Special Issue on Crypto-Judaism

By C, Schulamith | Shofar, October 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Special Issue on Crypto-Judaism


C, Schulamith, Shofar


Special Issue on Crypto-Judaism

It is impossible to comprehend the full Jewish experience in Iberia without a historical background that includes the antiquity of the community, the role it played throughout Spain's history, and its cultural contributions during the Golden Age. The destruction of the Sephardic community, the earlier forced conversions under the Almohads, the increasing persecutions during the Reconquista, and most important, the forced conversion in Portugal of half the exiles of Spain alongside all of Portugal's Jewry, are integral to an understanding of the survival of Iberian crypto-Judaism until the close of the millennium.

Although the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 is generally taught in Jewish schools, the context and magnitude of the catastrophe are never fully transmitted. The scene of untold thousands of Jews, many exiled just a few years earlier from Spain -- after having paid ransom for a promise of religious freedom, many having had their children kidnapped by the Church, arriving at the shores of Lisbon to leave for yet another unknown destination and finding no boat to embark -- no way out of forced Christianity -- is not engraved in our collective memory and its consequences are therefore hard to evaluate. The experience is taught as a single event that befell a particular, "other" diaspora, rather than as a fundamental trauma of our people and the destruction of the pinnacle of Jewish culture.

Though surviving Jewish heritage or a sense of Jewish identity is still present among countless descendants of the Iberian tragedy the world over, and despite the fact that there have been sporadic reports in the media since the early 1800s, popular awareness of contemporary crypro-Judaism is limited primarily to Belmonte, Portugal and to New Mexico, and its significance underrated. The literature available in English remains scant and much of it anecdotal or amateur. Were this chapter of Jewish history not absent from our memory, it might have come as less of a surprise that assimilation under the Inquisition was not total. In fact, the Jews of the Iberian peninsula preserved many vestiges of their identity for centuries. Many descendents of the forced converts now seek a fuller truth and wish to make a conscious choice about their future. As recently as fifty years ago, it was possible to live in relative isolation from the world, rear a family or a community sheltered from others. Many places, even in the U.S., were not accessible by paved roads; expanded families stayed together. Today, the world has been revolutionized with the advent of mass communication and super-transportation. At this unique bridge of time, communication within families is diminishing, sometimes because grandchildren no longer have a language in common with their grandparents, other times because they no longer live in the same region, nor have they the same respect for elders. On the other hand, exposure to the world at large provides a new context in which individuals must evaluate the nature of the system of beliefs and practices inculcated in them in childhood, and compare it against the norms of others. The resources available via the Internet make it possible to learn in private and inquire in anonymity from afar.

This issue of Shofar deals with crypto-Judaism, especially its contemporary manifestations, a field still in its burgeoning stage. It was not long ago that skepticism outweighed emerging evidence as to a continued survival of a Jewish heritage among descendents of the anusim, the persons forcibly converted in the course of the Christianization of the Iberian peninsula. By now this phenomenon finds itself increasingly represented in major conferences where work in progress is shared. But the field is nascent and is unfolding with difficulty. Additional scholarly work is required to properly understand this subculture, its prevalence among New-Christians both during the Inquisition and after its abolishment in the early nineteenth century, the nature of crypro-Jewish religiosity and identity, attitudes of anusim towards the dominant religion, which Jewish customs have been preserved and why, the manner of transmission, and the art and literature of anusim. …

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