The dancers position themselves with white shawls upon their shoulders. The “rabbi” stands downstage with a home-made “sefer Torah”. Every week, this congregation of crypto-Jews gathers to intone Kol Nidre. The year is 1700, more than 200 years since the start of the Spanish Inquisition. There are no more prayer books, only fragments of prayers that the congregants share. As the terror of the Inquisition is felt in every heart, words like “Remember us for life” are intoned with desperation.
Hush. The chazzan cries out, “Al da’at haMakom v’al da’at hakahal…” With the approval of G-d and the congregation, we sanction prayer with sinners. They glance at one another. “That is me.” “I am the sinner.” “I wear the stain of my sin.”
HIDDEN’s Kol Nidrei begins with giant, six-part harmony. The prayer fills the hall and touches everyone’s heart. All the vows and oaths I take upon myself until next Yom Kippur are not valid vows and not valid oaths. Catholic on the outside and Jewish in their hearts, Conversos make many false oaths all year. In public, they bow to idols, declare their allegiance to foreign gods, eat forbidden foods. In private, they risk their lives to keep the dwindling mitzvot they still remember.
Affirming the converso’s Jewish commitment and receiving forgiveness for their false oaths, Yom Kippur is the most important holiday in their year. They call it The Great Day and the Fast of the Greatest Day, and more. On this day they feel cleansed.
Some crypto-Jews went to great pains to know the true date of the holiday, and some were satisfied to declare September 10 “Yom Kippur”. Before all else, they forgive one another and embrace each other.
While fasting for 24 hours, they call out their prayers. There is no “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…We have become guilt, we have betrayed, we have robbed”… Instead prayers are mostly short, simple and in the vernacular, with very little Hebrew, and directly to the point – let us live, save us from prison and death.
“L-rd, as you freed those who were in Egypt …. just so free me from this prison in which I find myself.” (1574) ““Oh L-rd, save me and remember me in my trials and have mercy on me…” (1570s)
“In this fast which today you have commanded, Great G-d of Israel, I offer you my life, so that you may free me from jails, prisons and other evils of this world. Amen. Blessed be the L-rd of Israel. Amen.” (Castile, no date)
In a Yom Kippur prayer from The Other Within: The Marranos. Split Identity and Emerging Modernity, we read, “L-rd of L-rds, the infinite….. give me knowledge of the truth [Judaism] and open my eyes and mind to what I must do as Jew… For the sake of thy holy Name, make the angels that accompany you pray for me; save me from judgement [by the Inquisition], from false witnesses, and also from true witnesses…save me, O Lord, as you saved Noah from the flood, Jonah from the fish, Daniel from the den of lions… and Saint Esther from the evil hands of Haman.”
On stage, almost 70 women feel the fear and duality of Spain’s secret Jews. They have learned about them, read about them and made video clips in order to share the voices of these conversos. For hundreds of years, the anousim (the secret Jews of Spain) endangered their lives to observe Yom Kippur. For hundreds of years, they prayed straight from the heart to the One G-d in whom they truly believed.
In November, the Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem and OU Israel present “HIDDEN – The Secret Jews of Spain”, in Jerusalem, the story of a brave converso family trying to survive in the shadow of the Inquisition.
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Women are invited to the production, which premieres on Sunday, November 11. Tickets are available on line: http://wpcjerusalem.wixsite.com/wpcjerusalem/tickets