In this Latino LA neighborhood, Jews commemorate an ancient biblical holiday

By: Alejandra Molina, Religious News Service

Rabbi Robin Podolsky, left, blesses the bread during a feast inside a sukkah in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Corinne Mosh celebrated the first night of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot like never before. 

She feasted in a space embellished with decorative Mexican papel picado, alongside a Chicano vocalist singing folk music in Spanish and a Jewish and Mexican-American spiritual leader who casually switched between Spanish, English and Hebrew.

“To me, it speaks to the diaspora of Jewish people all over the world,” said Mosh, 43.

Mosh and about 15 others gathered Sunday (Oct. 13) in Boyle Heights — a working-class Latino neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles that was once a thriving Jewish enclave — to observe the biblical holiday of Sukkot. This tradition celebrates the harvest and recalls the Israelites’ 40-year journey in the desert after they fled Egypt. 

During Sukkot, which began Sunday and ends Oct. 20, observant Jews spend time in a sukkah — a temporary outdoor hut that signals the Israelites’ dwellings before they reached the Promised Land. These structures are made out of thatch or branches that can provide shade and protection from the sun.

Mosh and others held their celebration in what is believed to be the first sukkah in Boyle Heights — a community with a strong Chicano and Mexican identity — in more than 30 years. 

Inside the Sukkah, standing here are Shmuel Gonzales (left) and Rabbi Robin Podolsky (right).

Shmuel Gonzales, a Mexican American and Jewish community historian, helped organize the Sunday feast inside the sukkah. Shiny wreaths in violet, gold and red colors hung from side to side. Banners of traditional Mexican tissue paper decorated the shelter’s white walls. Stuffed eggplant, chili peppers filled with meat and dried fruit, and squash stuffed with tomato and tamarind sauce were served for dinner. To keep with tradition, Gonzales shook the “lulav” — a palm branch bundled with myrtle and willow branches — and a yellow citrus fruit called an “etrog.”

The lulav and etrog are waved to represent “God’s presence in all directions.”

Celebrating Sukkot with our local families; the Levine-Morris family, and Shmuel Gonzales the founder of the Boyle Heights Chavurah – the modern-day Jewish community circle of Boyle Heights and City Terrace.

“We’re here making history,” Gonzales said on Sunday.

Gonzales, 42, said the tradition of celebrating Sukkot in Boyle Heights faded after the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake damaged the Breed Street Shul, the last of the Eastside synagogues that stayed open in the decades following the population shifts of the postwar era. Vandalism and neglect contributed to the final services being held in 1996.

“I decided a while ago that (if) we were going to have the Jewish faith alive in the Eastside no one was going to do it for us,” Gonzales said.

For Gonzales, preserving remnants of the Jewish faith in the Eastside is personal. His family has roots in Boyle Heights dating back to 1896. He said the Jewish community has embraced him as a convert. It’s estimated that about 227,000 Latino adults in the United States identify their religion as Jewish, according to a 2019 report released by the American Jewish Population Project.

About 40% of Boyle Heights’ population was Jewish through the 1920s and ’30s, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy. While more upwardly mobile Jews established themselves in Hollywood and the Westside before World War II, the Jewish community in Boyle Heights was made up of mostly working-class families from Eastern Europe. They were mainly secular and politically engaged in the Eastside.

Gonzales held the sukkah gathering outside a community space that hosts comedy nights and is the home of Boyle Heights History Tours. As part of these tours, Gonzales takes people on urban hikes and walks to explore the area’s Jewish history as well as some of the lost cemeteries of Los Angeles. The money made through that work helped pay for the Sukkot festivities, he said.  

Sukkot is “one of these ancient holidays that has been revived in so many different ways for us to find relevance with it,” Gonzales said.

He tied the holiday to the homeless crisis in Los Angeles that has left more than 36,000 in the city without a home. He recalled seeing homeless people under palm branches seeking relief from the heat. “These are homeless people that need shelter,” he said.

He also thought of the immigration crisis along the southern border and of the “refugees wandering through the desert in hopes of getting to the Promised Land here.”

Sukkot, Gonzales said, is “not just to celebrate how far we’ve come … but also to keep in mind all of those who are still on that journey looking for their shelter.” 

Gonzales also likened the sukkah to a Día de los Muertos altar, a sacred space where people honor their ancestors. 

“With a sukkah, it also becomes a mystical space in which we are able to connect with our ancestors,” he said.

This is the kind of multiculturalism that attracts Martín Olvera, who is Chicano with roots in Boyle Heights. Olvera’s father was born in Boyle Heights and learned woodcrafting from a Jewish man. His grandmother arrived in Boyle Heights as an immigrant from Mexico in 1910. His New Mexican mother also made L.A. her home.

Olvera, a musician who was raised Catholic, said he values the Jewish community for standing up for immigrant rights. 

Sunday was his first Sukkot, where he sang and played the violin.

“I thought it was really empowering,” said Olvera, 63.

Matthew Hom of Bend the Arc — a Jewish, nonprofit working for social justice — also attended Sukkot in Boyle Heights. He normally commemorates the holiday by going to services at his synagogue and having a meal in the sukkah, but this time it felt different.

Hom’s grandfather was raised in Boyle Heights, and celebrating Sukkot there was special “because it allowed me to connect to my family’s history here.” He said he’s inspired by the history of the community because of the “social justice work and solidarity between Jewish and Latinx residents.”

Hom, 32, said Sukkot is a way for Jews to remember their history of migration and insecurity.

“It’s precisely why we commemorate this narrative that we feel compelled to redouble our effort to secure immigrant justice today,” Hom said.

For Mosh, Sukkot in Boyle Heights was a learning experience. She’s not originally from L.A. and was unaware of the Jewish history of the community.

Although she grew up going to synagogue, Mosh said she is not particularly religious. She remembers going to Sunday school and decorating the sukkah and wanted her kids to experience the tradition. Mosh said she appreciated commemorating the holiday through a social justice perspective, considering the housing and immigration crisis.

“It felt refreshing and familiar,” she said. “That’s the Judaism I remember and was needing in my life.”

Shmuel Gonzales, a sixth generation member of our eastside community and founder of the Boyle Heights Chavurah; seen here leading kiddush in Hebrew for our guests.

Our foods over the Sukkot holidays focused on featuring the Sephardic-Mizrahi influenced foods of the Mexican Jewish tradition; coming from the Middle East, as many Mexican Jewish families come from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and is high influenced by spices and flavors from the Orient. During the season it is the traditions to have foods which are overflowing as a sign of abundance and as sweet as we wish the new year to be. And as we get towards Simchat Torah – we feature foods which are cylindrical and rolled, stuffed foods that reminds of the shape of the Torah scrolls.

Alejandra Molina

Alejandra Molina is a National Reporter covering Latinos and religion in the West Coast. She is based in Los Angeles. Previously, she was a reporter for the Southern California News Group where she covered cities, immigration, race and religion for newspapers like The Orange County Register, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside and The Los Angeles Daily News.

Queen Esther: Patron saint of crypto-Jews

Faced with threat of execution for Jewish observance, Sephardi conversos created the festival of Santa Esterica to replace Purim

Saint Esther icon, an example of religious syncretism found in the Southwest (courtesy)

According to tradition, around 1,900 years before the Spanish Inquisition, a baby girl named Hadassah was born in the Persian Empire. She was orphaned at a very young age and her cousin Mordechai assumed custody of her. Under his tutelage, she internalized the spark of her Jewish identity.

After a few years, an opportunity presented itself, and Mordechai placed her in King Ahasuerus’ harem. He told her that her name was now Esther.

Mordechai told Esther that she was still a Jew, but that she must not let anyone know. If she was lucky, one day she could be the queen of Persia. It is said that she was a vegetarian, to avoid eating non-kosher meat. Queen Esther seemed to be fully assimilated, yet she never forgot who she really was. She hid her Judaism, and eventually married King Ahasuerus. 

When the Spanish Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, many Jews converted to Catholicism outwardly. Inwardly, they kept practicing Judaism in secret, becoming anusim, conversos, or crypto-Jews.

Queen Esther was an inspiration to the anusim in that she modeled a way for them to remember and retain their true, hidden Jewish identity while integrating into the society around them. The conversos implemented a strategy to be able to continue practicing Jewish customs while hiding their observance by inserting a Jewish tradition into a Catholic practice or “syncretism” — the mixing of rituals from different religions.

When the Roman Catholic Church formally recognizes a person as a saint, this person is canonized. A person who has not been canonized may, however, still be referred to as a saint if it is believed that they are “completely perfect in holiness.” The crypto-Jews took advantage of this loophole.

Although Queen Esther was not canonized by the Catholic Church, the anusim transformed her into Saint Esther. They called her Santa Ester or Santa Esterica. They were able to continue honoring Purim by reinventing it as “The Festival of Saint Esther.”

saintesterretablo

Although Queen Esther was not canonized by the Catholic Church, the anusim transformed her into Saint Esther.

The Festival of Saint Esther originated in Spain. When Spain issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, many Jews and conversos escaped to Portugal, taking their traditions with them. Their respite was short-lived and in 1497 the Portuguese king Manuel I married Princess Isabella, the daughter of the Spanish Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. A clause in this marriage contract extended the Spanish expulsion to Portugal, ousting the Jews once more.

The New World beckoned as a safe haven and the Spanish and Portuguese anusim were among the first settlers in the territories controlled by Spain in what is now Mexico. The Spanish Inquisition followed them to Mexico, however, pushing the conversos north.

The establishment of Nuevo León in the American Southwest is notable in that it was almost entirely carried out by crypto-Jews. Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva, a Portuguese converso, received a royal charter to settle this land without religious scrutiny of the pioneers who followed him. The Festival of Saint Esther was disseminated in the New World by these conversos. It was generally the women of the family who maintained this tradition.

The Festival of Saint Esther had two parts. The first part of the holiday was called the Fast of Queen Esther. The women fasted for three days. This fast replicated the fast Queen Esther asked of Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan before she approached King Ahasuerus.

Execution_of_Mariana_de_Carabajal-300x480

Execution of Mariana de Carabajal at Mexico, 1601 accused of secretly being Jewish. Source: From Palacio, ‘El Libro Rojo’, reprinted in the Jewish Encyclopedia (public domain)

It was too risky to celebrate the Festival of Saint Esther publicly. This was because the Spanish Inquisition considered such an activity to be Judaizing, or the adoption of Jewish beliefs. However, the archives of Mexico’s Inquisition retain testimony about this fast.

In 1643, Gabriel de Granada confessed that in his family, the women divided up the fast between them. Each would fast for one day. The punishment meted out by the tribunal of the Inquisition for Judaizing was “relaxation,” which meant burning at the stake.

Fasting had a special significance for the forced converts. In “The Fast of Esther in the Lore of the Marranos,” Moshe Orfali explains that the conversos felt that they lived in a constant state of sin. Fasting helped them atone.

The second, celebratory part of the festival was the Feast of Saint Esther. In her article “Women, Ritual, and Secrecy: The Creation of the Crypto-Jewish Culture,” Janet Liebman Jacobs relates that the women lit devotional candles in honor of Saint Esther. It was an occasion of mothers bonding with their daughters. They cooked a banquet together. The mothers took advantage of this opportunity to teach their daughters special family recipes that adhered to the remembered laws of kashrut.

The festive, public Purim celebration was transformed into a private meal held at home. As a result, many Jewish traditions were transmitted from mother to daughter.

The crypto-Jews also had their own special way of honoring Esther year round by enshrining her in a piece of art.

All Spanish colonies had a special type of religious art form called santo. Santos were statues made of wood or ivory which depicted the Virgin Mary, saints, or angels. In Latin America and the American Southwest, these statues were called bultos. The bultos were carved from wood, and then coated with a mixture of glue and gypsum, called gesso. They were then painted with vivid homemade pigments.

In crypto-Jewish homes, Queen Esther was fashioned into an icon and transformed into a bulto of Saint Esther.

Santo art was also expressed as devotional paintings called retablos. Traditionally, these were executed on sheets of metal such as copper or tin. Since there was a shortage of metal in the New World, the retablos were made of wood. Like the bultos, they were coated with gesso and painted. The paints were made from natural materials such as plants, insects, ash, and clay. Then they were varnished with tree resins. Crypto-Jews also commissioned retablos of Saint Esther.

It is less common to find bultos or retablos of Saint Esther in the American Southwest today. This is the legacy of Archbishop Peter Davis, who was the Archbishop of Santa Fe from 1964 to 1974. According to Jacobs, the archbishop wanted to get rid of all the Jewish rituals in New Mexico. He told his parishioners that there is no Saint Esther in Catholicism. and explained that the celebration of Esther is called Purim, and that Purim is part of the Jewish faith.

Despite Davis’ best efforts, it is still possible to find bultos and retablos of Saint Esther in crypto-Jewish homes today. In “The Book of Esther in Modern Research,” by Leonard Greenspoon and Sidnie White Crawford, for example, Santa Ester is portrayed as holding “a hanging-rope in one hand, and a crown in the other, weighing the danger of execution against the safety of royal immunity.”

Charles Carrillo is a contemporary artist who creates Saint Esther icons. (courtesy)

There are also contemporary artists creating icons of Saint Esther. Charles Carrillo is one of New Mexico’s most prominent santeros, or artists that carve and paint saints. Carrillo earned a doctorate in archaeology from the University of New Mexico. While working on a dig, he became inspired by the work of the santeros. He conducted a lot of research, and became a self-taught artist whose mission is to preserve the homemade materials, techniques, and designs of the master santeros of 18th century colonial New Mexico. In 2006 he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award.

According to Carrillo there is a large community of crypto-Jews in New Mexico.

“They came here in the 1500s,” he told me. “I haven’t done one in a long time, but sometimes I still get a commission to create a Santa Ester.” There is an old saying in New Mexico, “A cada santo llega su función,” meaning that there is a saint for every occasion.

“My Santa Ester always has dark hair,” Carrillo said. “It’s a New Mexico tradition. I want my artwork to reflect her attributes. Esther means ‘Hadassah’ in Hebrew. Hadas is a myrtle or fragrant plant,” he explained.

In Carrillo’s retablo, Santa Ester is wearing a crown adorned with myrtle. She holds a myrtle branch in one hand. The rosette at the top of the retablo is decorated with myrtle branches. Santa Ester holds a scepter in her other hand that marks her as a queen. Her scepter is decorated with a pomegranate, an ancient Jewish symbol of fertility, promise, and fulfillment.

The red curtains framing Santa Ester are traditional in a New Mexico retablo. They are an allusion to a stage and symbolize that this has been revealed to us, and that we had better pay attention before the curtains close.

The Spanish Inquisition was formally ended in 1834. It is rational to believe that crypto-Judaism was something that existed in the past and is no longer occurring. However, it has persisted, and there are many anusim that continue their secret practices to this day while living in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Latin America, and the American Southwest.

Several organizations have been established in recent years to help anusim conduct research about their family background. Name Your Roots was formed in Israel by a group of academics who hope to help facilitate research into converso family names and customs. Shavei Israel, was created to assist those descendants of Jews who wish to return to Judaism.

I wondered what it feels like for a devout Catholic like Carrillo to create an icon that he knows is for crypto-Judaic purposes. “I am honored to be asked,” he said. “Ultimately, we all believe in the same God. It is my tradition to paint the images so the story may be told.”


Project for this next year: I would love to commission the creation of a Saint Esther retablo for my small little Jewish community which meets in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles; and maybe even one day the creation of a mural! Are there any interested artists and local partners who are able to help me make this happen?