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What Are You Willing To Die For?

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How much should we be willing to risk our lives to stay true to our Jewish identity?
 
This question is one of the themes explored in my debut novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, recently published by Kasva Press. The book goes back and forth in time from 15th century Spain to modern-day New York City, following two college students to the National Historical Archives of Madrid and Toledo as they uncover the stories of their ancestors from 500 years before. The Jewish family of the historical portion of the novel, which is set in the 15th century, contends with several situations where they are presented with an impossible choice: act in a way that compromises their Jewish values, or endanger themselves and their families.
 
This dilemma is one discussed at length in rabbinic literature, since, unfortunately, it is one Jews have faced rather frequently for thousands of years. On the one hand, we have the concept of kiddush Hashem—“sanctifying God’s name” by standing as an example of our devotion to God and His Torah to the world, even at personal risk.

On the other hand, we have the concept of pikuach nefesh—a sort of “doomsday button” in Jewish law that allows us to transgress almost all Torah commandments if doing otherwise would put a life in danger. Our Sages list only three transgressions that we must face death rather than commit: murder, sexually immoral acts, and idolatry. However, they also state that during a “time of persecution,” when all eyes of the world seem to be turned on the Jews, we must die rather than commit even the smallest transgression.
 
The balance between kiddush Hashem and pikuach nefesh can sometimes be difficult to navigate. In 1483, in a sort of precursor to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Queen Isabel expelled the Jews from the southern region of Andalusia. In a scene in By Light of Hidden Candles, Abraham de Carmona, a former resident of Seville, reveals to his daughter Míriam that he was faced with a choice: convert to Christianity or leave. He knew that friends and neighbors had pretended to convert and continued practicing Judaism in secret, and he considered doing this too, fearing for the health of his sickly wife. But his wife told him she would rather die on the way out of Andalusia than raise their daughter as a “secret Jew.” They left, and she did, indeed, die during their journey.
 
In our modern world, we may not face the type of persecution that Abraham and Míriam face, but we may still contend with this dilemma on some level. There is a scene in the modern narrative where Alma and Manuel, the college students, have a run-in with some Spanish neo-Nazis in Granada. When Alma (who is Jewish) spots them spray-painting a swastika on the wall, she marches straight toward them “to give them a piece of her mind”; Manuel stops her in a panic, and then gets her out of the situation by showing the neo-Nazis the gold crucifix he wears around his neck to prove that he is Christian. While obviously, Alma would rather Manuel do this than face violence from a gang of neo-Nazis, I imagine she felt a great deal of discomfort with the need to misrepresent herself and her identity in order to stay safe. Her ancestor Míriam expresses an identical discomfort when she has to remove the red patch on her clothes that indicates that she is Jewish.
 
As a Jew who grew up in the US and Israel, I had little opportunity to experience situations like these. Perhaps it’s the stark contrast that made such a strong impression on me when I had the opportunity to visit the Jewish communities in Paris and Barcelona. When I travel to the US, I make a point of wearing Jewish symbols prominently because I want people to know who I am. When in Europe, however, I was warned not to wear any Jewish symbols, nor to tell any strangers that I am Israeli. Since I am American also, this wasn’t a problem for me, but this policy required quick thinking when friendly street vendors would ask my Israeli friends where they were from!
 
I think at the end of the day, finding the balance between these two values is a very personal and sometimes painful decision. On the one hand, I admire the courage of those who hold proudly to their Jewish identity and traditions even at personal risk; on the other hand, I have enormous sympathy for those who have chosen to hide their Jewishness or act against their Jewish values to keep themselves and their families safe. I pray that I will never get to find out what I might choose if I were put in their position.
 
 
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