B'nei Anusim most commonly refers to the descendants of the Jews that were forced to convert to Christianity during the time of the Iberian Inquisitions (XV-XIXth centuries). These Jews and their descendants are called by many names: "Anusim" (the forced), "conversos" (the converted), "crypto-Jews" (hidden Jews), or even “marranos” (a derogatory term meaning “swine” used by the Christian authorities and populace to describe these individuals). In some cases, these names are also extended to their descendants even many generations after the conversion to Christianity, especially when these descendants managed to preserve a modicum of Jewish practice, belief or identity. In the past century and, especially in the past three decades, there have been a growing number of people claiming to be B'nei Anusim coming to the fore. Although this phenomenon has concentrated itself in the North American Southwest, the Iberian Peninsula and parts of Latin America, cases have surfaced in places not directly associated with Iberian Peninsula such as Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
As with any new cultural and religious phenomenon, there is no consensus yet on what constitutes sufficient and clear elements of a B'nei Anusim identity. Historians, rabbis, anthropologists, activists and self-identified B’nei Anusim are still debating who can legitimately claim to be part of the B'nei Anusim. Be’chol Lashon is concerned less with claims of legitimacy rather than with looking at observable behaviors and identification for a way understanding the complexities of B’nei Anusim identities today. In our fieldwork at Be'chol Lashon, we have observed three main categories of connection with a historic Jewish ancestry: the core, the loop, and the rim.
The Core: At the center of the B'nei Anusim map we find individuals and communities that have sustained both Jewish identity and practice throughout the generations. This is, communities or families that kept Jewish traditions and were aware that these traditions were of Jewish origin and even self-identified (in secret) as Jews. This group is the smallest demographic and is concentrated on some very limited locations such as the towns of Belmonte and Castelo Branco in Portugal or the "Xuetas" of Mallorca. This small core is also the one that has the best chance of being Jewish according to traditional halakhic definitions of continued matrilineal descent.
The Loop: Surrounding the Core, the Loop contains individuals or communities that either kept Jewish traditions albeit ignoring that they were Jewish (e.g. lighting candles on Friday night, certain foods) or kept an awareness of the family being of Jewish descent in the past (vestigial identity). Numerically more vast than the core and distributed throughout a larger area, the members of the Loop share a connection to Jewish practice or identity that has survived throughout the generations, although they might not be able to recognize it as Jewish or see it as an active component of their own identities.
The Rim: By far the vastest group (in number and in geographic location), the rim includes people who come to their B'nei Anusim identity tangentially. The most common avenue is through the growing (and very confusing) field of Sephardic onomasticology (the study of last names). The internet is full of lists of Sephardic surnames. Many people assume that having a name that appears on one of these lists is a good indicator of a Crypto-Jewish past, which leads them to self-identify as B'nei Anusim. DNA testing and profiling has emerged in the past decade as a popular way of people "discovering" their Sephardic identity. Other people, led by fascination and attraction to Jews and Judaism, claim to have a "Jewish soul" and being of Latino or Iberian extraction, they chose to explain this attraction by assuming a Crypto-Judaic identity even without any concrete evidence.
Since the 1990s, greater tolerance for religious diversity throughout the world, the global phenomena of religious migration, the ubiquitous media discussion of Israel, and the ease of accessible information on the web about Crypto-Judaism as well as normative Judaism have come together to ignite an interest that cuts through all the regions of this conceptual map. People hailing from the core, loop, and rim are surfacing claiming this identity as their own, building communities, virtual and in real life, seeking recognition and trying to work out for themselves what this identity means for their lives and their futures.
At Be'chol Lashon we do not believe that the authenticity of Crypto-Jewish identity depends on whether one comes from the core, loop, or the rim or on the amount of evidence one can provide as whether one or not is a "descendant". As an organization that advocates for the growth and greater diversity of the Jewish people, we see the Bnei Anusim phenomenon as a promising starting point for many people around the world to explore Judaism as an option for their future. Connection to the contemporary Jewish people going forward is less about what brought an individual to this path but the choices they make going forward.
To help those seeking to clarify their relationship to modern day Judaism, Be'chol Lashon produces easily accessible materials about Jewish beliefs and practice in Spanish and other languages aimed at helping Latinos –regardless of background, Only those who are knowledgeable about contemporary understandings of Judaism can determine if (re)-joining the Jewish people is the right choice for them. We also work with rabbis and educators who outreach to this demographic, especially helping them join Jewish communities in their areas of origin, and, when this is impossible, creating their own communities. We also believe that generally, the path to a full reintegration of those interested B'nei Anusim to the Jewish people will have to entail a process of conversion. Nevertheless, we work with rabbis who will honor in this process, the sensitivities and particular stories and narratives of the communities and individuals.
Anusim: "Costumbres Familiares"
In 1492, the Spanish Inquisition outlawed the observance of Judaism a stance that spread wherever Spain and Portugal rule was enforced in the New World as well. Yet, Judaism did not disappear completely but was driven underground and today in the Southwest of the United States, Latin America, and the Iberian Peninsula, there are groups that practice what seem to be "strange rituals" that maybe particular to their town, a small group of families or even individual families. Often these rituals are called Costumbres familiares and hearken back to that period of Jewish history when Jewish life was forced underground to become a stealth practice on pain of death.
Because of the historic dangers associated with Jewish observance, it is not uncommon for those with "Costumbres familiares" to be unwilling to share with outsiders that their practices exist. A sense of protection has been handed down from generation to generation. Many practioners do not even know that these customs identify them as descending from Jews. Others may not practice any customs but have an oral history or a suspicion (that is handed down in the family) that they are of Jewish ancestry. Still other individuals may just "feel" Jewish — they have an affinity for Jewish life. They may experience a spiritual connection or kinship with Jewish ideas or individuals. They may discover they have Jewish ancestry or they may never know why.
Many customs are easily identified with mainstream modern Judaism — others are not. A few common are the discussed below.
Echoing burial and mourning practices that are still commonly observed in contemporary Jewish communities, some b’nei anusim families sit on the floor for a few days after burial, covering mirrors during mourning, trying to procure earth from the Holy Land to place into the burial plot with relatives. They prepare shrouds that are white cotton and place the bindings of the shrouds and the chest, waist and ankles of the deceased. Some place a stone at the gravesite. Others have a straw broom in the house so that its straw can be used in case of death to be placed under the deceased until burial preparations are undertaken.
During the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula, inquisitors often watched the dietary habit suspected anusim to see if they were secretly observing Judaism. Jewish tradition for example forbids the eating of pork or pork products and also blood sausages. To this day, some b’nei anusim have an oral tradition of having an allergy to pork or not eating blood in the form of the ever-popular Spanish blood sausage. Sometimes b’nei anusim do not eat leavened products during Holy Week as a sign of mourning for Jesus, and give all bread and cakes to the poor during holy week- which coincides with the observance of Passover when Jews do not eat bread in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt in ancient times. Other b’nei anusim eat roasted lamb on the15th day of the spring moon, and fast on the tenth day of the first Fall moon which echoes the Passover sacrifices of ancient times.
Some b’nei anusim avoid praying to the Saints or the Virgin Mary- which would be counter to traditional Jewish practice. They say "El Dio" rather than the "normal" Dios in Spanish. "El Dio" is Ladino for God. They use the Hebrew name "El" for God as if it were the Spanish phrase for "the" and leave the last "s" off as a way of expressing faith in one God. In a nod to the Jewish understanding of monotheism, they avoid the plural in speaking of God which is expressed in Spanish by adding an "s" to the end of words.
B’nei anusim also tended to marry only certain individuals, marrying only with a few other families in town because the others "are not acceptable." It was passed down in families which families were acceptable for marriage and which ones were not accepted by the traditions of the family. Another interesting feature of marriage practices was the acceptability of marrying Africans rather than certain Spaniards. Many families have reported that they received an oral family history. Africans were acceptable for two reasons; (1)Many of the Africans that were brought to the Americas already believed in only One God and had similar hidden ritual practices and (2) marrying Africans was considered better than marrying certain Spaniards whose lifestyles or family lifestyles had been incompatible to the b’nei anusim family beliefs. Others say that it was out of self-protection: Africans were not going to report the practices because they too were victims of persecution.
There is also a strong b’nei anusim propensity towards oral history. Many of these oral histories are governed and passed down by family matriarchs. The emphasis on the passing of tradition through the mother accords with the traditional Jewish practice in which Jewishness passes through mothers to children.
Some b’nei anusim do not work on Saturday which connects to traditional Jewish Shabbat observance which abstains from work on Saturdays.
Personal Vignettes as told by Rabbi Manny Viñas
A man from Santo Domingo became of aware of his Jewish roots by identifying the reasons for his family's "strange customs." When he had completed the ritual of return and placed his tefillin on his head, he began to cry from the deepest place in his soul. It was a wailing sound that pierced through our hearts and was very reminiscent of the sound of the Shofar. Asked to identify his feelings that were causing this response, he expressed that he was crying out of joy and sorrow for his ancestors who had dreamed of this day for five hundred years.
A Puerto Rican Jew-by-choice converted because of religious belief in Judaism. He had never suspected that his family was harboring a secret that they had never shared with him. Five years after his conversion, he went back to Purto Rico to visit his grandmother who was on her deathbed. When she was near death, a neighbor summoned a local Catholic Priest to deliver the last rites of the Catholic Church. This woman threw the priest out of her room and refused to receive the rite. She then explained to her grandson that the family were originally Jews and had never accepted the last rites because she said, "at this point what can they do to us, I am going to die anyway." He returned to New York knowing that his attraction to Judaism was not just his own, but also one that reflected his grandmother's dying wish.
A large Dominican family from the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan became aware of the origin of their family rituals by observing the German Jews who lived along side the Dominican immigrants. They began to become aware of the Sabbath rituals of lighting candles, the pattern of the Holidays and Jewish dietary practices. They realized that the German Jews were observing similar customs to those they had seen their grandmother observing in Dominican Republic.