The Return of the Crypto-Jews

Small, often thriving, Jewish communities can be found in the four corners of the world – there are Jews in Azerbaijan and the Caucasian mountains, India, Iran, China and many other countries. Central and South America have Jewish communities ranging from large ones in Argentina and Brazil to tiny groups in El Salvador or the Dominican Republic. There are even remnants of Jewish communities in Arab lands. This article, however, is about crypto-Jews, those who kept their Judaism secret for over 500 years, from the time the Jews of Spain scattered all over the world. Because they are coming home. By

The look of pain on Carlos’ face said it all.

Over five hundred years ago, his Jewish ancestors had been forcibly converted to Catholicism, victims of the Spanish monarchy's obsession in the 15th century with purging its realm of Jews. Many were given a choice between expulsion and baptism, but numerous others were not, his family among them.

Now, centuries later, on a recent visit to Spain, I sat and listened as Carlos spoke about his valiant but often painful struggle to return to his roots and rejoin his people, the people of Israel.

Carlos and his family are Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term "Marranos").

Down through the centuries, his forefathers were hounded by the zealots of the Inquisition, who sought to stamp out any clandestine crypto-Jewish activity.

In the popular imagination, the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain are intertwined and often confused, even though the Inquisition began before 1492 and continued long afterward.

From the historical record, we know that as early as 1391 – a century before the expulsion of Spain's Jews – widespread anti-Semitic pogroms swept across the country, leaving thousands dead and many communities devastated. In the decades that followed, there were waves of forced conversions as part of an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment for Jews. This reached a climax in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave Spain's remaining Jews a dire choice: convert or leave forever.

Large numbers chose exile. American historian Howard Morley Sachar has estimated the number of Spain's Jewish exiles at around 100,000, while the Hebrew University's Haim Beinart has put the total at 200,000; others have spoken of even more.

But untold numbers of forcibly converted Jews, as well as those who voluntarily underwent baptism, remained.

Many of these Bnei Anousim (Hebrew for "offspring of those who were coerced") bravely continued to cling to Jewish practice, covertly passing down their heritage from generation to generation.

According to the late historian Cecil Roth, the Inquisition's henchmen murdered over 30,000 of these "secret Jews," while countless others were condemned for covertly preserving Jewish practices.

Their descendants now live throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, and in recent years a growing number of Bnei Anousim from across Europe, South America and parts of the US have begun to return to Israel and the Jewish people.

Carlos is one of them.

Outwardly, his forbears had lived as Catholics, attending mass and feigning piety in an attempt to ward off those who persecuted them. But behind closed doors, they clung tenaciously to the faith of their ancestors, preserving the flame of Judaism and passing it on to future generations.

In secret, they lit Sabbath candles, building a special cabinet to hide them from the prying eyes of their hostile neighbors. Yom Kippur was observed a day or two later than its traditional date, lest the agents of the Spanish Inquisition discover their clandestine fidelity to Judaism and decide to burn them at the stake. 

Throughout Spain and Portugal, many Bnei Anousim were careful to marry among themselves, desperately wishing to preserve their connection to the Jewish people, even if circumstances required that it be kept hidden.

Some sought refuge beyond the grasp of the Spanish authorities. The halachic literature of the Middle Ages is replete with accounts of Bnei Anousim undergoing formal ceremonies of "return" as they rejoined the Jewish community.

Others were not as lucky. The Inquisition followed the `New Christians', as they were called, to the far ends of the earth, reaching as far afield as India, Angola and South America, according to the late historian Cecil Roth, in his book A History of the Marranos. It was only in the late 19th century – yes, barely more than a century ago! – that the Inquisition formally ceased to function.

Centuries of persecution, of living in fear of one's neighbors and associates, obviously take their toll. With anguish in his voice, Carlos described the trauma of the Inquisition as if it had happened yesterday, rather than over half a millennium ago.

The raw emotion and, at times, even rage, which the expulsion of 1492 and its aftermath had left imprinted on his soul were as unmistakable as they were real.
As I listened to his story, and to others like it during a recent visit to Spain and Portugal to meet with Bnei Anousim, I realized that the Inquisition was far more than just a historical event of long ago. It was, in fact, a devastating human tragedy as well, one that continues to haunt untold numbers of people throughout the world.

Spain and Portugal's embrace of democracy nearly four decades ago, combined with the growth of the Internet in recent years, have all contributed to a growing movement toward return, as more and more 
Bnei Anousim seek to reverse what Torquemada and his inquisitorial henchmen wrought on their ancestors.

Indeed, across the world, there are many more Bnei Anousim like Carlos; people whose Jewish ancestors were torn away from us against their will under the most dire of circumstances.

And a growing number of them want to come back.

We owe it to the victims of the Inquisition, many of whom died for the sake of preserving Judaism, to welcome them back to their people.

After all, the Catholic Church dedicated enormous resources to tearing them away from the Jewish people. Our task now is to show the same determination to welcome Carlos, and others, back home.

Michael Freund is Chairman of Shavei Israel  which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to Israel and the Jewish people. He previously served as an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and writes a weekly syndicated column for the Jerusalem Post.


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