EDITORS NOTE Secret Jews (crypto Jews) are Jews who practised Judaism in secrecy while in public they claimed to be a member of another religion which they or their ancestors had been forced to accept.
They came into existence after forced conversions by the Visigoths in Spain in the 7th century, by the Muslim Almohads in North Africa and Spain in the 12th century, in southern Italy in 1493 and known as neofiti, the *conversos or *Marranos (Heb. *anusim) of Spain after the persecutions of 1391 and the expulsion of 1492 and then Portugal in 1497. In Majorca they were known as the Chuetas)
Many who went to South America also became secret Jews (see Stories)
The Dönmeh (Turkish: Dönme) in the Ottoman Empire who publicly converted to Islam, Centred in Salonica it originated during and soon after the era of Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century Jewish kabbalist who claimed to be the Messiah and eventually converted to Islam in order to escape punishment by the Sultan Mehmed IV.
A group adopting Islam were the Jadīd al-Islām in Meshed, Persia.
Crypto-Jew consisted of those who held on to the Jewish customs and faith in which they had been reared. These were known as "Judíos Escondidos"—hidden Jews. They secretly preserved the religion of their fathers and, in spite of the high positions which some held, observed Jewish traditions in private. Many of the wealthiest supposed coverts of Aragon belonged to this category. Some constructed hidden synagogues in their homes, to which trusted neighbors might be invited, while others used their influence at court to protect the Jewish and Converso communities from persecution.
Today, this can also refer to Christians who consciously, or unconsciously maintain Jewish laws and traditions.
The list below is a small compilation of crypto-Jewish customs that originated in XV Century Spain and Portugal. These customs are still practiced by many families throughout South America, New Mexico, Spain, Portugal and the islands of the Azores. When analyzing the list, remember that each family might have their own adaptations of the traditions.
Did someone in the family (father, grandfather, or other relatives) ever say anything about the family having Jewish roots?
Was there any ancient Jewish community in the city where your family came from?
Did anyone in the family speak an unknown language that sounded like a “different” Spanish? Ladino?
Any relatives avoided the catholic churches?
Anyone in the family participated in secret meetings, or in meetings where only the men or fathers where allowed to attend? Any secret prayer group?
Was the practice of fasting common?
Was it prohibited to eat meat with blood, sometimes the nerves were removed with a special knife?
A general concern for washing all meat thoroughly?
Were eggs with blood patches thrown away?
Were egg shells to be smashed before throwing them away?
Was pork meat not eaten, and if so, did they say it was not healthy, or that it is heavy?
Believing meat and milk will give you a sick stomach, or milk and meat were not cooked together?
Only food prepared by the mother, or by the maternal grandmother was considered “good”?
A boy would fast for 24 hours when he completed 7 years of age?
They kissed a book or a piece of bread that fell on the floor?
It was prohibited to eat the meat of animal of warm blood that was not bled?
Fish without scales where not considered good? Molluscs and sea food were considered not good?
When they served some drink (wine, beer, rum, cognac…) some of the drink was thrown on the ground “for the saint”?
Family recipes for a chicken sausage that was mixed with bread crumbs, or flour, vinegar, herbs and/ or chicken fat.
In some homes (sometimes of the older people) the dinner table had drawers?
Eating a cinnamon honey cake around the fall.
Saying grace after the meal.
Preparing Saturday’s meal (often a slow-cooking stew, for instance of eggplant) on Friday afternoon so no work is performed on the Sabbath.
Eating preferably fruits that grow in the land of Israel (dates, olives, oranges, grapes, peaches etc.).
Spreading sand from Israel on a grave or in a sanctuary.
Eating tongue in the Fall, (on Rosh Hashanah to symbolize head of the year).
No New Testament in the house, having Bibles containing only the Old Testament and prayer books consisting only of the Psalms.
Bread was made in a thin circular from, similar to a tortilla, and sometimes baked on the terracotta roof tiles.
Having an outdoor bread oven that was shared with neighbors, or relatives nearby.
Light candles on Friday night?
Lighting candles in the corners of the basement on Friday night, sometimes in deep pots?
Light candles were lit for Christmas.
Venerating Jewish saints, with celebrations: Santa Esterika, Santo Moises, etc.
Lighting fireworks after the roof tiles have been placed on a new house?
Giving yeast, a coin and olive oil as a housewarming gift?
Was there a closet (oratorio), or wooden box where candles were lit and the doors were closed?
Is there a niche in the house, or closet in the basement or on a wall that faces east which had a special purpose? Perhaps an altar for Old Testament prophets? Was it reserved for burning candles or oil lamps? (Sometimes it may have two holes bored into he bottom shelf which would have held Torah scrolls).
Celebrated Easter, would there be fasting during “semana santa”?
Cleaned the house on Fridays during the daytime?
It was prohibited to do much on Friday night, even wash the hair?
On Saturdays candles were lit in front of the altar and would burn until the end of the day?
There were meetings on Friday night?
There were special clothes for Saturday. Sometimes they were simply new or clean clothes?
Celebrations that were different from the catholic ones, such as, Dia Puro, or a spring festivity.
Sometimes eight candles were lit for Christmas?
When something important or sad happened they would rip their clothes?
Would they sweep the floor away from the door as superstition?
Would they sweep from the corners to the middle of the room then pick up the garbage?
Would they bless the children by placing their hands on the child’s head?
Did they believe that it was not good to point to the stars? Some believe mole or wart would grow on their fingers?
Washing your hands before prayer.
Bowing and bobbing during religious service.
Performing tashlich, letting old clothes float away in running stream to mark a new year.
Forgiving a debt in the Fall, or at the end of harvest, (Yom Kippur).
Facing east during rituals.
Uttering brief blessings when you see lightning, mountains and other natural wonders.
Using only percussion instruments like the tambourine and hand clapping in services.
Silent prayer by congregation after prayers made out loud.
Worship services in the home.
Having 11 elders in a place of worship (minyam).
Kissing ones hand and then touching the door frame when entering the house.
The day before Easter livestock were taken to the town center to be blessed by the priest.
A first born son encouraged enter the priesthood, but the other sons are restricted or discouraged.
Did they cover all mirrors in the home when someone passed away?
Did they put rocks near the tombs when they visited?
Did they change the water in the home of the deceased?
In poor communities, providing nice clothes to the deceased was very important?
Did they cut the nails and hair of the deceased and sometimes wrapped them on a paper or cloth?
The body was buried as soon as possible?
The house was washed after the funeral?
During one week the room of the deceased was kept with the lights on?
There were candles in the rooms of the house of the deceased, and almost no one came in or out of the house?
The men let their beards grow for a while?
Did they keep the seat of the deceased at the table, served him full meals, and gave the meals to a homeless or poor person?
Did not eat red meat for one week after a death in the family?
Did they fast in some periods after the passing away?
Did they invite a homeless into the house to eat and served him the food that the deceased liked the most?
The women of the family had to cover their faces with a veil?
They went into the room of the deceased for eight days and said: “May G-d give you a good night. You were like us, we will be like you.”
Passed a golden coin, or bread on the deceased’s mouth and then gave it to a homeless person?
Gave charity in every corner until the procession reached the cemetery?
Gave nice clothes and food to at least one homeless person every Saturday during one year?
Had many lit candles on the days before Dia Puro (Yom Kippur) for the deceased?
In some places there was a man known as the “Abafador”, who used to help the people who were gravelly sick, before the doctor came into the house. The Abafador would close the door, and stop the sick person from breathing, saying very calmly: “come one my son (daughter), our G-d is waiting for you!” after the work was done, the Abafador would go to the relatives and say: “he went like a little bird…”
Did they put a rooster’s head on top of the door where the birth was going to take place?
After giving birth, the mother could not undress herself or change her clothes for 30 days.
Mother had to rest in bed, and she had to stay from contact with other people for 30 days. Also, during menstrual periods she would be more isolated?
During those 30 days the woman would only eat chicken, in the morning, afternoon, and night, in order to get her strength back?
Did they throw a silver coin in the baby’s first bath?
Was there a special prayer said on the 8th day after the baby boy was born, where his name was mentioned?
Was there a circumcision or a baptism on the 8th after the baby was born?
Did they light a candle or a lamp in the room where a birth would take place.
The baby could not stay in the dark until he was either circumcised or baptized?
Weddings were to be held at home?
The family had no problem marrying close relatives? Cousins?
The family would marry into another “good” family?
Married under canopy, or held a sheet over the heads of a couple during the wedding ceremony?
The bride, groom, father and mother-in-law had to fast on the day of the wedding?
In the ceremony the hands of the couple was tied by a white cloth?
After the ceremony a meal was served with wine, herbs, honey, salt, and unleavened brad?
Bride and groom ate and drank from the same plate and cup?
At the wedding ceremony bride and groom eat and drink out of the same plate and glass?
Marrying your brother’s widow (Levirate law)?
Naming and names
Were biblical Old Testament names common in the family?
Having two names, a private one in Hebrew (kinnui) and public one in the vernacular (Jacob/James, Raphael/Ralph, Hannah/Johannah, Adina/Adelaide).
Use of Hebrew, but non-biblical names (e.g., Meir, Hayyim, Omar, Tamarah/ Demarice).
Allusions to mascots of Hebrew tribes like deer (Naphthali) and wolf (Levi).
Belief in being descended from the Biblical King David.
Naming after religious objects: Paschal, Menorah.
Translating Hebrew names, especially girls’: Hannah into Grace, Esther into Myrtle, Peninah into Pearl, Roda into Rose, Shoshannah into Lillian, Lily. Simchah into Joy, Tikvah into Hope, Tzirrah into Jewel, Golda into Goldie.
Allusions to Jacob’s blessing of his sons and grandsons, e.g. Fishel for Ephraim because he was to multiply like the fish of the sea.
Use of names from Jewish legend and folklore (e.g. Adinah, Edna, Adel, progenitress of the tribe of Levi).
Use of hypocoristic or pet names within the family alluding to Hebrew ones, for instance Zack or Ike for Isaac, Robin (Rueben) instead of Robert.
Adding the theophoric suffix -el to surnames, e.g., Lovell, Riddell, Tunnel.
Naming after a living relative, preferably the eldest born after the grandfather or grandmother, the next born after uncles and aunts and only after the father when these names are exhausted (Sephardic) or naming only after dead relatives (Ashkenazic).
Use of double names like Edward Charles and James Robert.
Changing the name of a child who becomes ill to foil the angel of death.
Giving a child an amuletic name like Vetula (“old woman”) to bring long life.
Favoring names that begin with Lu- to remind the child that the family was once Portuguese (Lusitania), Luis, Luanne, Luana, etc.
Belief in gematria (numerology of names, determined by Hebrew alphabet)
Avoiding saint’s names (Paul, Peter, Barbara) and using Marianne or Mariah instead of Mary.
In contrast to the behavior above, using names like Christopher, Paul or Christina to dispel doubts about a true conversion to Christianity.
Unusual sir names relating to pork. (eg. Lietao, "suckling pig")
Sir names of trees or nature elements.
Sir names of nobles, or noble titles, but the family was not recognized as nobility, (e.g. Conde= Count)
Swearing an oath with your hat on.
Not writing the name of G-d.
Nicknames for G-d that only your relatives use, such as Immanuel, Adonoy, or other names often beginning with "El" (eg. El Shaddai, El Echad, etc..)
Using Dio instead of the Spanish Dios or Portuguese/ Latin Deus, removal of the "s" highlighted the non-plural monotheistic principle.
Adding "El" the definite article to (El Dio) for singularity.
Sources: Translated from Portuguese based partially from the material found at Memorial Brasil-Sefarad. University of New Mexico, The Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies and resources gathered by The Museum of Portuguese Jewish History.