Following the inaugural meeting of the new Caucus on the Anousim at the Knesset (described in my previous blog), the meeting adjourned to the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem where there was a mini-conference on “The Anousim Diaspora Today: Jewish Challenge and Hope.” The moderator of this Conference was Prof. Avi Gross, Ben Gurion University and representing the Inst. for Sefardi and Anousim Studies at Netanya Academic College. The opening remarks were given by Shai Hermesh, Chairman of the World Jewish Congress-Israel.
There were two speakers, the first former Israeli Ambassador Mordechai Arbell, who at the age of 88 was able to draw on a life-time of experience dealing with the Anousim. His title “Where have they gone?” reflected his experience of the phenomenon that from the time of the cessation of the Inquisition and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, many Anousim decided that it was time to give up the struggle to maintain any semblance of Jewish identity. He gave several anecdotes of meeting Anousim communities around South America and then going to visit them some years later, and they had either disappeared or there were very few older people left. He gave two reasons for this, their despair at being so entirely isolated, and being treated improperly when the Jewish communities discovered them.
The Orthodox were too repressive, trying to force them into a version of Judaism that was inappropriate for them, while the Reform made the same mistake, considering their religious culture inappropriate and trying to replace it with a new Americanized liberal Judaism that they could not relate to. They rejected both approaches and were very nearly lost to Judaism altogether. They needed a Sefardi cultural form of Judaism that respected their own culture. He ended with a positive anecdote. He had met the Osorto clan of Panama, who are affluent businessmen and land-owners. Some had remained Catholic and some had converted to Judaism. He was invited to a meeting with the 11 leaders of this clan at which they reported that they had all decided to return to Judaism.
Genie Milgrom spoke in the name of the Anousim. She was brought up in Cuba and then Miami, but she decided at the age of 7 that she was not really Catholic and by the time she was a teenager she had decided that in fact she and her family were of Jewish origin. She converted when she was in her 40s and then married an Orthodox man. It was only then that she started on her passion of Jewish genealogy, finally tracing her maternal line back 22 generations to 1405, that led her to write her book “My 15 Grandmothers.” She used the archives in Spain and Portugal, that included the murder of some of them by the Inquisition. She is now the President of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies (see http://www.cryptojews.com).
She has become a fan of DNA analysis and after her profile was done, Family DNA compared her sequences to their whole database, and found only one match to a young man with the family name of Ramos in Brazil! Ramos was also one of her antecedent’s names. She compared the situation of the Anousim to that of the Soviet Jews and the Ethiopians, and made the important distinction that while those groups came with their families, the Anousim come back to Judaism one at a time, not as a coherent group. Also they are spread all over the world. She finished by saying that she studied Inquisition documents starting from scratch and if she could do it anyone can. She received a standing ovation.
The program also included excerpts from a film entitled “Children of the Inquisition” being prepared by a professional documentary maker, Joe Lovett (see http://www.childrenoftheinquisition.com/preview; password: coi). There was also a dramatic presentation entitled “A Jew in the dark” by Shmuel Vilozhni, a well-known Israeli entertainer. This was based on the true story of Andres Gonzalez from 1485, whose parents were burnt as Anousim. He was taken in by a priest and studied Catholicism with him and became a monk, but he secretly married a Jewish woman and continued to practice Judaism in secret. He finally decided to confess this to his trusted priest. But the priest arranged for the Inquisition to overhear his confession (a breach of ethics) and he was immediately arrested and then murdered.
The last speaker was Ashley Perry, Director of the Knesset Caucus on the Anousim, who described his new organization entitled Reconectar, which will feature an interactive web site where Bnei Anousim can tell their stories, exchange information and ask for confidential help. So the session ended on a note of hope and optimism for the future.