When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ousted approximately 200,000 Jews from Spain on Tisha B’Av 1492, they thought they had solved their Jewish problem. While 200,000 conversos/New Christians remained according to the Alhambra Decree of 1492, the Spanish monarchs believed without Jewish influence these New Christians would assimilate completely into Spanish Catholic society. Some did, but others only lived outwardly Christian lives, while secretly keeping whatever Jewish beliefs they could.
Ferdinand and Isabella’s back-up plan, the Inquisition, would take care of the “backsliding Christians”, ferreting out those unfaithful to Christianity through torture and execution. While exact numbers of Inquisition victims are not known, the sufferers included Crypto-Jews, Moors, witches, bigamists, priests who married, and more. The total executed through torture or Auto-da-fé ("act of faith" - burning at stake) varies dramatically between scholars, and might be as many as 300,000 from the beginning of its establishment in 1478 until the mid-1800s, when the Spanish Inquisition even followed suspects to the New World.
Despite Spain’s bloody and violent efforts, Crypto-Jews lived on. They eventually scattered from Spain throughout Europe, North Africa, and even fled to the New World with Christopher Columbus and other explorers and merchants.
Tisha B’Av, this year on Sunday July 22, memorializes the destruction of the two Holy Temples and a litany of disasters for the Jewish People. One such tragedy was the 1492 Spanish Expulsion of the largest Jewish community in the world from their homes.
This year, more people than ever will commemorate that terrible day of Tisha B’Av 526 years ago. They include millions of descendants of anousim (forced ones), who converted to Christianity in one of the many mass conversions from the 1300s and 1400s in Spain. These bnei anousim are awakening to their Jewish roots, with the help of the internet and many Jewish groups who are ready to help them.
Many of these Christians still have Jewish family customs that had been handed down for generations out of respect for their ancestors, like lighting candles on Friday night, refraining from bread on Passover, mourning the deceased for a week, etc.
Today’s popular DNA testing and accessibility of internet information have encouraged those who suspect that they have a Jewish link to search further. A small number of these bnei anousim are seeking actual conversion to Judaism, while others are simply interested in learning more about their Jewish roots.
Many organizations today are answering their questions, among them Reconectar, Shavei Israel, Sephardim Hope International and Machon Roni.
The interest in Spain’s Crypto-Jews has spread for the first time to the musical theater, where The Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem and the OU (Orthodox Union) Israel will bring to the stage HIDDEN – The Secret Jews of Spain, an epic musical production about a courageous converso family that survives the Inquisition, only to discover that their long-lost son has risen in the Church to the Inquisitor of Madrid, and is the man tasked with condemning them for heresy. HIDDEN takes the stage in November in Jerusalem. For more information click here.