Of Conversos and the Loss of Sephardic Identity

By David Ramírez

day of wrath

Christopher Lambert, Iren Bordan in Day of Wrath Copyright: © 2005 IMS 3 LLP & Laurinfilm Entertainment. Source: Hotflick.net.

In talking to a friend of mine about how the new generation of Sephardim are becoming less and less aware about Sephardic identity, and the systemic problems that has caused it, I could not help but compare it to the situation lived by Conversos during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Conversos were Sephardic Jews (originally Spanish and Portuguese Jews, but today it is used to refer to all non-Ashkenazi Jews) who for one reason or another saw themselves wearing a Christian mask overnight. History books have tirelessly discussed what the Catholic Church did to Sephardim; what is not really discussed are the terrible social and psychological implications this created throughout the communities of New Christians (same as the word ‘converso’, this adjective created post-conversion) springing all over Spain before and after 1492. Assimilation to an unbending hierarchical society has many ugly heads that end-up eating each other up indiscriminately and mercilessly.

Long before the forced conversions of 1391, the monastic orders made the clever decision to gain converts from among the Jews, who in turn would be used to speak to their former coreligionists with more familiarity than they ever could; a policy which they continued well after the Expulsion.  Christian Trojan horses were thus deployed in the Jewish community.  Apostate Jews became mouthpieces for Church doctrine and sought to weaken the Jewish community from within. After conversions became commonplace, the situation became a lot worse.

Conversos were divided between those who clung to their old tradition, and those who made every possible effort to fit in with their new brethren in Christ, even though they hated them with a passion for still being “racially” Jewish.

Often these struggles tore asunder the family unit.  Converso children were frequently taken away form their parents’ tutelage to be instructed in Christian doctrine, sometimes against their will. During the first decades of the Spanish Inquisition, these children and other faithfully-Christian Conversos would turn in their family members whom they suspected of practicing Judaism in secret; a capital offense according to Church law. Those who chose loyalty to Judaism became the losers and were publicly punished at the stake or by displays of shame called Autos-da-Fe (Christian festivals performed in the public squares with the pretension to reafirm the Catholic faith through the exposing, condemnation and execution of sinners).

Once the unconverted Jews were expelled from the Peninsula, it created yet another vacuum for Conversos trying to cling to Toráh (Jewish Law). They could no longer have direct access to their ancient tradition, and their memory of it became smoke and mirrors as time passed. For those Conversos who were able to effectively climb the Christian ladder of social and economic success it became critical to erase any indication of their Jewish past.

American Director Adrian Rudomin illustrated this socio-religious process in his 2006 film “The Day of Wrath,” starring Christopher Lambert. The movie is a mystery plot set in mid-16th c. Spain, in a town experiencing many unexplained murders.

As the plot unravels to its conclusion, it turns out the town was one where everyone was a Converso passing as very rancid Old Christians (“pure blooded” Visigoths with no Muslim or Jewish taint). They were able to completely dissimulate their Jewish past before Christian eyes. The Converso elite, like a rich and powerful mafia, made every possible effort to avoid the prying eyes of the Inquisition and Gentile envy, and did not even stop from preemptively murdering their own spouses if they thought they would blow their cover. “The Day of Wrath” is a cautionary tale of an incestuous internecine warfare for the sake of a social position. The only way out of this madness was to flee the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms for places where the Sephardic exiles had established Jewish communities.

It was the Conversos passing as Old Christians, or desperately trying to prove their loyalty to the Church, who would become the cruelest Inquisitors and persecutors of crypto-Jews who kept faithful to Judaism; condemning their unorthodox Converso brethren and their families to death, exile or perpetual shame.  Defending this repression and immorality became a badge of honor, all in the name of “Holy Mother Church.”

The Sephardim, in a contemporary context, have gone through similar processes of voluntary and involuntary assimilation, where the old tradition is jettisoned in favor of new societal norms of conformity, only means to climb up the ladder and be noticed.

It all began in the late 19th c., with the “conversion” of Sephardim to the Ashkenazi Zionist “Church,” which has replaced the Jewish tradition with a new kind of secularized European-style nationalism with a little Jewish pepper for added flavor. These were the first Trojan horses invading Sephardic communities everywhere, dislodging and weakening the ties with their ancient organic past.

The 20th century saw two major changes that are equivalent to the Jews leaving Spain. One was the decimation of Western Sephardic communities under the hands of Nazi Germany. The second was the Zionist-induced expulsion of Arab Jews from their host countries. These two combined devastated the centers of rabbinical learning and created a Jewish vacuum.

In Europe, these Jewish centers were destroyed. The Arab Jewish rabbis who made it to Israel were never allowed to exert their influence because of the Ashkenazi establishment. Like Converso children torn from their parents, generations of Sephardic children were at the mercy of a very different Jewish tradition.

As if history was repeating itself, the new generations of Sephardim saw themselves in the service of the new – often militant – positions.  Those who clung to the old traditions saw themselves ever more alienated. The difference was that unlike Conversos clinging to whatever Judaism they had left, these Sephardim could not flee to any available oasis as there are at present no centers of Sephardic Judaism in the world as there were in the early Modern period.

The results are patently clear everywhere. There are those Sephardim in positions of leadership who serve as mouthpieces for Ashkenazim.  If it were not for their surname or skin color, you would not have guessed they are Sephardim because their discourse is just a carbon copy; they are the Conversos passing as Old Christians. These are the Sephardic politicians and communal leaders who march to the Ashkenazi drum beat.

Then there are those Sephardim who remain only superficially so, by clinging to certain cultural customs but knowing hardly anything of their intellectual heritage; they are the Conversos who cling to few Jewish customs yet feel comfortable living in the Christian environment, and would do nothing to risk their comfortable niche in society. These are Sephardim who promote things like film, music or cultural festivals or performances, where only the superficial colorful past matters, serving as museum porcelain doll pieces for Jewish entertainment.

There are those Sephardim who might learn of their heritage already as adults, but their knowledge of it is limited to books.  These Sephardim remain nostalgic for a lost past, while imitating and pandering to Ashkenazim in order to get ahead.  These are the Conversos who never had the guts to flee, yet had attained a level of comfort working and living in the Christian environment. Most of the few, if not all, Sephardim strolling the Halls of Academia are full of these mock-ups.

At last, we have the yet fewer Sephardim who know and love their heritage, try to promote it despite the lurking consequences, yet suffer from the social backlash engendered by their fellow Sephardim comfortable in their Ashkenazi skin.  These are the Conversos who tried to promote and maitain their Judaism, yet were turned in by their own children, family members and friends to face the Auto-da-Fe. They are the Sephardim who lost everything and got nowhere during the process.

Of all these four categories of assimilated Sephardim, historically the first one – the militant mouthpieces – have been the most damaging to the cohesion and continuity of our culture and community. For the sake of illustration, let me present a very real life scenario that happened in a forum of Facebook just recently. A nice young – and whom I thought a sensibly intelligent – man from the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community and I were discussing a Ynet article written by Akiva Novick on a controversial Zionist spying operation happening during the 1950s.

The article details the lives of ten Iraqi Jewish men who were trained as Shin Bet agents, in order to infiltrate Palestinian villages pretending to be non-Jewish Arabs, and report back any intelligence they deemed important. Once they infiltrated the Palestinian Arab community, in order to keep cover “Senior Shin Bet personnel thought that the men should get married for the operation to succeed, but agreed to leave the decision up to the agents. Most of them did marry young Arab women.” The article did discuss the terrible consequences these women and their children had to endure; no mention of the same for their Arab-Jewish husbands and their families back in Israel.

For Western readers, such a spying operation would seem standard and unobjectionable – and even could be considered patriotic. To a religious Jew, however, this represents a halakhic (Jewish Law) infraction that cannot be easily dismissed. On the authority of the Toráh it is forbidden to have sexual relations with a non-Jew by a way of marriage, one punishable through a court-appointed flogging (M”T Issuré Bi‘áh 12:1). The prohibition – in Jewish legal theory – is so serious that its transgression under coercion is one of only three for which a Jew should give up his life to his adversary before transgressing, the other two being idolatry and murder (cf. Maimonides’ Iggeret haShemad). And if one were caught in an uncoerced willful sexual act by ten valid Jewish witnesses, it is the only sexual transgression in Jewish Law where a zealot is allowed to kill the transgressor on the spot while copulation still in progress.

After an ironic comment on my part due to the slightest concern for Toráh by these so-called Zionists, the young man hastily responded: “They [the Iraqi spies] are not coerced in the slightest. They are patriots happy to make painful sacrifices for the [J]ewish [people]” (my brackets). Let me point out, this a statement from someone who grew up with the privileged Yeshiva education (Jewish religious schooling) of the Brooklyn Syrian community. Not quite an ignoramus per se.

Somehow this young man grew up learning that the State trumps the Toráh, where things like “law” and “morality” are relative to its service, above the lives of individuals and God’s covenantal will: A modern-day Molech receiving the blood of our children.

Rabbi José Faur, an erudite rabbinic author which both of us greatly admire, has explained a type of Jewish apostasy called minut in the following manner:

“What makes the minim (Jewish apostates) particularly odious is their methodology of deception. They are perfidious; they use Scripture not to teach but to mislead the naïve. They beguile the gullible, exposing a single aspect of their doctrines in order to block their prey’s judgment, thus driving him/her to do things that he/she will lament for the rest of his/her life. Their manifest reliance on the Tora and their use of Jewish terms and sources are gimmicks intended to take the dull-witted. In spite of their pretentious religiosity, they are cynics who believe in no religion.”

— Horizontal Society, vol. II; pp. 119,120; my  parenthesis.

Is this a damning indictment to the type of Jewish learning that this young man – and the rest of Sephardim everywhere since the rise of modern Zionism – received in the well-to-do and resourceful Brooklyn Syrian community?

In a hierarchical society that prevents a plurality of voices, such that of Christian Spain or Modern Zionism, disenfranchised groups have very limited life decisions based on a closed environment. Naturally, social acceptance to their dominant rulers is an important priority; everyone follows the dominant view to which there are no possible alternatives within, and apparently no way to live without. As we see in the case of the ancient Israelites who lamented being led out of Egypt, exile is a scary thought from the comforting bounty of melons, cucumbers and fish. It shows how much respect we owe to those who choose exile, with courage and determination, to reaffirm their values on their way to the Horizontal Society – were all human kind is created equal and unafraid of each other –, the real Promised Land.

The Exodus from Tyranny, though a frightening prospect, remains at all times an ever-present possibility.

Article originally published in March 20, 2011.

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