A Jew or a Christian?

Abraham Righetto was a converso from Iberia who had to figure out where it was safe for a descendent of converted Jews to go.

A Jew or a Christian? (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Jew or a Christian?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When conversos from Iberia opted to leave their homeland, they were faced with many decisions. Where was it safe for a descendant of converted Jews to go? Where was it economically wise to relocate? Was it preferable to remain a Catholic or to attempt to adapt to a Jewish lifestyle? Abraham Righetto was one of these individuals, but in his case, he preferred to leave all his options open. We learn about his unusual life from trials conducted by the Inquisition of the Republic of Venice, as well as in Portugal. Both Brian Pullan (The Historical Journal, 1977) and Pier Cesar Ioly Zorattini (The Mediterranean and the Jews, 1989) wrote articles analyzing each trial in detail.
It is not easy to reconstruct Righetto’s life, as the details recorded by each inquisitorial court differ. In 1570 Venice, the defendant claimed that he was an Italian Jew born in Ferrara, whose father was a Portuguese Jew who had died in Venice and whose mother was living in the Levant. However, just two years later in Lisbon, numerous witnesses attested to the fact that he was born in Portugal in 1531 to New Christian parents who most likely had been forcibly converted in 1497, along with all the Jews in Portugal. His baptismal records were not located, and the assumption was that he had been baptized in infancy.
In a second version, his family moved to Antwerp where he was circumcised in 1536. Antwerp was under Spanish control, any Judaizing New Christian in this city had to observe in secret. The family seemed to have remained there until 1547, when his father was arrested and then released.
Venice was their next destination, but their stay was cut short in 1550 by a partial expulsion of conversos that included them.
Righetto moved about Italy. In Ferrera, he was known as Abraham Benvenisti; one witness claimed they had a synagogue in their home. Meanwhile, other witnesses claimed that he was a Christian in Antwerp, and a Jew in Venice and Padua. In one trial, Abraham explained that although he was Jewish, he had been inside churches and had fraternized with Christians, eating, drinking and gambling with them. He was a man with extravagant tastes who enjoyed cavorting with members of high society, gambling was one of his pastimes, as was frequenting Christian courts.
Pullan interprets his actions as an adolescent rebellion; for example, after attending Christian festivals in Mantua, he was beaten by his father. He also stole money from his own family to enable him to visit European courts, including that of Lisbon! He seems to have made three trips to Iberia; suggested motives for these ventures include frivolity, extravagant taste, exacting debts and encouraging New Christians to emigrate.
This unpredictable figure was seen at mass, eating pork, lodging with Christians and having an affair with a Christian woman. He was also seen in Venice wearing the yellow hat required for Jews, as well as donning the black hat denoting Christians. During a trip to the Ottoman Empire, he was arrested as a potential enemy because of a war raging with Venice. He was also imprisoned twice in Venice, escaping the first time during the celebration of the city’s victory in Lepanto. He was returned after being located in Ferrara, but escaped to Constantinople in 1573. While there, he hoped to clear his name but was arrested again in 1576 in Christian Europe and tried in Lisbon.
Why did he return to Portugal? Nostalgia? Perhaps he hoped to frequent the courts again. Meanwhile, his name had come to the attention of the Inquisition, because a request had been sent there from Venice four years earlier. During the course of his trial there, he provided the Holy Tribunal with a confession containing lists of co-religionists. Names of Iberian conversos now living as Jews in Bordeaux, Ancona, Florence, Turin and Ferrara confirmed the sense that there was indeed a converso network of émigrés.
The defendant was sentenced to be condemned as an apostate, but on the basis of penitence and health issues, the court progressively lightened his sentence as of 1582.
Abraham Benvenisti alias Righetto eventually moved to Castile, Spain, to live out the remainder of his days as a faithful Catholic; his mother and siblings had chosen to join Iberian communities in Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Each had made his or her choice, but Righetto was the most unpredictable of them all.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and the academic editor of the journal Nashim. Her most recent publication, An Ode to Salonika, was just awarded a Canadian Jewish Book Award.