In 1998, Pope John Paul II opened the archives of the Spanish Inquisition to the public, which finally allowed scholars to learn more about the individuals who were persecuted by the Catholic Church for being Jews.
In the archives was a file dating back to 1688 on the “process of faith of Ana Cortés,” which describes the confession of a crypto-Jewish woman from the island of Mallorca.
The crypto-Jews were a group who, under duress, outwardly converted to Christianity while secretly maintaining their ancestral beliefs. On Mallorca, they were derogatorily referred to as Xuetes (meaning “pigs”).
The Spanish Inquisition’s persecution of crypto-Jews lasted for 356 years. But while the Inquisition was abolished in 1834, its archives remained restricted until 1998.
The declassified file reveals that Cortés “voluntarily” disclosed to the court of the Spanish Inquisition that her father Joseph had taught her about “the observance of the three fasts of Esther.”
Hoping to avoid detection by their non-Jewish neighbors, the crypto-Jews referred to the holiday of Purim instead as the Feast of Saint Esther and commemorated it every year at the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting observed by Christians before Easter, which roughly coincided with the holiday’s Jewish calendar date of the 15th day of the month of Adar.
Inspired by the Book of Esther, known colloquially today as the Megillah, the three fasts of Esther and the Feast of Saint Esther were particularly meaningful to the crypto-Jews. In Cortés’s family, these traditions were generally passed down by the women.
A long version of the Book of Esther, which includes several verses from the Apocrypha, is part of the Catholic Bible. The text was therefore available as a reference to the crypto-Jews, who heralded the heroine Hadassah as their role model. Like them, she hid her true identity, even adopting a new name, Esther.
What resonated with them the most was that while Esther — who famously rose to the rank of queen — hid her identity in order to survive, she never forgot who she really was. Ultimately, she was able to reveal her genuine beliefs — and save her people by doing so.
In the 1680s, the crypto-Jews of Mallorca experienced a resurgence in religious practice after some of their members who were traders returned from abroad, where they had visited cities where there was religious tolerance. After having the opportunity to interact with practicing Jews and read Jewish literature, they brought their newfound knowledge back to Mallorca.
Pedro Onofro Cortés, a relative of Ana Cortés, was one such trader who had traveled to Smyrna, Livorno, and Argelia, where he had attended synagogue and learned with the local Jews. He had purchased Jewish books that were banned by the Spanish Inquisition and smuggled them into Mallorca.
Cortés testified that she visited Pedro Onofro Cortés in his garden and that he brought out one of these forbidden books and taught her some Jewish blessings.
Cortés reported that she learned as much as she could about Judaism and taught her traditions to other members of her family. Though born into a family of crypto-Jews, the 36-year-old said she believed in “the law of Moses.” Like other members of the Cortés family, she was familiar with Jewish rites, prayers, and ceremonies. She considered herself part of the “Hebrew nation” and hoped for a future in which the Jewish people would return to the Land of Israel.
One way in which Cortés honored her Jewishness was through special dishes cooked for Purim.
According to the Talmud, Queen Esther ate a vegetarian diet when she lived in the court of King Ahasuerus, thus complying with kosher dietary laws without revealing that she was Jewish. Cortés’s testimony to the Inquisition demonstrates that the Mallorcan crypto-Jews maintained these customs in their covert Purim celebration.
Cortés confessed to the inquisitors that on the first two days of the fast of Esther, she ate fish in the evening. On the third day, she celebrated the end of the fast with a special meal, “garbanzos con espinacas, cazuela de broçats y garvellones.” The first part of this has retained its meaning in modern Spanish: “chickpeas with spinach.”
Mallorcan historian Dr. Antoni Contreras Mas was able to complete the translation from the original Catalan and discerned that garvellones were hearts of palm. In the Balearic Islands of the late 17th century, hearts of palm were the poor man’s artichokes, explained Contreras Mas. Their flavor and texture are very similar to that of artichokes, and they are also typically seasoned with olive oil and vinegar. Chickpeas were considered to be a Moorish food, generally eschewed by the wealthier Christians.
Cortés’s Purim meal, therefore, consisted of a chickpea, spinach, and hearts of palm stew. This dish was also consumed by the poorer Christians for Lent.
Her dessert would have been dairy: According to Contreras Mas, broçat or brossat is a fresh Catalan cheese, similar to cottage cheese. There is a long history of baking sweet cheesecakes in Mallorca, dating back to the Savillum of the Ancient Romans. Contreras Mas concluded that her dessert was most likely a Mallorcan cheesecake, baked in a clay pot, or cazuela in Spanish. (The cazuela is called a greixonera in Mallorca.)
The crypto-Jews of Mallorca paid a heavy price for clinging to their Jewish faith. Pedro Onofro Cortés was burned at the stake. Ana Cortés was sentenced twice for the crime of “Judaizing” or secretly practicing and teaching Judaism, once in 1677 and again in 1688.
Ultimately, she was excommunicated, all of her property was impounded, and she was paraded through the streets of Palma de Mallorca in an auto-da-fé, or act of faith, a public ritual of penance.
After the Spanish Inquisition was abolished in 1834, the crypto-Jews of Mallorca continued to observe their isolated form of Judaism to the best of their ability. In 2011 the Israeli Rabbinate recognized them as Jews, and significantly, noted that Purim was very meaningful to the Mallorcan Jewish community.
Here are recipes for the dishes described by Ana Cortés and eaten by her community on the Purim holiday.
Garbanzos con Espinacas y Garvellones: Chickpeas with Spinach and Hearts of Palm
(Adapted from El Aderezo)
1 ½ cups dry chickpeas
4 ½ cups water
1 lb. fresh baby spinach leaves
2 cloves garlic
1 dry bay leaf
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
1 tsp. sweet paprika
1 can hearts of palm
The evening before cooking, place the dry chickpeas in a large bowl with water to cover. Add some salt and a pinch of baking soda. Soak overnight.
Boil 4 ½ cups of water in a large pot. Drain the chickpeas and add to the boiling water. Add one whole peeled onion, the peeled cloves of garlic, the bay leaf, and some salt. Cover the pot and simmer for 90 minutes.
Remove the onion and stir in the spinach.
Cut up the remaining onion, heat some olive oil in a frying pan and saute the onion over a medium flame. Mix in the sweet paprika and pour the mixture into the pot.
Close the lid and simmer for about 10 minutes. Slice the hearts of palm and add to the pot.
Taste for seasoning and remove the pot from the heat. Beat the egg and slowly add it to the stew while stirring.
Cazuela de Broçats: Clay Pot Cheesecake
(Adapted from Fet i menjat)
1 lb. cottage cheese
2/3 cup sugar
¾ cup milk
3 egg yolks
Lemon zest from ½ lemon
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
Butter to coat the clay pot
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place all the ingredients except the butter in a bowl and mix well.
Butter the clay pot and pour the cheese mixture into it.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
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