The Converso History

The Converso phenomenon, while historically not new, is finally coming to the fore. Discussions, research and interest is reaching new levels of prominence. It’s a fascinating subject for a myriad of reasons, including the Jewish-English lexicon referred to as the “Pintele Yid”, albeit an Ashkenazy term, it means the “Jewish Spark”, literally, the Jewish remnant residing in the heart of every Jew.

The Converso phenomenon is rooted in the Inquisitions and pogroms that took place in the Iberian Peninsula (historical Spain and Portugal).  A Converso was (and remains) a Jew that converted to Roman Catholicism in Spain and or Portugal, particularly during the 14th and 15th centuries, or one of their descendants. The majority 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. In order to safe-guard the Old Christian population and make sure that the Converso or “New Christians" were true to their new faith, the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Spain in 1481. Conversos who did not fully or genuinely embrace Catholicism and continued to practice their Jewish faith in secrecy were referred to as “judaizantes" and pejoratively as Marranos ("swine") or in Hebrew Bnai Anusim.

A Converso, Marrano, New Christian, Crypto-Jew: are intermittently applied to the men and women of 15th-17th century Spain and Portugal whose identities lingered somewhere between Jews and Christians.  In most cases, multiple labels can be used to describe the same individuals, because the boundaries between their identities were porous. For both contemporary observers and for modern historians, the label used reveals more about the labeler than about the phenomenon described.

Not to compete with the horror of the Holocaust, but the Inquisitions and forced conversions of a Jews of Sefarad was, in spiritual terms, a Holocaust.

 Early Period

Jews first settled in the Iberian Peninsula, (the region now known as Spain and Portugal) before the arrival of the Phoenicians in about 900 BCE. Jewish merchants settled along the coast of Spain during the time of King Solomon when this region was called Tarsus, or Tarshish. Iberia was referred to as Sefarad by its Jewish inhabitants and Hispania by the Romans from which the name “Spain” was later derived. More Jews immigrated after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. When the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, there were already large well-established Jewish settlements throughout Iberia.

The first recorded persecution of Jews in Spain began about 489 CE when Jews were forbidden to marry non-Jews or to hold public office, and any children already born of inter-marriage were forcibly baptized into the Catholic Church.

From this time forward, the Iberian Jews were periodically subjected to progressively worse persecution until finally from 653 to 672 CE, Jews were beheaded, burned alive, or stoned to death for the crime of relapsing from forced conversion to Catholicism back into Judaism. It was during the period of 489 to 711, under Frankish and Visigothic rule, that Crypto Jews (Secret Jews) first emerged as a large group.

The Moors & Golden Age Period

In 711 CE the Moors of northern Africa conquered the region and there resulted approximately three hundred years of what is known as the “Golden Age of Tolerance,” when the Muslim rulers coexisted with Jews and Christians. Non-Muslim people were allowed great freedom as long as they paid a special tax, to which the Jews gladly agreed. Jewish art, music, medicine, education and religious study flourished, and the Jewish population increased greatly and prospered, many Jews becoming fabulously rich and famous.

During the Golden Age, Spain became the world center for Talmudic Studies, with some of the world’s most famous rabbinical academies. Some of the greatest Jewish scholars lived in Moorish Spain during the years of transition just after the end of this period of time. Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra was born in Tudela, Spain, in 1089. He was a poet, mathematician, grammarian, astronomer, commentator of Torah and philosopher. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as “The Rambam” or “Maimonides,” was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1135, and earned his living as a physician. He is most famous for his codification of Jewish law, entitled Mishne Torah, and for his philosophical work Guide for the Perplexed. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as “The Ramban,” was born in 1194. He, like Maimonides, was a physician and scholar who was the first to incorporate Cabala, or Jewish mysticism, into the Torah teaching, and was a strong proponent of taking possession of the land of Israel. Jews and Crypto Jews flourished in relative peace and plenty, enjoying the Golden Age and the free exchange of ideas, a relatively high level of education for that time in the world, and the benefits from living among Torah and Talmudic scholars. Cities such as Lucena, Granada and Tarragona were populated by Jews magnificently wealthy in culture and material goods.

However, the so-called Golden Age in Spain was also marked by occasional violent upheavals and political turmoil that affected the Jews and Crypto Jews, who were subject to the whims of the frequently changing governments. For example, violence erupted in 1002, when two politically powerful and wealthy Muslims fought to rule Granada; unfortunately the Jews had backed the loser and suffered from Muslim suspicion thereafter. In 1066 a Jewish chief minister of Granada was crucified, followed by the slaughter of more than 1500 Jewish families. The original Moorish dynasty was overpowered by the fanatical Muslim Almoravides in 1086, who were in turn overpowered by the even more fanatical Muslim Almohades from Morocco in 1112. By 1149 the Almohades had overrun the entire peninsula which had become fragmented into about twelve small kingdoms. The lack of centralized control caused constant power struggles among neighboring kingdoms, such that the Almohades were unable to gain a strong hold on the peninsula.

Although the Jews had coexisted relatively peacefully with the Muslims, the Catholics bitterly resented the loss of Christian control of the peninsula since 711 and had perpetuated unrest and uprisings, and by 1212, outright rebellion. The centuries-long “Reconquista,” or reconquest, of the entire region was considered a holy obligation. Unfortunately, to the Christians, the Jews were identified with the death of their Christ and with the Muslim rulers under whom the Jews had enjoyed privilege and power. Also during this period of time, the Black Plague was ravaging Europe, killing as many as one in every four people, but far fewer of the Jewish population. Relatively few Jews died from the Plague perhaps because of better hygiene. Jews washed their hands before eating bread, bathed weekly prior to Shabbat and before holidays, washed their clothing regularly, maintained sanitary households (especially the kitchen and toilet facilities), consumed only fresh and kosher meats from healthy animals, were required to be distant from sewage and other forms of uncleanliness when reading Torah, and buried their dead within twenty four hours. All of these practices in combination with segregated all-Jewish neighborhoods provided some measure of protection from the Plague, albeit not total immunity. The Catholics did not observe such hygienic lifestyles, and seldom washed or bathed. The Catholics hated the Jews for their apparent immunity to the Plague, and widely believed the canard that the Jews were the source of the “Black Death” by poisoning wells.

The Reconquest Period

The Catholics united against the Muslims who were absorbed in fighting one another and slowly took over most of the small kingdoms, one by one. Catholic rule was not kind to the Jews. Widespread pogroms in 1391 resulted in the deaths of fifty thousand Jews, such that, in fear for their lives, tens of thousands converted to Catholicism. These people were called “Conversos” (converts), “New Christians”, and “Maranos” (a derogatory term meaning “pig people.”)  In 1412, the Laws of Catalina were promulgated, which excluded Jews from any economic interchange with Christians.  From this time until the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, Jews were strictly confined to ghettos and had to wear identification badges prominent on the outside of their clothing.  Hard-pressed to survive, many Jews, perhaps as many as 600,000, converted to Christianity by the end of the fifteenth century.  Many of the New Christians were in reality Crypto Jews, outwardly Christians, but tenaciously and secretly practicing Judaism.

The Spanish Edict of Expulsion of 1492 stated that all Jews must leave the country. Those who stayed faced the Inquisition. A small number fled to Italy, Amsterdam, and the Americas, but most went to neighboring Portugal. When the Inquisition came to Portugal in 1496, the Jews were forced to leave, convert, or die. Of those Conversos who opted not to emigrate, many, if not most, were murdered by the “Holy” Inquisition. By 1500, estimates of as few as 40,000 and of more than 200,000 Jews were forced to leave the Iberian Peninsula. Exact numbers are not available because many of the Crypto Jewish family names had been changed after the pogroms of the 1300s in anticipation of future persecution.

The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition continued for three hundred and fifty years. Accurate recorded accounts of the names, numbers, dates and punishments were kept by the officers of the Inquisition, such that today anyone who cares to recount the horrors may read of them. Of those Jews and Crypto Jews who chose to not leave, or could not afford to leave the Iberian Peninsula, many later bought passage or a commission on a sailing ship bound for safer destinations, preferably as far as possible from the nearest Office of the Inquisition.

Some purchased the proper documentation for “temporary” (which frequently became permanent) business trips to Italy or Germany, whereas poorer people fled to the north through the mountains and into France. Entire communities of “Portuguese Christians” were documented in southern France, while others continued northward to Amsterdam, England, Scandinavia, and eastward to the German provinces, Austria, Hungary and Poland. In most of these European destinations, these “Portuguese Christians” eventually revealed their true identity as Jews, and then subsequently blended into the established Jewish populations; thus, we do not find long histories of Crypto Judaism throughout Europe.

New Worlds

Many Jews and Crypto Jews immigrated to the New World, now known as the Americas, or the Western Hemisphere. Their choices were limited to the colonies of Spain and Portugal, so that when the Inquisition came to Peru in 1570, to Mexico in 1571, and to Cartagena in 1610, these same people were forced again to choose to convert or to die. The Inquisition spread throughout what is now the southern United States of America, Mexico, Central and South America, the islands of the Caribbean, and Cuba. No Jew or "Converso" was safe from suspicion, accusation and persecution, thus the numbers of Crypto Jews swelled to encompass almost all people of Jewish descent. The experience of the Crypto Jews in the Western Hemisphere was a litany of suffering, continual fear, social, political, professional, and religious suppression and murder. As late as the 1850s the Inquisition was finally officially ended in Mexico, and elsewhere a little sooner; however, overt discrimination and random incidents of lynching and murder continued until well into the 1950s in what we now call "Latin America".

The final result of approximately one thousand years of persecution and murder of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (minus the three hundred years of the "Golden Age") caused many families who immigrated to the New World to become Crypto Jewish, while living their public lives as Catholics. In the Americas, some of the Crypto Jews reverted to being openly Jewish, only to find a few years later that the Inquisition had followed them to their new homes, and they were forced to go back into hiding again. All of these people, the "Conversos" or "New Christians", were forced to submit to Catholicism, thus in Hebrew they are referred to as the "Anusim" or "those who were forced."

It has been approximately fifteen-hundred years since the emergence of Crypto Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, and five-hundred years since Crypto Judaism moved to the Americas. Today we find a large Crypto Jewish presence throughout the Western Hemisphere. No one knows for sure how many there really are, however in Brazil alone an estimated 10 to 25% of the total population are Crypto Jews, which translates to 15 to 40 million people.