Friday, July 31, 2009

The Spanish Inquisition and Me


Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. I grew up in the city of Caracas, Venezuela, in a wonderful, close-knit family surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles. We spent more time with my mother's side of the family, perhaps because we lived right next door to my maternal grandmother, a woman of great stamina and control over every little detail of her family. I was raised with excellent family values, tremendous respect for authority and a great fear of heaven. I was also raised as a Catholic.

My parents sent me to Catholic school for almost my entire life. But I knew there were people of other faiths because I had a neighbor that was an Evangelical Christian. 
Somehow I was always fascinated with Judaism. I didn't know anything about it, but I wanted desperately to know more. I only knew about the Jews from the Old Testament but I knew these people still existed. I started reading and learning about Jews on my own, convinced they would have an answer. Little did I know that this search would take me so far – all the way back home.
The first time I saw a Jew was one Saturday as we were driving to see my paternal grandparents. We saw several men with black hats, black coats, and beards walking in the streets of my grandfather's neighborhood. "Who are these men?" I asked my father. "They're Jews." He then mentioned that my grandfather's house was in the Jewish community. I always felt apprehensive around my paternal grandparents. There were very old and strict, especially my grandfather, who jut sat in his "special" chair where no one else was allowed to sit. My sisters and I were not allowed to get up from the couch and run around like normal kids.
"What do you mean our family is Jewish? I have never heard of this!"
One day I asked my Aunt Sarah who lived with my grandparents, if she knew their house was located in a Jewish Community. Her answer changed my life forever. She said in a whisper, making sure my grandfather would not hear, "Of course I know our home is in a Jewish community. After all, our family is of Jewish origin. Our last name had been changed from Peres to Perez."
She told me that the family had come from Spain a few hundred years after the Spanish Inquisition and settled in Venezuela. They changed their name to blend in and avoid persecution. "You mean you never wondered why all of our names are Jewish names?"
I had to sit down to recover. Hundreds of images and situations flashed in front of my eyes. All the strange things my father's family did were not idiosyncrasies; they were mere family traditions dating back to the time of the Inquisition. I had found the lost piece of the puzzle. I was closer to the truth than I had ever been. I had a reason to embrace the fascinating religion with which I had become obsessed. I was going in the direction of truth. After all my family was Jewish, or was it?
I immediately started researching and reading about the Inquisition. I learned that the Jews in Spain had been tremendously affluent and relatively accepted in the early years, under the Muslim rulers-early 10th century, but suffered during persecutions by Iberian Christians such as the pogroms in Cordoba (1011) and Granada (1066). These attacks continued as the "Reconquista" took full blow, and by the 14th century the Christians had taken most of Spain from the Muslims. Many Jews decided to escape these attacks by converting to Catholicism. These Jews were the most affluent and did not want to give up their social and commercial status. They were called "conversos."

Many of these conversos practiced Judaism in hiding, pretending to be Catholics on the outside. They lived side-by-side with their Jewish brethren and some even remained active in the Jewish communities. At first this solution proved beneficial and many conversos became very successful. But inevitably, this very success sprouted jealousy within Catholic Spaniards who reported unfaithful conversos to the authorities. At the time many conversos practiced several Jewish customs that, for the Catholics, were definite signs that these people were not true converts and were still spiritually linked to their Jewish past. These conversos were then called marranos (pig in Spanish), or crypto-Jews, and were to become the main focus of the Inquisition's agenda.

My research about "marranos" made me realize that my family was one of them. I always wondered about the rare customs of my father's family. The earliest anecdotes I can remember were all linked to food. Unlike most Venezuelans, my grandmother was keen for making all kind of eggplant dishes, in particular fried eggplants. Although the Arabs introduced eggplants to Spain, it was the Jews of Spain that became exceptionally fond of it and later brought this vegetable to South America after the expulsion (around 1650.) Spanish Jews were so fond of eggplants that even the satirical poetry of the day made reference of this preference.* She also made a dessert called "Cabello de Angel" that I later found out is of marrano descent, and a dessert called "Marzipan," a staple for converso families. Sadly, thousands of marranos were murdered because of adhering to their culinary customs. In fact, the Inquisition Trial Documents (still available after all these years) are crammed with testimonies from maids or neighbors testifying in court against conversos making these dishes. Sadly, the Inquisition used cultural information to build cases against conversos that were under examination for heresy.

Speaking to my relatives, I discovered more information. My grandfather had a house in the town of Zaraza, Guarico State, the first town in which my family settled. They came by boat in the 1700s from the River Unare that leads into the Caribbean Sea. I have in my possession today one of the family's precious pieces of fine China, which they brought with them to the New World. It is a sauce dish dating back to 1767. My father recalls that in the house of Zaraza there were two paintings that always puzzled him. It was a painting of Queen Esther pointing at Mordechai and another called "La Plegaria de Esther" (Queen Esthers plea). The story of Purim has no real relevance in the Catholic religion. I didn't even know this story existed until I became Jewish! I discovered that Queen Esther was the heroine of the converso Jews because she was the quintessential hidden Jew.

I also have my grandmother's precious candelabras, extremely old baccarat crystal, that sit next to my Shabbat candles. Every Friday I get goose bumps just imagining my relatives lighting these old candelabras with a hope that one day they could practice Judaism in public.

One uncle remembers seeing a Chanukah menorah and even kippot in the Zaraza home. Many people recall how my grandfather had a midnight private wedding ceremony where only a few were invited, perhaps because this ceremony was to remain a secret for the rest of eternity. Many converso Jews "sacrificed" a family member to the church to become a priest in order to not bring any doubt the family was indeed devoted to Christianity. And many celebrated "Mass" in their home, lead by the alleged family priest. One of my father's uncles was a priest who later in life gave up priesthood, and many times there was a private "Mass" held at my grandmother's house.

It wasn't until my grandfather passed away when I was 15 that many other "secrets" came to light. My grandfather kept locked in his room many pictures and documents that helped the family reconstruct the past. The names of my ancestors and even of family members today are mostly Jewish names. We not only have converso family in our genealogy but also European Jewry (my great great grandfather's first wife was Carmen Martin Rosenberg). My grandfather was General Guillermo Isaac Perez Telleria. He was given the honorary title of General for financing part of the Venezuelan independence war (Venezuela used to be a Spanish colony).

I remember going to the cemetery with my father to visit our late relatives. Instead of bringing flowers we would search for little rocks to put on the top of the graves. I always wondered why we did this; I don't think my father even knew. I now know this is a Jewish custom.(AISH)

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