Course on the Anusim (‘Marranos’)

Gloria Mound, Senior Adviser to the Intl. Inst. for the Study of Secret Jews (Anusim) at Netanya Academic College (NAC) and Exec. Dir. of Casa Shalom, is giving four lectures in a series entitled “Undercover Jews, how the customs of the Anusim helped them retain a Jewish identity.” The lectures were given in the new Leslie (z”l) and Gloria Mound Library in the NAC. This is an interim summary of her lectures after session 2.

Session 1 was a general session referring to the basic background of the Anusim, identifying Jewish names and specific family customs. The name “Anusim” in Hebrew means “forced” and indeed nearly all the secret Jews (or Marranos) were forced to convert to Catholic Christianity. The edict of expulsion was signed on April 31, 1492 and three months after that date no Jews were allowed to live in Spain. It is estimated that there were ca. 350,000 Jews then living in Spain of which approximately half were expelled and remained as Sephardic (Spanish) Jews who spoke mainly Ladino (a dialect of old Spanish) and spread all around the Mediterranean to N. Africa, Italy, the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, the Holy Land and Holland. Ca. 80,000 Jews also went to Portugal, where most of them were expelled or forcibly converted after the massacre in Lisbon in 1505. The Ladino languasge went with them to places like the Caribbean and S. America and is stll widely used today. It was one of the most important clues to show a family’s Jewish origin.

The other half were forced to convert and were spread around Spain, but were still discriminated against and known as “conversos” or “New Christians.” Those that continued secretly to practise the Jewish religion did so at the risk of their lives, for it was a capital offense to practise Judaism or to “Judaize”, i.e. to say anything positive about Judaism. Further, possession of Hebrew books or manuscripts was a capital offense. Although the Inquisition tried to stamp out all traces of Judaism, and enrich the Church and the State of Spain by murdering former Jews and their descendents and confiscating their wealth, nevertheless they were not completely successful. Many still adhered to family customs that in time had little meaning for them, such as lighting candles in the cellar, or brushing the dirt away from the door (to avoid the mezuzah, that they did not have on their door) or fasting on certain days of the year. But, in some families the reasons for the origins of these customs was remembered and furthermore, in some cases, Jewish families only intermarried with other Jewish families, even over 500 years!

The depredations of the Inquisition caused many “New Christians” to scatter throughout the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world, to such places as the Balearic Islands (Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Formentera), Recife in Brazil, the Caribbean Islands, northern Mexico and New Mexico. In the Iberian Peninsula there were a few places where forcibly converted Jews still managed to practice Judaism such as in the mountainous north of Portugal in Belmonte, where they now openly have a synagogue.

Gloria and her husband Leslie lived for three years In Ibiza and Majorca researching the subject of the secret Jews. One of her most interesting findings was that there are only ca. 15 families in Majorca that have inter-married throughout the centuries. Since they speak Catalan there they call the conversos “Chuetas” and the “old” Christians will still not inter-marry with them for fear of being tainted by their blood. In 1693 a group of “converso” descendents were arrested in Majorca for celebrating a Jewish festival, and three of them were burnt at the Stake. These were among the hundreds who were similarly torutured and executed over a period of hundreds of years. The whole situation is very parallel with the treatment of the Jews under Nazi Germany. In fact, 12,000 Spaniards died in Matthausen concentration camp, and many of them were Anusim.

In session 2, Gloria played some of the songs sung by the Anusim, all of which were devoid of religious content, but can be read as metaphors for God’s love. The specific form of the Romanceros, love songs, is now thought to have largely originated from Jewish sources (see the work of Frank Talmage, British author of the 19th century). It is striking that Anusim and Sephardim throughout the world often know the same songs and poems. In one case Gloria found that the first inkling that a family from Brazil was of Jewish origin was that they knew a certain song. It was only after much coaxing that the grandmothers both admitted their Jewish origins. By tracing their families back for 300 years, Gloria was able to confirm their Jewish identity and the granddaughter was accepted as Jewish by the Israeli Rabbinate and was able to marry and live in Israel.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.