Los Judios Nuevos: The Plight of the Anusim

Antonino spent his childhood in rural Puerto Rico. In the backrooms of stores and in the patios of private houses, he took his first steps in his life-long study of the Torah. There, amidst tools and seeds, he heard-in whispers-his introduction to the Jewish faith. Antonino’s teacher, a mild mannered store owner, was one of the many benei anusim* who belonged to an underground web of Torah educators dotting the Puerto Rican landscape and who taught the tradition in the only way they had known for over four centuries: in secret. At that time neither Antonino nor his teacher could suspect that they could learn the Torah in the open; that the Inquisition-which had dogged them, as anusim, for many centuries-was dead, and that they had prevailed.

Manuel grew up in Cuba practicing in secret what his grandparents called brujera (“witchcraft”). When he and his family settled in the United States, his father was surprised to discover that brujera was not only practiced in this new land but also practiced openly. Manuel and his family soon joined a Jewish congregation where they practiced their ancestral traditions, freely and consciously as Jews.

Eduardo, a Jewish traveling salesman in Colombia, once found shelter from a raging storm in a rustic rural inn. The innkeeper told him that the inn was full for the night, but “because of his race” he would be allowed to stay with his companion-another Jew-in the living room. Eduardo and his companion had not revealed to the innkeeper that they were Jewish and, with no slight apprehension, they started to get ready for the night. The feeling of uneasiness was only made worse by the only condition imposed by the innkeeper on the weary travelers: that they refrain from touching any of the valuable relics in the room. As they were preparing to go to sleep, Eduardo noticed a familiar looking bag on the mantelpiece. Written on the bag, in faded colors, was the word “tefilin.” When they questioned the innkeeper, she volunteered that these were her grandfather’s and that they were holy objects, never to be touched or taken out of the house.

My own grandfather remembered very vividly how twice a day the men in the family, wealthy land-owners in northwestern Colombia, would “put towels on their heads and read from strange books that they never showed to anyone.” He would later confirm his suspicions that the family was not just peculiar but also Jewish.

These stories are only a sample of the vast trove of oral traditions in several regions of Latin America that attest to the Jewish origins of some of its inhabitants. I have collected them throughout my years of sharing with other descendants of the anusim and investigating their history. Paradoxically, given I am speaking of the legacy of the Secret Jews of Spain, these stories and many like them are not a secret in Latin America. The fact that the anusim played an important role in the conquest and colonization of Latin America is a well-documented historical fact. From the translator of Columbus’ first expedition, Luis de Torres, to some of the conquistadores, Pedro de Heredia and Pedrarias Davila, the anusim played an important role in the European settlement of Latin America.

The theories that diminish the relevance of this influence by claiming that only people with certified purity of blood were allowed to “pass to the Indies”? ignore the rampant corruption of the Spanish Imperial bureaucracy. Moreover, they pay no attention to the brutal and incontrovertible fact that the Inquisition established three tribunals in the New World. These courts judged, tried, and executed local anusim by the score for practicing Judaism.

These anusim conquistadores and pioneers have been studied by historians and genealogists; their exploits have been novelized by native poets and also by foreign ones. The romantic idea of a Jew facing the dangerous wonders of the New World confronted, on one hand, by the perils of the jungle and, on the other, by the fires of the Inquisition is one that is particularly appealing to the imagination of the local Jewish communities who see in this Hebrew conquistador a sign of its antiquity and pedigree. These early anusim are seen as the predecessors of the Jewish communities of Latin America, even though the current communities are descendants of people who arrived at the earliest, two hundred years ago.

The high esteem in which these anusim of the past are held by these communities contrasts sharply with the difficulties faced by their descendants when they decide to reclaim their Jewish identity and heritage. Every year, a substantial number of benei anusimLatin America approach the local Jewish communities, looking for answers to the questions that pulse through the historical labyrinth of their blood. Some are looking for acceptance; a bolder few know from the outset that they want to rejoin the Jewish people through conversion. Most, though, are only interested in learning more about Judaism and, thereby, about themselves. These wishes are met, in most cases, with the sound of the synagogue’s heavy doors slamming in their faces. Most of the returning beneianusim face skepticism, fierce interrogation and, finally, in most of the cases, rejection. Wary of a half-millennium voyage from the fires of Spain, across an ocean and through the jungles, and absent any other choice, some of these people abandon their quest to find out more about their identities. Some are lured by the open doors of Evangelical congregations posing as synagogues. Only a handful finds the means to persevere in their quest. throughout

The arguments used to reject these returning benei anusim run the gamut from the pragmatic to the racist. The established Jewish communities fear that, in the always unstable political environment of Latin America, these new additions will become a liability; either because they do not posses the material wealth of the Jewish community or because they fear that accepting converts would be seen as an act of aggression towards the Gentile community. The established Jewish communities fear that this return is just a passing fad and that these people are inventing their Jewish identities. The established Jewish communities fear that these newcomers will upset the religious balance and corrupt, so to speak, the doctrinal purity of their congregations. The communities fear that benei anusim are pretenders, using their conversion as a ticket to a better life in Israel. The communities fear many things. Some of these arguments I have heard to my face and some I have heard behind my back.

The panorama for the benei anusim, thus, looks very bleak. The communities in their countries are paralyzed by fear and dare not help to correct the historical mistake of the destruction of Jewish life in Spain. Aside from some journals in Israel and America and the tenacious efforts of some individuals who fund institutes and studies on the subject, there is very little academic interest in contemporary anusim issues. In contrast, the topic of the anusim of the past fills journals and occupies historians of the stature of Cecil Roth. Even Israel, which has rescued communities as the Benei Menashe and the Ethiopian Jews, helping them return to their people, seems to disbelieve the credentials of the benei anusim. There has been very little done by the State of Israel for the improvement of the condition of the benei anusim. Furthermore, the efforts by the Israeli institutions interested in bringing the benei anusim back to their roots are still in their infancy. The distance of Israel from Latin America makes these efforts even more difficult, especially when the conduits to Israel run through the same communities who are afraid to receive these newcomers.

Indeed, it would seem that the heroic efforts of the anusim of the past in transmitting Judaism to their sons and daughters is about to fail, not because of their weakness or that of their descendants, but because of the apathy and suspicion of the descendants of their long-lost cousins.

What can be done? My impression is that the benei anusim’s brightest hope lies with their American brethren. American Jews, with their strong democratic identity and their geographical closeness to the concentrations of benei anusim in Latin America, seem to be the natural choice to take a position of leadership in helping the benei anusim. In the past few years, I have spoken about this topic throughout the country, and have always been warmly received-a striking contrast to the gaping silence that this topic causes in Latin American communities. American Jews in this era of apathy and voluntarism seem to be inspired by these Jews who kept their identities against all odds for more than half a millennium. The only thing that the benei anusim demand in return for this inspiration is a serious commitment to their education. This means not only creating institutions for the education of the anusim but also investigating academically the phenomenon of the anusim. The academic neglect of the topic is one of the first hurdles in the greater project of reconnecting the benei anusim with their Jewish identity; the more we know about this phenomenon, the better we can identify the members of our community and understand our particular problems. Only the American Jewish community can overcome the problem we face; the recognition of the benei anusim by the institutions of American Jewry-secular and religious-will help to open those doors that remain closed in Israel and in our communities of origin.

The efforts of American Jews for Soviet Jewry of decades ago and the current Israel advocacy convince me that this is not a task that is beyond the capability or the generosity of the American community. After all, 351 years ago, among the trailblazing Jews that arrived in New Amsterdam from Recife were no lack of anusim who had seen in the West their new light and hope. Today, the historical descendants of these Jews can help keep this dream alive.

*The anusim (Hebrew, “forced”) were the Jews who converted to Christianity in Spain and Portugal prior to the corresponding expulsions from these countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth century and who secretly continued to practice Judaism and to identify as Jews. Throughout this article I will use the term anusim instead of the more well-known but pejorative Marranos. I will use the term benei anusim to denote their descendants in the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere who have kept this ancient tradition alive to this day.


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