Crypto-Jews Come Out of the Closet
The conversion process normally requires converts to immerse themselves in a mikveh (ritual bath) and then say a blessing. But when Nuria Guasch-Vidal, principal of an elementary school in Barcelona, underwent her immersion, the mikveh attendant exempted her from reciting the blessing. That moment, she says, is engraved in her consciousness as the moment when she returned to the bosom of Judaism as a descendant of the Bnei Anusim – Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition – rather than as an ordinary convert.
Guasch-Vidal was part of a maiden delegation of 19 Bnei Anusim that arrived in Israel about 10 days ago to show solidarity with the country. Amishav, the association that organized the trip, has been working in urban centers of Spain and Portugal for the last two years to try to return the Bnei Anusim (better known by the derogatory Spanish term “Marranos,” which means “swine”) to the Jewish people. The Jewish Agency does not work with descendants of the Crypto-Jews, on the grounds that they are not eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.
The delegation members, with Amishav’s encouragement, are all active in doing public relations work for Israel. As part of this effort, the organization initiated a megillah (scroll) of the Bnei Anusim, on which members of the group have declared their support for Israel and its “battle for survival.” They delivered the megilla, signed by hundreds of Bnei Anusim, to Minister for Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky last Tuesday.
The Foreign Ministry, incidently, claims that Amishav’s activity in Spain and Portugal is viewed by those governments purely as a social-cultural activity. Beyond the stated purpose of their visit, the Bnei Anusim see being here as another chapter in the process of forging a new identity that they have been undergoing in recent years. Thus, for instance, Miguel Segura, a columnist for a local paper in Majorca, has researched the history of the Crypto-Jews there and says that he is constantly trying to advance his research and promote public discussion of this issue. “The process of forging my identity does not include the adoption of elements of Jewish tradition and faith,” he says. “I did buy Jewish ritual objects for my house and put up a mezuzah, but my return to the Jewish people is via the solidarity I feel with Israel.”
In the context of the research he did in the archives of the Inquisition in Majorca, Segura discovered that he is descended from a family of converts to Christianity who were tried by the Inquisition in the 17th century. In Majorca, unlike in the rest of Spain, most of the Jews had already converted to Christianity by the start of the 15th century. “Descendants of 15th-century converts find it hard to discover their identity today,” he says. “But among descendants of later converts, there are 15 family names that are known to be descendants of Anusim, and all received the derogatory nickname `Chuetas.'”
In 1994, Segura published the story of how he became a proud Chueta, in a book called “Memories of a Chueta.” After the book was published, he said, the Catholic Church in Majorca began to harass him. The local priest issued a formal ban on his wife’s store, and descendants of other Chuetas, who seek to hide their identity, also came out against him. The book helped other anusim to come out of the closet, he says, but out of some 20,000 descendants of this population in Majorca, only a few dozen have thus far begun searching for their true identity. Segura’s children respect his decision to define himself as a Chueta, but he says that they have no desire to look into the matter themselves. Two years ago, Amishav off sent four rabbis – to Barcelona and Palma de Majorca in Spain, and Oporto and Lisbon in Portugal – as part of its efforts to bring the Bnei Anusim closer to the Jewish people. The rabbis organized seminars at which they taught classes in Jewish history, culture and tradition.
Fear of the Church
Amishav’s director, Michael Freund, says that judging by the inquiries streaming into the organization’s offices and and the approaches to the rabbis in Spain and Portugal, thousands of people are showing signs of interest in their past. “Over the last few years, as democracy has become entrenched in Spain and Portugal, people have felt freer to explore their Jewish identity,” he says. “The return of the bnei anusim to the framework of the Jewish world can help to solve the demographic crisis created by assimilation. Thousands of bnei anusim also constitute a huge potential reservoir for the expected demographic battle in Israel.”
But Prof. Moshe Orfali, head of the department of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, has trouble seeing the visit by the Bnei Anusim as part of a “wave of return” to Judaism. “We are talking about a few individuals who really connect to Judaism and Israel,” he says. “Most of those who express interest have families, property and comfortable lives on the Iberian peninsula.” Orfali also believes that activity among the Bnei Anusim is limited by fear of damaging relations with the Catholic Church, which is liable to claim that it constitutes “stealing souls.”
Ever since the expulsion from Spain in 1492, there have been groups of anusim that returned to their Jewish roots. The first was at the end of the 16th century, when third-generation Crypto-Jews from Spain went to various European cities, reconverted and set up Jewish communities in Amsterdam, Livorno and Hamburg. According to Orfali, the ambivalent feelings that accompanied the anusim poisoned their lives: They felt rejected by both the Jewish community and the Christian community. The current process of drawing nearer to Judaism stems, in Orfali’s view, from a search for belonging and from feelings of alienation. “I attribute part of the explanation to disappointment with the Catholic Church, which did not give them the feeling of belonging that they had expected, and therefore they began their Jewish search,” he says. “On the other hand, some of them see this as a sort of quick trip to find themselves, like our young people who travel to India.”
Organized activity by the Bnei Anusim takes place mainly via Amishav’s centers in Spain and Portugal, but over the last year, forums have also been established on the Internet. Guasch-Vidal, 51, who is also descended from the Chuetas of Majorca, relates that she corresponds on these forums with Bnei Anusim from Spain, Portugal and Brazil, and encourages new surfers to explore their past and their identity. Vidal discovered that she was the descendant of anusim 15 years ago. Her grandfather, who was on his deathbed, refused to observe the Christian custom of summoning a priest to hear his confession. Vidal’s eyes fill with tears when she relates his last request to her: to explore her Jewish roots. Oddly, it was her husband, who comes from a Protestant home, who initially displayed interest in Jewish tradition. As a teacher of history, she focused for the first few years on historical and archival research. Later, she says, she became frightened by the religious aspect of her search. Only three years ago did she dare visit the Barcelona synagogue for the first time. Despite the difficulties, Vidal and her husband continued with the conversion process, which ended two years ago at the Miriam Institute, run by Amishav.
In Vidal’s case as well, her children are not joining her in her return to Judaism. Vidal admits that this saddens her. “When I see a father wrap his son in a tallit [prayer shawl] at the synagogue on Shabbat, my heart contracts,” she says. “I am truly sorry that I did not begin the conversion process when my children were younger.