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Hidden legacy of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula

Hidden legacy of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula

The study of Crypto-Judaism refers to a hidden form of religious practice that originated in Spain with the forced conversion of Jews to Catholicism beginning in the fourteenth century. A substantial presence of this culture can be found in Latin America and in the Southwestern part of the United States. In this interview, Michael Steinberger reflects on the mission of his research, to capture, and promote the story of Sefarad on a global scale.

What is your background and how did you get involved in a lesser-known area in Jewish history?

My professional background is in tourism which indirectly led me to discover the story of Sefarad, the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, today’s Spain, and Portugal. Upon discovering the story of Sefarad I realized that it was a monumental, far-reaching segment of Jewish and world history… with profound consequences. Simultaneously I also realized that for all its significance and relevance, the story of Sefarad is missing in action and lacking the attention it deserves.

The story of Sefarad is a complex, extensive far-reaching segment of Jewish and world history. Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula was transformative producing seismic events and effects that helped shape the world we live in. This was a period I call “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (an old movie title). It was a period filled with oppression, persecutions, and mass massacres of Jews. During these massacres thousands of Jews were killed, thousands fled, and thousands were forcibly converted thus creating the Converso and Crypto-Jewish phenomenon.

What is the Golden Age period?

The situation improved in 711 when the Moors (Muslims from North Africa) conquered Southern Spain, the region we call Andalucía (Al-Andalus). The Moors being Semites were more tolerant and accepting of the Jews and collaborated with the Jewish population ushering in the Golden Age when Jews coexisted with the Moors and were allowed to practice their religion openly. This was a period of enlightenment when Jewish intellectual and spiritual life flourished and many Jews served in high-ranking important positions. Jewish economic expansion was unparalleled. Jews were involved in translating Arabic texts to the romance languages, as well as translating Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jews also contributed to botany, geography, medicine, mathematics, poetry, and philosophy producing a number of well-known Jewish physicians and philosophers such as the Maimonides. Jews lived peacefully in Al-Andalus what is believed to be approximately 350 years after which the good times for Jewry in Muslim Spain starts to decline and eventually ends when the Christian kingdoms reconquer Southern Spain bringing back periods of persecution, pogroms and forced conversions.

What does it mean to be a “converso”?

The Converso phenomenon is rooted in the pogroms and Inquisitions that took place in the Iberian Peninsula (historical Spain and Portugal). A Converso was a Jew that converted to Roman Catholicism in Spain and or Portugal, particularly during the 14th and 15th centuries, or one of their descendants. Many of Spain's Jews converted to Christianity as a result of the program in 1391. Those who remained openly practicing Jews were expelled by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in the Alhambra Decree of 1492, following the Christian re-conquest of Spain. Many of the remaining practicing Jews chose to join the already large Converso Community rather than face exile.

The term most commonly known in textbooks is Crypto-Judaism or Marrano. Can you define the differences?

Converso, Marrano, New Christian, Crypto-Jew: these titles, amongst others, are intermittently applied to the men and women of 15th-17th century Spain and Portugal whose identities lingered somewhere between Jew and Christian. They are describing Jews that were converted to Christianity.

Marrano is often interchangeable with Crypto-Jews refers to those who converted but tried to hold on to their Jewish traditions in secret. The origin and meaning of the word “marrano” is subject to interpretation and debate but nowadays is considered derogatory meaning “pig” or “swine” in Spanish. New Christians is what the church called the converted Jews to distinguish them from the “old Christians”. Converso tends to be the catch-all phrase for all the above. It is important to note that when discussing conversos or crypto-Jews… we are speaking of their descendants. A more current term is “Bnei Anusim" which in Hebrew means descendants of the coerced.

When did the Sephardic diaspora officially begin?

We are often asked: “When did the Jews first arrive in the Iberian Peninsula?” The answer is that we really don’t know. By some accounts Jews arrived as early as biblical times (there are references to Spain in the book of Obadiah and other biblical references). The earliest archaeological proof dates to the 4th Century. Jewish life in Spain ends abruptly in 1492 when the Jews are told to leave or convert. This expulsion sets the stage for what has become today’s diaspora. The Jews being highly literate amid an illiterate medieval world contributed everywhere they settled and helped transform the new world.

What is the present-day situation of the descendants of Sefarad?

Sefardim, also spelled Sephardim initially fled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire including the Balkans, and many eventually settled in France, Holland, England, Italy and Amsterdam. Some of the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain went to Portugal, but in 1497 that country effectively converted all remaining Jews. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries several Converso families migrated to the Netherlands, France and eventually Italy, from where they joined other expeditions to the Americas. Others migrated to England or France and accompanied their colonists as traders and merchants. By the late 16th century, fully functioning Jewish communities were founded in the Portuguese colony of Brazil and several Dutch islands of the Caribbean. As the Inquisition followed them to the Americas, the Crypto-Jews kept migrating making their way to Mexico and southern United States.

Many of the Crypto-Jewish descendants continued to live under the cloak of secrecy as they have for hundreds of years. Most continue to live as committed Catholics and many continued to practice the hidden Sefaradic traditions they inherited.

The Sefarad legacy lives today in both the Sephardic Jewish communities and the Converso communities. But the glaring difference is that there are only 16 million Jews in the world today… and there are at least 200 million plus Conversos. Many are discovering their Jewish heritage, and some are returning to their Jewish roots.

What would you like to communicate from this interview?

For all its importance and relevance the story of Sefarad and its profound effects received scant attention on the global stage and that is why I created Jewish Heritage Alliance (JHA). Our mission is to research, capture, and promote the story of Sefarad on a global scale.

Can you tell me more about the Alliance?

To accomplish this ambitious mission, I created a strategic alliance, partnering with various organizations, institutions, and individuals with an interest in the story of Sefarad. The Alliance allows us to expand our reach and broaden our scope, creating a voice and impact of the collective.

Why is the Alliance important?

One important example is our partnership is with the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, Israel. Beit Hatfutsot is a highly respected global institution focused on telling the story of the Jewish people. Working together with the Portuguese government and the tourist offices of Porto in Northern Portugal and others we created a capsule exhibit called At the Crossroads of Sefarad. In the Footsteps of the Crypto-Jews. The mobility of the exhibit allows us to promote the story of Sefarad on a global scale and is one of the many ways we plan to promote the story of Sefarad. Due to Covid-19 we are going to offer an online version of the exhibit.

How are you now communicating your mission during the pandemic?

During the current pandemic JHA continued to grow gathering like-minded organizations under its umbrella having recently welcomed Madrid-based David Hatchwell and his group Fundación Hispano-Judía; Avraham Groll and JewishGen and several other important allies, widening its coalition societies and organizations around the world in pursuit of the story of Sefarad.

On the home front, JHA embraced the digital world hosting several successful Zoom talks, the current and necessary platform that reaches audiences worldwide. JHA also introduced a series of online series of short, powerful presentations featuring an impressive array of speakers. These include Genie Milgrom, Lorenzo Trujillo, Rabbi Gilberto Ventura of Brazil, filmmaker Joe Lovett (Lovett Films and Stories), Rabbi Peter Tarlow of Texas and Nathan Benamoz from Hope Network. Clearly an organization on the move, JHA is fulfilling its mission.

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