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The Survival of the Marranos June 22, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

A Beachcombing favorite to day, the Marranos of Belmonte. In 1492 Spain expelled its Jews or at least those who refused to convert to Catholicism. Some of these fleeing Spanish Jews crossed the border into Portugal where they joined an already substantial Jewish population and the Jews of all descriptions there were driven out of Portugal five years later. Most then left Iberia, a substantial minority converted and a smaller minority pretended to convert but defended their traditions in secret. All modern studies – pace the Inquisition – suggest that the pretending minority was tiny, but they were an interesting group and one that was necessarily invisible to history save when the Church exerted its killing disciplines. In the ‘hidden’ families through all Spain and Portugal tradition were handed down from generation to generation. In most places these traditions fossilized: families in Mallorca who even in the twentieth century refused to eat pork, families in Catalonia who married among certain bloodlines… But in one place, Belmonte, the traditions remain attached to memory and Judaism survived in the attics and cellars of a small Portuguese town.

The first outside who became conscious of this extraordinary community was one Samuel Schwartz, a Polish mining engineer who went to work in northern Portugal in 1917, almost four hundred and fifty years after Jewish Portugal had disintegrated. Schwartz who himself was Jewish realised that some of the local ‘Catholics’ quietly followed Jewish customs: there are between 100 and 300 Marranos in Belmonte today. Schwartz was a Jew and he convinced the Marranos of this by saying Jewish words and prayers: the only word that the Marranos recognised was Adonai, the word of their God.

The Belmonte Marranos, nervously emerged from the Catholic shadows, particularly after the arrival of democracy in Portugal. They continued in their customs at home, but often remained Catholics in public attending, as their ancestors had for years, mass. As well as Hebrew, many Jewish traditions were lost – necessarily circumcision, a dead giveaway to the enemies of the faith. But more important were the traditions – sometimes mutated almost out of recognition through the centuries – that survived and developed in this peculiar religious rock pool, far from the smashing tide.

Not least interesting was the importance given to the women Marranos in religious matters. Tradition had it that any Marrano marriages took place in church (naturally) but only really became binding when a rezadeira (a prayer woman) blessed the couple together in the privacy of the Marrano homes. Even when it was safe to follow these customs, the habit for secrecy was so ingrained that it seems to have become the essential part of the Marrano’s religious experience.

In other parts of Spain and Portugal those of Jewish descent have, in some cases, begun to experiment with Judaism or even to convert back to their ancestors’ religion. These choices seem to have been individual choices, made on the basis of a surname or the vaguest of memories: they were vital but private and existential acts.

The Marranos though had come through with their religion intact. However, it was only in the late 1980s that some Marranos decided to formalise their links with Judaism and agreed to a synagogue being built: men of all ages who wished to ‘convert’ were circumcised.

Here too though there was pain: the synagogue was Orthodox and many of the Belmonte traditions – memories of the experiences of the Falashas in Israel – were deemed to be anything but Orthodox. The female members of the community were, for example, shocked to learn that they could not pray on the ground floor of the Synagogue.

Some of the older, less Orthodox traditions are now carried on in silence again. As one Marrano from Belmonte put it: ‘There used to be Crypto-Jews. Now there are Crypto-Marranos’.

Beachcombing would be fascinated by other five-hundred-year-old religious traditions, Jewish or otherwise, that have survived in secret: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


23 June 2012: Invisible writes: ‘A few years ago I was doing some research on Crypto-Jews in Spain and Portugal and ran across this interesting article on Sephardic and Crypto-Jewish musical traditions by a scholar who studied the Belmonte population, among others.’ Thanks Invisible!

30 June 2012: Jay Nelson author of SONS OF PERDITION: New Mexico in the Secret History of the Catholic Sex Scandals writes in ‘If you want to learn about marranos, my home state of New Mexico was basically originally colonized by them — along with witches from Spain. Understandably, both groups (and several boatloads of Lutherans and bigamists as well, according to the records) were trying to get as far away from the Spanish Inquisition as possible. Anyway, the very first attempt at settling the area in 1590 was unauthorized and tellingly, included no Catholic clergy. The leader, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa, and most of the members, were probably crypto-jews on the run from the Mexican Inquisition, which had discovered a hotbed of them down in Nuevo León. The nephew of the governor there, Luis Carvajal the Younger, was found living openly as a Jew and was promptly burned for it, which shocked the Spanish colonies. The governor himself died in prison. Therefore, many families headed north, both before and after the great Pueblo Revolt, despite the dangers and hardship. Many prominent families in the state with names like Salazar and Rael are descended from marranos, and though it is estimated there may be as many as 1,500 who still attend secret synagogues while pretending to be Catholics, they have no connection with the Jewish community that came in with European traders over the Santa Fe Trail after 1830. Many no longer remember their roots. Some “converted” as 7th Day Adventists in the last century in order to blend in better. But others who came out as Jews during the early part of the twentieth century soon went back into hiding after finding out about the Holocaust. Who could blame them? It was a famous case in the 1980s, I believe, where a Greek Orthodox priest (!) found out his ancestors were crypto-jews and freaked out that first brought widespread attention to them and their communities. Another group still quietly here are the “witches”, brujas, though of course, they are generally politely called “healers” or curanderas. At the time the first colonies were opening up around 1610, apparently some of the witch-fever in Southern France spilled over into Northern Spain, leading to an exodus. So the Inquisition found that herbalists and traditional medical practitioners, along with crypto-jews, had also come over. When the Edict of Faith was read to the people in Santa Fe in 1631, the inquisitors noted widespread consternation at the prohibition of charms and powders, though there had been little reaction the first time it was read years before. And about half a century after New England had its witchcraft trials, New Mexico endured much the same. But the lively tradition of folk healing still survives here, as numerous traditional herbal pharmacies indicate. There are other groups hiding out from the Church, too. Primary among them is the secret sect of Penitentes still active with their bloody self-discipline in their own chapels or moradas. (There are areas of the hills that anglos or white guys like me wisely avoid during Holy Week.) And the Indians did not ever abandon their own religions, of course, just took them literally underground, where they survive in their kivas to this day. Interesting place, my home state. No wonder the government thought it a perfect site to build the atomic bomb undisturbed, and also where the Roman Catholic Church found an ideal dump for all their sexually-dysfunctional priests, too. Truly this is as the tourist brochures say, “the Land of Enchantment.” thanks Jay!