In the early Middle Ages, Spanish Jewry was one of the oldest and most successful Diaspora Jewish communities. But from 1391 onwards, a series of terrible disturbances and great tribulations befell the Jews of Iberia, resulting in unprecedented waves of expulsion, persecution and forced conversions. These tragic events culminated in 1492, when the remaining Jews were formally expelled by Spanish monarchs. Many of those who had been compelled to convert to Catholicism – known by the Hebrew term Bnei Anousim – remained behind, where they nonetheless continued to preserve their Jewish identity and to practice Jewish tradition covertly, away from the prying eyes of the Inquisition and its enforcers. One of the most famous examples was the converted Jews from Palma de Mallorca know even today by the name “chuetas” (pig).
In 1497, the Portuguese king presented the Jews living in his realm with a dastardly choice: convert or die. Some chose death, but most of Portuguese Jewry were dragged to the baptismal font and compelled to accept Catholicism against their will. But many of these “New Christians” did their utmost to remain loyal to their Jewish roots, passing down the faith and practices of their ancestors across the generations. And while many were made to pay a heavy price by the Inquisition for their continued fidelity to Judaism, many others somehow succeeded in preserving their Jewish identity. Perhaps the most famous example was the community of Belmonte, in northern Portugal, where some 150 Bnai Anousim were formally restored to the Jewish people two decades ago by a rabbinical court sent from Israel.
When the doors to the New World swung open in the 16th and 17th centuries, the new continent came to play an important role for the Bnei Anousim. Seeking to distance themselves from Iberia, where the hand of the Inquisition was heaviest, the Bnei Anousim actively participated in the colonization and development of this new place. The New World offered the possibility of a new life, and the hope of one day returning to the faith of their ancestors.
But the long arm of the Inquisition reached across the Atlantic, and continued to pursue the Bnei Anousim, hunting down those accused of secretly practicing Judaism and remaining faithful to the laws of Moses. Even the heartless cruelty and ruthless efficiency of the Inquisitors could not extinguish the flame of Judaism, and countless numbers of families, well into the thousands, continued to preserve Jewish rituals and traditions. This flame is still very much alive today, and in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica and El Salvador, the descendants of the Bnei Anousim in Latin America are once again clamoring to rejoin their people, the nation of Israel.
Italian Jewry has its roots in history from the time of the Maccabees, with an unbroken links for over two thousand years. In southern Italy, Jewish people were present even before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., living in unparalleled serenity and prosperity. For almost eight centuries Jews lived in Sicily until, on January 12 1493, the infamous edict of expulsion of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile also struck the Sicilian communities who were forced to choose between two terrible alternatives: exile or baptism. Many Sicilian Jews chose exile; the lucky ones went to Greece or Turkey where they founded new communities, others went to Rome and still others to the kingdom of Naples, where they were helped by Don Itzhak Abravanel, who was also a refugee from Spain. The king of Naples in 1540 also expelled all the local Jewish population from his kingdom and once again the Italian Jews were forced to choose: exile or baptism. Those who remained in Sicily and southern Italy chose the path of “criptogiudaismo”, keeping their Jewishness secret and passing the torch of their real identity to new generations even at the risk of their very lives. The terrible prisons of the Steri Palace in Palermo are a universal symbol of this tragedy. Today descendants of these ‘crypto Jews’ remain in Palermo, Catania, Apulia and Naples. We should merit to find and to help many descendants of these Italian Bnei Anusim to return to their roots and their heritage.
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Shavei Israel organizes an annual program for Bnei Anousim, during which they tour Israel for 8 days, coming face to face with their religious tradition and heritage. In additions to the trips, which are based upon religious and historical foundations, the Bnei Anousim participate in daily lectures that touch upon the history of the Jewish people, the situation in the Middle East but especially upon the Halachah and Jewish tradition. The tour helps the participants strengthen their identity and to meet anew their lost heritage and provide them with an unforgettable experience.
This is the fifth year that Shavei Israel is organizing annual seminars on the Iberian Peninsula. Their objective is to provide a framework for all who wish to find themselves again and get back their Jewish heritage which their ancestors kept despite the danger to their very lives. During these programs, Shavei Israel’s leaders, Chairman Michael Freund and Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum and Bnei Anousim lecture, talking about their personal stories and exciting lives. The seminars were held in Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, Belmonte and in Porto.
The aim of these emissaries is to be a contact for members of the community, as well as those on the outside of the community framework, who are interested in investigating their connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. The emissaries offer an opportunity for the Bnei Anusim to experience the cycle of Jewish life in a community enviroment. In Spain we have, Rabbi Nissen Ben Avraham (who is himself a Bnei Anusim). Rabbi Ben Avraham visits the cities of Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, Sevilla and Valencia. Rabbi Elisha Salas, works in Portugal, in the town of Belmonte.
One of Shavei Israel’s means of making contact with the Bnei Anousim dispersed across the entire world is sending out bi-monthly informative bulletins containing articles about Jewish topics, on Bnei Anousim and on Shavei Israel’s activities on their behalf. The bulletin is aimed at Spanish and Portuguese.
One of the methods proposed by Shavei Israel to recover the lost memory is to publish books on Judaism, which include basic concepts about our faith. Most of the books are built upon didactic considerations with texts and emphasis for thought. Thereby, the reader can himself appreciate his acquired knowledge. The books assist those interested in making contact with Judaism, its traditions and faith.
The Behar family immigrated from Colombia to Israel two years ago. That would be cause for celebration on its ...10 October, 2017
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