From Jewish Queen to American Saint | Houston Archaeology Now Cultural Education

The biblical book of Esther, written in the 4th century BCE, had an unexpected influence on the settlement of the new world and the history of the American Southwest.

An essential part of the story of the book of Esther—which recounts the salvation of the Jews of Persia by the heroic queen, the wife of King Xerxes—is that Queen Esther was actually Jewish, but had concealed her heritage from the king.  The story of Queen Esther was read every year during the Jewish holiday of Purim.  Many beautiful copies of the book of Esther can be found throughout Europe that were created during the medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods.

The Book of Esther is one of only two books of the Hebrew bible that may be decorated or illustrated.  This Esther scroll, produced around 1800 in the Italian city of Ancona, is decorated with flower, birds, and butterflies that frame the text.  Uncolored areas of the parchment have been cut away to create an intricate, lace-like effect.  The silver scroll case is also cut away to match the parchment.  (Courtesy of Sotheby’s)

Nearly 2,000 years later, the unexpected rise of the Spanish Inquisition forced many Jews of Spain, and later of Portugal, to convert outwardly to Catholicism, but continue to practice their true faith in secret.  Queen Esther’s example of a successful double life inspired these conversos to keep their Jewish identity alive while nonetheless integrating into their society. In their Catholic identity they referred to her as “Santa Éster” and reinvented their Jewish holiday, Purim, as the non-canonical festival of Saint Esther.  converso women, in particular, were important in the creation of Judeo-Catholic religious rituals.

Spanish and Portuguese crypto-Jews were among the first settlers of what is now Mexico, but the arrival there—unexpected of course—of the Inquisition pushed them further north into Nuevo Leon, which was settled almost entirely by cryptoJews; the festival of “Saint Esther” —aka Purim—was disseminated by them.  Mothers and daughters cooked festal meals together, using family recipes that passed down kosher laws and traditions.

Despite Church authorities’ efforts of repression—even in the 1960s and 1970s!—it is still possible to find traditional statues (bultos) of Saint Esther and devotional paintings (retablos) of her in converso homes in the American Southwest today. And there are many more American families whose Jewish roots remain only vaguely remembered—perhaps in a Grandmother’s unexplained Friday candle-lighting ceremony—or completely undiscovered.


A contemporary retablo of Queen Esther from New Mexico. (Courtesy of Charles Carrillo)

Our next speaker, Dr. Marie Theresa Hernández, will discuss the stories of these unknown Jews in Mexico and the American Southwest

Conversos: A Secret Past

7pm on Oct. 11,2018
MATCH (Mid-Town Arts and Theater Center), 3400 Main  77002
Tickets range in price from $14-$20
Available by calling 713.521.4533 or in person at the MATCH box office
For more information, call 713.364.6344