Celebrating Sukkot in the Inquisition Jail

by Michael Hendrix

Anusim conversos, Jews or descendants of Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism, were prominent in the settlement of Mexico from the very beginning of the arrival of the Spaniards to the land they would call New Spain. Many of these Anusim conversos continued to practice their Judaism in secret, earning them the name Crypto-Jews.


Several Anusim accompanied Hernan Cortes when he arrived in Mexico in 1519 and they participated in the conquest of the capital of Aztec Empire at Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City. Hernando Alonso was a carpenter with Cortes and was instrumental in the construction of thirteen bridges that Cortes needed in order to conquer the Aztec capital. In 1528 Hernando Alonso was accused of practicing Judaism. He was burned at the stake, becoming the first Anusim to be executed in North America.  


Anusim continued to be prominent among the conquistadors, explorers and settlers in the territory of New Spain. This led to the establishment of the Mexican Inquisition in Mexico City in 1571. The headquarters of the Inquisition was located at the Palace of the Inquisition, which was located four blocks from Mexico City’s famed Zocalo Plaza. The Palace became the site of gruesome executions and tortures, as well as the home of the Inquisition prison. It was here that one of the most heroic acts among Mexico’s Anusim took place.

Palace of the Inquisition

Mexico City, Mexico

Sebastian Rodriguez was born in Portugal in 1573. At the age of seven he moved to Seville, Spain where he worked with his uncle, Antonio Rodriguez, who taught him to read and write.

 

He went to Mexico when he was fourteen. He lived in Pueblo with his Portuguese cousin, Guillermo Rodriguez. Guillermo sent Sebastian to neighboring villages to sell clothes. Sebastian was successful and within two years he began to work on his own. 


At the age of eighteen he married his cousin Costanza Rodriguez in Mexico City. Before they were married his brother-in-law, Domingo Rodriguez and Manuel de Lucena taught Sebastian the laws and traditions regarding marriage and Jewish life.


Sebastian studied the Torah with Sebastian de la Peña and Luis de Carvajal. Luis was the nephew of Luis de Carvajal de la Cueva, governor of El Nuevo Reino de León. He passionately embraced his Jewish heritage and became a leading teacher of Torah and the Jewish faith among Anusim. In 1595 Luis was arrested and accused of practicing Judaism. He was imprisoned and tortured for nearly 2 years. On December 8, 1596, he was burned at the stake in the Zocalo Plaza in Mexico City along with his mother and three of his sisters. 

Zocalo Plaza

Mexico City, Mexico

In the same year that Luis de Carvajal was executed Sebastian Rodriguez and his wife Constanza were arrested in Mexico City and taken to the Inquisition Palace. Sebastian was tortured for three months and eventually confessed of following the Law of Moses. The Inquisition continued to torture Sebastian, this time using “the rack”.  The rack was a wooden platform, with rollers at both ends. The victim’s hands and feet were tied to each end and the rollers would be turned, stretching the victim’s body.  Frequently, the victim's shoulders and hips would be separated, and their elbows, knees, wrists, and ankles would be dislocated.  As a result of the cruel torture Sebastian confessed to practicing Jewish rituals.  Sebastian and his wife were sentenced to life imprisonment and their property was confiscated.  

The Rack

In 1603 Sebastian, his wife Constanza, and their small son Domingo had been in the Inquisition jail for seven years. As the Jewish festival of Sukkot approached Sebastian and his family longed to celebrate the revered festival. Sebastian managed to convince one of the guards to bring him some willow branches.  He decorated the interior courtyard with the branches where he also set up tables for his family and several other Anusim prisoners. Family members who were still free were allowed to bring food and accompany their family and friends. The festive meal in the succah was accompanied with music, singing and much rejoicing. The guards and inquisitors did not realize they were witnessing a traditional Sukkot celebration in the midst of the Inquisition jail.  

The determination of Sebastian Rodriguez to celebrate Sukkot in spite of dangerous consequences serves as an inspiration to all who desire to embrace their Jewish heritage.    

 

B'NAI ANUSIM INSTITUTE
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