New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory

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Sepharad, Spain or the Iberian peninsula, are a Jewish ethnic division. Historically, the vernacular languages of Sephardim and their descendants have been variants of either Spanish or Portuguese, though other tongues had been adopted and adapted throughout their history. The modern Israeli Hebrew definition of Sephardi is a much broader, religious based, definition that generally excludes ethnic considerations. In its most basic form, this broad religious definition of a Sephardi refers to any Jew, of any ethnic background, who follows the customs and traditions of Sepharad. A nusach is defined by a liturgical tradition’s choice of prayers, order of prayers, text of prayers and melodies used in the singing of prayers. Additionally, Ethiopian Jews, whose branch of practiced Judaism is known as Haymanot, have recently come under the umbrella of Israel’s already broad Sephardic Chief Rabbinate.

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The divisions among Sephardim and their descendants today are largely a result of the consequences of the Royal edicts of expulsion. In the case of the Alhambra Decree of 1492, the primary purpose was to eliminate their influence on Spain’s large converso population and ensure they did not revert to Judaism. Over half of Spain’s Jews had converted as a result of the religious persecution and pogroms which occurred in 1391, and as such were not subject to the Decree or to expulsion, yet remained under the watchful eye of the Spanish Inquisition. Foreseeing the economic aftermath of a similar Jewish flight from Portugal, King Manuel’s decree five years later was largely pro-forma to appease a precondition the Spanish monarchs had set for him if he wished to marry their daughter. While the stipulations were similar in the Portuguese decree, King Manuel then largely prevented Portugal’s Jews from leaving, by blocking Portugal’s ports of exit. Sephardi Jews, therefore, encompass Jews descended from those Jews who left the Iberian Peninsula as Jews by the expiration of the respective decreed deadlines.

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This group is further divided between those who fled south to North Africa, as opposed to those who fled eastwards to the Balkans, West Asia and beyond. It should be noted that these Sephardic sub-groups are separate from any pre-existing local Jewish communities they encountered in their new areas of settlement. From the perspective of the present day, the first three sub-groups appeared to have developed as separate branches, each with its own traditions. In earlier centuries, and as late as the editing of the Jewish Encyclopedia at the beginning of the 20th century, they were usually regarded as together forming a continuum. Sephardi Jewish couple from Sarajevo in traditional clothing. Eastern Sephardim comprise the descendants of the expellees from Spain who left as Jews in 1492 or prior.

For the most part, Eastern Sephardim did not maintain their own separate Sephardic religious and cultural institutions from the pre-existing Jews, but instead the local Jews came to adopt the liturgical customs of the recent Sephardic arrivals. Additionally, Eastern Sephardim in European areas of the Ottoman Empire retained their culture and language, while those in the West Asian portion gave up their language and adopted the local Judeo-Arabic dialect. This latter phenomenon is just one of the factors which has today led to the broader religious definition of Sephardi. While on the one hand the Jewish communities in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt are partly of Spanish Jewish origin and they are therefore Sephardim proper, conversely the great majority of the Jewish communities in Iraq, and all of those from Iran, Eastern Syria, Yemen and Eastern Turkey are pre-existing indigenous Jewish populations who have adopted Sephardic rite and traditions through cultural diffusion, and are properly termed Mizrahi Jews. A few of the Eastern Sephardim followed the spice trade routes as far as the Malabar coast of southern India, where they settled among the established Cochin Jewish community, again imparting their culture and customs to the local Jews. In recent times, principally after 1948, most Eastern Sephardim have since relocated to Israel, and others to the USA and Latin America.

North African Sephardim consist of the descendants of the expellees from Spain who also left as Jews in 1492. Several of the Moroccan Jews emigrated back to the Iberian Peninsula to form the core of the Gibraltar Jews. In the 19th century, modern Spanish, French and Italian gradually replaced Haketia and Judeo-Arabic as the mother tongue among most Moroccan Sephardim and other North African Sephardim. In recent times, principally after 1948, most North African Sephardim have since relocated to Israel, and most others to France and Spain. There are significant communities still only in Morocco and Tunisia. Born into a large New York Sephardi family.

Henry Kamen and Joseph Perez estimate that of the total Jewish origin population of Spain at the time of the issuance of the Alhambra Decree, those who chose to remain in Spain represented the majority, up to 300,000 of a total Jewish origin population of 350,000. Furthermore, a significant number returned to Spain in the years following the expulsion, on condition of converting to Catholicism, the Crown guaranteeing they could recover their property at the same price at which it was sold. Discrimination against this large community of conversos nevertheless remained, and those who secretly practiced the Jewish faith specifically suffered severe episodes of persecution by the Inquisition. The last episode of persecution occurred in the mid-18th century. External migrations out of the Iberian peninsula coincided with these episodes of increased persecution by the Inquisition.

New World Western Sephardim, on the other hand, are the descendants of those Jewish-origin New Christian conversos who accompanied the millions of Old Christian Spaniards and Portuguese that emigrated to the Americas. More specifically, New World Western Sephardim are those Western Sephardim whose converso ancestors migrated to various of the non-Iberian colonies in the Americas in whose jurisdictions they could return to Judaism. New World Western Sephardim are juxtaposed to yet another group of descendants of conversos who settled in the Iberian colonies of the Americas who could not revert to Judaism. Due to the presence of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition in the Iberian American territories, initially converso immigration was barred throughout much of Ibero-America. Because of this, very few converso immigrants in Iberian American colonies ever reverted to Judaism. All of the oldest congregations in the non-Iberian colonial possessions in the Americas were founded by Western Sephardim, many who arrived in the then Dutch-ruled New Amsterdam, with their synagogues being in the tradition of “Spanish and Portuguese Jews”. In the United States in particular, Congregation Shearith Israel, established in 1654, in today’s New York City, is the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.

New Mexico's Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory

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Its present building dates from 1897. Western Sephardim tend to be Portuguese variations of common Spanish surnames, though some are still Spanish. Among a few notable figures with roots in Western Sephardim are the current president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, and former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Benjamin N. Sephardi family from Misiones Province, Argentina, circa 1900.

The Sephardic Bnei Anusim consists of the contemporary and largely nominal Christian descendants of assimilated 15th century Sephardic anusim. Due to historical reasons and circumstances, Sephardic Bnei Anusim had not been able to return to the Jewish faith over the last five centuries, although increasing numbers have begun emerging publicly in modern times, especially over the last two decades. The Jewish Agency for Israel estimates the Sephardic Bnei Anusim population to number in the millions. Although numerically superior, Sephardic Bnei Anusim are, however, the least prominent or known sub-group of Sephardi descendants. Anusim who remained hidden ever since the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula and its New World franchises. Historical documentation shedding new light on the diversity in the ethnic composition of the Iberian immigrants to the Spanish colonies of the Americas during the conquest era suggests that the number of New Christians of Sephardi origin that actively participated in the conquest and settlement was more significant than previously estimated.

Latin America’s Iberian settlers may have been of Sephardic origin, although the regional distribution of their settlement was uneven throughout the colonies. In Iberia, settlements of known and attested populations of Bnei Anusim include those in Belmonte, in Portugal, and the Xuetes of Palma de Mallorca, in Spain. Almost all Sephardic Bnei Anusim carry surnames which are known to have been used by Sephardim during the 15th century, however, per se, almost all of these surname are not specifically Sephardic, and are in fact mostly surnames of gentile Spanish or gentile Portuguese origin which only became common among Bnei Anusim because they deliberately adopted them during their conversions in an attempt to obscure their Jewish pedigrees. Prior to 1492, substantial Jewish populations existed in most Spanish and Portuguese provinces. The first Jews to leave Spain settled in what is today Algeria after the various persecutions that took place in 1391.

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The Spanish Jews who chose to leave Spain instead of converting dispersed throughout the region of North Africa known as the Maghreb. In those regions, they often intermingled with the already existing Mizrahi Arabic-speaking communities, becoming the ancestors of the Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and Libyan Jewish communities. Many Spanish Jews also fled to the Ottoman Empire, where they were given refuge. Throughout history, scholars have given widely differing numbers of Jews expelled from Spain.

However, the figure is likely to be below the 100,000 Jews who had not yet converted to Christianity by 1492, possibly as low as 40,000. Many went to Portugal, gaining only a few years of respite from persecution. Such figures exclude the significant number of Jews who returned to Spain due to the hostile reception they received in their countries of refuge, notably Fez. The situation of returnees was legalized with the Ordinance of the 10 of November 1492 which established that civil and church authorities should be witness to baptism and, in the case that they were baptized before arrival, proof and witnesses of baptism were required.

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As a result of the more recent Jewish exodus from Arab lands, many of the Sephardim Tehorim from the Middle East and North Africa relocated to either Israel or France, where they form a significant portion of the Jewish communities today. Today, around 50,000 recognized Jews live in Spain, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain. The Jewish community in Portugal is considerably smaller. Although some are of Ashkenazi origin, the majority are Sephardic Jews who returned to Spain after the end of the protectorate over northern Morocco. A community of 600 Sephardic Jews live in Gibraltar.

Of the Bnei Anusim community in Belmonte, Portugal, some officially returned to Judaism in the 1970s, and opened a synagogue, Bet Eliahu, in 1996. Spanish nationality law requires a period of residency in Spain before citizenship can be applied for. This had been relaxed from ten to two years for Sephardi Jews and for Hispanic Americans and others with historical ties to Spain. 2015 of 24 June, whereby Sephardi Jews with a connection to Spain could obtain Spanish nationality by naturalisation, without the residency requirement normally applicable.

Applicants must provide evidence of their Sephardi origin and some connection with Spain, and pass examinations on the language, government, and culture of Spain. The Law states that Spanish citizenship will be granted to “those Sephardic foreign nationals who prove that condition and their special relationship with our country, even if they do not have legal residence in Spain, whatever their ideology, religion or beliefs. The connection with Spain can be established, if kinship with a family on a list of Sephardic families in Spain is not available, by proving that Spanish history or culture have been studied, proof of charitable, cultural, or economic activities associated with Spanish people or organisations or Sephardic culture. The law on citizenship for Sephardis was criticised for introducing so many hurdles as to deter most potential applicants, with very few of the estimated 3.

5 million Sephardic Jews in the world qualifying. A congressman said that “these facts lead us to conclude that the government has the clear intention that the fewer the number of applicants, the better. And the economic filter ensures that only people with high purchasing power can apply. As of 7 February 2017 the government of Spain had registered about 4,300 applications who had begun the proceedings. 1,000 had signed before a notary and filed officially. A hundred, from various countries, had been granted citizenship, with another 400 expected within weeks.

In what appeared to be a reciprocal gesture, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, referred to the millions of descendants of conversos around Latin America and Iberia, including hundreds of thousands who were exploring ways of returning to the Jewish people. In April 2013 Portugal amended its Law on Nationality to make way for legislation conferring citizenship to descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the country five centuries ago following the Portuguese Inquisition. It was stated that descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews would be able to become citizens if they “belong to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin with ties to Portugal. On 29 January 2015, the Portuguese Parliament finalized ratification of the legislation offering dual citizenship to the descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews. As of 7 February 2017 about 5,000 applications had been received, mostly from Brazil, Israel, and Turkey. 400 had been granted, with a period between application and resolution of about two years. The most typical traditional language of Sephardim is Judeo-Spanish, also called Judezmo or Ladino.

Colloquial Arabic loan words retained most of the Arabic phonemes as functional components of a new, enriched Hispano-Semitic phonological system. Judæo-Portuguese was used by Sephardim — especially among the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Other Romance languages with Jewish forms, spoken historically by Sephardim, include Judeo-Catalan, often underestimated, this language was the main language used by the Jewish communities in Catalonia, Balearic Isles and the Valencian region. Other languages associated with Sephardic Jews are mostly extinct, i. Judeo-Arabic and its dialects have been a large vernacular language for Sephardim who settled in North African kingdoms and Arabic-speaking parts of the Ottoman Empire. The precise origins of the Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula are unclear.

There is fragmentary and inconclusive evidence of a Jewish presence on the Iberian Peninsula dating from pre-Roman times. More substantial references date from the Roman period. A tradition exists with the community of Granada that they are from the inhabitants of Jerusalem, of the descendants of Judah and Benjamin, rather than from the villages, the towns in the outlying districts . Jerusalem who are in Sepharad, will possess the cities of the south. 1st century rabbinic scholar, Yonathan Ben Uzziel, as Aspamia. Jewish exiles, saying that the vast majority of the first exiles driven away from the land of Israel during the Babylonian captivity refused to return, for they had seen that the Second Temple would be destroyed like the first.

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Now, I have heard that this praise, emet weyaṣiv was sent by the exiles who were driven away from Jerusalem and who were not with Ezra in Babylon, and that Ezra had sent inquiring after them, but they did not wish to go up , replying that since they were destined to go off again into exile a second time, and that the Temple would once again be destroyed, why should we then double our anguish? It is best for us that we remain here in our place and to serve God. Ferdinand and his wife, Isabella, made war with the Ishmaelites who were in Granada and took it, and while they returned they commanded the Jews in all of his kingdom that in but a short time they were to take leave from the countries , they being Castile, Navarre, Catalonia, Aragón, Granada and Sicily. He says, furthermore, that the original name of the city was Pirisvalle, so-called by its early pagan inhabitants.

A signet ring found at Cadiz, dating from the 8th-7th century BC. The inscription on the ring, generally accepted as Phoenician, has been interpreted by a few scholars to be “paleo-hebraic. An amphora dating from at least the 1st century found in Ibiza, which bears imprints of two Hebrew characters. Several early Jewish writers wrote that their families had lived in Spain since the destruction of the first temple.

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Abravanel family had lived on the Iberian Peninsula for 2,000 years. Some suggest that substantial Jewish immigration probably occurred during the Roman period of Hispania. Exactly how soon after this time Jews made their way onto the scene in this context is a matter of speculation. Although the spread of Jews into Europe is most commonly associated with the Diaspora that ensued from the Roman conquest of Judea, emigration from Judea into the greater Roman Mediterranean area antedated the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans under Titus. Among the earliest records that may refer specifically to Jews in the Iberian peninsula during the Roman period is Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Perhaps the most direct and substantial of early references are the several decrees of the Council of Elvira, convened in the early 4th century, which address proper Christian behavior with regard to the Jews of Hispania.

As citizens of the Roman Empire, the Jews of Hispania engaged in a variety of occupations, including agriculture. Until the adoption of Christianity, Jews had close relations with non-Jewish populations, and played an active role in the social and economic life of the province. Yet in comparison to Jewish life in Byzantium and Italy, life for the early Jews in Hispania and the rest of southern Europe was relatively tolerable. This is due in large measure to the difficulty the Church had in establishing itself in its western frontier.

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Barbarian invasions brought most of the Iberian peninsula under Visigothic rule by the early 5th century. Other than in their contempt for Trinitarian Christians, the Arian Visigoths were largely uninterested in the religious creeds within their kingdom. The situation of the Jews changed after the conversion of the Visigothic royal family under Recared from Arianism to Roman Catholicism in 587. In their desire to consolidate the realm under the new religion, the Visigoths adopted an aggressive policy towards Jews. As the king and the church acted in a single interest, the Jews’ situation deteriorated.

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The Jews of Hispania had been utterly embittered and alienated by Catholic rule by the time of the Muslim invasion. To them, the Moors were perceived as, and indeed were, a liberating force. Wherever they went, the Muslims were greeted by Jews eager to aid them in administering the country. In many conquered towns the garrison was left in the hands of the Jews before the Muslims proceeded further north. With the victory of Tariq ibn Ziyad in 711, the lives of the Sephardim changed dramatically. Moors was by and large welcomed by the Jews of Iberia. Both Muslim and Christian sources claim that Jews provided valuable aid to the Muslim invaders.

Once captured, the defense of Cordoba was left in the hands of Jews, and Granada, Malaga, Seville, and Toledo were left to a mixed army of Jews and Moors. In spite of the restrictions placed upon the Jews as dhimmis, life under Muslim rule was one of great opportunity and Jews flourished as they did not under the Christian Visigoths. Many Jews came to Iberia, seen as a land of tolerance and opportunity, from the Christian and Muslim worlds. Arabic culture, of course, also made a lasting impact on Sephardic cultural development.

By the 9th century, some members of the Sephardic community felt confident enough to take part in proselytizing amongst Christians. In addition to contributions of original work, the Sephardim were active as translators. Mainly in Toledo, texts were translated between Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. In the early 11th century centralized authority based at Cordoba broke down following the Berber invasion and the ousting of the Umayyads. Meanwhile, the Reconquista continued in the north throughout the 12th century. As various Arab lands fell to the Christians, conditions for some Jews in the emerging Christian kingdoms became increasingly favorable.

As had happened during the reconstruction of towns following the breakdown of authority under the Umayyads, the services of Jews were employed by the victorious Christian leaders. However, the Jews from the Muslim south were not entirely secure in their northward migrations. Old prejudices were compounded by newer ones. Suspicions of complicity with the Muslims were alive and well as Jews immigrated, speaking Arabic. However, many of the newly arrived Jews of the north prospered during the late 11th and early 12th centuries.