The Benei Anousim movement: Origins, Limitations and opportunities
Every couple of months the Jewish press of the Diaspora or Israel offers us a new installment of a riveting story: descendants of Sephardic Jews forced to convert during the time of the Inquisition return to their roots after centuries of hidden Jewish life. These benei anousim (“sons of the forced”) have become a frequent if polemical element in the Jewish panorama of Latin America, the Iberian peninsula and the American Southwest. Most of these articles (some even written about the personal experiences of yours truly) follow the same pattern: a romantic description of ethnic tenacity that has survived through persecution and assimilation. This romantic narrative is so recurrent because it strikes a popular chord of the contemporary Jewish experience: the belief in the power of ethnic and racial identity, usually called in Yiddish “the pintele Yid” (the little spark of Jewishness). This belief posits that just because someone is descended from Jewish stock, she will inevitably be drawn through the “laberynths of blood” (as García Marquez so aptly put it) back to Judaism. This belief is supported in the realm of Jewish literature by such diverse sources as the Kuzari, the Zohar and the Tanya.
“Pintele Yid” narratives comfort and inspire most contemporary Jews either because they echo self-congratulatory images of racial exceptionalism (“Jewish blood is different”) or because they displace the onus of what Jewishness is from values and culture to genetics (a view that pleases the growing demographic of simply ethnic Jews with little connection to Jewish values or practice). The problem with these narratives, aside from being dangerously close to racial definitions of Judaism, is that the theory of the Pintele Yid simply does not withstand scrutiny. According to demographers more than fifteen million Americans have a Jewish grandparent. If the Pintele Yid theory were correct, we should be experiencing a massive return of the descendants of these Jews. Sadly, aside from the handful of examples that we can produce to the contrary, the trend is for greater assimilation and dissipation of Jewish identity. In the Latin American scenario, close to a fifth of the early settlers of the New World were Jewish. Five hundred years later, it is mathematically feasible that most Latinos have a genetic connection to Judaism however strong or weak. And yet the benei anousim movement is counted in the thousands and not in the millions. The Pintele Yid, although a romantic idea that incenses the imagination, does not seem to be a very reliable marker for determining a persons future interest, attachment or loyalty to Jewish values, practices and peoplehood.
In the case of the Benei Anousim movement the adoption of the Pintele Yid narrative and theology has been a dangerous gambit that has done more harm than good. Although benefiting from the media attention that such romantic stories might garner, this narrative has redirected the energies of its members into “proving” the authenticity of their genetic claims rather than investing them in building a new Jewish identity towards the future based on education, practice and involvement in a Jewish community. By placing such a central emphasis on being “descendants” or “Sephardim”, the benei anousim (whether genuine or imagined) place a stumbling block in their own path to Jewishness since most of them cannot conclusively prove that they are descendants, especially, according to the increasingly demanding standards of “Jewishness” set by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate which most Benei Anousim seem pathologically intent on convincing of their claims.
As part of this movement, I have been striving in the past couple of years to redirect most Benei Anousim energies into joining or building Jewish communities that are true to tradition, connected to the larger Jewish world, and, most importantly, able to serve them to build a robust Jewish identity for them and their children. An important part of this effort has been to change their understanding of their own selves from a metaphysically driven “pintele yid” narrative in which they were “chosen” because of their genetic stock to prefer a series of values and practices to a narrative that recognizes that the Benei Anousim movement is part of a larger social phenomenon. This social phenomenon of religious migration has been generated by a greater awareness of religious diversity, an ease of exposure to Jewish ideas brought in by the internet, and the rise of media attention on Israel even in Latin America. Throughout the world people are discovering a broader spiritual and religious marketplace of ideas and they are switching, bending and mixing old ideas to find solid alternatives to the faiths that they have grown into. For some this means abandoning their formative Catholicism to embrace evangelical Christianity, for others it is Islam, Buddhism, and for some it is even Judaism. In most cases, the interest in Judaism is explained (and justified) after the fact by the “discovery” of Jewish roots. However, in my opinion, understanding the choice of Judaism as a conscious one that is made because this way of life is more fulfilling to the individual than their previous faith lends itself to the creation of a more robust, self aware, and transmittable Jewish identity than the one created by a (maybe unsubstantiated) myth of Jewish blood. Especially in Latin America where most people have a mixture of European, Native and African heritage in some proportion or other, declaring Judaism as a conscious choice (among many other possible identities) is also a more honest alternative to creating fantasies of “Sephardic racial purity”. Moreover, by affirming Judaism as a choice, these new Jews will be more open to letting the other ethnic and cultural components of their identity (be they European, Native or African) impinge on their Judaism and create a new hybrid that will contribute tunes, flavors and sounds to the great global Jewish collective, instead of trying to turn back the clock to 1492 and denying the five centuries of who they are.
One question, then, remains to be asked: if these new Jews chose the path that I present to them and focus their Judaism as conscious choice of values and practices, can they still, in justice be called “Bene Anousim”? Can they still reach out to the rich imaginary of Sephardic culture and claim it as theirs? As I write these lines, my Thanksgiving turkey is in the oven as I ready myself to give thanks, share with family and commemorate that early American experience. I am a nationalized Colombian, my wife is a Polish Jew. None of our ancestors landed on Plymouth Rock nor were present at this foundational feast. And yet, nothing prevents us from embracing this tradition and this narrative as our own. In the same way, the Sephardic tradition can provide a foundational myth, customs, memes, songs, and cultural building blocks that will allow these communities and individuals to build a Judaism of their own. Even by embracing a narrative that honors the years of persecution and hiding, these individuals whether they are connected genetically to these original Anousim or not, will be projecting an identity towards the future that includes and remembers this story and makes it their own. In the same way that every Jew at Passover has to see himself as if she had left Egypt, these new Jews in the Spanish speaking world can see themselves as emerging from the fires of the Inquisition and use these retrieved or adopted memories to form a way of life that allows them to walk a unique path for the next five hundred years and beyond.