In this week’s show our guest is David Ramírez, a former Counselor to the Board of Directors for Congregation Ess Hayim – the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Houston. He is an independent researcher on Sephardic history and currently lives in Mexico.
Our topic is the surviving Jewish communities in Latin America which have encountered much the religious persecution, since their massive exodus from Spain. There was a thriving Jewish community in Iberian Peninsula for centuries. The time period we discuss started in the 14th century as Jews were forcibly baptized bringing about the phenomenon where they practiced Judaism underground. The descendants of these Spanish-Portuguese Jews in Latin America have been returning to the greater Jewish community for centuries. However, this process has been a difficult one due to how some groups being more insular than others.
In Jewish law the term “Anusim” is applied to these forced converts, whether of Spain, Portugal, Persia, Hungary, or elsewhere, and to their descendants. Although the original forced converts and their children should be treated as Jews; there has been a tendency by some authorities to reject them.
Many Hispanics whose families are aware of Jewish descent and who wish to be accepted as part of a normative Jewish community face difficulties. Without conversion or formal return, they often find themselves marginalized in the synagogue or temple, unable to marry in the synagogue, or unable to settle permanently in Israel.
David M. Gitlitz in his 1996 book Secrecy and Deceit demonstrates that conversos in Spain, Portugal, and the New Spain continued to uphold the Jewish Law, practices, and traditions held by their forefathers well after and during the inquisitions. They also formed communities, holding services in homes of Old Christians who were sympathetic to Jews, and having their own leaders and prayer books.
Spanish Jewish Religious Philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote in the 12th century the following regarding Anusim:
“How can God not reward a Jew who has been coerced by force of persecution yet secretly performs some commandments? … One who transgresses under duress is not called a sinner, nor wicked, nor is he disqualified…. It is improper to reject those who desanctify the Sabbath or to despise them, rather one should welcome them and encourage them…. Even a voluntary sinner who comes to the synagogue to pray is accepted and is not to be insulted.”
There is a growing number of rabbis that support the reintegration of the Anusim such as Conservative Rabbi David Kunin, Joseph Garcia who was commissioned by the Renewal movement and has found backing from some Conservative rabbis, while others that are friendly toward Anusim such as Cuban American Orthodox rabbi Manny Vinas.
Many scholars have tacked this issue before such as Ben Zion Netanyahu, Norman Roth and Henry Kamen. They view Conversos not as secret Jews, but as sincere Catholics who were falsely accused of practicing Judaism due to their Jewish lineage. On the other hand, Haim Beinart and Yitzhak Baer, show from multiple historical sources that many Crypto-Jews were willing to be martyred to honor Jewish tradition, some where just trying to survive and others were syncretistic in their beliefs.
According to an article by Ashley Perry:
“Almost every Jewish tradition has been kept somewhere by some family of Bnei Anusim. There are amulets that have been passed down from generation to generation that contain the mezuza scroll. There are women who go to a dark room every Friday at dusk to light candles in a bowl of water; the water was so that in case the inquisitors would arrive, they could quickly extinguish the flames. This is done to this very day, and many times without even their closest family ever becoming aware of this ritual, until it is time to explain it to the eldest daughter.” (Kol Nidre and the Bnei Anusim)