team of Sharon Katz and Avital Macales. Katz and Macales also produced the show. Shifra C. Penkower served as director, Ellen Macales as musical director, Judy Kizer as choreographer, Bati Katz as associate producer, Sasha Gorev as director of photography, Marty Wiesel as the film’s editor.
Hidden can be rented at https://wpcjerusalem.wixsite.com/wpcjerusalem/rent-hidden.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.