That Word “Morrano”

Reprinted from the Spring 1995 issue of the Kulanu Newsletter

Via the Internet, I recently received information about your organization, and in fact, the next day, I contacted the organization to get a copy of your most interesting newsletter. I have a problem with the newsletter.

Littered throughout the publication, is the word “Marrano,” and while out of ignorance, or an occasional thick skin, some Sephardics may refer to themselves as such, I feel strongly that this is a verbal slight which needs to be righted.

As you are perhaps aware, in early 16th century Spain, Jews who outwardly converted to Catholicism were referred to as “Marranos” by Jews who had left and kept the faith. Later that century, as sincere and insincere converts began to gain increased power and responsibility in Spain, did the sincerity of these “New Christians” become suspect by the “Old Christians” in the society. At that point, these insincere converts, Crypto Jews or Anusim, became referred to as “Marranos” by the Old Christians who were increasingly concerned about the former’s prominent rise in Spanish society.

Several of the descendants of these Anusim left Spain to settle in Northern Mexico in 1581 and eventually made their way further northward to what is now New Mexico and Texas.

Out of deference and respect to their sensitivities, I have pledged to help teach American Jews whenever encountered that these tender souls are offended when referred to by this derogatory term (intended or unintended).

Bennett GreenSpan
Bellaire, Texas

Editor’s comment: Perhaps it goes without saying, but Kulanu would never intentionally call people by a name that is offensive to them. The real question is — have we unintentionally used an offensive name?

Since I had similar sensitivities to yours, I had previously used the term “converso”, but after getting involved in Kulanu and meeting many Spanish and Portuguese speakers, I soon learned that this usage is ambiguous since the translation is simply “convert” which could refer to 15th century Spanish Jews who became good Catholics (i.e., NOT secret practitioners of Judaism) or even modern converts from one nonspecific religion to another.

The newsletter took up use of the term “Marrano” when it published articles containing the term written by two of Kulanu’s most learned supporters — Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, a Brazillian who studied Brazillian “marrano” communities in northeastern Brazil for his Masters thesis, and Joe Hantman, Kulanu’s archivist, who teaches numerous courses on dispersed Jewish communities. Also, we wrote about, and published letters from, members of Brazil’s ARIM —Associação Religiosa Israelita Marrana. In addition, Helio Cordeiro, our prominent speaker last fall, founded the Society for the Study of Marranismo in Brazil, and published a book, with Kulanu’s help, called Os “Marranos” e a Diaspora Sefardita (The “Marranos” and the Sephardic Diaspora). And we reported on a project of the Israeli Institute for Marrano Studies.

I consulted our two experts, and I certainly learned a lot!

According to Rabbi Cukierkorn, the forced conversions were more a Portuguese than a Spanish phenomenon, and the source of the word “Marrano” is the old Portuguese verb “marrar” meaning “to force.” In old Portuguese, “marrano” means “forced one.” If one looks up the meaning of “anus” (Hebrew for “forced one”) in one’s Hebrew-Portuguese dictionary, one will find “marrano.”

Coming at the issue from a different angle, Joe Hantman points out that whatever the origin of the word, historians, including the eminent Cecil Roth, commonly use the term. And if it is indeed a pejorative, (Cecil Roth, claims that the word “marrano” is a medieval Spanish term meaning “swine”) it has become a term of honor over the years to refer to those forced converts who retained to some degree the secret practice of Judaism. Hantman also notes that Persian Jews in Mashad who were forced to convert to Islam in 1835 but who continued to practice Judaism in secret, refer to themselves as “Persian Marranos,” and that is how historians refer to them, too.

Thank you for opening up a dialogue. Readers are encouraged to comment.

Karen Primack
Kulanu Newsletter Editor