Tales from the crypt: The Jews whose identity was kept secret for centuries

Casa Shalom’s founder explores the customs of Crypto-Jews.

Gloria and the late Leslie Mound attend a bar mitzva in 2002 (photo credit: CASA SHALOM)
Gloria and the late Leslie Mound attend a bar mitzva in 2002
(photo credit: CASA SHALOM)
Many Crypto or secret Jewish communities view the period of Purim as a very solemn time, identifying with Queen Esther, who also hid her condition as a Jew. There are those who observe the Fast of Esther for three days, while others follow a day of fasting with a three-day carnival. In places such as Algiers, Ancona and Avignon an extra Purim-style holiday is celebrated to commemorate periods when their community was saved from a particular danger.
Crypto-Jews, also known as Anusim, Marranos, Chuetas (in Majorca), and Conversos, are those who, since the 1492 Expulsion Edict (and in the majority of cases despite outward conversion to Christianity) have retained a strong attachment to certain Jewish traditions or religious obligations. As the centuries went by without books, rabbis and competent teachers, the Anusim composed their own prayers, maintaining some residue of Jewish practice or semblance of original wording or meaning, and most amazing to me is the similarity of customs still maintained all over the Anusim world.
Wherever you go in the Anusim diaspora you will find that the floor is always swept towards the middle of the floor, not towards the door. Those who know the Jewish origin of this ritual say it is out of respect for the mezuza that was – or would have been – on the door frame; whether it outwardly visible or not, and often hidden under a Catholic icon.
When the Polish engineer Samuel Schwartz visited Portugal in 1917 he was surprised to discover a Jewish community in the small mountaintop village of Belmonte (today at the forefront of known Anusim communities), which in recent times returned to a more Orthodox practice of Judaism.
Schwartz discovered that prayers were said three times a day – led by a woman – in Portuguese, from memory. When the person praying said the Shema and reached the name of God, the other women covered their eyes. Almost everything else Jewish had been forgotten.
Essentially what remained was a belief in the return to Zion and the coming of the Messiah. There was some keeping of dietary laws: They did not eat rabbit, or fish lacking scales. Pork was avoided during the 40 days preceding Passover and Yom Kippur. There was no formal shehita, but a prayer was recited prior to slaughtering an animal, and meat was thoroughly salted and bled before cooking.
In poor areas, such as Belmonte, eating pork was otherwise accepted – as meat was a rare luxury and to turn it down would be to raise suspicions. To make up for this, all meat was forbidden on Shabbat and Holy Days.
On Passover, no matza was eaten until the third day, due to fear of discovery.
Lacking a formal Jewish calendar, Jewish holidays were determined according to the moon. On Passover all who had not abstained from eating pork for 40 days (30 days in the Balearic Islands, such as Ibiza) were barred from the Passover feast. If anyone was discovered eating forbidden foods during the week of Passover, matza was denied to them, as were their conjugal rights. Mostly, the actual service of the Seder was unknown, Schwartz found.
Further up the Portuguese hills in Tras os Montes (Behind the Mountains) in the early years of the last century, when a person was dying, every effort was made not to call the priest until as late as possible. The practice was known of suffocating a dying person who, in delirium, might reveal Jewish customs to a priest. When it was first publicized that in Brazil each group of secret Jews had an appointed suffocator, it was regarded as a unique custom among very few people in outlying areas. Documentation, however, came to light in Jerusalem, showing that at the beginning of the 20th century this practice was still quite prevalent in northern Portugal, and that there had been a guild of Afogadores (suffocators) at the time. Therefore we must conclude that the Crypto-Jewish communities in Brazil took the custom with them from Portugal.
The Chuetas of Palma de Majorca are the descendants of 15 families that stayed behind on the island in 1435 (some 60 years before the Alhambra Decree, expelling all practicing Jews from Spain). When the Jewish Majorcan community was given an ultimatum after a year of heavy famine and harsher- than-ever taxes to either convert to Christianity or be banished from the island, many outwardly converted, but there is much evidence that hidden Judaic practices continued survived. They certainly married only among themselves, because it is clear that no true Catholic priest would marry a Chueta with a non-Chueta. Some fragments of Jewish ritual continued into modern times. Within the Inquisition processos there was much questioning to determine if any form of Jewish rites was practiced by the prisoners.
How to keep Shabbat away from prying and often dangerous eyes was a constant problem for Crypto-Jews.
Friday night candles were lit almost openly in reasonably safe places as far away as Sao Tome y Principe (islands off the coast of Equatorial Africa). On the small island of Formentera in the Spanish Balearics, there was much subterfuge when opening businesses on Shabbat. Customers would find, upon entering a shop on a Saturday morning, that only a child would be in charge, and that waiting around rarely produced anybody more competent to serve them. In other places it has been reported that shopkeepers would tell customers they did not have a particular item in stock, and insist that the merchandise on display was not for sale.
In 1948 a visitor to Ibiza who was observed saying grace after meals was approached and informed that there were Chuetas on the island, for whom a local priest acted as rabbi and that the rite of circumcision was performed in the privacy of a cellar. This group of Chuetas continued to light Shabbat candles but then threw them into the fire – or would light them up a chimney – for fear of being discovered. The chief of police, lawyers, doctors and pharmacist met every Saturday afternoon with the village priest. Much further research has been conducted on the basis of this original information.
Historian Brian Pullan likened Crypto- Jews to a ship with two rudders because they were pulled in opposite directions, often ending up with dual identities.
In Ibiza the crypt of a convent was used as a synagogue, the remains of which can still be seen today. It was in use until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, which drove many Anusim communities even further underground.
The pews even had silver nameplates, inscribed in Hebrew with family names. This situation was possible because those running the convent were also of Anusim stock (Bnei Anusim) and had reason to protect their local Jews.
On the nearby smaller island of Formentera, hidden behind a basement wine store in an isolated guest house was such a room. Entrance was possible through a trap door in the kitchen.
Even today, it is not easy to get those who remember participating in Jewish rituals, or who still maintain some residual practices themselves, to be open with researchers.
As is to be expected in a minority situation, certain customs became mingled with those of other religions. I have found that for example, when baking bread, many Anusim throw a piece of bread dough into the back of the fire, and then recite the prayer “God bless the Jews, Moors and Christians.” In Ibiza, some of those who still follow this custom regard it as a family tradition and are unaware of any Jewish connection.
The style and meaning of prayers, how they were learned and in many cases memorized, teach us a great deal about the lives, history and heritage of the people who uttered them. Our deepest respect is evinced for the tenacity of these Crypto-Jews, even though the people themselves in the later centuries were often not aware of their Jewish links, believing that they were just repeating special family supplications.
It is only by looking for the links to our centuries of Jewish ritual that researchers are able to recognize some ancient familiar thread used within the families. From such experiences, even the most assimilated descendants of secret Jews must realize that such an inheritance, however diluted over the centuries, is the clue to their heritage.
Although the custom of circumcision was frequently too much of a dangerous giveaway for the majority of Anusim, and therefore physically discarded, many would not relinquish the ceremony completely. In many communities a party was held on the eighth day after a child’s birth, even for girls, and the event became known as a hadas or fadas.
(Today in Gibraltar’s Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi communities, fada is the name used for the ceremony of naming a girl child, although it is not celebrated on the eight day, but later.) The late Prof. Haim Beinart mentions that this kind of commemoration was known to the Inquisition and regarded as a punishable offense of judaizing. So great were the denouncements against this practice that by the 16th century on mainland Spain this celebration of a birth was discontinued. Nevertheless, in the Balearic Islands it was maintained right up until the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
Although Anusim marriages were solemnized in church, it was customary for the young couple to visit the graves of their ancestors first, and frequently there was some kind of ceremony at home in front of family or witnesses as required by Jewish law.
My late husband Leslie and I visited Ibiza regularly between 1972 and 2010 (living there almost full-time from 1985 to 1988). We realized that historians over the centuries had erred in thinking that the Jewish history of Palma de Majorca, the main island of the Balearics, also applied to the islands of Minorca, Ibiza and Formentera. However, this was incorrect as each place has its own particular Jewish facets.
Ibiza was the most tolerant of the Balearics, and from the early 17th century, the location of a secret synagogue that was used right up to the outbreak of the Civil War. There was also another secret synagogue under the convent in Ibiza town, as well as other gatherings in private houses, as divulged to me by locals – and it became a haven for many Jews during World War II. 
The writer is founder and executive director of Casa Shalom, the Institute for Marrano (Anusim) Studies, dedicated to researching, lecturing, and providing assistance to the descendants of secret Jews in reclaiming their heritage. Casa Shalom has collected information regarding the secret Jews of Mashad (Iran), Ireland, Sao Tomé, the American Southwest, South America, Cuba and other Caribbean islands, Spain, Portugal and the Balearic Islands. She can be contacted at marrano@inter.net.il