On February 28, 2015, I received a long letter from someone I did not know in response to a blog I had posted on IsBlog back in June 22, 2011, describing a conference that was held at Netanya Academic College (NAC) entitled “The Worldwide Awakening of the Descendants of the Secret Jews (Anousim).” This was quite a startling letter, since it was a cri de coeur. The author (whose name I will not divulge) was a respectable professional from New York whose family had moved there from Puerto Rico. He was very concerned about the fate of people like himself who had discovered that they were in fact descendants of Secret Jews (Crypto-Jews, marranos or Bnei Anousim).
In that and subsequent correspondence, he explained that he had decided to explore the genealogy of his family background, tracing it from Puerto Rico back to Spain in the early 1500’s. He discovered that some of his ancestors had left Spain and Portugal after the Inquisition had arrived, traveled to Flanders and the Canary Islands, finally settling in the remote mountainous interior of Puerto Rico. In trying to understand why they made this extreme transition, he came to the inescapable conclusion that they had been Secret Jews and were escaping the Inquisition, as many thousands of Secret Jews had done. These were the descendants of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity (conversos), yet remained secretly true to their own traditions.
Any small infraction (such as wearing clean clothes on Saturday, not eating pork, or lighting candles on Friday night) could result in a family being accused of the capital crime of Judaizing, which could lead to torture, ruination and death. For this reason, many descendants of Secret Jews fled from Spain and Portugal into the remote regions of their colonies. Other inquiries and family traditions, whose Judaic origins had been forgotten, convinced him that they were in fact Bnei Anousim. This was a shocking revelation to someone who had been brought up all their life thinking that they were Protestant.
Having come to terms with the implications of this discovery, he had delved into the history and background and had come across my blog article. It happened that we were just about to have another conference on the subject, entitled “Mapping the Anousim Diaspora: Six centuries of pushing borders,” held at NAC by the Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies on March 23, 2015. Because of his mounting curiosity, never having attended a conference on this subject, on short notice he decided to come.
I met him at his hotel and we got to know each other. I also took him back and forth with me to the conference. We got along extremely well and I and others answered his many questions and concerns. I also had the privilege of taking him to his first Shabbat service in a synagogue. He also met two other people at the conference who had come from Puerto Rico and shared his background, as well as several others, some of whom had converted to Judaism. I believe this was all quite an overwhelming experience for him.
Upon returning to the US he started a process of returning to Judaism and rejoining the Jewish people. You must understand that the difference between “returning” and “converting” is a big distinction for such Bnei Anousim (as it has been for other groups, such as the Ethiopian Jews). In general, the Rabbinate and the Israel Ministry of the Interior, require documentary evidence that the matrilineal line has always been Jewish. In many and perhaps most cases this is impossible. Hence some Bnei Anousim simply take a conversion course, but some refuse and say that since they are Jewish by birth they should not have to convert.
In his case, he was not able to provide sufficient documentation to satisfy the rabbinate in New York, but his evident sincerity and commitment to becoming an Orthodox Jew, led the Rabbis to accept him as Jewish. On Yom Hashoah last (May 3) he was accepted by the Beth Din of Queens NY as a Jew, he received immersion in the mikve and had an aliyah in the Orthodox synagogue. This was an epic return and the righting of a historic wrong, in which I am proud to have played some small part. Mazaltov!