New Jersey Jewish News
Mensch of La Mancha
Could Cervantes have been a Jew?
As I was about to reread Don Quixote during the 400th anniversary year of its publication I serendipitously ran across an item about its author, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), in the Encyclopedia Judaica. According to the short article, some scholars believe that Cervantes may have come from Converso stock.
In two of his plays, Cervantes presents in balanced fashion both Christian and Jewish attitudes to religion, and in another work he questions the validity of the notion of purity of descent a cardinal precept in Inquisition Spain. Cervantes himself was wounded and captured during this period in Spanish history, and regularly denied the official appointments he sought, another reason scholars feel he may have descended from Conversos.
A 2004 article by Michael McGaha summarizes various scholarly suggestions about the authors Jewish connections. McGaha feels that Cervantes purposely depicted Don Quixote as a New Christian, that is, one whose forebears were Jewish, declaring that in the book, his attitude toward Spanish Catholicism is constantly ironic, negative, or disparaging. He cites a critic from the 1960s who posited a kabalistic underpinning to the novel (which I feel is thoroughly absurd).
Another critic claims that in Quichote (sounded with a sh sound, with the e pronounced eh ki shoteh) means in Hebrew for he is a fool. And a third suggests that one famous story in the novel is found in the Talmud but also appears in a 13th-century Latin compendium of tales. Yet a fourth scholar attempts to prove Cervantes is a Jew based on the town where he was born and the fact that his middle name Saavedra is also associated with Jews.
I proceeded to read Don Quixote (the translation by Samuel Putnam) with Jewish eyes and found that my eyes did not deceive me. Putnam cites 15 quotes from the New Testament and eight from the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. I found 40 others the translator appears to be unaware of. An educated Christian of Cervantes time would have had knowledge of the Bible, but it is significant that the vast majority of the biblical quotes and they range from the Five Books of Moses through Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are from the Tanach.
But even more impressive are more than a dozen unmistakably Jewish sources of certain passages in the novel (plus a few sly digs at Christianity). Combined with the biblical quotes, that is quite an impressive cache of Jewish knowledge.
Here are examples:
We may never know definitively whether Cervantes ancestors were Jews. But given the thoroughly Jewish and specialized Hebrew material presented above, the notion that the author either descended from Jews or had enough sympathy for Judaism and its teachings to subtly weave such material into his great novel is surely strengthened.
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