The Mask of the Marranos
By Allan Nadler
The creation of the modern state of Israel has awakened many dormant cultural pursuits, perhaps none so dramatic as the discovery of long-lost Jews. Every decade or so, another tribe of supposed descendants of biblical Israel—marked by quirky uses of Jewish symbols, eclectic religious observance, and a smattering of Hebrew prayers—is revealed to have been keeping the flame in some remote area of the world, from Africa to the subcontinent. The repatriation to Israel of members of these remnants of the long Jewish exile—from the Bene Israel of India to the Falasha of Ethiopia and the Lemba of South Africa—has been among the most inspiring aspects of the modern “ingathering of the exiles” that has animated the Zionist idea.
Although the unique historical narratives of such groups have differed greatly, all have been adamant that they are authentic descendants of one of the legendary “10 lost tribes” that disappeared from history in the 8th century B.C.E.; have insisted on being recognized as fully Jewish; and have faced a battery of obstacles to their reassimilation into the greater Jewish population—obstacles, though often resented, they have striven mightily to overcome through formal conversion ceremonies and, ultimately, immigration to Israel.
But there is one sobering exception to this scenario. Beginning in the early 20th century, a number of com-munities in Portugal were unearthed as “Marranos”—that is, descendants of the once proud crypto-Jewish nation that came into being when Iberian Jews were coerced into baptism and then persecuted for centuries by the Spanish Inquisition. (Marrano is a contemptuous Spanish epithet for “swine” or “filth” that eventually became the standard appellation for this community of Conversos, or converts.) Other groups of Marranos have been found in rural communities in just about every territory ever colonized by Spain and Portugal, from South America to Texas and New Mexico, as well as in places like Turkey, where refugees of the Inquisition were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire.
Forced to hide their true inner religious identity in order to survive in medieval Hispanic Catholic societies, the distant and diluted remnants of the Marranos (or “Judaizing New Christians,” as they were sometimes called) often made great sacrifices to observe what they could, and could remember, of the Jewish tradition and maintain their credo that “salvation comes only through the Torah of Moses.” Centuries of living outwardly as Christians while maintaining, usually without recalling why, the barest vestiges of their original Jewish faith took a severe psychological toll. Secrecy and avoidance of any displays of their residual Jewish practices, combined with public lives of pious Catholicism, became entrenched over the centuries, along with a deeply ingrained fear, bordering on paranoia, of being outed. True to form, most contemporary Marranos have tended to fear their rediscovery as Jews and resisted rejoining the people of Israel, from whom they were cruelly separated half a millennium ago.
Jewish historians have long been divided about the complex question of the Marranos’ “Jewishness.” At one pole is the so-called Jerusalem school of Jewish historiography, which has stubbornly maintained that, despite their centuries-long disconnection, the Marranos remained Jews in every meaningful respect. At the opposite pole are historians like Benzion Netanyahu (the 100-year-old father of the Israeli prime minister), who, giving weight to the overwhelming consensus of rabbinical opinion spanning almost five centuries, have insisted that in initially choosing baptism and later failing to take advantage of the opportunity to leave pre-Inquisition Portugal, the Marranos forfeited their membership in the Jewish nation and situated themselves outside Jewish history.
In an ambitious new work, the intellectual historian Yirmiyahu Yovel rejects both these approaches, favoring instead a portrait of the Marranos as neither Jewish nor Christian but something sui generis—“the other within,” in the striking phrase that serves as the title of his book, the summa of his distinguished career as a scholar of Baruch Spinoza and premodern Jewry. More important, Yovel believes the phenomenon of Marranism marks a new and significant element in the Jewish historical narrative, one that anticipated the varieties of Jewish identity that would emerge in post-Enlightenment Europe.
The heartbreaking history of the Marranos begins with the forced conversions of tens of thousands of Jews at the height of the Christian conquest of Spain. Jews had lived in Iberia since the 8th century, and although they were subjected to forced conversions and punitive Church inquiries into the sincerity of those conversions by the Kingdom of Aragon as far back as the mid-13th century, the continuous existence of a community of secret Jews starts with the wave of pogroms that erupted in Seville in 1391. No major Jewish community was spared. The eminent Jewish philosopher Hasdai Crescas witnessed the horrors in Barcelona:
Using bows and catapults, the mob fought against the Jews assembled in the Citadel, beating and smashing them in the tower. Many sanctified the name of God [that is, died for the Jewish religion] among them my own only son, an innocent bridal lamb…Some slew themselves, others jumped from the tower…but all the rest converted… And, because of our sins, today there is no one in Barcelona called an Israelite.
Despite Crescas’s reference to “many” martyrs, the historical record suggests that the majority of Spanish Jews confronted with the slogan “Death or the Cross” chose the cross. Over the course of the ensuing century of Christian persecution, which reached its nadir with the final expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492, some 200,000 Jews saved their lives by accepting baptism and, at least outwardly, leading Christian lives. Eighty thousand of their more resourceful brethren escaped to Portugal, thought to be more tolerant; but in short order they, too, faced a cruel fate: mass conversions in 1497, followed by a royal decree prohibiting the New Christians from leaving the country. The net result of this merciless entrapment of the Portuguese Conversos was that the enduring epicenter of Marranism became Portugal and its colonies.
It is certain that for a significant number (according to some historians, well over half) of these Conversos, the new “faith” was a façade, solely the consequence of lethal coercion. Not only did they remain Jewish at heart, they continued for centuries to observe elements of Jewish religious ritual, at great risk to their lives. The Marranos’ historically remarkable tenacity generated a popular image of them in Jewish memory as not merely fully Jewish—a dubious status given their choice of conversion and subsequent high rates of intermarriage with original Christians—but as righteous heroes who sacrificed their lives “for the sake of Heaven.”
One of Yovel’s notable achievements is challenging this misnomer and complicating its more sophisticated adoption by historians. He vividly recounts an abundance of Converso biographies that illustrate the complex spectrum of their identities and beliefs—from fervent Catholicism to pious Judaizing to a deep skepticism about both religions that he identifies as the earliest manifestations of modern Jewish secularism.
In Yovel’s view, the Jewish romancers of the Marranos fallaciously assume that the barest and most residual Judaic behavior on the part of the Conversos constitutes evidence of their Jewishness. (Their scholarship, he notes with grim irony, often accepts at face value the “discoveries” by overzealous Inquisitors of supposedly “Judaizing” practices among the New Christians.) Among his most fascinating refutations of this notion pertains to the endurance among a large number of Marranos of the practice of eating the slow-cooked Sabbath stew, known among Spanish and Moroccan Jews to this day as adafina (what American Jews call cholent). While the genesis of this dish, which is prepared before sundown on Friday, lies in the biblical prohibition of kindling a fire on the Sabbath itself, Yovel notes that its enduring popularity among the Conversos hardly constitutes proof of Sabbath -observance:
The Inquisitors’ meticulous concern with this dish highlights their bias in identifying secret Jews. Adafina, with its hearty ingredients and prolonged cooking is indeed distinctive—not of Jewish cult but of Jewish gastronomy… It is well known that food preferences, especially for distinctive ethnic dishes, are the last customs to disappear in immigrant and assimilating societies, the readiest object of group nostalgia, and the last bastion of ethnic characteristics.
That even those Marranos who retained secret religious practices failed to take advantage of a long period of clemency in Portugal, from 1507-1536, when they were given permission to leave the country without their relatives’ suffering retribution, convinces Yovel that their Judaic beliefs were hardly fervent. Still, he does not go as far as the likes of Benzion Netanyahu (whose work Yovel derides) in seeing subsequent Marrano history as a non-Jewish phenomenon. He suggests a provocative analogy to the beliefs of moderns:
Most Judaizing Marranos no longer yearned for Judaism as a concrete reality, but as an ideal, infinite dream. This is similar to the contemporary Jewish yearning for the Messiah, expressed in the saying “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which is also not pronounced with any concrete intention… Jews have educated themselves to wait for a messiah that does not really come…not in our lifetime, but in a Messianic era, which is always deferred and projected beyond the present.
Of course, there was nothing removed or dispassionate about the messianic faith of the victims of the Spanish Expulsion and Inquisition. Don Isaac Abarbanel, the greatest Jewish scholar to leave Spain in 1492, produced three tracts in which he viewed the calamities as heralding messianic times. Messianic fervor was even more feverish among Marranos who managed to escape from Portugal in later decades. In a book otherwise so comprehensive, Yovel’s silence about the later susceptibility of the Marranos to the 17th-century false messianic movement of Shabbetai Zevi is surprising. This is especially the case since, after Zevi’s conversion to Islam in 1665, many of his followers in the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Greek city of Salonika, assumed a false Islamic identity, becoming known as “Donmeh.”
That a large number of Donmeh today are known to descend from Portuguese Marranos is not surprising. They were practiced in the art of religious dissimulation long before becoming Sabbatians. What is more than a little shocking is the widespread accusations by radical Islamists and assorted other anti-Semites in contem-porary Turkey that their enemies—beginning with founder of secular Turkish democracy, Kemal Ataturk, himself—are Donmeh conspirators. Given Yovel’s near obsession with the degree to which the Marranos prefigured modernity, his omission of this fascinating chapter is regrettable.
At any rate, he argues that in time, a significant number of Marranos developed an active hostility to all religious dogmas and ecclesiastical authorities. Citing numerous statements from the Inquisition’s archives of Marrano confessions that indicate a disdain for super-natural beliefs, he concludes that many of them had replaced their Jewish faith not with a Christian one but with a “growing concern for this worldly secular affairs and even religious indifference and skepticism.”