Friday, June 24, 2011

The Worldwide Awakening of the Descendents of the Secret Jews (Anusim) II

Here I will describe the lectures at the Conference. But, before that another word of clarification. There are several categories of people that were being discussed. Those who openly remained Jews and were expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1536 became what we know as Sephardi Jews from the Hebrew word for Spain, namely Sepharad. In places where they settled, such as the Balkans, where they were partially protected, they continued to speak Ladino, a language based on medieval Spanish, until the Germans decimated their communities in WWII. The Sephardi Jews were not the subject of this Conference.

The Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity and were known as "new Christians" or "conversos" were the subject of the Conference. But, among these were at least three groups, those who secretly remained Jews and continued acting as Jews, those who sincerely became Christians and gave up all Jewish activity, and those who were somewhere in between. But, note that all former Jews were the subject of the Inquisition, and since it worked from anonymous tips, being a sincere Christian did not prevent a converso from being arrested, tortured and executed by the Inquisition (or actually the States of Spain and Portugal). The descendents of these "secret Jews" also fall into the same three categories, those who have after 500 years a distinct recollection of being of Jewish origin and who maintain some Jewish customs, those who merely know of their Jewish origin, but are not interested in pursuing it, and those who do not wish to be reminded of their Jewish origin. By some estimates 20% of the current Spanish population are descended from Jews. In the peripheral areas of Spanish and Portuguese settlement, where these secret Jews escaped over the centuries to evade the Inquisition (that continued into the19th century), from the Balearic Islands and northern Portugal, to North and South America and the far flung islands of former colonies, the percentage of inhabitants of Jewish origin can be far higher.

Prof. Sergio Della Pergola (of Italian Jewish origin) Professor of Diaspora Studies, Hebrew University, and world-renowned expert on Jewish demographics, showed data on estimates of where the Jews who fled Spain went and of Jewish descendents still living in Spain and their localities. Of course, this now amounts to millions of people, but most of them are Spanish Catholics without any idea of their origins. Of the small proportion that retained Jewish identity, only a fraction of these will admit to being of Jewish origin.

Prof Nicholas Round, Fellow of the British Academy, Emeritus Professor of Sheffield University and former Professor of Hispanic Studies, Glasgow University, spoke about "Why Marrano Studies ought to matter to Hispanists." He reminded us that the persecution of Jews started long before the expulsion, and mentioned the nation-wide massacres in 1391 and the massacre in Toledo in 1449. Despite the convivencia, the period of peaceful co-existence that lasted only for perhaps 100 years, there were three realities that co-existed in Spain, the Jewish Sepharad, the Muslim Andalucia and the Christian Hispania. Hispanists have for too long ignored these concurrent realities. One role of the Inquisition was to also wipe out the existence and memory of Sepharad and Andalucia in the Spanish State.

Gloria Mound, Executive Director of Casa Shalom and Hon. Research Fellow at Glasgow University, spoke about her introduction to the subject as a result of a vacation to Ibiza in the 1970s, that led to her discovery and documentation of a large Crypto-Jewish group there. This led to a life-long dedication to the subject and the founding of Casa Shalom after her move to Israel. Among her other findings was the organization of "Los Ileneos," a semi-covert group of people descended from Jewish conversos who fled from Spain to the Canary Islands and from there spread all over the Americas. Their center was New Orleans, where there are ca. 12,000 of them, and they have contacts throughout Brazil, Mexico, New Mexico and north to Quebec.

Dr. Tzvika Shaik, DIrector of the Donna Gracia Museum in Tiberias, spoke about Donna Gracia as a trailblazing leader, both as a former secret Jew and a female. She married a converso lawyer, named Mendez, who made a lot of money from the discovery that before refrigeration, black pepper could keep meat fresh. He established a Bank, that at one time was the second richest Bank in the world. When he died she inherited his fortune and set off on a series of journeys, from Lisbon to Antwerp, Lyon, Venice, Ferrara and Istanbul in 1554 and finally settled near Tiberias, now Israel. During her journey she returned to Judaism and had direct contacts with many Kings and Suleiman the Sultan of Turkey, who on at least one occasion saved her life.

Prof. Yitzhak Kerem, Hebrew University and Aristotle University, Salonika, spoke about the Donme, the descendents of Shabbatai Zevi, also called Sabbateans. Although Zevi, under Turkish persecution converted to Islam, his followers secretly retained a messianic form of Judaism, with Zevi as a Christ-like figure. They continued to speak Ladino and initially used Hebrew in their liturgy, although later this became mixed. There were three main sects of Donme in Turkey and the Balkans. Some eminent leaders, such as Kemal Attatutk was part Donme, but now many of them have assimilated.

There were two lectures on the existence of secret Jewish groups in Central America and the Caribbean. Libny Venura, a PhD student at Haifa University, spoke about the "Crypto-Jews of Honduras," where he is from. He himself was from a secret Jewish family and has now converted back to Judaism (in a Reform ceremony). He has investigated the extended Lara family, who are descended from secret Jewish immigrants, and who developed the production of Indigo that was exported back to Spain. Mordechai Arbel, former Israeli Ambassador to the Caribbean spoke about his experiences meeting secret Jews there, including Presidents and leading citizens of many of the former Spanish colonies. Most of these settlements derived from the original Dutch Jewish settlers of Curacao. There was also a surviving secret Jewish population in Jamaica. Many of these Caribbean and Central American Jewish descendents had Portuguese names since they derived from secret Jews who moved from Portugal to Holland (a former colony of Spain) and then to the Americas. They adopted Portuguese names to hide their former Jewish identity, but often kept them as a second identitiy.

The final speaker was Prof. Renee Levine Melammed, of Brandeis University, Boston, and Schecheter Inst. of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem. She spoke about gender in the Spanish Inquisition. By analysing the detailed records of the Inquisition she found that females often made up the bulk of its victims. This is because once the Synagogues were destroyed and open "Judaizing" was punishable by death, the main repository of Jewish practice was the home. The Inquisitors apparently thought that they could gain more information by interrogating women. Many confessed to remaining Jewish secretly and were burnt at the stake. Others doggedly fought the Inquisition over many years, proclaiming their innocence and adherence to Christianity, but it is very difficult to infer whether these women were sincere. She noted that the numbers of people actually executed were a small proportion of the people the Inquisition investigated and there seemed to be no difference between how men and women were treated in the extent and use of torture.

I have tried very briefly to summarize the salient points of the presentations. These summaries do not do the lecturers justice and I apologize for this. Altogether this was a unique and historic event. Many people expressed their gratitude to Gloria Mound for her achievements in this area, and the Conference itself was followed by the dedication of the impressive "Leslie (z"l) and Gloria Mound Library" of the "Institute for the Study of Secret Jews (Anusim)" at Netanya College.


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