In 1536, Portugal expanded the Inquisition that had begun in Spain into its territory, targeting Jews who had converted to Catholicism to escape persecution, but who were suspected of still secretly practicing Judaism. Many of these Anousim (crypto-Jews also known as Conversos or Marranos) had fled Spain for Portugal, and when the Inquisition caught up with them, they fled again, this time for the Netherlands where, fortunately, they were welcomed in and allowed to restart their lives. The safety they felt in Amsterdam, in particular, allowed the new Jewish communities to once again practice Judaism fully and openly.
In 1614, the first Jewish cemetery was established in Amsterdam. The cemetery celebrated the 400th anniversary of its construction in December of last year, and Rabbi Elisha Salas, Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in Portugal, was invited to attend the festivities.
For Rabbi Salas, who is based in Belmonte, Portugal, and works with Bnei Anousim, some of whom are only today rediscovering their roots, seeing how Anousim hundreds of years ago found the freedom to embrace their heritage was an inspiration that will help fuel his interactions with modern day Marranos.
“One might have thought that, given the overwhelming strength of the Inquisition, the Anousim who fled to Amsterdam would at least have continued to hide their Hebrew and Jewish names,” he says. “But what I saw in the cemetery in Amsterdam and among the founders of the synagogue and the Amsterdam Jewish community were not names in German, but in Portuguese!”
The weekend celebrations included prayers at the Esnoga (the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam that was founded in 1671), a visit to the Jewish Museum and the Etz Chaim library belonging to the Montezinos family.
Antonio de Montezinos was a Portuguese traveler and a Marrano himself who in 1644 persuaded Menashe ben Israel, the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, that he had found one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel living in the jungles of the Ecuador. This resulted in a book The Hope of Israel, which became a bestseller in 1655.
The highlight of the weekend, of course, was a trip to the cemetery. Rabbi Salas planted an olive tree that he brought with him from the village of Alentejo in Portugal. “The olive tree is a symbol of the union between past and present, between Portugal and the Netherlands,” he explains. The olive tree has particular Jewish meaning. “It is through this tree that we extract the oil for the lamps that illuminate our Sabbath and the hanukkiah that will light up the next Festival of Lights in Belmonte…and the world.”
At the end of the visit, the Sephardic Choir of Amsterdam regaled the group with songs that recalled the long history of Jews in both Portugal and the Netherlands. Rabbi Salas was deeply moved. “Their beautiful singing transported all of us to our beloved Israel, with its ancient faith that keeps us and maintains us throughout our journeys in so many countries and so many epochs through time,” he says.
The story of the Bnei Anousim in Amsterdam, who reclaimed their heritage after being forced out of their homes in Portugal, and who went on to proudly influence the economic and intellectual development of the many lands where the Dutch settled in the coming centuries, is inspiring on its own. How much more so for modern day Bnei Anousim who, with Rabbi Salas and Shavei Israel’s help, have the opportunity to make history again.