La Santa Esther: Esther Among the Crypto-Jews of the Americas

On Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, Dr. Emily Colbert Cairns, associate professor at Salve Regina University, delivered a lecture titled “‘La Santa Esther’: Esther Among the Crypto-Jews of the Americas.” The event was part of the Crisis and Hope: YU Voices lecture series and covered material found in Dr. Cairns’ chapter in Esther in America, published by the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, and her book, Esther in Early Modern Iberia and the Sephardic Diaspora: Queen of the Conversas. The online lecture was attended by 50 Yeshiva University students and community members.

Dr. Cairns’ talk looked at the different ways Christians and crypto-Jews—Jews who pretended to be Christians in public but practiced their true faith in private—viewed the Book of Esther during the era of the Spanish Inquisition. The Christian perspective was illustrated through a set of 16th-century tapestries that told the story of Esther. The tapestries, which served as a sort of Bible for illiterate Christians, focus on the vastness and luxury of the empire and the power of the king. Even when Esther does appear, she is below the king, who is larger and more centered. Dr. Cairns also pointed out that the Fast of Esther is missing from the tapestries, replaced by more feasting and displays of King Ahasuerus’ bounty.

 

Tapestry Series Esther and Ahasueros (1490) Banquet Detail (Panel I)
Tapestry Series Esther and Ahasueros (1490) Banquet Detail (Panel I)

 

Tapestry Series Esther and Ahasueros (1490) Banquet Detail (Panel II)
Tapestry Series Esther and Ahasueros (1490) Banquet Detail (Panel II)

 

The crypto-Jewish perspective, which is told through the journals of Isabel and Leonor de Carvajal, tells a very different story. The journal is a collection of notes passed between the sisters while they were on trial for practicing Judaism. To them, Esther’s hidden identity and adaptability was an inspiration and showed that one could succeed in living a double life. Isabel herself emulated Esther by fasting just as the Persian queen did, as it was one of the few ways she could display her Judaism without being questioned (fasting was also common among Christians). However, the sisters also self-flagellated and built an altar in their home, showing a conflation of Christian and Jewish customs among crypto-Jews.

 

Second Inquisitorial Trial of Isabel de Carvajal (1595 6)
Second Inquisitorial Trial of Isabel de Carvajal (1595-6)

 

Dr. Cairns noted that crypto-Jewish society was matriarchal. As the men were involved in commerce and spent long periods of time away from home, it fell on the women to pass along the tradition to their children. This was yet another display of the adaptability that Esther inspired in crypto-Jewish women, as it was historically uncommon for them to be involved in Jewish education.

Previous Crisis and Hope speakers included Stanley Mirvis, Elissa Bemporad and Scott Ellsworth. For a full listing of our past events along with recordings, please check out Crisis and Hope: YU Voices.