Marranos no more

Spanish rabbis are inundated by those seeking to connect with their lost Jewish heritage. The writer served as deputy director of communications & policy planning in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1996 to 1999. He is currently the director of Amishav, a Jerusalem- based group that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.

The look of pain on his face said it all. More than 500 years ago, his Jewish ancestors had been forcibly converted to Christianity, victims of the Spanish monarchy’s obsession 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 he spoke about his valiant but often painful struggle to return to his roots and rejoin his people, the people of Israel.

Outwardly, his forebears 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 anusim (Hebrew for “those who were coerced”) 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 anusim undergoing formal ceremonies of “return” as they rejoined the Jewish community.

OTHERS WERE not so lucky. The Inquisition followed the “New Christians,” as they were called, to the ends of the earth, reaching as far afield as India, Angola and South America, according to the late historian Cecil Roth, in his A History of the Marranos. It was only in the late 19th century – yes, barely 100 years 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, my Spanish friend 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 was as unmistakable as it was real.

As I listened to his story, and to others like it during a recent visit to Spain and Portugal to meet with descendants of the anusim, 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.

Indeed, across the Spanish-speaking world, thousands of people are emerging from the shadows of history, rediscovering their Jewish roots and grappling with its meaning and relevance in their lives.

Spain and Portugal’s embrace of democracy nearly three 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 anusim seek to reverse what Torquemada wrought on their ancestors.

Over a decade ago, a community of some 150 anusim in the remote village of Belmonte, Portugal, underwent conversion by a special rabbinical court dispatched from Israel. They live today as Jews, celebrating the Sabbath and the holidays, and confronting the same challenges faced by Jewish communities everywhere.

In the past three years, dozens of other anusim have studied at Machon Miriam, the Spanish-language conversion and return institute in Jerusalem run by Amishav, the organization which I head. Graduates undergo formal conversion by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and nearly all now lead fulfilling Jewish lives here in Israel.

The chief rabbis of Barcelona and Madrid both told me that they are inundated by calls and letters from anusim seeking to find out more about their heritage. “There are many lost Jewish souls here,” said Barcelona’s Rabbi Jacob Carciente, “And we need to help them.” The anusim are the spiritual survivors of the Inquisition. They are currently engaged in a spiritual quest, and it is time for the Jewish people to reach out to them and facilitate their return.

To begin with, world Jewry must recognize this growing phenomenon and take the appropriate steps to cultivate it. Rather than putting obstacles in their way, we must let the anusim know that we are ready to greet them with open arms.

Use of the term “Marrano” should be dropped, which is the equivalent of calling Ethiopian Jews by the derogatory term “Falashas.” It was an offensive slur used by the Spanish inquisitors to degrade and humiliate anusim, and there is no reason for us to continue this practice.

Greater resources should be devoted to enabling the anusim to learn about and appreciate their heritage. We owe it to the victims of the Inquisition, many of whom died for the sake of preserving Judaism, to assist their descendants in this fashion.

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


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