How a Medieval Jewish Convert Fled Her Own Family and the Crusaders

May 10, 2022 | Henry Abramson
About the author:

Among the countless treasures found in the genizah—a depository for discarded documents—in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue are a few fragmentary letters that tell the story of Christian woman who converted to Judaism in the 11th century. Henry Abramson writes:

Held in the remarkable Cairo Genizah collection of Cambridge University, the first letter was transcribed and published in 1931 by the pioneering scholar Jacob Mann (1888-1940) and described how this woman—she is strangely never named—left her wealthy Christian family (probably living in the northwestern region of Normandy) and became a convert to Judaism. She settled in the large Jewish community of Narbonne in the south of France, where she met her husband David, a member of the prominent Todros family, and had three children. Her brothers and others pursued her there, so the young family left the city. This was likely in the fateful summer of 1096.

Beginning in May of that year, a horrific new series of persecutions were unleashed on the Jews of Ashkenazi lands. For months, inspired by the call of Pope Urban II to impose Christian rule on the Holy Land, nobles and peasants alike were planning to make the long march to the land of Israel to defeat the “infidels.” . . . [A] group of frenzied Crusaders made a deathly calculation: why should they endure the arduous journey across land and sea to Israel, when there were unbelievers in their own midst, that is, the Jews?

It seems that David and two of the children—a son named Jacob and a three-year-old girl named Justa—took refuge in the synagogue [when Christians attacked the Jewish community of the village where he and his family lived]. David was murdered, and his children were kidnapped, presumably baptized and never seen again. Our heroine was spared, possibly because she was pregnant, but she and her infant son were left penniless.

The second fragments describe how she makes her way to Cairo, where she gives birth to a daughter. A refugee from the Crusades, she is supported by the community, presumably to the end of her days.