Bnei Anousim in Spain
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 till today by the name “chuetas”(pig).
Bnei Anousim in Portugal
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.
Bnei Anousim in Brazil
When the doors of the New World swung open in the 16th and 17th centuries, Brazil 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 the new continent. Brazil 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. But even the heartless cruelty and ruthless efficiency of the Inquisitors could not extinguish the flame of Judaism, and countless thousands of families, especially in the interior of northern Brazil, continued to preserve Jewish rituals and traditions. This flame is still very much alive today, and in cities such as Recife, Fortaleza and Natal, the descendants of Brazil’s Bnei Anousim are once again clamoring to rejoin their people, the nation of Israel.
In recent years, throughout Spain, Portugal and South America, a growing number of their descendants are emerging from the shadows of history, looking to reconnect with the Jewish people and return to the faith which was so cruelly taken away from their forefathers five centuries ago.