Marranos return to Judaism after 500 years

Fray Tomás de Torquemada must be spinning in his grave.

Half a millennium after the infamous Dominican monk (1420-1498) — one of the most feared and reviled men in history — founded the Spanish Inquisition to purge his country of unbelief, 200 “Marranos” (crypto-Jews) recently shed their Roman Catholic veil and openly returned to Judaism.

“This community has waited 500 years — it was Catholic on the outside, but Jewish within,” said Rabbi Shlomo Sebag, 31, who came from Jerusalem, Israel to Belmonte, Portugal (pop. 1,000) to instruct the clandestine congregation and supervise its reconversion. Men as old as 65 were circumcised, while all the community underwent symbolic purification in a mikvah (rain-water ritual bath).

Belmonte is a remote town in Portugal’s impoverished Trás-os-Montes district in the mountainous northeast near the Spanish frontier. It is a world away from the elegant beach resorts of the Algarve or the cosmopolitan capital Lisbon. The story of its old / new Jewish community is a remarkable account of faith, bigotry, racism and tragedy in the face of one of the world’s most fanatic systems of religious suppression.

It was only after the 1974 revolution toppled decades of dictatorship and introduced democracy that the secret Jews began considering openly returning to their ancestral faith. Fifteen years later in July 1989 the Belmonte “Marranos” approached Colette Avital, a diplomat then stationed at Israel’s embassy in Lisbon and now the Jewish state’s consul-general in New York. She was instrumental in bringing Rabbi Sebag to tutor the community in Hebrew and the ways of Sephardi Judaism.

Today the community has become a tourist attraction of sorts. Jews continue to dwell in the cobblestoned Rua Juderia (Jews Street), the medieval barrio where their ancestors settled. A site has been allocated for a future synagogue. In the interim, the community prays in a modern apartment block next door to Rabbi Sebag’s residence. A Jewish cemetery has been consecrated.

At Shabbat services the children read from Hebrew-Portuguese prayer books, printed in Brazil, stamped “Association of the Jews of Belmonte.” The older members, praying with the help of transliterated texts, display a fervour and passion rarely seen in the West. “Marranos” from the neighbouring towns of Guarda and Covilhã have begun attending services. Freed of centuries of fear and the need for stealth, the congregants pray loudly. They conspicuously wear kippot on the street, and greet each other Shabbat Shalom. Their pride is obvious.

“We are Jews,” declared Elias Sousa Nunes, the 32-year-old president of Belmonte’s new synagogue. “We are very happy now. We have an open community, not a closed one.”

Little is known of the history of the medieval Jewish community in this provincial backwater. A Hebrew inscription dated 1296-1297 has survived that once probably stood above the Torah ark in the long-destroyed village synagogue. But there is no record of when Jews first settled there, nor of any Hebrew sages who made it their home.

The history of the “Marranos” of the Iberian peninsula dates back to 1391, when Ferrant Martínez, archdeacon of Écija, unleashed a year-long series of pogroms throughout Castile which rapidly spread to Aragón. An estimated 100,000 Jews, faced with a choice between martyrdom and apostasy, chose to be baptized while a similar number were murdered. The suspicion developed that the country’s surviving Jews were secretly abetting the conversos in judaizing.

In 1483, as part of a general bureaucratic reorganization of the Kingdom of Castile by Queen Isabella, Torquemada was appointed Inquisitor-General of the Consejo de la Suprema y General Inquisición. Pope Sixtus IV subsequently appointed him Inquisitor-General in Aragón, Valencia and Catalonia. Established in 1478 by the Pontiff to examine the genuineness of the conversos, the Catholic tribunal became a byword for a Kafka-esque judicial process whose hapless victims could be tortured to produce confessions, robbed of their property and then publicly burned at the stake.

The Holy Office was intended to meld a religiously homogenous Spain out of a disparate population which had had sizeable Jewish and Muslim minorities until the expulsion of the Jews and Reconquista of Muslim Granada in 1492. It functioned until 1869, and the last execution took place in 1826 when a schoolteacher was hanged as an impenitent deist.

Parallel to these developments in Spain, an Inquisition was established in neighbouring Portugal in 1536, 39 years after the forced conversion of that country’s substantial Jewish community during the reign of King Manoel I. That baptism by compulsion has been described as a “storm of holy water and Latin.” It is indicative of the zeal of the Inquisition there that the fiery execution of heretics, usually staged in a town’s major square on a feast day, is known in English by its Portuguese name auto-da-fé (act of faith) rather than by its Spanish equivalent auto de fe. The Inquisition in Portugal was abolished in 1821. The last public auto-da-fé, and the last one in which a judaizer was burned at the stake, was held in 1765.

The records of the Inquisition in Spain and its colonies generally fell victim to the popular fury at the time of the Holy Office’s abolition. According to one estimate, 31,912 heretics were executed, a further 17,659 burned in effigy, and 291,450 reconciled de vehementi. In Portugal and its dependencies, the records have been preserved. There 1,175 were burned alive, 633 in effigy, and 29,590 were penanced.

Little is known specifically of life in Belmonte under the pall of the Inquisition. But conditions there must have been similar to better-documented and larger locales in Spain and Portugal.

Freed of the commercial and social restrictions under which Jews had lived for centuries, the New Christians or conversos, as they were called, rapidly began climbing the socio-economic ladder. The nobility, contemptuous of the converts, and anxious to preserve its status against commercial competition, seized on limpieza de sangre (blood purity) to exclude the erstwhile Jews. Old Christian families discriminated against those whose lineage was sullied by Jewish or Muslim ancestors.

Inevitably, the descendants of converts continued to intermarry and socialize. This caste prejudice has lasted undiminished in parts of the Iberian peninsula until today. The Chuetas (swine) of Majorca, though sincere Catholics and blankly ignorant of the Judaism of their ancestors, are confined to the same alleyways their forefathers inhabited when it was a judería (ghetto).

The very word “Marranos” — a term of opprobrium of uncertain etymology — indicates the disdain under which the converts lived. But it would be a mistake to describe all the “Marranos” as maintaining fealty to their ancestral faith. Many — if not most — sincerely practised Catholicism, for example Theresa of Avila, the patron saint of Spain, or Diego Lainex, who succeeded St. Ignatius Loyola as head of the Society of Jesus.

Historians now accept that the Inquisition’s terror ironically created the very sectarian heresy it was attempting to extirpate. The Holy Office archives tell of men circumcising themselves in prison, reasoning that if they were to suffer capital punishment they should be martyrs for a cause.

Over the generations, Jewish ritual became blurred and a syncretistic religion developed. The “Marranos” believed God could not be properly worshipped except by stealth. Thus Sabbath candles lit Friday night would be secreted inside a pitcher. Clandestine prayers, virtually all in Portuguese, reflected Judaism’s dogma. Jesus’ messianic status was denied. Esther, the one Biblical figure to hide her true identity, became the Marranos’ patron saint.

But ignorance, assimilation and emigration ultimately doomed the Marrano communities to die out in the larger centres of Spain and Portugal. A Diaspora developed as they rejoined Sephardi Jews in the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, France, Holland, England, Germany and Italy.

In the New World, in 1654, 23 “Marrano” refugees fleeing the Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil when it fell to Portugal landed in New Amsterdam — later to become New York — forming the first Jewish community in North America. Canada’s oldest synagogue, Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Congregation, grew out of this settlement.

As many as 15 million Brazilians — 10 per cent of the country’s population — can lay claim to Jewish ancestry, according to Helio Daniel Cordeiro, a “Marrano” who converted back to Judaism. Other Marranos fled north from Mexico into the wilderness to escape the tentacles of the Inquisition in the Spanish colony. Their descendants continue to live in New Mexico and Arizona.

Sometimes tensions arose as the “Marranos” tried to reintegrate with their Jewish brethren. The philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community in 1656 for heresy when he claimed that the Bible was authored by man.

The remarkable survival of the “Marrano” community of Belmonte came to the world’s attention in 1917. Samuel Schwartz, a Polish-Jewish mining engineer based in Lisbon, was prospecting in the region. One of Belmonte’s inhabitants, desirous of obtaining his patronage, warned him pointedly against having anything to do with one of his competitors. “It is enough for me to tell you,” he said, “that the man is a judeu” — a Jew.

Schwartz had considerable difficulty gaining the community’s confidence. Judaism remained banned in Portugal until 1921, and fear of a renewed Inquisition was pervasive. Cut off and inaccessible, the Marranos of Belmonte thought they and a handful of sister communities were the only “Jews” left in the world.

The stranger was unfamiliar with their secret rites and Portuguese-language prayers. In vain did he protest that Hebrew was the universal language of Jewish devotion. They had not heard of the language. At last, one of the community’s matriarchs who was treated with particular deference asked him sceptically to recite some prayer in the tongue for which he claimed such sanctity.

Schwartz recited the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith — “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is one.” (Deut. 6:4) As he pronounced Adonai — the holy euphemism, literally meaning “My Lord,” used by observant Jews in lieu of God’s ineffable four-letter name that gentiles sometimes write as Yahweh or Jehovah — the woman covered her eyes with her hands, an ancient Jewish custom intended to shut out all outside distractions during the recital of this verse.

This solitary Hebrew word, preserved orally through the long centuries of subterfuge and persecution, at last reconnected this remnant of the “Marranos” with the outside Jewish world.

Capt. Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto (1887-1961), a hero of Portugal’s 1910 revolution and World War I, dedicated his life to reviving the “Marrano” communities in Belmonte and elsewhere in Trás-os-Montes. Having converted to Judaism in Tangier, and aided by the Portuguese “Marrano” Committee in London, he built a synagogue in Porto and began publishing a missionary newspaper. But Barros Basto’s plans met with little success in the repressive atmosphere of Salazar’s fascist regime in Portugal. He died, almost blind, a disappointed man.

For most of the descendants of the Jews of Spain and Portugal, the work of the Inquisition in smothering freedom of conscience was irreversible. A bare recollection of Jewish descent, perhaps coupled with a few meaningless and moribund traditions, was the last vestige of their once-proud Sephardi heritage.

Gil Kezwer lives in Toronto, Canada and writes extensively about religious affairs.