The Ghosts of Five Centuries

Ever wonder why the Jews have a persecution complex? Could it be, um, that they’ve been so often persecuted?

I was put in mind of this by the cover story (by Paula Margulies) of the current Jerusalem Report, about the descendants of anusim— Jews who converted during the Spanish Inquisition to save their lives and families. The Jews had perhaps their greatest historical epoch in Muslim Spain, but it ended with the return of Christian rule.

In the mid-1300s systematic massacres began, with rioters murdering thousands of Jews throughout Castile and Aragon. In 1391 alone some fifty thousand were murdered. All the synagogues of Barcelona were destroyed, and eight centuries of Jewish life were ground into dust and blood.

Many survived by converting, and some of those were sincere. But by 1480 Ferdinand and Isabella, of Christopher Columbus fame, commissioned the Inquisition to root out backsliding Jews. They and their descendants, including many devout Christians, were often tortured. Many were burned alive in autos-da-fe—“acts of faith.”

Acts of race would be more like it; Ben-Zion Netanyahu, the history-professor father of Israel’s prime minister, wrote the Inquisition‘s definitive history. He concludes that this persecution was the forerunner of the Third Reich, since it consisted essentially of a refusal to accept conversion. “Blood will out” could have been the Inquisitors’ battle cry.

Part way through this murderous process, the royal pair—the same year they supposedly bankrolled Columbus–expelled Jews who would not convert. “In the first week of July they took the route for quitting their native land, great and small, young and old, on foot or horses, in carts . . . They experienced great trouble and suffered indescribable misfortunes on the road, some falling, others rising, some dying, others being born, some fainting, others being attacked by illness. There was not a Christian but that pitied them and pleaded with them to be baptized. Some from misery were converted, but they were few.”

This from a chronicler known to be no friend to the Jews; he also said rabbis encouraged young people to play on pipes and tambours, to speed their grieving people on the way. Thus a hundred thousand Jews left Spain, with as many or more staying behind as Christians. Of those, true or false, many preserved some Jewish customs.

Those who left stayed Jewish as they circled the Mediterranean. They were embraced by the Sultan of Turkey, who thought Ferdinand and Isabella very foolish for kicking these useful people out. They established themselves in Greece and the Balkans with great success until they met with Hitler’s minions, persecutors even worse than the old Inquisitors. Luckier Sephardim went to Amsterdam, London, and the New World.

Fast forward five centuries—twenty generations. Torture had tutored many in fear, so that even in times and places where it was not very dangerous to be Jewish, Sephardic families customarily held their Haggadahs under the table at Passover seders and taught their children to count the three evening stars that ended the Sabbath without pointing their fingers.

But many Catholics descended from forced converts—b’nei anusim—kept traces of Jewishness. Some families had an antique pair of candlesticks they considered sacred, or declined to eat meat with milk. To this day the Chuetas, a community of silversmiths and their families on the island of Mallorca, have distinctive names and tend to avoid marriage with outsiders. A group of 1500 Catholics in the American Southwest feel and in some sense are partly Jewish; one woman found the words Somos Judios—We are Jews—inscribed in an old family Bible. She prayed for it not to be true, but that prayer was not answered, and she found herself steadily more drawn to Judaism.

Others have similar stories, and The Jerusalem Report’s Margulies collected several. Patience Rojas-Taylor, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, remembers her grandmother saying “We’re Catholic, but we don’t participate.” That lady lit candles and said Psalms on Friday nights, and the family did not eat pork or shellfish, both staples of Puerto Rican cuisine. She managed to trace her ancestry centuries back to forced converts in the Canary Islands; she fell in love with Judaism and she reversed their destiny in a formal Orthodox conversion. Now she is not Patience, but Avigail.

Many people are seeking Sephardic Jewish ancestors on the Internet, in genealogy chat groups, or using DNA. Facebook has a Centro Bnei Anusim group. Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Viñas, the spiritual leader of an Orthodox synagogue in Yonkers and a descendant of anusim himself, said, “The ghosts of 500 years are crying.” Juan Mejia, 32, a rabbinical student in New York, began as a devout Catholic student in Jesuit schools in Bogota. On a visit to Israel he pressed his head to the Western Wall and felt a profound sense of loss, “that an incredible injustice had been perpetrated on my people.”

Both men give counsel and guidance to b’nei anusim who are drawn to Judaism. So does Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B’nei Zion in El Paso; he began holding services in Spanish and has been “inundated with people who are curious.” Mejia asks, “Why can’t we have tacos and empanadas at Kiddush?” Why not, indeed? In today’s Latin America, millions of spiritual seekers have left Catholicism for Evangelical Christianity. Why shouldn’t other seekers become Jewish–especially if their Jewish ancestors were forced to become Catholic against their will?

As Mejia also said, “The story of the anusim is the absolute triumph of conscience. You can control me on the outside, but you can’t control what I eat, what I believe. The idea is so profoundly Jewish, so profoundly human.”

The stories and quotes from Rojas-Taylor, Viñas, Mejia, and Leon are in Paula Margulies’ “Cries Across the Centuries,” the cover story in The Jerusalem Report of October 12, 2009. To subscribe to this biweekly magazine, which I usually read from cover to cover, click here. References for the other material can be found in Chapter 8 of my book Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews.

2 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Five Centuries

  1. What a poignant story about the tragedy of being forced to be other than who you are, and the beauty of personal rediscovery and reinvention!  I can’t help wondering though what it must take to hide or suppress those cultural practices one has grown up with and nurtured one’s entire life — of “denaturing” one’s culture one might say.  Despite the fact that anthropologists “do” culture, I can’t say that anything really leaps to mind that talks very much about this kind of thing, and yet, as you point out, there are plenty of precedents for it — certainly from Jewish history.  I know one can never really grasp the origins of the “survivals” you describe, those ingenious improvisations by which forced converts in the past perpetuated some small trace of what had been transmitted generation to generation previously.  Did they see these practices as a way to ensure continuity, or as resistance?  Did they imagine that they might, like archaeological remains, provide a clue to an entire culture and way of life later on?  Probably not, but that’s what they have become.  The history of persecution entails memory of it.  Jews kept their memory, even when the rest of culture was lost, and memory can be salted away in objects and small practices and familial taboos as well as in narrative.

  2. Dear Clare,

    I can’t say it any better, or as well, as you did in this elegant mini-essay. I don’t understand the mystery of cultural survival, even in these fragmented and desperate forms, but I believe that such understanding will take us very close to the core of what cultural tradition is and means. Some of it I think is very primitive: My mother took out the candlesticks on Friday night, I love my mother, now that she’s gone I miss her terribly, I take out the candlesticks, I hope my daughter does the same. Often, as in my case, after my children were born, the to me "lost" traditions of my childhood come flooding or drifting back. With the anusim, what may have begun as defiance and continued religious commitment perhaps persisted as identification with and love for those who came before. I’m convinced that deep emotions of attachment are at the core of cultural survival.

    Thank you for writing, and for writing so beautifully, about this vital question.

    Mel