Jewish Questions Podcast

Episode 3: Being Jewish in Medieval Spain — Transcript

*Learn more about the hosts and the series on the Jewish Questions podcast page.*

Laurie: Hi, I’m Laurie Marhoefer. I’m a historian at the University of Washington in the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Noam: And I’m Noam Pianko, and I’m also a history professor at the University of Washington.

Laurie: And this is Jewish Questions, the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies’ deep dive podcast on stuff that matters now in Jewish life, politics, history and culture from a scholarly perspective.

Noam: This season, we’re talking with scholars at the University of Washington about anti-Semitism: what it is, its long history and how we can push back against it today.

Laurie:  So, in our first two episodes, we were talking about anti-Semitism in the 20th century. But what about anti-Semitism in earlier periods? Was it similar? Was it different?

Some scholars, and I’m trained in this school of thought, reserve the term anti-Semitism for the late 19th century, when it was coined. And those people don’t deny that there was bloodthirsty, vehement anti-Judaism stretching back for far before the 1870s. But they say, no, there’s something really particular about the idea of Jews as a race or Jewish blood.

Noam: Other scholars actually see some pretty interesting continuities between what we might call the anti-Judaism— or the criticism of religion and Judaism as a religion— in the premodern period and racism, that actually maybe there are a lot more continuities.

Laurie: Yeah, and that’s why we’re so lucky to have Ana Gómez-Bravo coming on the podcast today, because medieval Spain is exactly the place that you want to look at to untangle some of these questions. Ana Gómez-Bravo, the professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies. Ana has published many articles on the religion and culture of medieval Spain, and she’s currently working on a book-length project looking at how religion, medicine and food practices contributed to ideas about race in late medieval Iberia.

Noam: Hard to imagine a better scholar to have on the show today to help us understand what is the relationship between modern anti-Semitism and centuries of anti-Judaism that characterized much of Jewish history in the medieval period.

Laurie: So, Ana, when we were talking before, you mentioned something interesting that happened to you while you were traveling and it brought up these questions of Jewishness and blood and identity, and I was wondering if you could tell that story.

Ana: Well, I was in Chile last year and I ran into the Department of Semitic Studies right in downtown Santiago. So, of course, I had to go in. And when I told the person who was there basically managing the center that I was Jewish, obviously my accent gave me up as a Spanish citizen.

And so he asked me, but Jewish by blood? And so, because I had been reading a lot about this and thinking a lot about these issues, and I work in the medieval period, that made me once again value how much these old ideas persist.

Noam: So, can you just clarify this? You walked into a place in Chile. And you said you were Jewish.

Ana: Yes.

Noam: And because you are also Spanish…

Ana: Uh-huh, from Madrid.

Noam: From Madrid. Okay. The person assumed that you could not have been Jewish by blood.

Ana: Right. Exactly. So he was surprised.

Laurie: Can I ask a poorly informed question? Why would somebody assume that if you have a Spanish accent, you couldn’t be Jewish by blood?

Ana: Well, because Jews were expelled from Spain.

Laurie: Oh my gosh, so he’s thinking about the expulsion, a long time ago.

Ana: And Judaism is not identified with Spanish-ness, or at least Spanish citizenship in any way. I mean, the Spanish government, I guess, is trying to change that now, but it’s a very deeply rooted idea.

And I lived through the Franco period and, you know, the state was confessional. And so that meant that if you were Spanish, you were Catholic. Franco was in power from 1939, so the end of the Spanish Civil War, to 1975 when he died. So basically, the Edict of Expulsion was still in place.

Laurie: From 1492 until 1975?

Ana: I think it may have been 1983 that the king finally realized that, whoops! You know, even when it had been successfully put in place and there were no Jews in Spain, I mean, it was basically, people forgot that it was still illegal.

Noam: How does that edict decide who’s a Jew? What was it based on?

Ana: I would say that Jews at that point would have been self-identified, but also they were identified by their neighbors. And so everybody knew everybody else’s religious identity.

Noam: So you couldn’t hide it?

Ana: No, no. And one of the things that the state did, and also the church, was to make sure that everybody could identify a Jew. So there had been for centuries laws about marking people from the outside, right. In Spain, there wasn’t a yellow star. There was a red circle, the “rodela roja,” that Jews were supposed to wear on their clothes. And they were also supposed to wear a pointed hat that some say they brought from the Hellenic period. And also…

Laurie: Was this under the Christians or under the Muslims? Or both?

Ana: This was under the Christians.

Laurie: So we’re talking 13th, 14th century?

Ana: Yeah, this is 13th, 14th and 15th century. And a lot of these regulations were enforced, or there were attempts to enforce them through the centuries. But they really were not, because people really did not want to be marked. It was only in the very late of the 15th century when we know that they finally were marked.

Noam: What do you mean by marked?

Ana: Marked meaning that the clothes and the hairstyles for women, the beard styles for men. They couldn’t trim their beards, the red circles were mandatory. They were supposedly mandatory before, but really the cities didn’t really enforce them in many ways.

And so what happened is that then, because people did not wear outside markers, there was a very strong emphasis on trying to mark identity from the inside, and that’s where blood comes in. So blood replaced the clothing and the cultural aspects of Jews in the 14th and 15th century. I think that the clothes were supposed to show visually what was already going on inside.

Now, Christianity said that the original sin was a stain, right. Or a defect that could only be washed through baptism. So therefore Jews were never quite washed.

And so, because the medical theories of the time understood identity and understood the relation between the spirit and the body in ways that I think are very materialistic, a spirit or a lack of cleanliness of the spirit had a correlation with the, like, stain or a diseased body.

And you see actually a lot of people of the time, a lot of texts, saying that Judaism is a disease and it’s contagious. It’s sometimes described as an infection or as a cancer. And it can be caught.

Noam: That’s so interesting, because that’s really different than modern racial notions, which is that you can’t catch a racial identity, but you also can’t change your racial identity. But here, it sounds like the passing of a disease is something that’s a little bit more fluid. You could have it or you could not have it.

Ana: Right.

Laurie: Like, can you “catch” Jewishness?

Ana: Well, so, one way that you could, for example, “catch” Jewishness was through breastfeeding, because milk was supposed to be blood that had been transformed in the mother’s body or in the wet nurse’s body. And so that’s why there was a lot of legislation forbidding Jewish and Muslim wet nurses to basically breastfeed Christian children.

And that… again, going back to whether these things were enforced or not, there was cross-religious wet nursing going on. And you see in a lot of texts where people try to explain somebody having turned out bad as an adult, saying, well, no wonder, you know, he had a Muslim or a Jewish wet nurse. And so that somehow tainted that person’s identity, that person’s body, and that person’s inclinations.

Laurie: Do they have similar ideas about Muslims? This is the period in Spain after there was Muslim rule?

Ana: Right. The relation with the Muslims, I think, was a little bit different because Muslims were political enemies and sometimes political allies. Also, Muslims were not the preternatural or inherent “other” for Christians, because Christians saw themselves as kind of past Jews. You know, Jews that had somehow believed in Christ.

So, the notion of the Jewish body and Judaism was always a keystone for the formulation of Christian identity, which was, you know, in Spain and in other parts of Europe, very much related to national identity. In the Middle Ages and also, you know, later on. So Christians are born, in a sense, in the same state of sin as Jews are. There’s something with their blood or their body. And baptism purifies that.

Noam: And so the difference between a Jew and a Christian is not a theological difference, necessarily. It’s really the fact that baptism actually impacts the blood going from kind of the state of sin blood that Jews have.

Ana: Uh-huh, stained blood.

Noam: And you can get it back in a sense. In other words, if you then have breast milk from a Jewish wet nurse, then you will get those kind of cooties back, in a sense.

Ana: Right. Exactly.

Laurie: Is this some theologians were writing about this, but it seems like in practice a lot of people were ignoring these regulations? Or do you think this was meaningful to a lot of people?

Ana: People were ignoring the regulations that had to deal with, like, clothes, beard, hairstyles, where you lived in town. There was repeated resistance or reluctance to basically living in what could have been considered a Jewish quarter until much later when it was enforced.

But the ideas of the differences in blood were based on medical theory, and the medical theory was coming all the way from the Greeks, from Galen and Hippocrates. And so those were really pretty deeply embedded. And the same thing with all these Christian ideas, I mean, they were coming from basically the beginning of Christianity.

I mean, they developed, [and] by the 13th, 14th, 15th century they were full-fledged. That didn’t mean that, you know, in the 13th century you couldn’t be social with your Jewish or your Muslim neighbor, but that didn’t also mean that you didn’t believe that they were inherently different from you in terms of bodily… basically bodily composition.

Noam: It’s so interesting how bad medical science has been for the Jews, you know, in terms of racism. Is there a parallel here between this rise of anti-Semitism and racial notions of Jews in the medieval period and in the modern period, in that at the very moment that Jews were looking more and more like non-Jews there was a need to kind of have a clear distinction between them, right?

Because Jews weren’t wearing the clothes, they were trying to acculturate. They were trying to wear the blue jeans of the day. And at that very moment is when the racial theories kind of rose in popularity, which I think is similar to the modern period. Is that right, Laurie?

Laurie: Well, it’s interesting. So baptism is a theological exercise, and that’s very different from scientific racism, that you can change your blood. You could say, oh, this is proto-scientific racism. But it seems very different to me, actually. What do you think?

Ana: I’m not going to go into an analysis of kind of modern science, but one of the things that needs to be taken into consideration is the terminology, because when we’re talking about racism and race, there’s no racism, no term, until the beginning of the 20th century, and at least in Spanish texts it’s related to German fascist ideologies.

And what we do find in Spain before is the term race, or “raza,” or “ratza” in medieval Spanish. And “raza,” some people have seen it as related to lineage, in kind of the lineage of horses, like a race of horses and things like that. But really, “raza” is the term used to describe or to refer to that stain or that blemish. So it’s a blemish or a defect that you’re born with, and that baptism will wash, and you will become a new person, right, because baptism is like a rebirth.

Because all this was based on the medical theory of the time, meaning that the spirit or the soul was thought to be directed, or kind of coordinated we would say today, by the brain, and the brain was very dependent on the foods that one ate and also on the particular body composition that you were born with, I wouldn’t say that it is the same as a kind of scientific theory of racism as you see it in the 20th century. But I would say that science or medicine was enlisted to help form this idea of the body and of religious difference.

Laurie: Yeah, and that’s true in the 19th and 20th century, too, that modern science is feeding this idea of the different races and the hierarchy of the races, which initially is really focused on explaining why white Europeans are superior to people of African descent, and then gets morphed into this idea that the Jews are a race and that they’re an evil race.

Noam: We have a few takeaways here before we get onto the next set of questions  that we have modern anti-Semitism and then we have this interesting premodern anti-Semitism. Or anti-Judaism. And so, the difference: both of them see Judaism as something that’s in the blood; modern anti-Semitism sees it in the blood and unchanging, and premodern anti-Judaism sees it as something that is in the blood and is actually something that can change through a religious act like conversion or baptism.

Ana: I should say that in the Middle Ages, some people actually resisted the idea that Jews could actually change or that any act on their part, any kind of attempt at conversion, could actually change them. And so, there were a lot of people that said that a drop of Jewish blood made you Jewish forever, for generations, during the period.

Noam: So, they debated the issue in medieval Spain about whether or not Jewish-tainted blood can be absolved or not, basically.

Ana: Right. And so, that gave way in the 16th century to what are called the Statutes of Purity of Blood, by which Jews, Muslims and heretics, meaning Jews and Muslims that had converted but had been proven to not have converted sincerely, were prevented from holding certain positions in the state, or, you know, attending certain university schools, or holding certain church positions.

Noam: Is this the same as the conversos?

Laurie: Can we say again who the conversos are? They’re Jews who converted or the descendants of Jews who converted?

Ana: Right, exactly. Yeah. Sometimes it’s… the term refers to anybody who has converted, but during the period, at least in the Middle Ages, it was mostly used for Jews who had converted to Christianity.

Laurie: And then the Inquisition goes after them?

Ana: Yes. But the Statutes of Purity of Blood are kind of a separate phenomenon from the Inquisition. The Statutes of Purity of Blood are basically a set of regulations that were adopted by various church and state institutions that said that nobody with a Jewish or Muslim descent could be a part of their church chapter or this university school, et cetera.

The Inquisition was different. The Inquisition was there to persecute and punish those Conversos that had been proven to not be following Christianity to a T, that were relapsing to Judaism.

Noam: But how could you not relapse if this Statute of the Purity of Blood said that anybody who is descended from a Jew remains different? Was that just a way of, sort of, saying you could convert and you could be, in theory, considered a Christian; however, even still, there are certain things that you can’t do because you have a drop of Jewish blood in your heritage?

Ana: Yes. And this was very much, you know, the polemic, because some people were scandalized that people that were saying that they were sincere Christians, and that were considered Christians, were actually being punished for having Jewish ancestry.

But, yes, a lot of people were saying no, once you have a drop of Jewish blood, that basically takes over and that just will always have you stray.

Laurie: Okay so, 1492 is the expulsion. What was that like? Did people just come to people’s houses and say, you’ve got to go now? Or was there a period of time? How much time did you have to get ready and figure out where you were going to go? And also, did they expel Muslims, too, in 1492?

Ana: No, Muslims were expelled later. Yeah, so what happened with the Edict of Expulsion: It was signed by Isabella and Ferdinand, by the Catholic monarchs. And so, this edict was sent to the different cities. The cities were the ones in charge of enforcing it.

Then Jews were given a period of time to basically wrap things up and to prepare the departure. One of the things that they had to do was they needed to sell… they couldn’t leave with anything, and so they had to sell their belongings. This was very much to the advantage of their Christian neighbors, because they had to sell. So it was basically, you know, you have to sell at whatever price they give you.

They could bring just some bare belongings with them. They couldn’t take that much money out of the country. A lot of them… the conditions were so precarious that a lot of them eventually came back trying to convert and, you know, they were punished by the Inquisition, and it’s just a bad story.

But mostly the Jews were expelled because of the conversos, because they were thought to be a bad example, to be feeding the Judaism of the conversos, of those Jews that had converted. And so, basically, they figure if we get rid of the mother ship, then all these conversos are not going to have anybody who is going to teach them.

And the Edict of Expulsion does say this. They’re not going to have anybody who teaches them about Jewish law, they’re not going to have anybody who teaches them about kosher, they’re not going have anybody who gives them unleavened bread for Passover or that slaughters animals in the kosher way so that they can eat them.

Noam: What’s so fascinating about this is it goes directly against what you have been talking about earlier. If there really was a way of curing this Jewish blood by conversion or by theological means, by baptism, then why were all these people who did convert… why are they still being identified as being Jewish? I mean, you have a group who’ve converted who are now called something separate, which is basically: those who used to be Jewish?

Ana: Yeah, and that’s exactly what they were. There were various terms. Converso is right now the term that we tend to use more, and it was at the time. There were different terms that you see then, and later, like “marranos.” I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with that.

Laurie: What does that mean?

Ana: Well, it means “pig,” but it’s not clear where the term comes from.

Noam: So, you have all these people who are walking around, who are saying, I’m Christian, who are going to church on Sundays, who are following Christian rules, and yet, you have an entire organization called The Inquisition, whose role it is to figure out who is still being Jewish?

Laurie: Yeah, but at the same time, didn’t the conversos develop this really interesting and neat culture where they were retaining practices from Judaism and yet had this facade of Christianity?

Ana: Yeah. What we know is that the conversos were not really a monolithic group. There were various degrees of acceptance of the new Christianity. I mean, some people converted out of fear. Some people converted out of conviction.

So there were people who were culturally Jewish, meaning that they were repeating actions and customs that they had learned from their families. And sometimes they didn’t do them with a religious intention, or they didn’t even know they had a religious meaning. But they kept on doing that.

And so, because The Inquisition had published, basically, a guide to how to figure out whether your neighbor is Jewish— there were several of these guides— and so, meaning that you were found to be, you know, changing, putting on new clothes on Fridays, or setting, you know, a pot on the on the hearth before sundown on Fridays…

Noam: Tell me more about this guide. So, what are the rules in the guide?

Ana: Yeah, they basically detail the different aspects of Jewish life. So if you see that your neighbor is inactive on Saturdays, then…

Noam: They’re observing the Sabbath, basically.

Ana: Basically. Then, if you walk into their house— you have to realize that people, you know, didn’t live in apartments that were triple-locked. So people would often have their doors open and, you know, a neighbor could just barge in when you were eating and so…

And people also had servants that knew all the intimate details of people’s lives. And so, if you walk into your neighbor’s house and they’re eating a certain dish that doesn’t contain pork, then watch out, because next time you’re going to pay attention, if you never see them eating pork, then that’s a problem. If you see them slaughtering an animal and letting the blood drain and covering it, then that’s another telltale sign.

And so some people actually had, like, a ham in the corner of the kitchen, and the minute they said that they heard the pitter-patter of a neighbor, they would just rush and grab the ham and put it on top of the table.

Laurie: Wow.

Ana: We have, you know, these funny stories about this person that did these post-mortem inventories, which is, you know, the list of the belongings of somebody who has died, and that was done by a notary. And so, they were dispersing the house of a converso, and one of the things that they found in his cellar was five moldy hams.

So they had been buying hams so that… because, you know, buying meat was a public act, and so then you were not Jewish. But then they had not been eating them and they had gone moldy.

Noam: So, your sense is they weren’t eating them, not because they were familiar with the laws of keeping kosher directly, but they were kind of secular foodways, basically?

Ana: Some of them knew what they were doing, some of them claimed that they had an allergy. Or it might be, oh, my parents taught me this practice and I didn’t even know it was associated with Judaism. And some people thought it sounded repugnant because they had learned that pork was repugnant.

Noam: Laurie, I think I owe you an apology. Earlier we were talking and you were talking about this identity of a secular, you know, Jew, that’s not a racial identity, but it’s also not a religious identity. And I was thinking, well, that’s an incredibly modern idea, you know. But it sounds like we have this interesting phenomenon among these conversos, who actually prefigured you by hundreds of years, right?

These are basically… when it comes down to it, these are Jews who are no longer religiously practicing Jews. They’ve technically converted to Christianity. And what’s making them Jewish is they have a set of customs and folk ways that they may or may not understand why they’re doing it, and yet it’s that, kind of, what we call ethnic identity. What’s the identity based on?

You also get this very modern moment where this institution has taught your neighbors to recognize the Judaism of these things that the conversos might not have thought that this was a Jewish practice. The irony of “in the blood” is that it often sounds like it’s this internal way of defining Jews.

But in reality, when you talk about blood, it’s often external institutions or authorities who are telling the Jews what their identity is. And so Jews knew that they were supposed to eat certain things because those who were criticizing the Jews wrote that that’s how to identify who a Jew is.

Ana: And that’s exactly right. And so, like, for example, there’s manuals of confessionals, basically, manuals to help priests ask questions in confession. And so there was a list of, you know, kind of, like, tell me if you’ve been doing Jewish things.

These priests, then, were told not to ask those questions precisely because of what you were saying before, you know, that they were actually giving information. They were actually helping teach these conversos how to behave. Because they said, you know, maybe they hadn’t thought about that, but now you’re telling them. So the neighbors, the church, are doing this indirect teaching.

Noam: It creates a Jewish identity, even though it’s such a negative Jewish identity, but it’s such a strong and powerful one, which is this, like, negative sense that it’s the non-Jews who are telling the Jews what it means to be Jewish by telling them how problematic it is to do those things.

I’m interested just to close: how do you think about your own identity? I mean, how does that make you feel when somebody questions whether or not you’re a Jew by blood or not?

Ana: Well, first I say no. I converted, and then if the person takes it from there, then we continue the conversation. If not, normally they just look at me, because it’s not a very typical thing for people to have heard others say. I’ve learned to just kind of let it go.

I used to feel like people needed to accept it immediately. And now I’ve just learned that, you know, I decide who I am and that I really don’t have a whole lot of control about who people say I am or who people think I am.

Noam: Is there anything ironic about the fact that you are somebody who is a Jew by choice and sort of challenging the notion that being a Jew is connected to blood, and you, kind of, study a group of Jews who themselves were accused exactly of being Jews only because of blood?

Ana: I do say, I mean, I actually fell in love with Judaism reading about the conversos. So it just only made sense that I would become…

Noam: Why? What happened?

Ana: Because they taught me about Judaism. I saw them as having a really compelling culture. I was very drawn to many aspects of Jewish life. I also thought that it was kind of a lost part of me as a Spaniard that had been, somehow, plucked away from myself personally and from others as an identity. And I thought that it only made sense for me.

And I mean, I don’t mean to imply that a third of Spain is to follow suit, but that it was up to me to basically recover that lost identity. And to, kind of, you know, go full circle.

Noam: It’s one of the great ironies of anti-Semitism that, often, the best way to ensure that Jews will continue to have this identity, right, is often by putting such a negative spin.

And anti-Semitism often drives Jewish identity, right? You are inspired to become more into ­Judaism by the very fact that there were folks who considered Jews to be outside of acceptable behavior, and as outsiders, it’s often anti-Semitism that is such a driver for Jewish identity.

Thank you so much for talking with us on the podcast today, Ana.

Laurie: This has been Jewish Questions, the podcast of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington.

Noam: This season was supported by an Ignition Grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Laurie: Jewish Questions was produced, recorded and edited by Kara Schoonmaker.

Noam: Join us again in future episodes as we discuss more of the history of anti-Semitism with faculty experts from the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Find more episodes of the podcast, and learn more about the series, on the Jewish Questions series page.