Inquisition Descendants Face Challenges on Journey of Return to Judaism


image: Page from Barcelona Haggada, Cordoba, Spain, 14th century.

Page from Barcelona Haggada, Cordoba, Spain, 14th century.

For most Americans, the names King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain conjure up romantic images of Christopher Columbus setting sail in 1492 on his voyage of discovery. But to Jews, the names Ferdinand and Isabella are synonymous with the Jewish expulsion from Spain and the initiation of the Spanish Inquisition, marking the end of more than 1500 years of Jewish life on Spanish soil.

The resultant exile of the Jews of Spain1 (and later from Portugal) and the conversion of those who chose to remain, produced a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, which has impacted Jewish history over centuries and is still with us today.

So strong was the bond of Spanish Jews to their adopted country that centuries later, even in the United States, many Jews responded to the question, where are you from? with the answer Spain. It didn’t matter than 500 plus years had passed and that families had settled, moved and settled again in other lands (Italy, Morocco, Holland, Turkey, Greece, Brazil, Mexico, United States…) so powerful was their historic memory and the pain of their loss.

Many who tried to maintain their faith in secret were hounded by the minions of Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor

Among those who stayed behind, many professed allegiance to the Catholic Church while attempting to practice Judaism in secret. Some of these individuals, Crypto-Jews, were successful and eventually were able to reassert their Jewish faith. Others who tried to maintain their faith in secret, and even some who had converted in good faith, were hounded by the minions of Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, resulting in endless persecution in Spain as well as in countries under Spanish domination. In fact, the dates of the Inquisition remain startling to this day: 1478-1834. Yes, you read right, more than 350 years.

The Crypto-Jews kept a low profile and often moved from place to place, one step ahead of the Inquisitor’s reach. Others were caught up in a web of accusations of heresy and Judaizing and were punished, often tortured, banished again and/or burned publicly in autos-da-fé.

The result of these catastrophic events was a loss of thousands of Jews. But if one were to multiply that number to adjust for 500 plus years, the extent of the tragedy becomes clear. In some families, Judaism died early. In others, it became unexplained customs passed down through the centuries, such as lighting candles on Friday evenings, salting meat to remove the blood, an avoidance of pork, etc. But in most cases, even these customs eventually disappeared, leaving no trace of Judaism behind.

image: Two old priests showing the application of torture under the supervision of the Inquisition. 1700 plate.

Two old priests showing the application of torture under the supervision of the Inquisition. 1700 plate.

Before I visited Spain some years ago, a friend said, “Look closely at the faces of the people there and you will see Semitic features. Everyone in Spain has some Jewish blood.” I thought the statement was a bit unrealistic. But this summer, while on vacation in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, I met a Spanish artist who expressed remorse and shame over the Spanish Inquisition in her country’s past, and told me that many Spaniards indeed have Jewish blood, a fact that has also been confirmed by DNA studies. “You can see it in their faces,” she confirmed.

With this history as backdrop, it is indeed miraculous that today, more than 500 years after the expulsion, and long after the last Jew was burned at the stake, there are individuals, and even small, isolated communities, that believe they have a Jewish heritage and want to return to the faith of their ancestors. In some cases, individuals have gone to Spanish archives, Inquisition records and ancient Jewish towns and villages seeking and often finding evidence of their family’s past. The joy of discovery often leads to an intense desire to understand their Jewish heritage and a yearning to return to the Jewish people.

Many want to return to the faith of their ancestors.

What, if any, is the responsibility of the mainstream Jewish community to these individuals who have only recently discovered their link to a long lost Jewish past, and who want to return to the faith of their ancestors? In the following article, author Andrée Aelion Brooks discusses some of the problems facing the B’nai Anousim as they follow a journey of the heart determined to reclaim the heritage wrested from them by force hundreds of years ago.

Inquisition Descendants Face Challenges on Journey of Return to Judaism

In July, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the 7th annual B’nai Anousim Conference in El Paso, Texas. In addition to addressing conference participants, I was able to sit in on several sessions and experience the frustration as well as the hopefulness of some of the 70 men and women in attendance. At one session, a petite woman sitting in the back of the meeting hall raised her hand to make a comment. When the speaker called on her, she spoke with considerable emotion. “All I hear from B’nai Anousim are stories of rejection,” she said, “when they reach out to Jewish congregations in Latin America and in many parts of the United States. If not outright rejection, then, at least, a cool reception.”

“All I hear from B’nai Anousim are stories of rejection.”

Though many American Jewish leaders would say this statement represents an extreme view, an exaggeration, and is far more representative of congregations south of the border than in the United States, its prevalence cannot be disputed. According to both the Anousim themselves as well as rabbis and scholars working in the field, it is sufficiently commonplace that it colors the thinking of Anousim who are contemplating return.

The disappointment and frustration the woman described is not new, according to Rabbi Juan Mejia, who was born in Columbia and now lives in Oklahoma City. Rabbi Mejia said he has witnessed it countless times. In his view, the response may be partly racial — as many of those seeking to join the Jewish community (in South America) are of mixed race or dark skinned as compared to the existing members of local congregations — and partly financial, though conference participants claimed that the Anousim are not as indigent or uneducated as popular myth would suggest.

In Latin America, numbers also play a role. Those who consider themselves of Sephardic (Spanish) origin vastly outnumber those Jews of East European or Ashkenazi origin who have settled in South America and who today make-up most of the Jewish congregations in that region.

image: Woodcut from Spain, c. 1474, showing Alfonso de Espina, harbinger of the Spanish Inquisition. Behind him, Jews are shown blindfolded because 'they do not see the truth.' Encyclopedia Judaica.

Woodcut from Spain, c. 1474, showing Alfonso de Espina, harbinger of the Spanish Inquisition. Behind him, Jews are shown blindfolded because “they do not see the truth.” Encyclopedia Judaica.

If those Ashkenazi Jews are afraid of being outnumbered, it is not without justification, though there is irony to this idea. Historians such as David Gitlitz, a retired professor at the University of Rhode Island and author of Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews, have estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the original settlers who built the New World colonies were Anousim from Spain and Portugal. According to this view, many of those settlers were fleeing the Inquisition. In truth, it was they who arrived on America’s shores first. But it is now the Ashkenazi tradition that is dominant.

It is also true that today, some 500 plus years after the Inquisition, the number of B’nai Anousim is staggering, even if only a fraction are aware — or care about — their Jewish ancestry and a return to the Jewish world.

Consider the math for Brazil alone. Among almost two hundred million citizens of Brazil today, at least 40 percent, or 80 million, are deemed of Portuguese origin. Of these, at least one quarter, or 20 million, may have Jewish ancestors, according to Jacques Cukierkorn, the Brazilian-born rabbi at the New Reform Temple of Kansas City.

Rabbi Cukierkorn first ran the numbers in 1994 while completing a master’s thesis on the hidden Jews of Brazil as part of his rabbinic studies. “If ten percent or fewer seek out their Jewish heritage, it still works out to almost two million people,” he concluded. Further, if only a fraction of the thousands in neighboring countries and the rest of the world — especially Italy and Spain — are added in, the total could equal or top 13 to 16 million Jews in the world today. While these figures are staggering, no one is predicting the return to Judaism of most of these individuals. For many it is simply wishful thinking.

Some 500 years after the Inquisition, the number of B’nai Anousim is staggering.

Seth Ward, lecturer in Islamic and Judaic Studies Program in Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming, and a scholar of Crypto-Jewish life, estimates that some 10,000 have probably already returned to some form of open Jewish observance in the past decade or so.

Thus, despite the discouraging reception on the part of the mainstream Jewish community, progress has been made. Last December, at the urging of Kulanu board member Rabbi Stephen Leon, spiritual leader of B’nai Zion (Sons of Zion) Congregation of El Paso, Texas, and one of the early organizers of the Anousim Conference, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism passed a unanimous resolution calling upon its 700 member congregations to commemorate the forced conversion of Spanish Jews in the 15th century on the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’av (ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av). The focus, the resolution said, should be on educating members about the history of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews and the forced conversion of those remaining, so that they might better understand the Anousim experience and be more sensitive to those who seek to return to Judaism.

What could be equally helpful, say other observers, would be a similar resolution passed by the Reform Movement, which estimates its individual membership at slightly more than one million. “Such a resolution on a movement-wide basis would do a lot,” said Antonia Martinez, a lawyer in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Martinez received her formal certificate of return in June, 2008, and belongs to a Reform congregation, Temple Israel of Northern Westchester. It could make congregations more pro-active, so that local B’nai Anousim would seek out congregations that are welcoming, which in itself could encourage more individuals to come forward.

Excerpts from The Alhambra Decree of 1492 Expelling the Jews of Spain after 16 centuries in that country.

image: A page from the Alhambra decree

Therefore, with the council and advice of the eminent men and cavaliers of our reign, and of other persons of knowledge and conscience of our Supreme Council, after much deliberation, it is agreed and resolved that all Jews and Jewesses be ordered to leave our kingdoms, and that they never be allowed to return.

And we further order in this edict that all Jews and Jewesses of whatever age that reside in our domain and territories, that they leave with their sons and daughters, their servants and relatives, large and small, of whatever age, by the end of July of this year, and that they dare not return to our lands, nor so much as to take a step on them nor trespass upon them in any other manner whatsoever. Any Jew who does not comply with this edict and is to be found in our kingdom and domains, or who returns to the kingdom in any manner, will incur punishment by death and confiscation of all his belongings.

For the complete text of the Expulsion order as well as a dramatic and thrilling rendering of the response made by Isaac Abrabanel (Abravanel), a leader of the Jewish community, to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, look up:

Abrabanel’s response can also be found at:

Like others in her situation, Martinez, whose family originally came from the Dominican Republic, was willing to take classes on Judaism, undergo testing of her Jewish knowledge and immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) that is demanded by Jewish law of all converts to Judaism. And the B’nai Anousim are considered converts, since they are no longer Jewish according to Jewish law or Halachah (Jewish law). However, Martinez bristles at the notion that she could have been handed a certificate that used the term ‘conversion’ rather than ‘return.’ This is one of many examples cited by B’nai Anousim to show the lack of welcome on the part of the Jewish community. “I find the word ‘conversion’ to be repugnant,” said Martinez. “Judaism was my lineage. This is where I came from. My ancestors were Jews.” But rather than dwell on the seeming unfairness of it all, the experience is turning her into an activist — an unintended result of that perceived insensitivity, though she has found her own congregation to be very welcoming.

image: 'Auto de fe', painting by F. Rizi of the ceremonial sentencing of heretics in Madrid on June 30, 1680, in honor of Charles II and his bride. 1683. Prado Museum.

Auto de fe, painting by F. Rizi of the ceremonial sentencing of heretics in Madrid on June 30, 1680, in honor of Charles II and his bride. 1683. Prado Museum.

Martinez has joined her temple’s adult education committee and is involved in bringing in speakers on the subject of the Anousim, both from an historical and a contemporary perspective. She has begun accepting public speaking invitations herself, talking about her own experiences and providing a personal perspective to the topic.

“I find the word ‘conversion’ to be repugnant … My ancestors were Jews.”

Exploring ways to make the process warmer and more convivial has become a popular topic of discussion among the B’nai Anousim. There is the increasing belief that in the end they themselves will have to bring those recommendations to the table, rather than expect outsiders to do so.

Ideas being tossed around include creating a specially-designed visit to Israel under the umbrella of Taglit-Birthright Israel, for the children of the incoming B’nai Anousim; incorporating Sephardic songs and prayers into the liturgy of Ashkenazi synagogues to lessen the impact of the Ashkenazi overlay to much of North American synagogue practice; creating mentoring programs that would match B’nai Anousim who have returned with those who are facing the seemingly dauntless process before they can be officially accepted; modifying the conversion curriculum from a generic approach to one that speaks more directly to B’nai Anousim, their history and customs.

Further suggestions include creating partnerships between North American congregations and the nascent congregations made up of B’nai Anousim in Latin America, so that youth programs that regularly send their young people abroad on volunteer missions could help B’nai Anousim in other countries — while at the same time familiarizing those young people with a Jewish culture far removed from their own.

Another way to achieve credibility and respect may come out of an educational institute and museum now under development by Rabbi Leon. Rabbi Leon is working with Sonya Loya from nearby Rudioso, New Mexico, a leader among the B’nai Anousim, to provide a safe harbor where B’nai Anousim can gather and learn in a spirit of shared support, with programs tailored specifically to their needs. The museum would introduce visitors to their heritage and the history that goes with it. While there are many Holocaust museums around the country, there has never been one devoted to the Anousim. And this could help increase aware ness, which the B’nai Anousim believe is sorely needed. But first, funds for the venture need to be raised and backers identified.

But will these newcomers maintain their identity as Jews? The issue of retention poses a major challenge. On a recent visit to Portugal this writer was able to personally observe the outcome of large-scale and well-meaning attempts by the Jewish establishment worldwide, first in the 1920’s and later in the 1970’s and 80’s, to bring the B’nai Anousim who had remained in Portugal back into the Jewish fold. Not all were successful.

We need to be sensitive to the fact that it can be a lonely and painful journey back.

For some, it eventually became more comfortable to return to their former lives, the comfort of a close family life and the celebration of their original Catholic festivals with their Catholic relatives, rather than live a Jewish life after so many generations. Others were able to embrace their heritage, rejoice in the process and begin the long journey of adapting to life within the Jewish world.

It is clear we need to be sensitive to the fact that it can be a lonely and painful journey back, not necessarily shared by other members of an immediate or extended family. Magnificent synagogues in places like Porto and Belmonte, endowed at great expense by philanthropists of the Jewish world, could be encouraged to create special programs that address such needs, once they are better understood.

“Mistakes were made,” argues Professor Yom Tov Assis, professor of medieval history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in the Sephardic Diaspora, who led my tour. Some early rabbis who went to Belmonte, he said, gave them the idea that to really become Jewish they should put aside the prayers that they had clung to over the past 500 years and instead use the modern prayer book. “It was a psychological blow,” he said. “You can’t tell them that what they held as holy and Jewish is meaningless.”

Much more thought, therefore, should go into preparing these people for the psychological impact of a conflicted identity, its potential clash with a Catholic upbringing, and possible alienation from family members, as part of the process of return itself; rather than wonder, only later on, why they might have been lost.

Finally, the B’nai Anousim themselves need to stop behaving like victims, says Juan Mejia, the rabbi from Columbia. They should start realizing that “they have something to contribute to the Jewish world — their heritage, their enthusiasm, their commitment.” They should look upon themselves as a resource that can revitalize congregations. And, where feasible, they should consider working independently. “Do your own thing,” he says. “Develop your own congregations. The Jewish world will follow.”

Andrée Aelion Brooks can be reached at: andreebrooks @ hotmail . com.