Marranos/Conversos

As I am a rabbi at a synagogue called the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, I guess some people figured I was the ideal destination for Converso descendants, looking to reclaim their Jewish identity. And in doing so they made me aware of an international phenomenon generally lost on the broader Jewish community.

While many Jews are familiar with the popular image of the marrano or crypto Jew, living outwardly as a catholic, but as a Jew in private, most are unaware of what ultimately happened to them. Some eventually found their way out of Spain and Portugal and returned to Judaism (and established communities, like Shearith Israel in New York), but most did not. The majority assimilated into Spanish society, and spread throughout the Spanish and Portuguese empires, including into their territories in the New World.

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Some estimate that several hundred thousand Spanish and Portuguese Jews converted. That means that today millions upon millions of Spanish speakers are actually descendants of Jews. And while, for most, the memory of their original faith has been lost, it is not surprising, that among those millions, there are those that retain an awareness of their ancestry, and are now interested in reconnecting with it.

And so, faced with an influx of Converso inquiries (New York has a huge transplanted Hispanic population), I launched a Facebook support group for this unique demographic, and named it Children of the Inquisition. Through the group, I’ve connected with Conversos around the world, many at different stages of return, from the curious to the full on convert back to Judaism. (I should add that I don’t have any particular agenda other than to act as a useful resource whenever possible.)

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I’ve connected with quite a few Conversos in person, as some now attend my Learners’ Service on Shabbat mornings, while others I’ve met when I’ve traveled to their regions or when they’ve visited New York. When they do so, I always bring them into the magnificent sanctuary of Shearith Israel, and point out that the community was founded by returning Conversos in the 17th and 18th centuries, and look at what they accomplished!

US 3402I wonder whether this ever growing population of dynamic and sincere Converso returnees will once again build significant and vibrant Jewish communities around the world.

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8 responses to “Marranos/Conversos

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  2. I think that it is important to use the legal term “anusim” when referring to those that are halakhically Jews whose mothers converted voluntarily or forcibly, and use the term “zerá’ Israel” for those who are descendants of a Jewish father. Modern historians put the two together in the same group, thus creating a halakhic confusion. According to halakha, the former need no conversion to Judaism, while the latter needs it. The term “converso” in reality should only be applied to those that converted voluntarily or forcibly in the 14th and 15th centuries in Spain and Portugal respectively. In regards to your question whether the anusim or zera Israel will build their own communities, I believe that in the latter case, it has been seen in Colombia. It is virtually impossible for them to build their own communities without education. The Western Sephardic communities that were established around the world had rabbinic leadership from Italy, Morocco, Salonika, Turkey, and elsewhere. If these modern anusim or zera Israel are to build their own communities, they need educated leaders who are sensitive to their needs.

    • Thanks for the feedback. Surely if a family can show that endogamy has been exclusively practiced within their family, then there is basis to confirm halakhic status (perhaps as is the case within Majorca). Sadly, in the overwhelming majority of cases, that cannot be shown anymore. Post inquisition, ‘New Christians’ have generally married with ‘Old Christians.’ Most teshuvot concerning Conversos are from before the early 1800s, and therefore concern a reality of legally imposed racial discrimination which no longer exists. I’ve heard that there are villages here and there in the ‘New World’ where endogamy might still occur, but that certainly requires confirmation. That being said, anyone of Jewish descent is welcome to reconfirm their identity and return to the Jewish community, if they so desire, through a conversion misafek. I know that isn’t what most want to hear, but the reality is that it is the best way to remove all doubt for them and their children, which ultimately is for the best. Of course, if someone wishes to consider themselves Jewish without a formal process, they are welcome to do so. It is a very personal choice. Those that believe that they have an exclusive Jewish line, should supply documentation to a Bet Din to receive a Shetar Berur (a document confirming their Jewish status), so that their children need not go through the process once again. And I imagine that the longer people wait, the more difficult it is to do.
      Ultimately though, you are correct. Anyone returning requires a Jewish community to help in the process of rejudaization. So while independent communities might be hard to create, integrating with other Jewish communities might be a good option.

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  4. Why aren’t more Sephardic Rabbi’s coming forth and attempting to help our people back into the fold. Most of are Ashkenazi Rabbis who are working with the Anusim are not aware of Sephardic traditions. This is a vital component to our people be our people and return to the tradition they originated from.

    • Hi Ana, I guess I can’t really speak for anyone else, though I sympathize with your sentiment. I feel privileged to share the Spanish Portuguese traditions with converso descendants. I often feel that I am helping to preserve their minhag (traditions) for them. It is special to see them begin to adopt the customs, melodies, values and traditions of the congregation, as their ancestors once did!

  5. I think I’m a conversos? My maternal grandmother came from an area of the Philippines where most of the jews from Spain settled because of persection. Also most of the surnames and maiden names from her family are Ladino. So who knows but I would love to learn more about it. The Chabad house in Sydney was no help 😦

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