The Sleeping Jewish Giant
This year March 31 marks 525 years to the Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) was an edict issued on 31 March 1492.
Perfect timing publishing the work of JGSGM member attorney Douglas Kaplan.
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THE SLEEPING JEWISH GIANT
More than 85 percent of World Jewry lives in the United States, Canada and
Israel, countries where they enjoy high standard of living, education, freedom of
expression and movement. Yet, thousands of descendants of the Jews forcibly
converted to Catholicism by sword or extreme duress remain in Third World
nations, unaware of their true identity. Except for a number of devoted
individuals and several dedicated organizations, relatively little is done to find,
educate and return these descendants, remnants of the Spanish Inquisition
hostages of a captor culture and religion.
Affiliation with any religion is subject to change by wits, whim or whip. Given a
choice, one can choose to be Jewish today. Catholic tomorrow, Protestant the
next day and Muslim the following day. What is not mutable or changeable is
one's genetic inheritance, the 23 chromosomes that each parent invests in the
creation of a child.
Today, collectively, millions of genetic descendants of the stolen Jews of the
Spanish Inquisition live in the Americas, Europe and Africa, unaware of their
people, their culture and their spiritual inheritance.
In the 14'^ century, before many Jews were forcibly converted to Catholicism,
approximately one million Sephardic (Spanish) Jews lived in Spain. Ashkenazi
Jews, those from Germany, France and East Europe constituted no more than
half that number. Thus, there were roughly two Sephardic Jews for every one
Ashkenazi Jew. Yet, of the 14.2 million Jews in the world today, more than ten
million are Ashkenazi and roughly 4 million are Sephardic. Given relatively equal
birthrates between the two groups, we are missing in excess of 15 million
Spanish Jews, a giant population.
The missing Sephardic Jews (also referred to as Conversos, Crypto-Jews and
Marranos) and their descendants have been captive of and tethered to an alien
faith and culture for over 500 years. No more pitiable form of captivity exists than
where the captives themselves are unaware of their captivity.
During the 2000 years that the Jews have constituted a diaspora population, in
virtually every generation, Jews have stepped forward to ransom their brethren.
Yet, not until post World War II and the stirring of the Sleeping Converse Giant
has the Jewish community started to marshal significant efforts to awaken the
Giant and bring it home.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Since the first century C.E., some Jewish trading settlements could be found
along the coast of the Iberian Peninsula (hereinafter referred to as "Peninsula").
The Peninsula included modern day Spain and Portugal and was originally part
of the Roman Empire. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70
C.E., the Peninsula's population was increased by additional Jews who fled the
Romans or were forcibly settled there by the Roman legions.
The Visigoths, in control of the Peninsula at the time, were initially indifferent to
the growing Jewish communities. However, two events occurred to alter that
circumstance: the Visigoths adopted Christianity as their official religion in the
fourth century and the Moors invaded Spain from the south in the eighth century.
Both the Christian and Muslim communities imposed special taxes and severe
restrictions on the Jews. Nevertheless, those Jewish communities demonstrated
a distinct vitality, growing in size strength and influence.
While all of Europe was immersed in the Dark Ages from the ninth to the twelfth
centuries C.E., the Jewish communities of the Peninsula were producing a
vibrant scientific, artistic, philosophical, cultural and religious era of
enlightenment. Notables such as Moses Maimonides, Solomon Ibn Gabriol,
Benjamin of Tudela, Moses Ibn Ezra and Yehuda Halevi impacted the scientific,
religious and cultural life of that era.
Despite the limitations, restrictions and taxes imposed upon them, Jews enjoyed
a virtual Golden Age in Spain until the twelfth century when religious extremism
became a dominant force, fed by the fires of the Crusades. By the fourteenth
century, Jews were forced to wear identifying insignia, isolating them from their
Christian neighbors. Jewish communities became the subject of anti-Semitic
attacks by Christian zealots, who were bent on destruction or converting Jews to
On June 6, 1391, a Catholic mob attacked the Juderia in Seville. Four thousand
Jews were killed, while most of the rest submitted to baptism to escape death.
Communities of Jews in Catalonia, Aragon and Mallorca were not spared a similar fate. On August 5^*^ of that same year, hundreds of Jews were slain in Barcelona. The bloody excesses of 1391 continued unabated and were
exacerbated by the Dominican Vincent Ferrer, who is said to have forcibly
baptized 4000 Jews in Toledo. The remaining Jews were prohibited from holding
public office, practicing medicine, hiring Christian servants and dealing in bread,
wine, flour or meat.
THE RECONQUISTA AND THE GRANADA DECREE
By 1492, Christian forces had repatriated all of the Iberian Peninsula from
occupancy by the Moors (known as the Reconquista). The final victory was at Granada where,
on March 31®\ the reigning monarchs of Catholic Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella,
issued their edict of expulsion.
The Jews were given 120 days to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. Those leaving could not take
with them currency, precious metals or jewels. The travail of the Jewish
community was of legendary proportions.
It is estimated that nearly half of the Jewish population of Spain was baptized
and remained in Spain. The remaining Jews, devoted to the faith of their fathers,
fled to Portugal, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Holland, Italy and elsewhere. The
vast majority of those remaining in Spain as converts were known as Anusim, a
Hebrew word meaning those who had been forcibly converted. However, some
converts undoubtedly accepted baptism out of personal religious conviction or
their perception of certain social and economic benefits.
The Jews who fled to Portugal were offered a period of eight months of
sanctuary. If they remained beyond that time, they became subject to being
slaves of the realm. Sadly, many could not leave in time and ended up in
servitude. Several of the children of these unfortunate souls were taken to an
island off of Brazil to be raised as Christians. When a subsequent king came to
the throne, he recognized the economic value of having Jews in his realm and
reversed the decree of slavery. In order to entrench his power, the new king felt
obliged to marry the daughter Ferdinand and Isabella. They would not agree to
the union until he rid his nation of its Jewish population. To retain the Jews of
Portugal and still have a totally Catholic nation, he gathered them in one place
and, without their consent, baptized them. Thus, he had both his Jews and his
In Spain, Jewish converts were called "New Christians," thus distinguishing them
from Spain's old Christian population. Conversion, which some Jews thought
would bring safety, peace and stability, simply opened the door to a nightmare of
pain and anxiety. The old anti-Semitism that had given rise to the destruction of
Spain's Jewish communities did not simply disappear. Many viewed "New
Christians" as Jews hiding under a thin, protective camouflage of Catholicism.
To a significant degree, that was true. Predictably, the change of overt religious
practices by the baptized Jews did not affect their inclination for advancement
and achievement, greatly provoking the "Old Christian" community.
Everywhere within the Peninsula, New Christians were obliged to prove that they
had not reverted to their former Jewish practices. These New Christians were so
frightened of being labeled heretics that they attempted to demonstrate their
loyalty by hanging pork to dry in front of their homes, arranging card games in
lieu of Friday night Sabbath worship or attending regular church services.
The baptized Jews demonstrated a varying degree of commitment to
Catholicism. While Converses practiced a kind of recalcitrant acceptance of the
faith imposed upon them by the circumstances, Marranos (a Spanish word for
"pigs,"), outwardly practiced the new Catholic faith, but inwardly adhered to the
essential tenets of Judaism. Jews prefer to use the term Crypto-Jews instead of
By the 1480s, Spain had begun to realize that many forced converts were
returning to Judaism. To combat such heresy, Torquemada, an extremist priest,
who was the Confessor to Queen Isabella, adapted for Spain the infamous
Inquisition trials employed late in the twelfth century by Pope Innocent III.
Inquisitions assembled a court of inquiry into the religious fidelity of Roman
Catholics. Those found wanting or even questioning these tenets of the faith,
were dealt with severely. Punishment for even a marginal infraction or reversion
to Jewish practices meant having one's property appropriated by the tribunal,
then being sentenced to life in prison or being burned alive in a public execution.
In some instances, if a Jew admitted to an active reversion, that person might
then be "charitably" garroted before submitting his or her body to the flames.
Thousands of Converses were presumably executed or died in Inquisition
prisons between 1480 and 1808. The Crown and ultimately the Inquisitors were
rewarded by the appropriation and distribution of their victims' property. The
converts were second-rate citizens in a land which submitted them to the agonies
of the Inquisition and the loss of life and property. In a unique and painful irony,
the scourge of the Inquisition was used against people who the Church and State
forced to convert, but could not be used against those retaining their Jewish faith,
as they could not be charged with heresy.
Many sought to escape the Inquisition by leaving the Peninsula for lands that
might be free of the Inquisition and provide an opportunity to resume their lives
as Jews. Spanish and Portuguese realms in this New World seemed like
attractive options for the converts. There, the converts could retain their customs
and language, free of the anxieties of the Inquisition. However, as fate would
have it, the Inquisition followed Converses and Crypto-Jews to Mexico in 1571
and to Cartagena, Peru and elsewhere in the Spanish and Portuguese New
World In 1610.
The Inquisition continued in full force and effect in both Europe and the New
Worl dfor 345 years. By 1834, considerable numbers of Converses and Crypto
Jews had moved to Mexico, portions of which later became New Mexico, Texas
and Arizona following the Battle of the Alamo. Others settled in Colombia, Peru,
Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the
Dominican Republic. Many of these people revived some of the practices of their
Jewish ancestors, the culture constrained and rejected by the religion that was
imposed by conversion.
Although the Inquisition had officially ended in 1834, it did not result in an
immediate abandonment of Catholicism by lineal descendants of the forced
converts. Those Latin American communities in which many found themselves
were committed religiously and politically to Roman Catholicism. Descendants
were born into and reared in the Catholic faith. Any suspicion that they were
"different" from the others in their Catholic community arose from occasional
whispers among kinfolk or from strange religious customs unwittingly continued
by family members. Secrecy was the byword, lest they be identified as returnees
to "that despised faith that caused the death of the Christian God."
Nevertheless, by some programmed genetic mandate, many in the Converse
and Crypto-Jewish community continued to marry among themselves, thus
preserving the uniqueness of the group and their heritage. During the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, a subtle but doctrinaire form of anti-Semitism,
preserved in many of the Christian communities in Europe and Latin America,
frequently found expression in selected religious texts or from Church pulpits.
In the years following World War II, however, with the universal awareness of a
Holocaust in which six million Jews were systematically exterminated by the
Germans (occasionally with the support of other Christian nations), important
transitions occurred that would impact the Converse and Crypto-Jewish
communities. The post World War II environment was altered significantly for
Converses and Crypto-Jews in that:
1. The perceived infallibility of the Catholic Church as a moral foundation
eroded with multiple accusations of deviations, concealment and failure to
root out faulted priests.
2. The Catholic Church became conflicted from within by contentious issues
like contraception and celibacy of the priesthood.
3. Catholicism, in Latin America, became weakened by the rapid growth of
the Evangelical Church.
4. In the mid-twentieth century, there arose, like a Phoenix out of the ashes
of Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen Belsen and other death camps, a new
and vital Jewish national existence. As the State of Israel grew, so did its
pride and ability to defend itself against multiple enemies. With Statehood
came extraordinary strides in agriculture, science, medicine, philosophy,
electronics, literature and poetry. Jews were no longer itinerant occupiers
of other people's countries. They had a land and a nationhood of their
5. For those living in rural communities, whose vistas rarely had extended
beyond the villages or towns in which they resided, the availability of radio,
television and Internet, as well as affordable education and transportation,
opened minds, eyes and hearts.
6. Although anti-Semitism did not disappear, it was no longer popular to be
an overt anti-Semite.
7. The Catholic Church and its Prelates, accused of moral indifference to the
events of the Holocaust, became more ecumenical in their views; more
liberal Popes were elected; and the Church, confronting the Judeo
Christian origin of its faith, de-emphasized the polar positions between
Christians and Jews.
8.These and other developments fertilized the dormant seeds leading to a
rediscovery and prompted such questions as:
Why did my great grandmother light candles on Friday nights?
Why did my parents say that pork was not good for us?
Why did members of my family cover the mirrors when a family member
died? Why does my family salt meat before cooking it?
Why do the children in our family have Old Testament names?
Why do we say adio (one G-d) instead of adios?
Those queries in thoughtful minds would assuredly lead to soul-searching
questions like: Why do I feel like an alien in my own community? Why do I feel
more comfortable with Jewish friends and professionals? What is the origin of
my interest in the welfare of the State of Israel? Why have I not pursued family
rumors about a different or unique origin?
9. A BEACON BACK
Such inquiries have spawned organizations with a mission of providing history,
information and assistance in finding a path back to Judaism. These include
groups like Shevei Israel, Kulanu, The Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies, B'nai
Anusim and SephardicGen. Some organizations are focused on descendants in
a specific Latin American country, others concentrate on returning descendants
to Orthodox religious practices and still others focus only on Crypto-Jews
(seemingly abandoning Converses as a lost cause). Albeit all do a great service
to the descendants and to the Jewish community, these groups resemble a
series of unrelated notes in search of a single, unified melody. The absence of
an orchestrated cohesive and funded international Jewish effort to bring back the
"descendants of the Stolen Jews" speaks less of what they have become and
more of what we have become.
The first step back to a personal rediscovery frequently starts with one's own
family name. An ample history of Sephardic family names is easily accessible on
such Internet sites as: Sephardim.com, SephardicGen Resources,
These sites and others provide not only Sephardic names, but demonstrate
where those names are used historically in Sephardic context. Once an
individual can identify that his matrilineal surname is Sephardic in origin the next
step is to trace family history. Although a number of genealogical organizations
can be helpful, it is doubtful (though not impossible) that one can trace lineal
origin back to Pre-lnquisition times.
Genie Milgrom, a Cuban expatriate reared in
Catholic Miami, Florida, succeeded in tracing her heritage through 15
grandmothers to identify her personal Jewish roots. A fire brand in the process of
rediscovery, Genie now lives a traditional Jewish life.
DNA, another magical "genie," facilitates the discovery of one's way back along a
trail of ancestors to a particular point in history.
Igenia, a recognized DNAService, maintains that "(a) DNA test by Igenia provides you
with clear evidence of whether you have Jewish roots."
Another respected company. Family Tree DNA, represents that its services will help you
"discover your Jewish Ancestry"and touts that its comparative databases are
the "largest in the world."
Those descendants who returned to the Jewish People are often the most ardent
and selfless guides to other returnees. The number of inquiries by individuals
seeking their true identity have increased dramatically. It is as If the events of the
twentieth century cured the collective paranoia born of the anxieties and
excesses of the Inquisition.
A visit to the Internet and to the stories of those who have struggled their way back
to Judaism is enough to generate tears of joy in the eyes of the clay Golem.
10.THE ROAD BACK HAS MANY CHALLENGES FOR THE DESCENDANTS
Many in the religious community maintain that 500 years of separation from the
Jewish people (over 15 generations) is too long a hiatus for a continuum of
Jewish identity. Without proof of a direct matrilineal line of Jewish ancestors,
many in the rabbinate require conversion for reentry. Such historical genetic
evidence is virtually impossible to achieve. Sadly, absent such proof, Crypto
Jews and Conversos seeking reentry would merely be treated as gentiles
seeking to convert to Judaism.
Resistance to the restoration of Conversos and Crypto-Jews into the core of the
Jewish community may come from multiple sources:
1. Familv and Friends: The greatest hurdle to rediscovery and adoption of
Jewish identity can be someone's own family. Parents, siblings and
children are often active members of a Catholic church and kindred
organizations. Public awareness that a member of that family is re
identifying himself as a Jew often strikes angst in the hearts of blood
kindred. Will they now be viewed as Jews and excluded from the
religious, social and commercial relationships in the Catholic community in
which they have lived all of their lives? Re-identification is a difficult hurdle
for those seeking to retain the love of their families, while simultaneously
rediscovering their Jewish heritage.
2. The Catholic Church: how will the Church respond to effective efforts by
the Jewish community to recapture the lineal descendants of those forcibly
converted? Admittedly, the Catholic Church of today is quite different from
that which existed in the Middle Ages. Considering the manner in which
Spanish Jews were converted, under what moral grounds (Christian or
others) could the Church resist the return of the descendants? Indeed,
the Church should and will responsibly provide its records and encourage
and assist those who genuinely wish to return to Judaism.
3. The Jewish Religious Community: The sheer will and effort necessary to
wrest oneself from the bonds of a lifetime's religion and face rejection by
one's own family takes uncommon dedication and commitment. Should
that effort be confronted by a Jewish response that insists that you need to
be converted because you are really not one of us? The same benefits
can be achieved by simply requiring a program of education to acquaint
that re-entrant with the duties, obligations and joys of life in the Jewish
community. Ironically, there are so many accepted versions of Jewish life,
i.e. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular,
Sephardic, Ashkenazi and others, that one would be hard put to know who
could provide a returning descendant with the key to re-entry.
4. The State of Israel: Many of the Converses and Crypto-Jews seeking
return will come from lives of poverty within Latin American countries or
certain sectors of North Africa. How will Israel qualify these persons if
they seek the privileges of Israel's Law of Return? Must there be a
separate judicial determination in addition to any religious
accommodation? How, too, will Israel deal with Converses and Crypto
Jews of mixed blood? It is doubtful, even with the benefit of modern DNA,
that a person of pure Jewish blood could be identified. What percentage
of Jewish blood is necessary to qualify under the Law of Return? Can the
relatively compact size of Israel today accommodate the infusion of an
additional large new population? Ought a statue be erected in Haifa
Harbor with an outstretched hand beckoning the return of the descendants
of the "Stolen Jews"?
5. Descendants of Those Who Did Not Submit to Conversion: The current
Sephardic Jewish Community consists of descendants of those who
elected to flee with little or nothing, rather than convert. Their ancestors
presumably were subject to the same violence, threats and duress that
changed their former brethren into New Christians. Yet, those who fled
remained faithful to Judaism. Is there the perception that the descendants
of the New Christians are merely the fruit of a poisoned tree and should
not be received in the body of the Jewish People? Or, more likely, will
they be welcomed back by the ironical use of the Christological doctrine of
"the Return of the Prodigal Child"?
It is nothing short of miraculous that a rivulet of descendants, after 500 years,
has found its way back to the mainstream of their people. This may be our last
clear chance to bring back the descendants to the core of the Jewish People.
We have a moral, historical and religious obligation to inform, educate and
welcome the children of our lost brothers. The ultimate irony lies in the fact
Spain and Portugal, in an obvious effort to return to the days of their glory, have
offered citizenship to the descendants of the traumatically expelled Sephardic
community. Can the Jewish community do less?
It is estimated that today 20 percent of the people of Spain and Portugal are of
Sephardic descent. An even larger percentage would have immigrated to the
New World to escape the Inquisition. Mere casual academic interest or delivery
of responsibility for the descendants to a handful of underfunded organizations,
represents an abandonment of our brothers' children. The Jewish community
must assemble itself into a unified force and provide the funding and leadership
necessary to bring our people home. "Home" Is the community and does not
necessarily relate to the degree of religious practice.
It is no surprise, that one of the most fundamental tenets of membership in the
Jewish community is the principal of Pidyon Shvuyim, the obligation to redeem
one or more Jews from captivity. That is a sacred obligation of membership in an
extraordinary and ancient people. The Israelis were so sensitive to that
obligation that they did not rest until one Jew, Sgt. Gilad Shalit, was returned to
his people even at the price of a thousand Palestinian prisoners.
Every time a child, who is a lineal descendant of the Stolen Jews, reaches
maturity and does not know of his origin and heritage or is fearful to acknowledge
it, a new captive is born. It is the obligation of every Jew to educate and assist
those descendants in learning their identity, reclaiming their Jewish heritage and
thus releasing them from their captivity.
Regretfully, six million victims of the Holocaust are beyond our salvation. The
descendants of the Stolen Jews of the Spanish Inquisition are not. It is time to
awaken our sleeping giant.
By Douglas C. Kaplan