The challenge of present day descendants of Conversos may not seem comparable to the those faced by Conversos in the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. There is no Inquisition that can arrest people, interrogate them, torture them, or put them to death. However, we must recognize that while the fear of physical punishment has been eliminated, the social, psychological, and emotional challenges that many Bnei Anusim face is real.
Many of the issues they face are encountered by individuals from other religious backgrounds embracing a different faith. The uniqueness of Bnei Anusim, their Hispanic heritage, and their relationship with the greater Jewish community can exacerbate the challenges.
I will tell one story as example. I had a conversation with a young man who came from a Converso background. He had grown up nominally Catholic, but without a serious commitment. Somehow he learned or was informed of his Jewish background. He began a quest of study over a period of years. He decided to convert and eventually moved to Israel. His conversion was rejected so he converted again, only to have it invalidated anew. Distraught he abandoned Judaism and embraced evangelical Christianity. He responded that the Jewish establishment was corrupt and that Christianity provided grace which he had needed.
Now if we were change the timeframe and a few elements, this story would not be out of place in a review of the history of Converos leaving the Iberian Peninsula in the 1600s. I have highlighted some of these cases in my book, Secret Jews. Many of them underwent circumcision, practiced Judaism, and for various reasons abandoned Jewish life and returned to the Peninsula. It was too difficult, they could not endure the harsh economic environment in Amsterdam (or other cities)., there was conflict in their families, etc.
Now each story is different and I have known individuals without Converso backgrounds that have also abandoned Jewish life after having their conversions annulled. We might then be tempted to ascribe these decisions to simple discouragement or feelings of betrayal or disappointment. Indeed, there is a component of that I believe. But I also believe there are other factors. There is the family component. The fact that rarely if ever do the families of these individuals wholeheartedly support their decision. In fact, I have seen outright antagonism from family members who regard their relatives as heretics, apostates, if not worse.
There is also another issue which again is not restricted to Bnai Anusim. It is issue of ethnicity. I had a conversation with a Cuban family some time ago. They related their Anusim background and noted that they were committed to Jewish life. Their family was multi-racial. They approached an orthodox rabbi. His response to their situation was honest, but for most people, brutal.
He stated that he saw practical problems for a multi-racial family converting to Judaism. Who would the children marry be bluntly asked. They were also economically disadvantaged. Despite this, the family would be required to enroll their children in an orthodox day school. The family of course did not have the ~8-15k per child that was necessary. Now again, one can find these issues among individuals from other ethnic backgrounds who do not have connections to Conversos. The issue, however, is that the descendants of Anusim are already facing challenges because of their complex identity.
They are often struggling with faith issues. They are struggling with family issues. They may also be struggling financially. One family I met was comprised of recent immigrants to the United States and expressed their own series of concerns.
I hope to expand on this theme in future posts.
Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and the author of Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism