Reclaiming the Anusim: the Sephardic Perspective

— by Carlos Zarur

According to an article in eSefarad ,”A decision by the ultra-orthodox rabbi Nissim Karelitz recognizes that the Chuetas of Mallorca, who were persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition and remained a distinct group within Mallorcan society until the 1970s, had the right to call themselves Jews.” How do Sephardic Jews view this?

Some in the Sephardic community ask themselves, “who is this Ashkenazi rabbi to make that decision?” They believe that the Chuetas of Mallorca never stopped being Jews.  Even if they did not practice Judaism, they preserved the Jewish identity by avoiding intermarriage at all. Mallorcan Secret Jews (Xuetas) are halachically Jewish, since they did not intermarry for centuries.

More after the jump.
Since medieval times, the Sephardic sages ruled that Ashkenazi Rabbis do not have powers of decision regarding Sephardic matters, and vice versa. Halachic Sephardic sources say it very clearly: Crypto-Jews, Anusim, or Conversos are Jews, as well as their children, if they have hazzaqqa (force of tradition of being Jews), endogamy (marrying only other anusim or other Jews), Jewish genealogy, and the proven historic practice of Jewish customs.

Sadly, there are not too many scholars, anthropologists, or rabbis qualified to determine who is who in the Crypto-Jewish world. Modern day rabbis, even those who are Sephardic, are not aware of how the Halacha sees these people. They are not trained to research the Crypto-Jewish phenomenon, since they are not anthropologists, or trained in anthropological research.

Ashkenazi and Sephardic hakhamim (learned scholars) disagree on Halachic matters on how to deal with the Crypto, or “secret” Jews. Sephardic rabbis have always helped secret Jews to return to the open Jewish practice, without any kind of conversion. Ashkenazi rabbis always asked for re-conversion, which makes sense, since Ashkenazi rabbis were not part of the Sephardic world and were not aware of the phenomena.

For a secret Jew, it is very insulting to be asked for a conversion (an approach supported by many mainstream Sephardic Jews, anthropologist, and some rabbis). These conversions are pasul (invalid) and totally non-Halachic. Of course, each case should be individually analyzed by knowledgeable people, using very strict criteria. After all, there are several cases of fake Crypto-Jews.

Carlos Zarur holds Masters’ Degrees in Jewish studies in the areas of Comparative Religious Studies, Sephardic Studies, Marranism Studies (Crypto Judaism), Peripheral Jewish Communities, Culture and Customs of Oriental (Mizrahi) Jewries, and Western and Eastern Sephardic Culture and Customs. He also has done field research in Crypto-Judaism in several countries in Europe and the American Continent, Syrian Jews, and the Jews of India. As a Professor, he has taught at the University of Colorado in the Anthropology Department and The Jewish Studies Program.

A Persian Purim Feast From The Non-Persian Bride

— by Ronit Treatman

Have you ever wondered how Persian Jews celebrate Purim?  What do they serve to rejoice over their salvation from Haman?  After all, their ancestors were directly affected.  Up to this point, I could only wonder, because the Persian Jewish community is very insular, and recipes are a closely guarded family secret.  Now, it is possible to learn about these Jewish Persian customs from Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love, whose author, Reyna Simnegar, has a lot in common with Queen Esther.

More after the jump.
Reyna Simnegar, whose first name means “queen,” was born in Venezuela to a Catholic family.  She attended Catholic school, and thought she was like every other Venezuelan Catholic she grew up with.  But there were hints in her family that they were different.  For example, there were paintings of Saint Esther in the family home.  Saint Esther carries special symbolism for families of anusim (forced converts).  Esther represents a Jew who hid her identity until it was safe to reemerge.  The anusim transformed her into a Catholic saint.   This was a covert way for them to keep her as a beacon of hope that some day they could return to being openly Jewish.  At about age fifteen, Reyna’s Aunt Sarah whispered the truth to her.  “Our family if of Jewish origin,” she was told.  

Reyna Simnegar decided to return to her roots.  She underwent an orthodox conversion.  She then proceeded to marry a Jewish Persian man.  Her mother in law, Mrs. Shahla Simnegar, invited Reyna into the kitchen, and taught her all about the family’s secret recipes and customs.  Reyna has published these in a sumptuous new cookbook.  This book is not just about Persian food and recipes, but also about Jewish Persian customs.  On page 343, Reyna maps out the menu of a Persian Purim feast, from appetizers to desserts.  On this menu are such exotic dishes as Chelo (Persian rice) on page 186, and Persian Halvah on page 299.

My family had a lot of fun discovering something completely different to prepare for Purim in this book.  We call it Queen Esther’s Ice Cream.  On page 301, Reyna Simnegar has a recipe for Bastani, or Saffron Ice Cream.  We transformed this recipe into an activity.

Queen Esther’s Ice Cream

  • 3 scoops vanilla ice cream (dairy or pareve)
  • Rose water
  • Saffron threads
  • Pistachio nuts

Each person was served three scoops of vanilla ice cream.  We went with premium dairy ice cream.  

When Rosa Damascena rose petals are steamed to extract rose oil (used for perfume), what is left behind is called rose water.   Rose water has been used in Persian cuisine since ancient times.  It imparts a distinctive flavor and aroma to the food.  It contains no alcohol.  We passed the bottle of rose water around for everyone to smell. We each put a little bit of rose water in our ice cream.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world!  Saffron spice is made from the stigmas (or threads) of the Crocus sativus flower, which are individually handpicked and then dried.  Saffron gives a golden hue to foods, a special aroma, and sweet flavor.  We purchased a small sachet of saffron threads.  Every family member crumbled a little bit of the beautiful, scarlet dried crocus threads into our ice cream.

Pistachio nuts originated in Persia.  They are widely used in Persian recipes.  We peeled some unsalted, roasted pistachios (tasting some as we worked of course!).  All of us added some to our bowl.  Reyna Simnegar’s recipe calls for slivered pistachios, but we were not so refined!  We just threw them in whole.

We mixed all the ingredients together, and tasted the ice cream.  I wasn’t sure that my children would like the rose water flavor.  This is a condiment I never cook with.  The resulting ice cream was creamy and crunchy.  The flavors of the rose water, vanilla, saffron, and pistachio perfectly balanced each other.  This truly felt like an exotic dish from a foreign place to us.  It is so delicious; it is genuinely worthy of a queen’s banquet!

Buying Reyna Simnegar’s book, Persian Food from the Non-persian Bridee, is not an exercise in self-indulgence.  All proceeds go to charity.  She has donated to Chabad houses, where she has been invited to give talks.  “My charity of choice is Tomchei Shabbat (feeding the poor for Shabbat) and I also want to support Achnasa Kallah (helping brides to start their life),” she writes in response to my query about her charitable giving.  So go ahead and treat yourself to this book.  It’s a mitzvah!