The history of the conversos, those Spanish and Portuguese Jews who hid their identities by publicly behaving as observant Catholics, is tragic not only for the horrible auto-de-fes (mass executions at which those convicted of heresy were burned at the stake), but also for the fear and instability with which these hidden Jews lived. Conversos who managed to leave Spain or Portugal, often had to flee the next country of residence in fear of the Inquisition that often followed recent Spanish conquests. The same story was played out in Europe, India, South America and even in colonial Georgia.
Mordecai Sheftall (1737-1797), the son of Benjamin and Perla Sheftall, emigrants from England, was born in Savannah, Georgia. A successful self-made merchant-come-landholder, Mordecai was active in colonial politics. His position on the Parochial Committee (and one-time chairman) made him easily identifiable as an independent minded rebel to any British official. When the hostilities between the British and the colonists eventually turned to war, Sheftall was appointed commissary-general and eventually the “Deputy Commissary of Issues in South Carolina and Georgia.” He was commissioned as a colonel, the highest ranking Jewish officer in America.
The phrase “May you live in interesting times,” references a Chinese curse. According to Jewish tradition, such a phrase could be seen as a blessing. It is normal to question why people suffer through challenges – both large and small – but Judaism views these tests, known as nisyonot, as opportunities that God provides each individual to grow and meet his/her true potential.
The pleasant temperatures of the short spring and summer of the fertile plains of the Canadian Midwest are a stark contrast to the winter, when temperatures can plummet to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and almost never rise above freezing. That the land is covered with snow for over half the year was probably not a daunting feature for the hundreds of Russian and Eastern European Jews who arrived there at the end of the 19th century.
The assumption that every Jewish adult has had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration is presumptuous. The assumption that every Jewish adult (other than a convert) has become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is logical. After all, becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah means only that a man or woman has passed the age of 13 or 12 (respectively), and is therefore recognized as having reached the age of personal religious responsibility.
Ophidiophobia is the fear of snakes. This is one of the most common phobias, and, in fact, it is so common and apparently instinctual that scientists have even taken to studying why this fear appears to be an almost natural part of human psychology.
In many, if not most, Jewish parables, the righteous and scholarly are often presented as living in a state of poverty. Indeed, it might often seem as if poverty is an attribute of righteousness. As Tevye the Milkman (Fiddler on the Roof) says: “It’s no shame to be poor… but it’s no great honor either!”
Imagine traveling forward 500 years in time and discovering multitudes of people studying something you had written for your child. Imagine walking into a bookstore and finding multiple editions of that work, many of them with commentaries. In the world of Jewish scholarship, there are two such works that have gained this status.
Menashe ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro, 1604 -1657), whose family fled Portugal after the Lisbon auto-de-fe of 1603, was raised in Amsterdam where he received a full Jewish education and was recognized for his great abilities early in his life. (He accepted a rabbinic post before he was 20.) In addition to his rabbinic duties, Menashe ben Israel established the first Hebrew press in Amsterdam, which served the needs of a community that continued to grow as more conversos sought to escape the Inquisition.
The fourth of the Ten Commandments is the observance of Shabbat. In Exodus, the Jews are commanded: “Remember (zachor) the Sabbath day” because “in six days God created the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day He rested.” In Deuteronomy, on the other hand, Jews are instructed to “Guard (shamor) the Sabbath day” because “you were a slave in Egypt, and God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”