The Americas 59.3 (2003) 412-414
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The conundrum of crypto-Judaism has intrigued and tantalized observers, whether hostile or sympathetic, from the fourteenth century to the present day. Were they Jewish or Catholic? The Church saw to it that they went to mass, but to Whom were they praying? Baptism, a public act, was universal; but, in private, did these converts refrain from eating pork? Did the concept of limpieza de sangre reflect, as old-Christians thought, the reality of ineradicable differences between themselves and the new-Christians? Or was this a legal myth developed in order to repress the [End Page 412] conversos? Scholars have found the topic irresistible and have created a vast literature around it.
Some of this literature verges on the quasi-archeological as scholars strive to discover, assemble, and interpret the shards of a proscribed and hidden culture. Gitlitz has performed a valuable scholarly service by bringing together six centuries of research in Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, French and English, organizing it into manageable and meaningful categories. He begins with a useful review of the historical circumstances that created the phenomenon of crypto-Judaism on the Iberian peninsula. A section outlines the principal controversies that arose from the mass conversions and expulsions of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. The bulk of the book consists of 18 chapters each of which is devoted to a specific theme, e.g., the crypto-Jewish belief system, birth customs, holidays, oaths, etc. Most of the data consists of the testimony of defendants and witnesses extracted from Inquisition records, as well as the statements of contemporary observers. The chapter on attitudes toward Christian beliefs exposes a variety of views that express every possible psychological variant. Much of this testimony has appeared in print before, as attested by the reference notes that Gitlitz inserts (religiously, one might say) after each quotation. But it has never been assembled with such a wealth of corroborating detail drawn from jurisdictions as diverse as those of Córdoba and Goa, Majorca and Lima. The cumulative effect is to emphasize the universality of the Church's effort to force conversos into its ideological Procrustean bed; the dilemma faced by conversos worldwide in deciding whether to hold onto their ancestral beliefs or to assimilate to the victorious old-Christians; and the devices that crypto-Jews developed to hide their proscribed customs.
Gitlitz stresses that, prior to the Expulsion, Jews and conversos formed a single extended family, bound by communal and marital ties that extended back for centuries. These ties were formally disrupted by conversion, but people did not easily give up the songs, the foods, the relationships, which had given meaning to their lives as Jews. The result, writes Gitlitz, was that "paranoid fear of the Inquisition was joined [to] a pervasive schizophrenia, as each new-Christian consciously had to don a public persona behind which to safeguard private spiritual or social practices" (p. 598). Perhaps no canard has survived longer in history than that Judaism mandates secrecy in religious practice: secrecy was of course forced on believing Jews by an implacable Church-state apparatus.
The literature on crypto-Judaism has been enriched in recent years through the scholarship of Benzion Netanyahu, Henry Kamen, Yosef Kaplan, Gérard Nahon, Antonio Domínguez Ortiz, and a host of others. Each has imposed his own sweeping vision of marranism on the revealed historical record and its covert, implicit substratum of meaning. Gitlitz neither challenges nor affirms the interpretations of these macrohistorians, although it is possible to infer that he inclines toward Netanyahu's interpretations and Kamen's demographic analyses. Rather, his contribution is to have brought together a mass of data previously unearthed by respected scholars, thus providing coherent and incontrovertible support to the idea that the [End Page 413] Inquisition was as much a tool of the crown as of the Church, that prosecutions became a...