Jews forcibly converted in Spanish, Portuguese Inquisition are coming back

Yaffah Batya daCosta: Fear instilled by the Inquisition has left a painful legacy of isolation and fear.

 Children of the Inquisition documentary (photo credit: screenshot)
Children of the Inquisition documentary
(photo credit: screenshot)

A new program is looking to educate people about a secret that has been kept for hundreds of years: Jews who were forcibly converted in the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition who kept their faith privately. 

Some of them forgot the source of these traditions and their Jewish identity, and are just now rediscovering this aspect of their family history. 

Legacy of isolation and fear

Yaffah Batya daCosta founded Ezra L’Anousim (literally "Help to the Forcibly Converted") as an organization to provide education and aid for “crypto-Jews,” or Bnei Anousim in Hebrew, who are descendants of Sephardic Jews and who were forcibly converted in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisitions in the 14th and 15th Centuries. 

Though most people learned about the edict of expulsion in Spain in 1492, few understand the modern-day implications of the persecutions. 

A committee appointed by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry reported in 2017 that there are approximately 60 million people around the world with an unrecognized affinity to Judaism or Israel due to this history. The committee recommended reaching out to these communities and introducing them to content related to Israel and Judaism.

Ezra L'Anousim is doing that. In addition, the organization has taken on the daunting task of educating the general public about this historical injustice. 

DaCosta founded the organization in 2015 after she discovered her own Jewish roots. 

Raised in Massachusetts, her maternal ancestors were Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. Many inexplicable customs were passed down, leading daCosta to investigate. 

After being told about the Portuguese Jews while visiting Israel, some of the customs, such as scrupulously removing any traces of blood from meat, led her to research if her own family were descendants of the Anousim. One clue led to another, and daCosta began to inquire from her relatives. She was surprised to discover that the men in the family knew of their Jewish heritage. 

A cousin informed her that their great-grandmother was secretly Jewish. Thus began her journey of return which culminated in an official ceremony of return to Judaism and Aliyah to Israel. 

“When we first started running our programs, we were surprised to discover that most people in the Jewish world don’t know about the  history of the crypto-Jews or that there are still people out there who don’t know this about themselves,” daCosta said. “Even fewer non-Jews know about this.”

From speaking to other Bnei Anousim, da Costa discovered that the fear instilled by the Inquisition had left a painful legacy of isolation and fear.

“Even the people who are descended from Anousim don’t know this about themselves because of the fear that was drilled into them because of  the Inquisition,” daCosta said. “Parents were afraid so they certainly wouldn’t tell their children, usually waiting until they were older. 

“In my case, we had private Jewish customs that were unique to our family,” she continued. “We were not taught to keep these customs a secret, there was just no one to talk to about them. We didn’t know any Jewish people so we couldn’t ask, and we were taught not to trust other people.”

Many of the people who kept a covert connection to their Jewish roots through cryptic family traditions are just now beginning tentative steps to re-establish their spiritual and genealogical identity.

Inquisition Awareness Day

Ezra L'Anousim runs an "Inquisition Awareness Day" program that can be held anywhere in the world and is based around the two-hour documentary Children of the Inquisition, which follows individuals as they learn about their families’ often tortuous journeys from the 14th Century to the present.

Children of the Inquisition Trailer 2019 from Lovett Productions on Vimeo.

The screening can be followed by a panel discussion and the program can be tailored to the specific needs of the target community. The event can be held virtually with online dialogues and discussions.

The return of the Bnei Anousim is a recent global phenomenon. 

Since 2015, Spanish and Portuguese governments have offered citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled from their countries centuries ago. In fact, in 2016, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, received Spanish nationality under Spain's law of return for descendants of Sephardi Jews.

An Israeli company, Portugalis, is one example of a company helping Jews of Sephardic background obtain Portuguese citizenship, with all the accompanying rights and privileges. 

Those spearheading efforts to find and reconnect these lost Jews have said that the resurgence of a Bnei Anousim movement is an unprecedented event in human history in which a nation is reunited and a long-lost branch revived.

The history of the Jews in Spain and Portugal is particularly painful. 

Over half of Spain's Jews had converted as a result of the religious persecution and pogroms which occurred in 1391. It is estimated that when the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, approximately one-fifth of the Spanish population, between 300,000 and 800,000 people, were Jews. The Alhambra Decree ordered the expulsion of all the Jews. The vast majority of Jews converted with many of them keeping their Jewish identity in secret. 

The Inquisition continued in Latin America. Though the Inquisition in Mexico was officially abolished in 1820, there is a record of an auto de fé there as late as 1850.

It wasn’t until 1968 that Spain officially revoked that Alhambra Decree following the Second Vatican Council. 

This spiritual awakening was prophesied to be part of the “End of Days” by the Prophet Obadiah, some believe:

And that exiled force of Israelites [shall have] what belongs to the Phoenicians as far as Zarephath, while the Jerusalemite exile community of Sepharad (Spain) shall have the towns of the Negev (Obadiah 1:20).

Organizations and individuals can arrange to host an "Inquisition Awareness Day" program by contacting Ezra L’Anousim on their website. Any proceeds will go to help the descendants of Anousim.