Crypto-Jews: What is the history of secret Jews? - explainer

Crypto-Jews are Jews who practice Judaism in secret while professing another religion publically. They are an ancient phenomenon but are largely associated with Sephardi Jews from Spain and Portugal.

 Painting depicts crypto Jews holding a Passover seder in secret. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Painting depicts crypto Jews holding a Passover seder in secret.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Crypto-Jews are Jews that practice Judaism in secret while publically claiming to hold a different religion. 

Crypto-Jews are found throughout Jewish history wherever persecution against the Jewish faith is strong.

However, the term is often meant to refer to Sephardi Jews from Catholic Spain and Portugal, who are also called conversos or marranos. 

However, the phenomenon isn't just limited to Spain and Portugal, with crypto-Jews from the Iberian Peninsula spreading throughout the world, particularly after the expulsion.

What are Sephardi Jews and where do they come from? When did Jews first come to Spain and Portugal?

The early history of Sephardi Jewry is very unclear. At its core, Sephardi Jews are Jews who lived in Spain (the Hebrew name of which has always been Sepharad) and Portugal. 

But as for when and how they got there, that is a subject of considerable debate.

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

Certain traditions place the presence of Jews in Spain and Portugal back thousands of years ago, after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians.

Others suggest Jews wouldn't have arrived in Spain and Portugal until after the Second Punic War when the region, then called Hispania, was taken over by the Romans from the Carthaginians. 

However, traditional Jewish accounts say another wave of migration arrived in Hispania after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Jewish Roman historian Josephus claimed there was a considerable Jewish Diaspora throughout Europe by 90 CE, and the writings in the New Testament imply the presence of Jews in Hispania as well.

What tribe do Sephardi Jews come from?

Before the First Temple's destruction, 10 of the Tribes of Israel became lost, which are known as the 10 Lost Tribes. No one knows what happened to them, though some groups of Jews do claim descent from them, such as Ethiopian Jews claiming descent from the Tribe of Dan and some Indian Jews claiming descent from the Tribe of Menashe.

However, it is agreed by all accounts that Sephardi Jews descend from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi. In other words, the same tribes from which almost all Jews claim descent. 

''Alfonso was certain that whoever read his compositions would never be able to reveal his secrets...'' (credit: POLYGLOT BIBLE/NATIONAL LIBRARY ISRAEL/ALFONSO DE )''Alfonso was certain that whoever read his compositions would never be able to reveal his secrets...'' (credit: POLYGLOT BIBLE/NATIONAL LIBRARY ISRAEL/ALFONSO DE )
Did Spain and Portugal persecute their Jews?

Absolutely. 

Under the Muslim rule of Ibera, which they called Alandalus, Jewish life thrived. This was the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry and was home to celebrated Jewish figures like Maimonedes and Samuel HaNagid. 

However, things would soon come to an end due to the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of the peninsula. This began in the late 1200s and finally concluded in 1492 with the surrender of Granada.

Persecution against Jews was a frequent occurrence in Iberia even beforehand. Back before the Muslim conquest, when Iberia was largely ruled by the Visigoths, there were several instances of persecution, forced conversion and expulsions. crypto-Jews were a known occurrence during these periods to the extent that laws were made specifically to address it.

This continued among the Christian kingdoms in the North but worsened in the 14th century amid rising antisemitism, which saw Jews targeted by more forced conversions, discriminatory laws and even massacres.

As the Muslim rule over Spain ended, so did any protection Spanish Jewry had. The Alhambra decree forcibly expelled the Jews in late 1492, resulting in the Sephardi Jewish Diaspora. Most went to Muslim-ruled lands like Persia (Iran) and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey, Greece, most of the Middle East). Others fled to the Netherlands the New World.

But other Jews stayed in Portugal and Spain as crypto-Jews.

The rise of conversos in Spain and Portugal

With persecution high, many Spanish and Portuguese Jews took to converting to Christianity. These Jews were called New Christians or conversos (meaning converts) and outwardly practiced Christianity, but some continued to practice Judaism in secret.

These secret Jews, also known as crypto-Jews, were themselves something many people in Spain and Portugal feared, where they were often called Judaizers or Marranos (which means swine)

Specifically, there were fears that conversion under threat wasn't sincere and Old Christians also wanted to be distinct from New Christians.

New Christians like conversos were deprived of powerful positions, with Spain and Portugal using a test of Limpieza de Sangue (cleanliness of blood) to make sure one's lineage was pure and Christian.

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was a tool to make root out heretics from Spain and Portugal, like crypto-Jews. It was founded in the late 1400s and lasted until 1834.

Despite popular misconception, while the Inquisition was very thorough and effective, most people investigated weren't executed. In fact, how powerful and effective it was is a matter of debate.

The inquisitors were all educated. Anyone suspected of being Jewish was thoroughly investigated and watched closely. Records were meticulously kept between investigations and studied. However, inquisitors were heavily regulated had little power outside the confines of their position.

Despite that, the fear of the Inquisition was very real. How widespread this was within Spain is debated, but people throughout Europe and the Spanish Empire knew and feared the Inquisition

It was this and preexisting antisemitism and discrimination that made crypto-Jews stay secretive, and crypto-Jewish practice was something few were aware of. 

Where did Spanish and Portuguese crypto-Jews live?

Crypto-Jews lived throughout the Spanish and Portuguese empires - especially since wherever the Spanish and Portuguese went, the Inquisition followed. 

As a result, crypto-Jews were present in Africa, Sicily, India, Mexico, Costa Rica South America and more.

Crypto-Jewish communities even existed in the US, The most well-known being the crypto-Jews of New Mexico. This community is part of the Hispanos of New Mexico, themselves descendants of indigenous peoples and Spanish settlers.

In recognition of their Jewish past, laws were made in Spain and Portugal to grant Jews with proven Sephardi ancestry citizenship.

Many people today are of crypto-Jewish descent. Efforts are also being made to educate more crypto-Jews about their traditions and identity.

What are crypto-Jewish surnames?

Since crypto-Jews tried to stay discreet, it is hard to determine crypto-Jewish descent by name alone

One trend in some last names of crypto-Jews is the use of the -ez suffix, which could mean "son of." But this is also seen among other Sephardi Jews.

Were there non-Sephardi crypto-Jews?

Yes. Wherever Jews lived and were persecuted, there have been crypto-Jews

In the 1600s, many Jews in what is now Turkey and Greece followed the messianic claimant Shabtai Zvi. Many of these Sabbateans would follow Zvi by outwardly converting to Islam but still practicing a form of Judaism in secret. Some of their descendants are still around today known as the Dönme, though they tend to be secretive about their identities and practices.

In the 1700s and 1800s, there were the followers of another messianic claimant, Jacob Frank, a Polish Jew. He and his followers converted to Catholocism but practiced their own form of Judaism. Unlike the Sabbateans, however, there is little to no trace of Frankist practices continuing beyond the 19th century.

A far more recent example can be seen in the 20th century among Jews who lived in the Soviet Union. Due to persecution of religion in general, many Soviet Jews kept their Jewish faith and observance a closely guarded secret.

This came to an end following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many of these Jews are reclaiming their faith and identity.