Modern Day Anusim and Joseph the Tzaddik

In this week’s parsha Joseph’s brothers come into Egypt looking for food and appear before their own brother Joseph whom they do not recognize. They mistook him for an Egyptian and he did not reveal himself to them at first. The whole incident began when his brothers sold him into slavery and assumed him lost. They could never imagine that he would be found in Egypt so many years later and even more unlikely as a Viceroy to Pharaoh. In next week’s parsha he reveals himself and tells them that it was obvious to him that God had wanted it that way so that he could place the resources of Egypt at their disposal.

The Anusim are the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Jews from Spain and Portugal who were converted against their will to Catholicism during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions 1300’s – 1700’s. They suffered greatly at the hands of our enemies for centuries not only because of the stigma of having Jewish blood but also because the enemy knew that they secretly held onto some of their Jewish past. They were called “marranos” literally pigs and were forced quite often to marry only others that had the same past due to this stigma. Even more tragically, many of their brothers did not recognize them, believing like Joseph’s brothers that they had lost them forever.

The descendants of these Jews who were forced to convert sought refuge all over Latin America and have maintained many of the customs passed down secretly from generation to generation in their families. Today millions of people in Latin America may be descended from these individuals and a great number of them seek to be recognized as Jews and that a path be created for their return to full-fledged Judaism. The Anusim today are in a similar position to Joseph. They functioned for five hundred years in the gentile society (just like Joseph in Egypt) hiding their true identity but knowing full well inside who they really were. They anxiously dreamed of the day when they would be reunited with their brothers and perhaps even using their contacts to help them. Having lived among non-Jews they dreamed of somehow making sense of all of this by using it to help their brothers and return to Judaism with their heads held high. There is a beautiful ladino Passover song to the “Who knows one” song which begins each section with the words “Elohenu shebashamayim Dio mos lleve a yerushalayim con la cara para grande.” May God who is in heaven, take us to Jerusalem with our heads held high.”

Many of the Anusim have a great number of Jose(s) and Esthers in their families. This is because both of these biblical characters were Jews who had to hide their identities but in the end their suffering was somehow vindicated by using their connections to uplift and save their people.

I have spent much of my career as a Rabbi reaching out to these individuals. I have met a great number of them. I have visited their homes. I have seen their gathering places throughout Latin America. I have met their elderly parents and grandparents and each of these encounters has brought me to tears of pain and joy seeing that so many of them have the fire of Judaism still burning bright in their hearts. My own personal history is similar to theirs. My family practiced many of these same rituals which we later identified as Jewish rituals. These rituals include the practice of lighting candles in hiding, not eating on certain days of the year near Yom Kippur and calculating these dates by the lunar calendar. I recently saw a calendar being maintained this way on her own by an elderly woman in Dominican Republic which marked the date of Yom Kippur very closely to ours. On a weekly basis I am approached by individuals from all over Latin America who are clamoring for recognition as Jews, asking for help acquiring books and prayer materials and Torah instruction, so they can return to full fledged authentic Judaism.

Many of these very same individuals now meet as groups in homes or public places because there are no synagogues in their area or more commonly because the synagogues will not welcome them. I have sought out the leaders of these organizations, Rabbis and synagogue Presidents, and have asked why they won’t allow them to attend or participate? Their response is that they simply cannot believe that it’s true what they are saying. Some who do welcome these individuals treat them as if they were gentiles seeking conversion and proceed to reject them at least three times. Others have politely asked how it could be that if they are Jewish that they are racial different than the rest of us. Others (too many of them) ask this question rudely.

I explain that it is a historical fact that Jews were not always white. I tell them of the Mishnah in Negaiim (Chapter 2 Mishna 1) which asserts that Jews are not white like the “Germanim” or black like the “kushim” but are brown “intermediate like the color of boxwood.” I also explain that Spanish Jews were most likely to marry African’s or natives in the Americas rather than marrying their white enemies they found greater kinship with these people who welcomed them and gave them sanctuary because they had a common oppressor. Others simply reject them because they are afraid that there are so many that the synagogues will become overwhelmed by them. There has been very little done to welcome the modern crypto-Jews to Jewish life and much has been done to reject them outright or slow their immersion. Meanwhile the Anusim continue to seek Judaism on their own. Genealogical records and even DNA studies. Recently a major scientific finding confirmed that 20% of Spain and Portugal’s citizens today have Jewish ancestry. The Anusim continue to emerge all over the world in unstoppable numbers regardless of our lack of outreach to them or our rejection. It is as if a mystical shofar was blown and only they had heard its call.

Unfortunately, the reason for the existence of the Anusim lies buried in the history of the Inquisition which is often ignored by historians including Jewish historians. It plays a key role in the explorations and settlements of the Americas and is key to understanding the history of the entire Western Hemisphere but it is ignored and hidden with the hidden Jews. I often wonder if this will also occur with holocaust memory 500 years from now. The Anusim speak to us about our history but alas we have forgotten it ourselves.

When they speak to me I usually tell them three things; first of all “you are not alone there are thousands if not millions of people like you all over the world seeking Judaism seeking the ways of their ancestors”, secondly “I believe you. Your testimony of survival against all odds does not bring us shame rather it brings great pride that the Jewish spirit always survives”, and thirdly, “we want you back.” Please study, please practice please formalize your return to us and marry and have children within our community so that we can grow and prosper together.

Helping the Anusim return to Judaism is a great mitzvah. It is the classical “pidyon shvuyim” redemption of the captives which our Rabbis wrote was so important that any law could be violated in pursuance of. But it could also accomplish great things for us. (1) If 20% of the citizens of Spain and Portugal returned to Judaism this would be an increase in the Jewish population by 11 million (2) It could reinvigorate Jewish life worldwide by testifying that the Jewish sprit is unstoppable. Young Jews could experience an emotional and vibrant Jewish culture that could reengage them in Jewish life. (3) If the conservatively estimated number of 3-4 million people in the Americas of Jewish ancestry returned to Judaism our numbers would vastly be reinforced in nations where a Jewish presence is so important. Muslims are today making a great outreach to potential converts all over Latin America mass converting an entire tribe in Venezuela called the Wayuu Indians. They do this because they know that these regions are rich in natural and human resources and of course are also in play politically on the theater of world opinion. (4) Our outreach to the Anusim is a testimony to others that we are not racist. That we are a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual and vibrant people. That what unites us is not race but creed – that is a belief in the Torah and its teachings. (5) Even if we were unsuccessful at returning the descendants of the Anusim to full Jewish life, we would make a large number of friends all over the world who would identify as historically Jewish and therefore would be supportive of Israel and world Jewry in general.

It is time to allow them to reveal themselves, and for us their brothers to actively welcome them home. The plight of Joseph and his brothers still speaks to us today, begging us to do the right thing irrespective of all of the good reasons given before. That we help them return to us and reveal themselves to us and that we embrace them because it’s the right thing to do to answer the call of the pangs of the soul and the hearts of our brothers. What an awesome reunion it would be on a global scale if we could recreate the union of Joseph and his brothers. I am proud of our shul community for being part of this great mission to repair the world.