Fear and Shadows

Can it be that centuries after the Spanish Inquisition there are Crypto-Jews in Spain who remain traumatized — and only covertly preserve a Jewish identity?

Near the edge of the waterfront, at the end of Barcelona's famous pedestrian walkway Las Ramblas, stands a breathtaking monument to Christopher Columbus, medieval Spain's most famous voyager. Rising to a height of 50 meters, the structure cuts a dramatic pose against the skyline, as the great explorer gazes out to sea, documents in hand, gesturing toward some faraway spot located well beyond the horizon.

Built in the 19th century to commemorate Columbus's return from his first trip to the Americas, the statue has become a favorite landmark for natives and tourists alike. But for all its popularity, an air of mystery surrounds the site. Rather than depicting Columbus pointing westward, in the direction of the Americas he is credited with discovering, it portrays him facing east, as if being pulled in the direction of the Holy Land.

For Nuria Guasch Vidal, a Barcelona resident whose Jewish ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism more than 500 years ago, the pull toward the Holy Land is more than just a matter of architectural curiosity.

With her fashionable wardrobe and congenial smile, there is little in her outward appearance to indicate that Vidal, like other anousim (Hebrew for "those who were coerced," as many Marranos prefer to be called) is struggling to come to terms with deep-rooted questions of history, identity and spiritual belonging.

Growing up in a small village of some 200 families outside Barcelona, Vidal knew virtually nothing about her family's heritage. Her mother was originally from Majorca, and her father hailed from Minorca, two of the four islands forming the Balearic archipelago off Spain's southern coast.

"My parents never spoke to me about our ancestry, but I always felt that somehow we were different," she says. Though her neighbors and friends were all religious Catholics, Vidal's family did not celebrate Christmas, and rarely set foot in a church. Her family also followed some seemingly unusual customs, such as dipping bread in salt, and setting the table in an especially nice manner on Friday evenings.

Though these curious practices raised a number of questions in her mind, Vidal, like many young people, never really bothered to investigate what lay behind it. It was only when her grandfather lay dying that the truth finally began to emerge, and the pieces of her personal puzzle started to come together.

"I am going to die soon," her grandfather told her, "so I want to ask you to make sure that a priest does not enter the room and pray over me once I am gone." About this, Vidal says, her grandfather was unusually insistent, even adamant. "I think I made a mistake," he continued, "There were a lot of things I should have told you, but you will probably learn them on your own." And with that, her grandfather would say no more on the subject.

This cryptic confession had a profound impact on Vidal, who began to question her family more persistently about her background. One day, while browsing in a bookstore, she came across a volume documenting the history of the anousim, and was stunned to see her forebears' names listed in it.

Suddenly, she says, the realization dawned on her — "my family are descended from Jews," a fact that her parents later confirmed, albeit reluctantly.

The reason for their hesitation, says Vidal, was really quite simple: fear of the Inquisition.

"They connect between the past and the future. They say that wherever Jews live, they are hated, so it is best to keep it hidden," she says.

This fear, so intangible yet so vivid and so real for many anousim, came up repeatedly in conversations in both Madrid and Barcelona. With raw emotion that is frequently interrupted by tears, they describe the travail of their ancestors using the present tense, as if the Spanish Inquisition, launched in the 15th century, had been a recent occurrence.

The word that is employed again and again to describe their feelings is "trauma". And the impact left by that trauma is as undeniable as it is astonishing.

For Haim, a young Barcelona resident who asked that his real name not be used, the events of long ago have propelled him on a spiritual quest that ultimately brought him back to the faith of his ancestors.

"Though my family was not happy with it, I always felt connected to Jewish things, "he says, as he proceeds to describe the challenges he faced in coming to terms with his heritage. "My father's mother was from Majorca, and she was a Chueta — her family had been forced to convert by the Church."

Though raised as a Catholic, like the overwhelming majority of Spain's population, Haim never felt comfortable with his identity, and increasingly found himself drawn to Jewish studies. "I didn't feel good as a Catholic," he says, "so I began to study and learn more about Judaism."

A visit to Israel in 1995 helped to crystallize his determination to live a Jewish life, and when he returned to Spain, he started observing Jewish festivals. Finding the local Jewish community unwilling to embrace him, he nevertheless persisted in his quest, and was formally converted by a rabbinical court in Lyons, France.

He underwent circumcision, adopted a Hebrew name, and now lives an observant Jewish lifestyle. Haim keeps kosher, attends synagogue regularly, and put a mezuza up on his doorpost.

Asked to explain what brought him to make such dramatic changes in his life, Haim's eyes moistened as he whispered: "Historical justice. There is historical justice in what I did. It is a tikkun — a rectification — for the past, for the trauma which the Jews of Spain have experienced."

Historians are uncertain as to when Jews first arrived in Spain, though there is evidence that the community's beginnings may go back as far as the Roman period. The Visigoth invasion of Iberia, followed by the Muslim conquest in the year 711 CE, gave rise to what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, when the community enjoyed a thriving religious, cultural and commercial life.

Some of Jewish history's greatest figures populated this era, from Maimonides, the great codifier of Jewish law, to Abraham Ibn Ezra, who was a physician, philosopher and biblical commentator. Judah Halevi authored the Kuzari, while Bachya ibn Pakuda compiled Duties of the Heart, a book of Jewish ethical instruction still studied today.

Throughout Moorish rule, and after the Christian reconquest of Spain — between 756 and 1492 — Jews rose to prominence in nearly every field, from medicine to philology to the royal courts. Yet despite the central role Jews played in the life of the country, anti-Semitism was never far below the surface. In 1250, the first Spanish blood libel occurred, an event that proved to be an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come.

Simmering hatred of the Jews came to a head in 1391, when throngs of rioters, egged on by inflammatory anti-Jewish sermons, attacked the Jewish quarter of Seville on March 15. Disturbances continued over the next few months until, as historian Cecil Roth writes in his A History of the Marranos, "on June 4, 1391, the mob could no longer be restrained." Jews throughout Spain were murdered, and entire communities were wiped out.

Massacres took place in Cordoba and Toledo, and the unrest extended across the country, from the Pyrenees mountains to the Straits of Gibraltar. All told, according to Roth's estimate, as many as 50,000 Jews were killed. Countless others, possibly numbering in the tens of thousands, were forcibly converted.

Throughout the next century, however, many of these conversos began to "backslide," secretly reverting to Judaism and all but abandoning the Catholicism that had been forced on them. Though they continued to practice Christianity in public, they clung to Judaism in the privacy of their homes, and even built secret synagogues. "The vast majority," says Roth, "had accepted Christianity only to escape death, and remained at heart as completely Jewish as they had ever been."

Referred to with disdain as "New Christians" by their fellow Spaniards, their Jewish ways increasingly drew the attention of the Church, which, on November 1, 1478, issued a bull empowering the Spanish monarchs to appoint a tribunal that would deal with "heretics" and "Judaizers." Ruthless persecution and harassment resulted in many conversos being forced to publicly confess their "sin," while others were burned at the stake.

In 1492, a century of Spanish maltreatment reached its peak when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella promulgated the Edict of Expulsion on March 31, giving the kingdom's Jews four months to leave. But even after the Jews had departed, the office of the Inquisition continued to hound and pursue conversos throughout the Spanish-speaking world, reaching as far afield as India, Angola and South America. Only in the late 19th century did the Inquisition formally come to an end.

Nevertheless, the conversos and their descendants, including those who remained in Spain, kept the spark of Judaism alive, covertly passing down from generation to generation the secret of their hidden faith.

For people such as Nuria Vidal and Haim, history has come full circle, as the Jewish spark within them ignites into a full flame. Nuria recently joined a conversion class offered by the Barcelona rabbinate, and hopes to undergo a "return ceremony" by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate once she is deemed ready.

People who study the anousim say Vidal and Haim may represent just the beginning of a much more extensive phenomenon. Thanks to the Internet, and Spain's 1975 transition to democracy, a greater sense of openness and freedom has made it easier in recent years for anousim to emerge from the shadows and rejoin their people.

Schulamith Halevy, a doctoral candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is widely considered to be a leading authority on the history of the anousim. She has traveled extensively in Europe and South America, and devoted her career to assisting anousim both in Israel and abroad.

"I got into this a decade ago," she says. "I have a Web site [www.anusim.org], and people refer each other to it and to me. The Internet gives private access to information that is critically important. I have been contacted by thousands."

Not all are looking to formally return to Judaism, Halevy notes. Many, she says, "want help in understanding the strange signals they have received, some just need one person to know and guard their secret."

While she declines to offer an estimate as to the number of anousim worldwide, Halevy is convinced that "the degree of survival is incredible, and I suspect the numbers are staggering."

It is early Thursday morning, and some 30-odd men have gathered in Barcelona's main synagogue for the weekday prayers. Rabbi Jacob Carciente, Barcelona's chief rabbi, makes his way around the room, greeting those assembled with a warm and caring smile and occasionally adjusting the tefillin on their heads.

At a certain point, Rabbi Carciente ascends the podium and leads the congregation in prayer according to the Sephardic rite, his voice rising and falling to the cadences of the liturgy. He reads from the Torah, completes the service, and then expounds upon a point of Jewish law. With that, the men put away their prayer shawls and head off to start another day's work.

Later, in his book-lined office, Rabbi Carciente tells of the many phone calls and letters he receives from descendants of the anousim. "There are many lost Jewish souls here. We get calls all the time from people who wish to look into their Jewish heritage or learn more about Judaism."

Asked if he thinks that the Jewish people should be doing more to assist the anousim, Rabbi Carciente's response is firm and resolute. "We need to help them," he says. "Halevai — if only more would come."

The writer serves as Director of Amishav, a Jerusalem-based organization which assists lost Jews seeking to return to the Jewish people. He can be reached at: msfrend@netvision.net.il.