Crypto-Jewish Rosh Hashanah Honey Cake

Photo by Andreas Schauer-Villanueva https://www.flickr.com/photos/schauervilla/

Palma de Mallorca Photo by Andreas Schauer-Villanueva.

Who serves a cake whose name means “lard” on Rosh Hashanah?

The secret Jews of Mallorca have been surreptitiously celebrating with such a cake since 1492. Their signature confection is called ensaïmada. The word saïm, derived from the Arabic shahim (fat), means “lard” in Catalan.

In 1492 Spain’s Catholic monarchs, Isabelle and Ferdinand, issued the Alhambra Decree, which required Jews to convert or leave Spain. Some Jews converted for the outside world, while continuing to practice Judaism in secret. One strategy these “New Christians” employed to prevent detection was to consume pork in public. What better way was there to disguise their beloved Jewish pastry then to name it “lard”? Jews had brought this sweet to Spain long before the expulsion.

The Jews came to the Balearic Islands, an archipelago in the Western Mediterranean Sea, more than 1,000 years ago. They imported the tradition of baking sweet coiled yeast cakes from the Middle East. The round shape of the cakes symbolized the circle of life. These confections were called bulemas.

Mallorca was under Muslim rule between 711 and 1229. A legend in Mallorca says that a Jewish baker offered one of these cakes to King Jaume I of Aragon when he conquered the island in 1229. Traditionally, bulemas were prepared with sheep’s milk butter. After 1492, the butter was replaced with lard, and the bulema was renamed ensaïmada.

Ensaïmadas are traditionally served at Carnival, baked with pork and crystallized squash. Most intriguingly, the oldest cookbooks from Mallorca from the 14th century have a recipe for ensaïmadas in which the lard is substituted with extra-virgin olive oil. They are fried and drizzled with orange blossom honey. These ensaïmadas are served during the celebration of Tots Sants, All Saints Day, on November 1. As the Jewish lunar calendar does not have a fixed date for Rosh Hashanah, this date is a close approximation, giving Mallorca’s secret Jews a perfect cover.

In 2011, the descendants of Mallorca’s crypto-Jews were recognized as Jewish by Israel’s Beit Din Tzedek (rabbinic court) of Bnei Brak. The ensaïmada is symbolic of their steadfastness in maintaining their faith and identity.

Ensaïmadas are prepared with sweet yeast dough, which rises for 24 hours. The dough is rolled into a rope, and coiled like a turban. The ensaïmadas are baked, and then sprinkled with powdered sugar. For Rosh Hashanah, try the recipe from the 14th century that omits the pork, and uses olive oil and honey instead.

Olive Oil – Honey Ensaïmada

Photo by Lisa Stevens https://www.flickr.com/people/13803858@N05

Photo by Lisa Stevens.

Adapted from Spain Recipes.

  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 4 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • 13 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • orange blossom honey
  1. Combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl.
  2. Cover with a kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise for 1 hour.
  3. Roll the dough like a snake, and coil in the shape of a turban.
  4. Place the dough on an oiled baking sheet.
  5. Cover with a clean kitchen towel, and allow to rise overnight.
  6. Heat extra virgin olive oil in a heavy pan.
  7. Fry the ensaïmada until it is golden-brown on both sides.
  8. Drizzle with warm orange blossom honey.

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.