As a Latina of Spanish converso descent, I began my initial research about conversos in Rome, Italy in the late 1990s. Conversos were Jews that were forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism. A smaller subset of them who tried to hold on to Jewish traditions in secret were sometimes called Marranos (a derogatory phrase meaning swine) or Crypto-Jews. The increasingly utilized term is “B’nai Anusim” to indicate that one’s ancestors were forced to change their religion. The Church used the term “New Christian” to distinguish Jewish converts from “Old Christian.” These designations persisted for centuries.
Crypto-Judaism refers to a hidden form of religious practice that originated in the Iberian Peninsula, beginning with the forced conversion of tens of thousands of Jews to Catholicism in Spain in the 14th century. The remains of this culture can be found in Latin America, the Southwestern United States, and throughout the world.
To further explore the Sefardic saga, including the ways in which rituals and secrecy were maintained by descendants of Crypto-Jewish families, I reached out to Dr. Isaac Amon, Director of Academic Research & Program Development at the Jewish Heritage Alliance, a global organization – founded by Mr. Michael Steinberger – which is dedicated to promoting the legacy of Sefarad to the world at large.
Dr. Amon’s paternal ancestors originated in 15th century Spain before leaving the Iberian Peninsula for the Ottoman Empire due to the 1492 Edict of Expulsion. His family lived in Istanbul for centuries, serving as physicians to the Ottoman Sultans, diplomats, and Chief Rabbis. His paternal grandfather was Dr. Rene Isaac Amon of Istanbul, a Professor of Engineering at the University of Illinois-Chicago who met Ataturk as a teenager and spoke seven languages, including Ladino. His paternal grandmother was Mrs. Denise Safra Nahmad of Aleppo, who grew up in Beirut, worked at the flagship Marshall Field State Street store in Chicago as a fashionista for 40 years, and spoke five languages. They were married in December 1952 by Rafael David Saban, the-then (Hahambaşı) Chief Rabbi of Turkey at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul. In 1957, along with their young son Erol, they moved to Chicago, eventually becoming founding members of Sephardic Congregation in Evanston, IL. They were instrumental in transmitting their memories, traditions, and customs.
Dr. Amon was the guest speaker at the global debut of the capsule exhibit, “At the Crossroads of Sefarad: In the Footsteps of the Crypto Jews,” which was created by the Tel Aviv based ANU – Museum of the Jewish People (previously Beit Hafutsot), the largest museum of its kind, in partnership with the Jewish Heritage Alliance. It has been on display at Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center in New York since March 24, 2022 and will close on November 15th of this year. It is scheduled to open at the Centre Européen du Judaïsme in Paris on September 20 before traveling to other cities in France. High-profile launch events are also planned in major cities around the USA.
The Capsule Exhibit offers a unique opportunity to distribute and share the story of Sefarad around the world. It will also serve as a launching pad for educational programs in schools, community centers, synagogues, and churches, museums, and other institutions.
To learn more about the legacy of Sefarad, interested individuals are encouraged to see JHA’s three part educational series, “Sefarad: The Untold Story That Changed the World.” Delivered by Dr. Amon, these easy to understand yet comprehensive presentations provide a great overview of Sefardic history while also illuminating the centuries old Crypto-Jewish story, one of the most overlooked yet extraordinary phenomena in world history. This article narrates a brief overview of the story of the Jews of Sefarad with Dr. Isaac Amon.
The origins of the Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula are not known. Is there any evidence of a Jewish presence on the Iberian Peninsula dating from pre-Roman to the Roman period?
Dr Isaac Amon: While origins are unclear, tradition strongly leads us to believe that the first Jews may have arrived in the time of King Solomon, as early as the 10th century BCE. The biblical canon says that Solomon, the builder of the First Temple in Jerusalem, was extremely close with Hiram, the Phoenician King of Tyre (modern day Lebanon), who provided the famed Cedars for the Temple. Under Solomon, the United Monarchy of Israel (which fractured after his death into the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah) engaged in joint maritime expeditions and trading missions with the Phoenician kingdom, as far as Ophir and Tarshish. While these locations are not known with certainty, speculation abounds that the latter was in southern Spain, what the Greeks called Tartessos.
As the Phoenicians were expert mariners, they traversed the breadth of the Mediterranean basin, establishing trading centers and settlements in the Levant, North Africa, and southern Europe, which included parts of Spain and Portugal. In this seafaring enterprise, it is likely that Jewish traders, sailors, and merchants accompanied their Phoenician counterparts and thus came to the Iberian Peninsula as early as 3,000 years ago. Yet, this remains conjecture. The earliest documented and archaeological existence of Jewish communal life does not arise until the time of the Roman Empire, in the first few centuries of the common era. Sefardic communities by then had integrated into the wider society and were successful, prosperous, and well-known throughout the Mediterranean world, as far away as Iraq.
Around 1165, a Spanish Jew known as Benjamin of Tudela visited Jewish communities in the Middle East and Europe, including Rome. He wrote a detailed description of the antiquities of the Eternal City, interpreting many of these as being associated with Jewish history. He also wrote about the Jewish community and their relations with Pope Alexander III. Can you elaborate on this?
Dr. Isaac Amon: Benjamin of Tudela undertook an unrivaled voyage in the mid 12th century, more than a century before the famous Marco Polo. Over the course of a decade or so, during the lifetime of the famous sage, physician, and scholar Maimonides (Rambam), Benjamin visited Jewish communities across Europe and the Middle East, venturing as far east as the Persian Gulf. In fact, this “Jewish Marco Polo” recorded the presence of a small community of Jews in the modern day UAE emirate Ras al-Khaimah. On his voyage, he stopped in Italy, traveling to several cities, including Lucca, Capua, Salerno, Benevento, and Brindisi. He also famously visited Rome, describing the Jewish community there as containing 200 souls, some of whom occupied prominent positions and served as advisers to Pope Alexander III (r. 1159 – 1181). Benjamin claimed that some Temple treasures were present in his day; he wrote that St. John of the Lateran had two bronze columns from the Temple and a cave existed where Titus stored the Temple vessels which he brought from Jerusalem. While this pontiff convened the Third Lateran Council (1179) which stigmatized heretics, canon 26 prohibited Jews from having Christian servants. However, he also reaffirmed the famous papal bull Sicut Judaeis which protected Jews from molestation or forced conversions.
The time in which Benjamin of Tudela lived is quite fascinating. It marked the very end of the Golden Age of Spain, whose zeitgeist was marked by convivencia, or relative tolerance, between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Almohades, a fundamentalist Islamic group from North Africa, conquered southern Spain and compelled Jews and Christians to convert to Islam or leave (which is what Maimonides and his family did). While co-existence between the Abrahamic faiths in Spain continued in some quarters, especially during the reign of King Alfonso X “The Wise,” the Golden Age was but a glimmer. As the Catholics gradually reconquered Spain from Muslims, in a process known as the Reconquista, the situation steadily deteriorated. This Catholic objective culminated in 1492 when the Kingdom of Granada, the final bastion of Islamic rule on the Iberian Peninsula (which began in 711), was surrendered by Boabdil, the last Muslim sultan (a forebear, whose name I bear, was present as his physician) to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.
Ferdinand and Isabella’s “Expulsion Decree” of March 31, 1492, ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Kingdoms of Castille and all its territories and processions. The Decree claimed that the presence of Jews had “resulted in great damage and detriment of our holy Catholic Faith.” In addition, “after much deliberation,” the ruling powers “resolved that all Jews and Jewesses be ordered to leave our kingdoms, and that they never be allowed to return.”
Can you elaborate on the reason for the decree?
Dr. Isaac Amon: The Edict of Expulsion was officially promulgated on March 31, 1492, at the Alhambra in Granada (which is today a UNESCO World Heritage site). Sometimes called the Alhambra Decree, the edict proffered a religious justification for this extreme measure the monarchs took in the same year that Columbus set sail.
Continued presence of professing Jews made it impossible – in the eyes of the monarchs, the Church, and the Inquisition – for conversos or New Christians to fully embrace their newfound faith. Per the terms of the edict, they were being seduced into judaizing, or practicing Judaism in secret. The decision was thus taken to fully separate the Jews from the conversos by expelling the Jews and forever prohibiting their return to the newly unified Spanish kingdom.
While much debate remains as to the primary reason (with various scholars citing religion, economics, and incipient nationalism of “one country, one faith”), the edict certainly did not result from a vacuum. It was inextricably intertwined with the larger converso phenomenon, the Inquisition, and the decisive Catholic reconquest of Islamic Spain.
The edict reverberated across Europe and the ages. 530 years later, it remains searing in Sefardic memory. The Edict of 1492 and the events that followed shall forever form a key part of Sefardic identity.
It seems like the Jews of Spain and later Portugal had become a powerful section of the emerging middle class. Some were intimately connected to the Crown. Because they played an indispensable role, why would the Catholic monarchs want to expel them?
Dr. Isaac Amon: While some Sefardim were well off and intimately connected to the Crown (including doctors, lawyers, and bankers), the majority were artisans and smaller merchants, like in any society.
Some scholars assert this very point as evidence of the monarchs’ religious fervor, in that they were willing to suffer economically by purifying their newly unified Catholic kingdom of Jews, the most conspicuous (and usually only) minority in the lands of Christendom.
However, when Jews departed Spain, their property was confiscated by the Crown, adding to its coffers. As the old adage thus says, Columbus’s voyage in 1492 was made possible not by Isabella’s jewels, but by her Jews. Still, the ultimate decision was not easy. The monarchs appear to have vacillated, perhaps prepared to accept an exorbitant bribe from Jewish leaders, led by Don Isaac Abravanel. The most popular account is that the bribe was thwarted at the last possible moment by Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, whose name conjures the fires of fanaticism forever associated with the auto-da-fé, or the great act of faith.
Regardless of the account’s veracity, Ferdinand and Isabella were determined to rid their country of openly professing Jews. Continued Jewish presence in Spain was no longer possible as it was viewed as providing conversos with the moral support to secretly continue practicing Judaism. Per the last answer, while some scholars believe other motives, such as economics or politics, lay behind the decree, the strength of converso attachment to their former faith and co-religionists – real or imagined – played a key role in this decision. Through conversion and expulsion, the monarchs achieved this aim.
After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, what happened?
Dr. Isaac Amon: In the months preceding the deadline to depart Spain, three Jewish leaders petitioned Ferdinand and Isabella to rescind the Edict. They were Isaac Abravanel, Abraham Seneor, and his son-in law Meir Melammed. The first left for Italy, where he completed his biblical commentaries (predicting that the Crypto-Jews would return to the Jewish people at the End of Days) and the other two converted under duress, thus mirroring the overall trend. While the estimate of Spanish Exiles ranges widely – from tens to hundreds of thousands – the general consensus is that half left to remain openly Jewish whilst the other half converted to Catholicism to stay.
The expulsion from Spain was not unique in the annals of history. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 (to be readmitted 350 years later under Oliver Cromwell); France in 1306 and 1394; and from various cities and principalities of the Holy Roman Empire in the 12th and 13th centuries. Yet, the scope of 1492 was unprecedented. From the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. until the Holocaust in our living memory, the 1492 Edict of Expulsion was the greatest catastrophe to befall world Jewry. Though separated by centuries, many Sefardic communities tragically suffered the twin ravages of this historically unparalleled expulsion and genocide.
In a matter of 120 days or four months, tens to hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to depart the Spanish Jerusalem – their ancestral homeland of 1,500 years. Forced to sell landed property for very little, and prohibited from leaving with gold, silver, or precious stones, they could take little to nothing with them. With a stroke of a pen, the Tree of Sefarad was irrevocably shattered into branches. A civilization was torn asunder, and more than five centuries later, this rupture endures.
The Sefardim who left the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 principally went to three places; North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy. The North African Sefardim went to North Africa, principally Morocco; the Eastern Sefardim arrived in the eastern Mediterranean and Ottoman Empire, settling in Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna (Izmir), and Thessaloniki (Salonika). Some found refuge in Damascus and Aleppo or the Land of Israel, whilst others went to the Balkans, such as Monastir (Bitola), Skopje, and Belgrade. A smaller minority went to Italy (alongside Don Isaac Abravanel), either staying there, or using it as a waystation to cities farther east in the Dar al-Islam.
The Sefardim who stayed on the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 were the Western Sefardim who crossed from Spain into Portugal before they (along with Portuguese Jews) were forcibly converted by the Kingdom of Portugal in 1497, a mere five years later. Over the following centuries, tens of thousands left and reverted to Judaism, establishing Spanish & Portuguese synagogues and communities in Europe, such as Amsterdam and London, and throughout the New World, including New Amsterdam (the future New York) in 1654. The last branch is the B’nai Anusim, descendants of converted Jews – who unable or unwilling to revert in Judaism in previous centuries - are discovering (and in some cases returning to) their Jewish roots.
The 1492 Edict of Expulsion produced a second great exodus, further scattering Jews to the ends of the earth. Wherever they went, they encountered pre-existing Jewish communities. Yet, they brought their own language, music, customs, and religious liturgy with them. This mélange indelibly changed the course of world and Jewish history.
While these respective Sefardic communities were influenced by cultural and geographical factors over centuries, a common nucleus remained. These experiences cumulatively shape the saga of Sefarad.
The Inquisition was an institution created by the Roman Catholic Church. The word originally meant an inquiry or investigation. When did the Inquisition end and which countries did it spread to?
Dr. Isaac Amon: The inquisition was originally created in the early 13th century to police Catholic doctrine. Dissenting Christian sects, notably the Cathars existed in southwestern France. The Church labeled them as “heretical” and ordered a crusade to extirpate them. Thousands were put to the sword or burnt at the stake. The cry “slaughter them all, God will know his own” dates from this time. In its aftermath, the papal inquisition was initiated by Pope Gregory IX. Tasked with the objective of inquiring into the religiously nuanced beliefs and actions of the region’s residents, the Dominican and Franciscan orders visited villages and towns in this quest, as vividly depicted in Mark Gregory Pegg’s work The Corruption of Angels.
The Roman Inquisition was established in 1542 in the wake of the Protestant Reformation to monitor Protestants, though Crypto-Jews were also investigated. Most infamously, under Pope Paul IV in the mid-1500s, 24 crypto-Jews were burnt at the stake in Ancona, Italy.
The Iberian Inquisitions were the Spanish Inquisition, created in 1478, and the Portuguese Inquisition, created in 1536. They differed greatly from both their medieval predecessor and Roman counterpart. First, the Iberian ones were not under the control of the pope, of their own monarchs. Second, their focus was different. For both Spain and Portugal, at least in their early decades, the greatest perceived threat was crypto-Judaism, as inquisitorial records bear out. For example, even in 1530, 50 years after it had been established, 90 percent of suspects before the Valencia Tribunal were still of Jewish origin.
Third, the geographical and temporal scope of inquisitorial surveillance and persecution in Spain, Portugal, and their overseas colonies was unprecedented. The jurisdiction of the Iberian tribunals encompassed oceans and continents around the globe. Indeed, the scope was truly stunning, even from a 21st century perspective. From the Philippines to Mexico, India to Angola, and Mozambique to Brazil, the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions had a presence. Accordingly, crypto-Jews had comparably few places of safety.
Although shorn of much of their power by the late 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, the Spanish & Portuguese Inquisitions were not formally abolished until the 1820s and 1830s. Purity of blood laws (limpieze de sangre), created in 1449 to distinguish between Old and New Christians, ensured divisions would endure for generations. These laws lasted in Portugal until 1773 and Spain until 1870. On the island of Majorca, descendants of conversos (often called xuetas) suffered widespread societal discrimination well into the 20th century.
This obsession with Crypto-Judaism was compulsive and endured for nearly three and a half centuries on five continents. We don’t know the real number, but the best estimate is that 200,000 people around the world stood trial before the Spanish & Portuguese Inquisitions over the course of their extremely long and active lifetimes. And, while around several thousand people were executed, the true impact upon scores of generations around the globe cannot be overstated. As long as the human story endures, the Inquisition’s ghost shall live on.
There is a secret Mexican diary about the life a young Crypto Jew in the New World, who recorded his torture by the Inquisition. Refusing to renounce his Jewish beliefs, he gave his life. What is his story in a nutshell and why is it important in Jewish history?
Dr. Isaac Amon: In the aftermath of the late 15th and early 16th century Spanish & Portuguese explorers came the flags and trappings of European conquest and exploitation of many indigenous populations. Crypto-Jews fled to these overseas colonies as they sought to evade inquisitorial persecution. Beginning with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, they arrived in the New World. Indeed, his interpreter Luis de Torres was a Crypto-Jew, who explicitly recorded in his journal that he, along with other crew members, was escaping the Inquisition. Over following decades and centuries, tens of thousands came to Brazil, the Caribbean, and Mexico, including the southwestern United States. Unwilling to let heresy spread, the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal established tribunals in Mexico City; Lima (Peru); Cartagena (Colombia); Brazil (which extradited suspects to Portugal); and Goa in India (which oversaw Portuguese possessions in Africa and Asia).
Against such a background, the Carvajal family, under Luis de Carvajal the Elder as the newly appointed Governor of the province of Nuevo León, centered on the city of Monterrey in colonial Mexico, part of New Spain. The governor invited his family to cross the Atlantic and join him in this new land, which they did. A sizable part of his family, led by his nephew Luis de Carvajal the Younger (El Mozo) secretly observed Jewish traditions and customs.
Denounced, El Mozo was reconciled to the Church but continued to practice Jewish rituals in secret, even writing a diary under the name Joseph Lumbroso (likening himself to the biblical Joseph, who concealed his Jewish identity as Viceroy of Egypt). The diary provides a portrait of life in colonial Mexico, and lists his core beliefs, citing the Ten Commandments and even Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith. Denounced again, El Mozo, his sisters, and mother were all burnt at the stake in Mexico City in December 1596. His diary is preserved in the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City.
Other individuals who secretly practiced Jewish rituals and were burnt alive at the stake include Tomás Treviño de Sobremonte in Mexico City; the physician Francisco Maldonado da Silva in Lima (whose dying words were “this [burning] is the doing of the God of Israel, so that I may look upon him face to face;” and Isaac de Castro Tartas in Lisbon, who died proclaiming the shema, like Rabbi Akiba in the 2nd century CE. These compelling stories inspire us to learn more about their lives, showcase the remarkable human willpower to live one’s life (and death) on one’s own terms, and showcase the tenacity of Crypto-Jewish adherence to their ancestral faith and traditions.
The religion of Crypto-Jews was generally marked by much prayer in Spanish and Portuguese-but not Hebrew. Why?
Dr. Isaac Amon: Since time immemorial, the phenomenon of Crypto-Judaism, or practicing Jewish rituals and traditions in secret, has existed, most recently by Jews in the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany who had to disguise their identities to leave and to live. However, it is most prominently associated with Sephardic history.
According to the late Professor David Gitlitz, a maestro in the field of Crypto-Judaic studies (and a personal mentor), their religion was predominantly marked by three methods – concealing, dissembling, and misdirecting. From birth and circumcision to death and mourning, major life ceremonies were greatly impacted. Yet, across time and space, five core principles of faith appear to have been retained: 1) unity of Deity; 2) Law of Moses was intact; 3) belief had to be accompanied by observance of commandments; 4) Judaism was the preferred religion; and 5) the Messiah has yet to come.
It must be remembered that following the Expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the forced conversions in Portugal in 1497, the situation had drastically changed on the Iberian Peninsula. As the Crown and Inquisition had hoped, rabbis or synagogues were no more; prayer books and religious items were absent; schools and mikvehs were gone. As such, in the endeavor to preserve the faith in the face of these herculean obstacles, Judaism changed. The People of the Book became People of Memory. Certain prayers were retained, especially those committed to memory which could persist by oral transmission for decades to centuries. However, over time, usage of Hebrew (inevitably) waned, as knowledge of the language, let alone prayers in it, could constitute evidence the individual was not a true Catholic.
The one place where Hebrew was technically permitted to be studied was the Church, but even there it could produce undesirable consequences. For example, in the late 16th century, Fray Luis de León at the University of Salamanca (a converso of Jewish descent) translated the Song of Songs from Hebrew into Spanish. He was imprisoned for four years. In subsequent generations, Hebrew (certainly for prayers) was rarely remembered and never said aloud.
Most historians agree that Crypto-Judaism was sustained by the courage of its women. How did they preserve the traditions?
Dr. Isaac Amon: In the absence of communal institutions, crypto-Judaism shifted to emphasizing domestic rituals, with a reliance upon memory and oral transmission. As customary guardians of the domicile, women became the primary spiritual leaders. Her public role was expanded, more than in traditional normative Judaism.
Inquisitors were cognizant of this and thus exercised their greatest focus upon them. Despite the threat of being burnt at the stake, they continued to transmit the rituals, knowledge, and faith to succeeding generations. Forced to preserve through memory, the easiest yet most noticeable observances were the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws.
Not surprisingly, inquisitorial records often list accusations in these two areas: cleaning on Fridays, lighting candles on Friday nights; wearing clean linen or clothes; and cooking or preparing food in a certain way. Women also often fasted, especially on the holidays of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and the Fast of Esther, which precedes Purim. Identifying themselves with the heroine Queen Esther, who was compelled to also conceal her Jewish identity, they felt their suffering had meaning and would help save Judaism. In Portugal, Crypto-Judaism proved to be remarkably resilient. It went around the world on ships, foot, and horseback, inspired by women. Jewish communities re-emerged in parts of Europe after massacres, forced conversions, and expulsions. It changed the course of history.
One of the most courageous Crypto-Jewish leaders was Doña Gracia Nasí, who built an international trading empire. Commanding an international banking house, she moved around Europe, creating escape networks for Crypto-Jews, before ultimately finding refuge in the Ottoman Empire, where she became a patron of synagogues and schools, scholars, and the needy. She even acquired a long-term lease to the city of Tiberias in the land of Israel, encouraging a return to Zion. She was so renowned by her contemporaries that she became known quite simply as La Señora, or the woman who defied kings.
What is the legacy of crypto-Jesws in particular? Sefarad in general?
Dr. Isaac Amon: At the crossroads, the ongoing legacy of Sefarad spans religious, cultural, and political divides, and is part of Jewish and world history. It has influenced so many aspects of the modern world, as well as different civilizations in history. Genetic studies show that 1 in 4 Latinos are descended from the Jews of Spain and Portugal; this comes out to 200 million people, who are connected to Sefarad. Their growing awareness of this past and reclamation of their identity is particularly appropriate for the times in which we live.
The story of Sefarad is a roadmap for the 21st century yet bonds us with the past, as part of the Jewish and human story. As Salvador Espriu wrote in La Pell de Brau (The Bull’s Hide): “…when someone asks us…[t]his is surely not the best of the lands you came upon in the long trial of your Exile”— with a small smile that remembers our fathers and our grandfathers, we only say: “In our dreams, yes, it is.”
Jewish Heritage Alliance is dedicated to promoting this story to the world at large and preserving this remarkable story for posterity.
Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you.