"I, Teresa de Lucena": How We Built the Book

A conversation with translator Ellen Kanner and artist Annie Zeybekoglu

Click the image to view an excerpt

GREAT BARRINGTON – On Sunday, April 28 at 2 p.m., join author Ellen Kanner, illustrator Annie Zeybekoglu, and Rabbi Barbara Cohen of Congregation Ahavath Sholom for a conversation about I, Teresa de Lucena: Reflections on the Trial of a Conversa. Using examples from the book, they will illustrate the interplay between text, interpretation and design and lead what promises to be a lively conversation about the creative process, book arts and Jewish tradition.

This event will be held at the Quaker Meeting House, 280 State Road in Great Barrington. There is no charge to attend, but donations to the congregation will be appreciated.

I, Teresa de Lucena: Reflections on the Trial of a Conversa is the result of a unique collaboration between a translator, an artist, and a rabbi who joined forces and their respective talents to tell the story of Teresa de Lucena (1467-1545), a woman who faced the Spanish Inquisition twice. It is is a work of microhistory, a nonfiction genre that places an individual at the center of the narrative and then zooms out to create the larger context of her life and times. Where did she live? How old was she when her father fled from Spain? Who were the witnesses against her? The book, based on Kanner’s translations of the original Inquisition transcripts, Zeybekoglu’s evocative illustrations, and Rabbi Cohen’s insights into Jewish culture, creates an intimate portrait of a conversa in tumultuous times.

A Jewish Double Life: Ellen Kanner on Teresa

To understand the times in which Teresa de Lucena lived, Ellen Kanner says one must understand that the Spanish Inquisition, begun in 1478, “was not launched against Jews. It was launched against Catholics whom the Inquisition suspected of observing either Jewish practices or Muslim practices.” The peak of Spanish antisemitic violence had occurred in 1391, after which Jews converted to Catholicism by the hundreds of thousands to save their lives. Teresa, born in 1467, was a third-generation Catholic whose grandparents had converted to the faith. Kanner explains that the unintended outcome of this mass coerced conversion was to create a social stratum of “newcomers” comprising Spain’s conversos, which led to class tensions that dovetailed with the Spanish Church’s religious preoccupations. 

Still, Jews lived as Jews in Spain until their expulsion in 1492 and, Kanner says conversos would have interacted with them. Judaism among the conversos was observed along a spectrum – some who converted became devout Catholics, others were Catholic in name only, and some took things from both religious cultures. During Teresa’s childhood, she could and did interact with the Jewish community and visit its synagogues– but after 1478, doing so invited danger. “Secrecy in Teresa’s time became a matter of life or death,” Kanner explains.

Teresa’s father fled the Iberian Peninsula in 1480 or so. Teresa remained in Spain and, in 1485, she traveled to Toledo to face the Inquisition and voluntarily confess that she had learned Jewish practices as a child from family members. She was then seventeen years old, and vowed never to practice Judaism again. Her confession was accepted and she rejoined the Catholic fold without punishment or penalty.

But as I, Teresa de Lucena documents – and the volume is a historical document, consisting of Kanner’s translation of records from Teresa’s 1485 and 1530 trials – she practiced some aspects of Judaism throughout her long life. Four years after the twice-acquitted Teresa passed, a servant delivered testimony to the Inquisition about Teresa’s strange ways. The excerpt reprinted here affords contemporary readers a glimpse into how conversas like Teresa sustained their Jewish connection in secret, at risk to their lives, for years.

As has been pointed out by rabbis and sages, Judaism is not so much about what one believes, but rather about what one does. While no one will ever know exactly what Teresa believed, Kanner and Zeybekoglu offer tantalizing hints of how she acted, in private and at risk to her life. Even the small gesture described in the image above suggests a complex inner life of a Jewish woman separated from us by centuries.