Three Books on ‘Converso’ Sephardim by Fuat Andic, Gloria Golden, and Yirmiyahu Yovel

Reviewed by Judith Roumani

Fuat Andic, Farewell Homeland: Tale of Two Cities and One People ISBN: 1-4392-1469-7; ISBN: 13: 9781439214695., 2008. Originally published as Elveda Yurdum in 2006 by EREN Publishing, Turkey, and translated from the Turkish by Suphan Andic

Gloria Golden, Remnants of Crypto-Jews among Hispanic Americans ISBN: 0-915745-56-9. Mountain View, CA: Floricanto Press, 2005

Yirmiyahu Yovel, The Other Within: The Marranos, Split Identity and Emerging Modernity ISBN: 978-0-691-13571-7 Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009

These three books all deal with former Sephardim and their descendants: those who, forced or not, abandoned Judaism and adhered to another religion, and their progeny over the centuries. They are called conversos, marranos, anusim, crypto-Jews, New Christians, or dőnmeh. There are also code names, such as the Portuguese term os da Nação. At one time in Latin America, Portuguese were banned from entering e.g. Colombia, as ‘Portuguese’ was considered a synonym for former Jew. A stigma on both sides has always accompanied them, historically. Though the books belong to different genres, they tell similar stories of physical and psychological suffering, loyalty within betrayal, suppression of memory and preservation of ancestral traditions. The first is a novel originally published in Turkish, the second a series of interviews and photographs, and the third a major work of historiography with a psychological approach.

Fuat Andic’s Farewell Homeland is at first glance a historical novel about Sephardim exiled from Spain, in the same vein as a number of other novels, such as Didier Nebot’s Le Chemin de l’exil (Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 1992): both novels chronicle a family saga over the centuries and embody a nostalgia for Jewish life in Spain prior to 1492. However, about halfway through the book, we realize this text is heading in a different direction.

Having rejected the idea of converting to Christianity in 1492 in order to stay in Spain, the Ben Naum family undergoes an arduous voyage and many adventures to establish themselves in Salonika, then a largely Muslim city, an important port in the Ottoman Empire. As physicians they can reestablish themselves fairly easily, and they intermarry with rabbinic families of the local elite. Despite the previous majority decision in 1492 to remain faithful to Judaism, in 1666, three or four generations later, many of the family members convert to Islam.

In the 1660s the Sephardic community in particular, and the Jewish world in general, was shaken to its roots by the Shabtai Zvi heretical controversy. This was perhaps the most damaging of the false Messiah incidents in the early centuries following the traumatic expulsions from Iberia. A whole contingent of the Jewish community around the eastern Mediterranean followed the false Messiah, and like him many converted to Islam and left the Jewish community. Others who did not convert still believed in him and passed their secret beliefs down through the generations for about a century and a half. Because of his adoption of Kabbala, Jewish mysticism was discredited for several generations. To this day, Western Sephardim stay away from mysticism and Kabbala. The intellectual trauma more or less froze Sephardic religious writing for about a century, until Jacob Kuli began the series of volumes of the Ladino Me’am Loez. There is much historical writing on the issue: the Encyclopedia Judaica has one of its longest entries on Sabbateanism, and readers are referred to its long bibliography, and to the writings of Gershom Sholem or more recently Moshe Idel.

The present work of fiction takes a totally different approach from the scholars, the approach that in fact lends the whole genre of historical fiction its allure. The author imaginatively takes us inside the minds and hearts of successive generations of the Ben Naum family. Readers cannot help but sympathize as the Ben Naums debate whether to leave Granada and we see the emotional stress as the extended family splits, some deciding to stay in Spain and convert to Christianity, some embarking on a perilous voyage. Likewise, the family splits again in the 1660s as some decide to convert to Islam and some remain Jewish. Those who split off take the new family name of Aziz, and new Muslim first names. The consequences on an individual level are of course painful—brothers cease all contact, engagements are broken off. The strength of historical fiction is to engage our imaginations and emotions in these far-off controversies, which this novel does very skillfully.

The novel pivots around three family debates: the first, whether to leave Spain, the second, whether or not to follow Shabtai Zvi and convert to Islam, and the third, following the Turkish loss of Salonika to the Greeks in 1912, whether as Muslims to move to Istanbul in 1914. In each case the extended family splits. In each case, though he presents both sides of the argument, the writer’s sympathy seems to be with the innovators, those who adopt change. To this day, descendants of the dőnmeh, Jews who converted to Islam in the seventeenth century, reside in Turkey, though the group broke up in the mid-twentieth century, merging with the Muslim majority. Reducing the Shabtai Zvi controversy to a family argument puts it in terms readers can relate to today, but also boils down the extensive complexity of the issues to the personal level of a broken engagement and a fractured family business.

The book (neither novel nor history, according to the author) likewise in its later chapters does an excellent job of dramatizing little-known twentieth century incidents, such as the persecution of Greek Jews by the Nazis, and the efforts of a few courageous Turkish diplomats to save them (such as 42 Jews in Rhodes). There are also several accounts of sixteenth century Jewish medical practices (based on Maimonides’ prescriptions) that make fascinating reading. The author has really done his homework here. The interjection of Spanish Jewish poetry and folksongs also enhances the book, though it would have been interesting to include some from the dőnmeh religious litany as well. This book’s unusual subject matter, and unusual viewpoints on it, in themselves make this novel well worth reading for those who enjoy historical fiction.

Writer and photographer Gloria Golden’s anthology of interviews with Hispanic Americans of the South-West who are ostensibly (and often sincerely) Catholic or Presbyterian but maintain a few Jewish customs makes fascinating reading. The interviews are accompanied by the author’s often pensive portraits that have apparently been exhibited. Many of the subjects live in Arizona, Texas, or New Mexico. Their somewhat closed communities exhibit religious peculiarities: for example, some in Las Vegas belong to a religious lodge called Penitentes, who flagellate themselves during Lent and are heartily disapproved of by the local bishop. The majority of congregants at some churches are known to be of Jewish ancestry. Mostly, they attend Mass and confession regularly (but not frequently) though they tend to view their Christianity with a certain cynicism. The interviews are apparently printed verbatim, as there are non sequitors of many kinds, jumping from five hundred years ago to a grandmother or mother’s expressions and practices. The subjects discuss all sorts of religious practices that they have in their families, some obviously not Jewish. One has the impression that they are sometimes looking to the interviewer for a clarification as to whether they do actually maintain Jewish customs.

Most of these subjects are humble folk, not highly educated. Living in remote rural communities, they have not had much opportunity for any education, except through the Catholic Church. One woman says that she became the cook for the local priest because she wanted to have a chance to read his books. It seems that the women may be more likely to pass on Jewish customs than men. The author tells us in her introduction that the biblical figures they revere are Moses (because he led his people out of a land of idolatry) and Esther (who likewise kept secret about her religion but succeeded in saving her people). They often emphasize that their family came from Spain five hundred years ago, and they are not Mexicans. Endogamy has been the rule until recent generations among these isolated folk. Many say that they prefer to read the Old Testament, and there is a habit of lighting candles in closed rooms, not only on Friday night, but for many reasons and for many saints. They also have special ways of slaughtering animals for food, involving being careful about draining the blood in some way. Although a very few have begun to return to Judaism, for most of the subjects who realize they have Jewish roots it is simply a confirmation of what they had suspected. They continue practicing their own syncretistic form of Catholicism, with the knowledge that some of their unorthodox family customs are remnants of their Jewish ancestry.

Though most are simple people, one surprise (though it should not really be a surprise) in the book is that a former president of Chile and one of the architects of the inter-American system (later secretary-general of the Organization of American States), Carlos Dávila Espinoza, was of partially Jewish ancestry. His Chilean wife, Herminia Arrate de Dávila, a Chilean artist, had had a great-great-grandfather who was a rabbi, it is said. Their descendant, Consuelo Luz Paz de la Gloria Caterina Arostegui Dávila tells of being confirmed by the Pope, of being named Gloria which is a crypto-Jewish reference to the Sabbath, and of how the knowledge of being of Jewish ancestry was often passed on not during life but on one’s deathbed. Carlos Dávila Espinoza told his nephew in 1955 just before he died, “Somos judíos,” and the nephew, in the 1990s, and on his deathbed, said to his immediate family “Somos judíos,” in turn. Consuelo Luz Arostegui, the granddaughter of Carlos and Herminia, is now a Ladino singer living in New Mexico. As in the other cases, or even less so, in this family, almost no actual Jewish practices are passed on, only the knowledge of partial Jewish ancestry. The Dávila family is said to be related to Santa Teresa de Ávila, the Espinozas in some way to Spinoza. Even today, almost two hundred years after the Inquisition ceased to persecute Jews (it existed until the 1820s) secrecy and fear rule. One informant explains that modern anti-Semitism and the Holocaust have reinforced and prolonged this secrecy.

A methodological problem with the interviews (not the author’s fault) is that those who agreed to be interviewed are those not bound by the secrecy. Some of them have already done research and discovered Jewish ancestors, or attended a conference on crypto-Jewish studies, some have been in contact with rabbis, some have joined Messianic Jews, a few have married Jews or converted to Judaism. Many, though, who refused interviews, are intending never to reveal in public the secret of their ancestry--in true crypto-Jewish fashion. One wishes that this book had received better editing, better quality printing for the evocative photographs, and a table of contents, which would have helped greatly. The stories though are fascinating.

Interest in such crypto-Jewish groups has been growing recently. An example is Netanya Academic College in Israel, which in June of this year opened a new International Institute for Secret Jews (Anusim) Studies, accompanied by an academic conference organized by Gloria Mound and presided over by former President Itzhak Navon, and Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Other conferences are regularly held in the United States, and a quarterly publication, HaLapid, voice ofthe Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies,brings research in crypto-Jewish studiesThus the study of crypto-Judaism is no longer a ‘crypto-subject’, but has become academically mainstream.

Yirmiyahu Yovel’s The Other Within is an example of weighty academic research with a broad historical sweep. At the same time, Yovel attempts a psychological analysis of Marranoidentity and how it came about, characterizing it as an essentially modern identity. His research bears out contemporary historiography which now views the late Middle Ages as the ‘Early Modern’ era. The story of the Marranos of Iberiabegan, as most of our readers are probably aware, not with the founding of the Spanish Inquisition or with the expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and 1497, but a century or so earlier in Spain, with mass riots, pogroms, and forced or hasty conversions of Jews to Christianity. Many voluntary conversions were motivated by fear or demoralization, as approximately one third of the large Jewish population of Spain converted (historians today avoid trying to estimate numbers). It had been a tradition among Iberian Jews, from the time of the Visigothic persecutions, to submit to conversion and wait patiently until the political climate changed and Judaism could be practiced openly again A hundred years after the mass conversions of 1391, the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, saw that many New Christians maintained family connections with Jews who had not converted and were enabled to observe some aspects of Jewish culture, even minimally. Old habits, nostalgia for the past or hope for the future, are very hard to break. They thus expelled all practicing Jews and the New Christians were cut off from this support. New Christian attitudes varied widely but as well as secret Judaism a sincere desire to adopt their new identity fully was widespread. New Christians rose to power, wealth and influence in many spheres, engendering envy. Within the Church, mystics such as Santa Teresa of Avila were bent on creating a new form of Christianity in which interiority and sincerity prevailed. In other fields, a certain cynicism led to a more secular attitude. Both of these attitudes presaged modernity.

Yovel’s profound and carefully weighed analysis follows the vicissitudes of various individuals and families in Spain, focusing on Marrano otherness and dualism. It was not only their success but also their ‘otherness’ that aroused hatred, and a new form of visceral anti-Semitism among Old Christians hounded and persecuted the Marranos. They were required to integrate but detested for their very success in integrating. The impossibility of their position led many to emigrate when they could, thus spreading the issue to South and Central America. Though they sought freedom, the Inquisition pursued and persecuted them there too (see the recent article on New Christians of Brazil by Regina Igel, “Sephardi Literati in Early Colonial Brazil: A Bitter Taste in the Sugar Plantations” in Sephardic Horizons 1:3 (Spring 2011). Split identity and a disillusionment with all religion gradually morphed into a proto-modern, secular identity.

A well argued section on the genre of the picaresque novel in Spain, covering Lazarillo de Tormes, Guzmán de Alfarache, and some aspects of Cervantes’ Don Quijote, traces and analyzes aspects of the Marrano attitudes evident in these novels. The picaresque genre was, of course, one of the main precursors of the European novel. Yovel shows how, although they were not synonymous, aspects of the pícaro and aspects of the Marrano decidedly overlap.

Sections called “Marrano Mosaic” introduce us to particular families and individuals, their practices and persecutions, in various centuries. There is an extended section on “The Arias d’Avilas: Hidden Jews or Marrano Dualists?” They were the descendants of Diego Arias, who was born Jewish but was converted by his parents around 1414, and was father of Juan, the bishop of Segovia. After the Inquisition was founded, Diego and his wife were tried posthumously for judaizing (Yovel analyzes it as split identity or dualism rather than a desire to return to Judaism). Diego was probably a sincere New Christian, but liked to joke and his antics had involved singing garbled versions of some of the Jewish prayers he remembered from his childhood. Their son, the bishop, who was by then in his eighties, protested vehemently at the Inquisition’s accusations, and in 1492 took his case to Rome, which did not dare in this case to oppose the Spanish Inquisition of the Catholic Monarchs. The Spanish Inquisition lasted until 1834, the Portuguese Inquisition until 1821. A later chapter analyzes the daring spiritual innovations of Santa Teresa, who was never indicted by the Inquisition. Teresa, characterized as “the patron saint of the interior mind,” whose father and grandfather had been humiliated by the Inquisition, made heroic attempts to remain within church obedience, but succeeded in starting a new Catholic spiritual movement based on the “Interior Castle” of the mind. Yovel is also a specialist on Baruch/Benedictus Spinoza and the pages on Spinoza entitled “Baruch Spinoza, the Emblematic Jewish Heretic” detail his disastrous conflict with the Jewish establishment of Amsterdam as well as with the Calvinist establishment. It was not until the late 18th century, over a century after his death, that Spinoza’s ideas and influence began to be recognized. Yovel characterizes Spinoza as a “Marrano of Reason,” but one should obviously look to his other publications for a more in-depth analysis of Spinoza’s ideas.

One can only applaud the deep research and careful analysis that inhabit these pages. One of Yovel’s conclusions is that Marranism exists everywhere in the world today “everywhere, that is, where old compact identities collapse” due to “immigration, urbanization, globalization, and any other pertinent ‘-ation’.” (p. 387). This is the conclusion of a philosopher, and it is hard to argue with. One is impressed most with the earlier chapters on the impossible Marrano dualism, and the ingenious and tragic individual lives described in their poignancy in the “Marrano Mosaic” sections. This book is a major contribution to the field of Marrano studies, following on previous major academic studies such as Secrecy and Deceit by David Gitlitz, and building on work using Inquisition archives by Israeli scholars such as Haim Beinart, Bension Netanyahu, and Renee Levine Melammed, that of many Spanish researchers from Américo Castro to Carlos Carrete Parrondo, as well as British scholars such as Michael Alpert and American scholars such as Seth Ward.

Impossible to compare, these three works are new expressions of the burgeoning interest in the field, from differing points of view—novelistic, artistic and documentary, and historical/philosophical. All provide fascinating insights.

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