Thursday, February 28, 2013

Conversos and the sign of the cross

Title page of the 1687
pray book as depicted on
Fred MacDowell's blog
Blogger Fred MacDowell posted a piece two days ago here about a 17th-century Jewish prayer book. The 1687 publication included over 100 daily prayers including one similar to the Catholic sign of the cross.

MacDowell writes, "on pp. 203 - 204 there is something very interesting, which I'd never heard of before. It is basically instructions for making a Jewish sign of the cross, so to speak, as a way of warding off fear - hard to see how else to interpret it. Who knows if this sign was even specifically invented to wean Conversos off from making the sign of the cross. If anyone has ever seen this before, please do tell."

This is fascinating stuff. I posted on Mr. MacDowell's blog that Conversos having a Jewish version of the sign of the cross makes perfect sense as so many of them were raised in the Catholic tradition. In addition, the sign of the cross was, and still is to a large degree, a superstitious ritual rather than a religious one. Making the sign of the cross is a protection against evil. I remember my father crossing himself before entering any body of water such as a pool or the ocean. My grandfather used to cross himself whenever he saw a Catholic church. Needless to say, driving across town in Boston with him meant he was constantly crossing himself.

I imagine it would have been difficult for anyone to give up such a tradition no matter how committed he was to shedding his Catholic identity and embracing Judaism. In my novel, Hope of Israel, there is a scene in which Domingo, who is eight years old and has just learned the truth of his Jewish heritage, has trouble leaving off the sign of the cross:

Domingo learned to be a Jew. This new knowledge was undemanding, for learning had always come easily to him. It was the unlearning of his Catholic habits he had trouble mastering. In Portugal, he’d been taught to call on God’s blessing by making the sign of the cross throughout the day on hearing a curse, seeing a cripple, before eating, on waking, when the weather threatened, and for countless other reasons. He was instructed by Manuel and his parents to not make the sign of the cross anymore, yet he ached with the loss of this blessing’s protection. At first, his parents were indulgent of his lapses. He was a child. But then his little cousins began to imitate him. When Domingo unconsciously invoked the Christian god, his mother slapped his hand away, and his father gave him a stern look. He didn't understand. Even his mother occasionally crossed herself when she thought that no one was looking.

It is gratifying to have imagined how a character would have felt about a change, to have written the scene, and then later have a historical nugget such as the Godines prayer book affirm my vision of the scene. 

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