How Two Small Flames Restored One Woman’s Secret Jewish Past

shabbat cadlesShabbat, as well as many Jewish holidays, begins with the lighting of candles. The candles are traditionally lit in the home at least 18 minutes before sunset. The lighting marks the beginning of a day of rest and refreshment.

It seems clear that this custom began at a time when our homes were not illuminated by electric lights but instead by candlelight. On this day when rabbinic Jewish law forbids the lighting of flames, we were forced to light the candles before Shabbat began so as to provide some light for the Shabbat dinner. Dinners illuminated by candlelight always provide an extra measure of ambience.

The lighting of Shabbat candles has became for many the central feature of the beginning of our Shabbat. We light candles. We cover our eyes. We say the blessing. We wish each other “Shabbat Shalom,” a peaceful Sabbath. Yet for many, the Shabbat candles and their lighting remain a mystery.

Over 500 years ago, the Jews of Spain experienced a golden age of Jewish culture. This soon came to an end when the Jews were persecuted by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella during the Spanish Inquisition. The Jews were given a choice: Convert, or else. Some chose martyrdom. Finally, in 1492 (yes, the same year that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue) they expelled the Jews.

In fact, the harbor was so crowded with ships filled with Jews fleeing Spain that Columbus’s departure was delayed by several days. It is also widely believed that Columbus’s navigator was Jewish. This exodus created the rich Sephardic diaspora in Turkey, Morocco and even Holland and then eventually New Amsterdam.

Still, some remained. They chose conversion. Outwardly, they practiced Catholicism. But secretly, in the quiet of their homes, they practiced Judaism. They were called Conversos. You may have heard them instead called Marranos, but Conversos is the more appropriate term. They often named their children after biblical heroes. In this way they preserved their ever so thin and tenuous connection to their Jewish heritage.

Years ago, I met a woman named Miriam. She did not know about her namesake’s many accomplishments. She did not know about the legends. As long as Moses’ sister Miriam journeyed with the Israelites, wells of water accompanied them. She did not know how Miriam picked up the timbrel and danced and sang when the Israelites rushed through the Sea of Reeds in that miraculous deliverance we still recall with the words of Mi Chamocha (Who is like you).

Miriam began asking questions. “Why did you choose to call me Miriam? Why is nearly every man in our family named David? How long have we lived in Spain?” She thought a lot about God and wondered about her faith. “How does one get close to God?” she would ask. Miriam traveled from her home in Spain to the greatest of all metropolises, New York City. She met an Israeli man (Of course. Where else would you meet an Israeli man?).

You might guess the rest of the story. They fell in love. They began dating. Ok, perhaps it was in the reverse order. One Friday evening Miriam invited Noam over for dinner. She cooked a beautiful meal. It was exactly as her mother had taught her and her grandmother before her had instructed. There was, of course, wine. Through the window they could see the sun setting. The windows of the adjacent buildings began to reflect the reds and oranges of sunset. Miriam jumped up from the table. She offered a hurried excuse. She ran to the back of the apartment and there she lit two candles held in old, worn candlesticks. She waved her hands in the air three times and covered her eyes. She quietly thought about all of her questions. She still sought answers.

She turned around to discover Noam standing behind her. He had tears in his eyes. “Why are you crying?” she asked. “You are Jewish.” “No, I’m not. I’m Catholic.” He stammered, “Then why are you lighting candles on Friday night?” “What in the world are you talking about? I don’t know why we light the candles. It’s what my family has always done. My mother does the same thing. My grandmother too. I was told that my great grandmother used to light the candles in a corner of her basement.”

In fact, the women of Miriam’s family have lit candles in hiding for the past 500 years. It seems clear that her family was once Conversos. Somewhere along the way they forgot the blessing. In another point in the journey of centuries they forgot why they were even lighting them. Now Miriam also knows why.

Now she also knows the blessing: “Baruch atah hashem, eloheiynu melech ha olam, asher kidshonu b’mitzvotzov vitzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.” — Blessed are you our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and instructed us to light the Shabbat candles.” It took some 500 years to recover the blessing. It took centuries to uncover the meaning.

The Shabbat candle’s flame continues to burn brightly. Whether we light on this Shabbat or the next, whether we light now, or even never, these candles’ flames can never be extinguished. The warmth and glow of Shabbat can never be diminished.

We look into the flames and say, “Shabbat Shalom.”

Rab Steven Moskowitz