Returning to Egypt: Conversos who Returned to Spain and Portugal

While it is easy to focus on the Conversos who escaped Spain or Portugal and successfully reintegrated in Jewish life, there were others were not so successful. There were  also many cases of those who chose not to reintegrate into Jewish life. Others even returned to the Peninsula.

Antonio Fereira, for example,  served as Queen Catherine’s physician and his brother Francisco returned to Portugal and never attempted to join the emerging community. Esteban de Ares Fonseca, originally from Lisbon arrived in Amsterdam via Bayonne. When he arrived his relatives, now openly living as Jews tried to persuade him to undergo circumcision and live as a Jew. He made it clear that he was not interested in doing so. Their efforts frustrated, they turned to Rabbi Morteira for help in convincing Esteban to embrace Judaism. Esteban lived with Rabbi Morteira for six months but in the end refused to live as a Jew.

Rabbi Morteira issued a ban against him in the synagogue. So strongly did Rabbi Morteira believe in the Jewish status of Esteban, that he was willing to excommunicate him for failing to return to Judaism, a faith neither he nor his ancestors had fully known for generations. After having been excommunicated for approximately two weeks, Esteban acceded and underwent circumcision. The story did not end there, however and in 1635 he voluntarily presented himself before the Inquisition in Madrid testifying that it had never been his intention to embrace Judaism nor undergo circumcision.

There were others who after having embraced Judaism officially, opted to return to Christianity. Prominent individuals such as Augstin Coronel Chacon, Solomon Franco, Eliahu de Lima, Isaac de Azevedo, Aaron Gabay, David Gabay, and Jonah Gabay reverted to Christianity after having embraced Judaism. Even Thomas de Rojas, the son of Duarte Enriques Alvares one of the founders of the community in London journeyed to the Canary Islands. There he voluntarily presented evidence before the Inquisition regarding his father and stepmother’s adherence to Judaism.

There were others who for whatever reason rejected Judaism and preferred to return to Spain. Gabriel da Costa, Francisco Tomas de Miranda, and Bartolome Mendez Trancoso were among those who desired to return to the Peninsula. Trancoso requested “safe-conduct so that he, his wife, children and family should not be punished by the Holy Inquisition” if they returned to Spain. To secure this, Trancoso was willing to provide economic information that would prove beneficial to the Spanish Crown. He also named several New Christians in Spain whom he accused of receiving false coinage and were involved in other illegal activity. Francisco Tomas de Miranda offered the Crown information that would purportedly benefit the Spanish treasury. He described himself as “residing in Holland where I live as a Catholic as is well-known and can be checked.” Miranda’s self-description was not so accurate, however. Yosef Kaplan explains,

“Still, being compelled by Dutch circumstances to pose outwardly as a Jew, he had no illusions about his status in the eyes of the Inquisition and requested a safe-conduct so that he would be able to go to Madrid. He elicited at least some interest in Madrid though not enough evidently to procure him immunity form the Inquisition.”

Rabbi Immanuel Aboab wrote in 1626 or 1627, that “From letters that have arrived from this land [France] it can be seen how many persons of our nation return to Spain.” Family members often tried to coax family members still living in the Peninsula to leave. Some tried to induce them to do so by excluding them from inheritance should they fail to leave. Others tried to make theological arguments for their family to flee the lands of idolatry.

Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and the author of What is Kosher? and What is Jewish Prayer?


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