Compare crypto Jews to assimilated cryptic Jews – opinion


The scene is idyllic; As we cruise smoothly along the Douro River in Portugal, we pass through miles of lush green forests and hundreds of quaint country houses and farms that line the riverside. Lush green vineyards appear periodically – a testament to Portugal’s famous wine industry – and majestic mountains in the distance gently dominate the landscape.
It is hard to imagine that this pleasant and pastoral land witnessed what was arguably the most catastrophic Jewish tragedy of the millennium until the Holocaust – the Spanish Inquisition, which perhaps even served as a model to the horrors of the Shoah.

In 1391, violent anti-Jewish pogroms broke out across Spain. Hundreds of Jews were killed and synagogues were set on fire in Seville, Cordoba, Valencia and Barcelona.

There followed the massive conversions of thousands of surviving Jews who were forcibly baptized under threat of death. This created a new category of Jews: the Conversos, or “New Christians.” Ironically, as they abandoned their Judaism, as nominal Christians, these (former) Jews were now free to pursue hitherto prohibited activities in commerce, real estate and even government.

But over time, locals suspected that many new Christians were actually leading a double life: outwardly, they were just as Christian as their neighbors; but within the confines of their homes, many still secretly practiced Jewish laws and customs. And so, in 1478, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella established the Inquisition, to find and pursue Jews who were hiding their true faith.

Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella give audience to a Jew after the decree announcing the expulsion of Spanish Jews, painting by Emilio Sala Frances in 1889 (credit: FLICKR)

The Inquisition would launch a wave of terror against Jews not only in Spain, but also in remote communities under Catholic rule – from Goa to Brazil to Mexico – and would continue for nearly four centuries, characterized by the most brutal inhumanity. and torture known to man. (Up to 20,000 Jews would die and 150,000 would be converted; it is estimated that there are 100 million descendants of Crypto Jews today, including 5% of all Spanish males.)

In 1492, all Jews who had not converted were expelled from Spain; those who had converted became Catholics and therefore submitted to the Inquisition. Thousands of Jews fled to neighboring Portugal, which established its own Inquisition in 1536, designed to seek out and persecute Crypto-Jews. Many were burned alive or beheaded, or summarily executed after the courts of Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra. Yet despite the risk to their lives, some families clung to their Judaism and surreptitiously lighted Shabbat candles, baked matzah on Passover day, and recited Hebrew prayers from memory.

WE VISITED the small town of Belmonte, where we met members of the crypto-Jewish community that has emerged from the shadows after hundreds of years of going underground.

Since the Inquisition, generation after generation, its Jewish traditions have been passed down in muted tones, with members only revealing the truth of their identities to their children when they thought it would be kept a secret.

On the whole, it was the courageous women of the family who kept the faith, for it was only in their domain – the house – where Judaism was practiced.

Today, the small community, known to the world in 1917, has its own synagogue, generously built by an American benefactor, as well as a rabbi and a kosher food store. The community built a museum to recount their struggle and connected with other crypto-Jewish communities in Peru, Monterrey, and New Mexico. It meets on Shabbat and holidays, and is frequently visited by Jews from all over the world, who offer support and encouragement.

His release also led to the shrinking of the community, as many of its members left for Israel to live and study.

Ironically, as historian Dr Henry Abramson has said, “their success contributed to their downfall; by keeping the flame of Judaism alive, they prepared their younger generation to make their aliya in Israel. Belmonte’s fate may be to finally remove the flame from Portugal, but it will shine brightly in the Jewish homeland. “

The visit to Belmonte left a deep impression on me. I felt the presence of so many of my fellow believers over the centuries who had demonstrated the highest level of mesirat nefesh, self-sacrifice, in order to maintain their faith in the most difficult circumstances. At any time, they could have been discovered and murdered, but they firmly refused to abandon their God and give in to the forces of evil. The Church chased them away, their neighbors suspected them, but they clung to their beliefs.

And so I find it enigmatic and disheartening that so many Jews – who have complete and utter freedom to practice their Judaism – have ignored or abandoned it. Around the world, countless Jewish communities are shrinking or disappearing rapidly, as assimilation and intermarriages take their toll.

Has it become too easy to be a Jew? Have we taken Judaism for granted so much that it has lost its appeal and surrendered to the fashions of the day? Do we, God forbid, need the sting of anti-Semitism to get us out of our complacency and remember who we are?

Throughout our travels, we search for evidence of long-abandoned synagogues. We examine the walls of houses in once Jewish neighborhoods, looking for signs of mezuzot that once adorned their exteriors. We see images of once thriving communities and wonder where the descendants of these people have gone.

The souls of Spain and Portugal‘s legendary Jewish presence – who boasted of iconic heroes such as Shmuel Hanagid, Yehuda Halevi, Dona Gracia, Don Isaac Abarbanel and Nahmanides – must surely cry out and implore us to express openly, proudly , actively our glorious tradition, rather than relegating it to a dark basement in the middle of the night.

Rather, let it shine in the light and illuminate the path of generations to come. ??

The writer, director of the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra’anana, organizes tours and cruises to places of Jewish interest around the world; [email protected]


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