by Art Benveniste

adapted from an article in HaLapid, Summer 1999

In his presentation to the 1999 SCJS Conference in Los Angeles, Seth Ward told of a woman from Northern New Mexico whom he had interviewed. She was describing the Crypto Jewish practices of her family and told about playing cards every September with her Grandmother. Playing cards was an annual ritual of the family that was somehow related to the Jewish High Holidays.

It reminded me of a story told by Rabbi Baruj Garzon of Spain: Several years ago the Jewish community of Spain wanted to buy some land in the Barcelona Area for a Jewish summer camp. Rabbi Garzon drove there from Madrid to negotiate with the landowner. It was late in September. A price was agreed on and the rabbi told the landowner that he would go back to Madrid to talk with the Board of Directors and they could sign the papers the following week. Back in Madrid that evening, Garzon received a call from the man in Barcelona. The landowner said that there were certain days the following week when he could not sign the papers. The rabbi wrote down the dates and went to bed. The next day he was about to put the dates on his calendar when he noticed that they coincided with the Jewish High Holidays. He called Barcelona and asked why the man could not sign on those dates. He was told that the man = s family had a  "strange"calendar and that there were some days each year when they did not work or handle money. The rabbi asked what the family did on those days. He was told that they played cards . On checking the man's A strange calendar for the next few years, he found that the days always fell on the High Holidays. The man had no explanation for the card playing.

Card Playing Disguises Prayer

The rabbi explained that during the time of the Inquisition, secret Jews would gather for prayer by sitting around a table with cards on the table and prayer books on their laps. When strangers came by they would play cards and when they were alone they would turn to the prayer books.

Last April I repeated this story at a talk I gave in Tucson, Arizona. My presentation was reviewed in the Tucson Jewish Chronicle. Shortly after that the Chronicle received a letter from Emma Moya of La Herencia del Norte of New Mexico.y of it. She wrote:

In Nuevo Mexico cards are called Barajas in other southwestern areas the cards are called cartas. Our Academia Hebraica in Albuquerque has researched and recorded the following information that may or may not relate to Mr. Benveniste's statement in the chronicle: The word "baraja" alludes to the word " baraha" , prayer in Hebrew.

In addition, recently I received an email from Judith Crystal Pirkle who described her family customs. She wrote:

The stories passed down to me by my Mother and her family all check out. Also the custom of playing cards on the Sabbath eve, (Erev Shabbat) was passed on through our family. As the Mexican soldiers checked houses on Friday evening to make sure no one was observing the Sabbath, the Crypto Jews played cards and told Torah stories by using the cards, a heavy cloth was placed on the table with a large candle burning, at bedtime the candle was placed under the table so it could not be seen from the windows.

Since then, I have received several other examples of crypto-Jews using card playing as a device to hide a commemoration of Jewish rituals.