Mapping the Anousim Diaspora

For the past two days I have been attending the Conference “Mapping the Anousim Diaspora: Six centuries of pushing borders,” held at Netanya Academic College (NAC) by the Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies.  For those who are not aware, Sefardi refers to the Jews who derive from Spain (Sefarad in Hebrew) and Portugal, and Anousim (meaning “forced” in Hebrew) refers to the Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism and were then subjected to the repression of the Inquisition, causing them to scatter to the periphery of the Spanish-Portuguese world.

The Conference was organized by Prof. Avraham Gross, Chair of the Institute at NAC and Ben Gurion University, Salomon Buzaglo, Manager of the Institute, and Esti Feinreich, Administrator of NAC.  The Conference was sponsored by the NAC, the Sabah Foundation and the Embassy of Spain in Israel.  The opening speakers were Prof. Zvi Arad, President of NAC, Miriam Fierberg-Ikar, Mayor of Netanya, Colette Avital, former Israeli Amb. to Portugal, and HE Fernando Carderera Soler, Spanish Ambassador to Israel.   They each spoke briefly about their relationship to the current topic.  Some points from their presentations, Prof. Arad delivered a moving eulogy for Elie Schalit, distinguished Israeli philanthropist, who died recently at the age of 94, who supported this program at NAC; the Spanish Amb. discussed the law coming before the Spanish Parliament regarding the return of Spanish citizenship to those who can prove their Sefardic/Anousim roots, that will be similar to a law already passed by the Portuguese Parliament.

The vast volume and scope of the presentations are too much for me to summarize here, so I will point out highlights that impressed me.  There were Sessions devoted to the Anusim of Spain, Portugal, Italy (including Sicily), Latin America (including Cuba) and the Spanish Islands (the Balearic and Canary Islands) and N. America.  There were also individual lectures on Anusim in Africa and Turkey (the Donme).   Prof. Jose Sol from Complutense University of Madrid described his research in systematically collecting and classifying Crypto-Jewish engravings from villages along the Spanish-Portuguese border, and he showed many examples.

Although many of the lectures were historical surveys, nevertheless there are many examples of Bnei Anusim continuing to this day, after 500 years of being Secret Jews and living double lives.   There is only one recorded case of people actually continuing to practise Judaism in Iberia throughout the centuries, although nominally in secret, and that was in Belmonte, Northern Portugal, that was beyond the reach of the Inquisition.  Rabbi David Touitou spoke about this topic, and pointed out that he had converted (or returned) 70-80 people back to Judaism there in the 1980s.  Now, of course they have an Orthodox Synagogue.  Another location was in the mountainous interior of El Salvador, where Anousim communities practised Judaism from the 1850s.

The Session on Personal Trajectories was the most emotionally charged part of the Conference.  The most compelling personal story described at the conference was that of a young woman, now named Chana Eyal, who came from Porto, Portugal, and who was given a golden magen David by her grandmother.  This led her on a search to Casa Shalom and then to Genie Milgrom, who helped her establish her Jewish identity, and she is now recently married and lives in Israel.

Doreen Carvajal, NY Times reporter based in Paris, described her family trajectory from Spain to Costa Rica and then to California, and the finding of a menorah in an aunt’s cupboard that led her to research her roots.  Genie Milgrom’s family went from Fermoselle, Spain, on the north-east Portuguese border, to Braganza, Portugal, to Havana to Miami. She has described her genealogy in her book “22 Grandmothers,” and she was able to find all of them, 1-15 in Fermoselle and 16-22 in Braganza.  David del Coso Westerman’s family used to light candles on Fri night, and he realized the significance.  He is descended from saddle-makers in Toledo, Spain, and a Dutch family of Anousim named Westerman. He now lives in Jerusalem.

Jay Sanchez, a Lawyer from NY, is descended from an Anusim family named Dorta who were early settlers in Puerto Rico and who were arrested by the Inquisition.  He is considering a legal suit against the Inquisition for damages.  He cited several important precedents, including those of reparations against the German Government for the Holocaust, as well as cases dating to 1363 in Goa, 1539 (a Papal Bull against torture) and a US law of 1790.  I also befriended Joe Maldonado, an MD from up-State NY and the VP of the Medical Society of NY, who is from Puerto Rico and who in researching his family tree came to the inescapable conclusion that his ancestors fled from Spain to the wilds of Puerto Rico in the 16th century to escape the Inquisition.   He was brought up as a Protestant that he sees as a way of his family escaping the grip of the Catholic Church, and he is now embracing his Anousim/Jewish origins.  There were so many other examples of people from Brazil, Texas, Tennessee, Florida and so on, that the general feeling was that this subject of the Anousim is ripe for a great expansion.

Ending the Conference was a Workshop on genealogical research, run by Yael Cohen, Chief Genealogist of the Inst. for Sefardi and Anousim Studies, who for a fee  is available to help people research their family tree.  Altogether this Conference was a historic and highly rewarding experience.



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