For the past several years I have been involved with the modern-day miracle of the return of Jews to their ancient heritage following 500 years of exile. The people I refer to are known in Hebrew as anusim, a more positive term than the one often used – Marranos.
We encounter the Hebrew term anus (anusim in the plural) in the Haggadah, when we read of Jacob’s descent into Egypt from his home in Canaan against his will but at the determination of the Almighty. The word therefore refers to being forced to do something other than one’s own desire or plan.
History records the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the Inquisition by the Catholic Church, first in Europe and then across the Atlantic Ocean into South America and Mexico.
Thanks to my involvement with modern-day anusim, I often ask myself how I would have acted if fate had placed me there 500 years ago. Would I have given up my Jewish traditions and accepted another religion in order to save my life? Would I have been strong enough in my commitment to Judaism to totally refuse the faith being forced on me? Or would I have lived a dual life, Christian on the outside and Jewish on the inside, in constant fear of exposure and subsequent torture at the hands of the Inquisition? Would I have sought refuge by fleeing to another country, hoping it would prove a haven of safety?
Those were the decisions that had to be made in each individual case by the ancestors of today’s anusim.
In a remarkable turn of events, people today – primarily in South American countries and in the Southwest United States – are discovering they are the descendants of Jewish families who lived in the Iberian Peninsula 500 years ago.
Stop a moment and consider how you would react if one morning, on your way to minyan, you somehow received information that you really were not Jewish at all, but that your ancestors had hidden from you the fact that your were descended from crypto Jews who assumed the identity of Jews only to save their lives. And now, living in a free society, you have the opportunity to return to the religion and traditions of your ancestors who had no real interest in becoming Jews those hundred of years ago but did so only to survive.
That is exactly the situation faced by anusim. Somehow they learn of their ancestors in Spain some 500 years ago. It is hard for me to understand the dynamics of this discovery. I have no idea why their parents had not shared this secret with them. Consider that for 500 years, succeeding generations had known they were anusim – until it was decided that the information was now to be kept hidden from this modern generation.
And yet, in many different and even strange ways, the younger generation has been learning the secret. Just in time, too – because if the truth had not started coming out, this chapter of Jewish history in their families likely would have been lost forever.
Imagine you are one of these young people making such a potentially life-changing discovery. In many cases, it’s a trip to Israel, often taken as a “good Christian to visit sites in the Holy Land” during which a feeling of “returning home” overcomes you and upon your return you share that feeling with your elderly parent who finally reveals the truth to you.
You now face quite a predicament. In most cases the decision made is not to abandon the faith of one’s upbringing but rather to take an interest in learning some things about those Jewish ancestors of yours.
Based on my experiences, I would estimate that about 10 percent of those who discover they are anusim decide to embrace Judaism – a return from a 500-year exile.
Doing so, however, is far from a simple matter.
First, one must begin the difficult process of studying what it means to be a Jew. An entirely new way of life looms. A complete changeover will be anticipated. And if such a decision is made, the “fun” really starts:
You face concern from other family members that you’ve “gone crazy.” You are hardly given an encouraging welcome into the Jewish world. You are told you must undergo a full conversion and that it will take a long time. And then you learn about Jewry’s many streams and movements – some of them ready to embrace you, others more likely to push you away.