In the past many months since the COVID pandemic hit the world, my country of Israel has been in various levels of lockdown – the nation as a whole, this city, that town, this neighborhood, that school.
I’ve prayed with a dozen or so friends outside my synagogue on the sidewalk, on my porch while trying to hear the prayer of others carried on the wind, and alone in my kitchen looking outside onto an empty street. As I longed to hear my congregation call out in unison “Shma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad,” I looked inside my memory for a voice singing out clear and true.
I found it, not surprisingly, in the voice of a child, a twelve-year-old converso (Crypto-Jew). His name was Diego Aguilar. A child in the year 1700, kidnapped, brought to a monastery, educated in the ways of Christianity, Diego remembered one memory that whirled faintly in his mind, “Shma Yisrael. Shma Yisrael.” He recited his catechisms and rose in the church, and yet quizzically a small voice still echoed, “Shma Yisrael”.
For the past four years, I have been involved with the stories of Spain’s Crypto-Jews through an historical musical that I co-created with Avital Macales, HIDDEN: The Secret Jews of Spain, produced for the Jerusalem stage by The Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem and OU Israel. The show’s heroes, the Aguilars, risked their lives to keep their Jewish heritage in the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition.
The Inquisition lasted almost five hundred years until the mid-1800s. Jewish education ceased formally in 1492 when monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella forced Jews to either convert, leave Spain or face the sword. Those Jews that remained behind as New Christians, conversos or marranos (swine, as the Spanish insultingly called them) varied in their levels of faith and attachment to the Laws of Moses. Those who tried to remain faithful, handed down whatever traditions they could to their next generation.
There were no more prayer books, no yeshivot, no synagogues. There was only the whisper of “Shma Yisrael” and other individual family prayers said privately at home.
As we prepare for the High Holy Days when we will be judged for life or death, the humble prayers of the Crypto-Jews, watched every day by the eyes of the Inquisition, inspire us to look to Hashem for compassion. “L-rd, save me and remember me in my trials and have mercy on me.” “O great G-d of Abraham, o great G-d of Israel, You who hear Daniel, hear my prayer…” “I give You my soul and my life, blessed King of Truth, for, L-rd, I am not worthy, still, show me Your mercy.” [Note: We know these prayers from the actual Inquisition records.]
On Monday evening, September 21, viewers will be able to look into the lives of Spain’s Crypto-Jews when “HIDDEN: The Secret Jews of Spain” will premiere on home screens across the world. The epic music, made by women for women, will be available for rental during the Ten Days of Repentance. The last performance of HIDDEN was filmed on stage in Jerusalem before a live audience, and now the courageous Aguilars will inspire viewers everywhere.
Sharon Katz is the co-author/co-composer-co-producer of HIDDEN: The Secret Jews of Spain and five other Jewish musicals. Photos by Ita Arbit.