by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer
There are Jews in the Diaspora (the Jewish population outside Israel) that have remained virtually hidden for over 500 years, some secretly preserving their Jewish traditions through the generations, and some having never known their roots were Jewish. Now, these Sephardic Jews are emerging from the shadows and into the light.
Jewish history recounts that there have been Jews in Spain since the time of King Solomon. Many Jews fled to present-day Spain and Portugal after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Through the centuries, they built Spain into a powerful empire, leading the world in commerce, medicine, seafaring, scholarship and literature.
That idyllic period came to an abrupt end in the late 14th century when Spanish Jewry was targeted by the Catholic Church, who feared the Jewish community was becoming too powerful—an all-too-familiar story for the Jewish people in the Diaspora. One hundred years later in 1492, all Spanish Jews were given the order to get out of Spain within three months. The Alhambra Decree demanded that they either convert to Catholicism, be exiled or be condemned to death without a trial. Many decided to convert, while others fled.
The Jews who converted were called Crypto–Jews (underground or hidden Jews), Conversos (Ladino for both willing and unwilling converts) or Anusim (Hebrew for forced converts). Another word was also applied to these Jews: Marranos, which means swine.
Many who converted were Christians by day, but, under the cover of darkness, they continued to celebrate their Jewish heritage and religion. The Anusim were forced to eliminate all signs of their faith, such as the mezuzah (Scripture box) on their doorpost and replace it with a cross. Many kept a small mezuzah in their pocket, touching it with one hand while kissing its former place on the doorpost—a small act of homage to their faith, but extremely dangerous if they were ever caught.
The Church suspected that these “new” Christians were not wholehearted and started to monitor them around the clock. Men, women and children went to the stake for crimes such as lighting candles on Friday night or fasting on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
There is a valley just inside the Portuguese border with Spain called the “Valley of the Jewish.” During that fateful period over 525 years ago, between 50,000–80,000 Spanish Jews fled to this valley. It offered sanctuary in a very dark time. Spanish Jewry began their lives again in Portugal, built homes, towns and established new businesses.
Their sense of security was short lived. In 1497, Portugal began its own forced conversions of Jews, and like Spain, they were baptized into the Catholic Church—en masse and almost overnight. Within one century in the Iberian Peninsula, almost 250,000 Jews had been forcibly converted. Those who could flee went to Holland, North Africa, Germany, Italy, the Middle East and the Americas.
For Anusim in the 15th century, keeping the Sabbath meant certain death. However, in the 21st century, with the freedom to exercise their faith, keeping the Sabbath represents life itself. Many Bnei Anusim (children of the Anusim) yearn to return to Israel, the land of their forefathers, but entry into Israel has often been barred to Sephardic Jews who converted to Catholicism, even though their ancestors were coerced into conversion. Family research and cultural history combined with DNA tests are required to convince the Israeli government that they belong.
Research indicates that there may be between 100–200 million descendants of the Anusim. DNA has determined that 1 in 20 Spanish males and 1 in 15 American Hispanics are descendants of these Sephardic Jews. Many do not even realize that they are Jewish unless their families preserved Jewish traditions throughout the centuries. They kept their Jewish identities hidden in order to survive, but stories abound from people who remember their grandmothers lighting candles on Friday night, scrubbing pots on Passover or continuing traditions that to their grandchildren didn’t make any sense in a Catholic household. Many of these present-day Bnei Anusim who have discovered their Jewish heritage are studying the faith and language of Israel in order to qualify to make aliyah (immigration to Israel).
The Hebrew name for the Iberian Peninsula is Sepharad. God prophesied through Obadiah that the exiles in Iberia (and by extension all the places where the Sephardic Jews fled) will return to Israel and settle in the Negev. “The exiles of this host of the people of Israel shall possess the land of the Canaanites as far as Zarephath, and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad shall possess the cities of the Negev” (Obad. 1:20, ESV, emphasis added). This prophecy is yet to be fulfilled, but a number of Israeli organizations are focused on facilitating the process.
Shavei Israel, headed by president Michael Freund, is helping the Bnei Anusim return to their Jewish roots and to the land of their forefathers. He explains: “Their ancestors, through no fault of their own, were abducted from us…Nonetheless, they managed to preserve their sense of Jewish identity down through the centuries, often at great risk to themselves and their families. We, the Jewish people, have a responsibility toward them. We need to embrace them and facilitate their return to the Jewish people.”
Emissaries from Shavei Israel in Spain, Portugal and Brazil represent a support network undergirding those Jews who wish to reconnect with their heritage.
With possibly tens of millions of “hidden” Sephardic Jews wanting to return to their homeland, many times more than the current total world Jewish population, aliyah could take on a staggering new dimension for Israel. Watch and marvel, for the fulfillment of Obadiah’s prophecy may be just beyond the horizon.
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