We must deny victory to the Inquisition

Stan Klein

Five years ago we observed the 500th anniversary of the edict in Spain that Jews leave, convert, or die. This year we observe the 500th anniversary of a "convert or die" edict against the Jews of Portugal, many of whom -- up to 300,000 by some estimates -- were refugees from Spain.

But this is not a story of ancient history. Many people think the "anousim" -- from a Hebrew word meaning "forced ones" -- disappeared into the mists of history. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a story of the here and now.

For me, the story begins a few years ago with a presentation at a BJC Shabbat Brunch by a representative of Kulanu (which means "all of us"), an organization devoted to finding lost Jewish communities. Today, I find myself in regular communication on the Internet with other Kulanu members, including researchers into the phenomenon of "Crypto-Judaism". Because, you see, the Judaism of the anousim did not disappear. It went underground and has stayed there, weakened but alive, for hundreds of years.

The Inquisition was not a short-lived event 500 years ago. The persecutions and pressured or forced conversions started almost 800 years ago. In North America, it was Mexican independence in 1821 that freed the last prisoner jailed by the Inquisition for practicing Judaism. Religious freedom in Spain itself was not finally decreed until 1966.

Today we are witnessing what may be a great awakening. Trying to escape the Inquisition, the anousim went to places like Brazil, the Azores, Central America, and Mexico. The former Mexican province of Nuevo Leon -- which included the present states of California, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, was founded by anousim. Their leader died in an Inquisition jail for failing to denounce his relatives, one of whom was later burned at the stake for practicing Judaism. In these and other places, people are beginning to realize that there may be a deeper meaning to those family sayings and practices that have been carefully and secretly handed down from generation to generation.

These sayings and practices are many and varied. Some families have only a few, others several. In some families the fact of their Jewish heritage is secretly passed down; in others only the saying or practice remains, without the knowledge of its source. Some of the practices are familiar to mainstream Judiasm. For example, these include fasting on a date approximating Yom Kippur, refraining from bread for a week at about the time of Passover, avoidance of blood in eggs, and covering mirrors in a house of bereavement. Others -- such as saving fingernail and hair clippings for burial or burning, and scalding meat after salting it to remove the blood -- are traceable by researchers to obscure rabbinic rulings not observed today by most Jews.

Rejoining mainstream Judiasm is not easy for the anousim. After hundreds of years, the fear of discovery and retribution remains great and the social pressures and fear of rejection remain strong. We must approach the anousim with understanding and compassion. The solemn Kol Nidre prayer we recite on Yom Kippur had its origins in their pain. We who are devoted to denying the Nazis a victory must not allow the Inquisition to get away with one either.