The Mask of the Marranos
By Yirmiyahu Yovel
Princeton, 490 pages, $35
The creation of the modern state of Israel has awakened many dormant cultural pursuits, perhaps none so dramatic as the discovery of long-lost Jews. Every decade or so, another tribe of supposed descendants of biblical Israel—marked by quirky uses of Jewish symbols, eclectic religious observance, and a smattering of Hebrew prayers—is revealed to have been keeping the flame in some remote area of the world, from Africa to the subcontinent. The repatriation to Israel of members of these remnants of the long Jewish exile—from the Bene Israel of India to the Falasha of Ethiopia and the Lemba of South Africa—has been among the most inspiring aspects of the modern “ingathering of the exiles” that has animated the Zionist idea.
Although the unique historical narratives of such groups have differed greatly, all have been adamant that they are authentic descendants of one of the legendary “10 lost tribes” that disappeared from history in the 8th century B.C.E.; have insisted on being recognized as fully Jewish; and have faced a battery of obstacles to their reassimilation into the greater Jewish population—obstacles, though often resented, they have striven mightily to overcome through formal conversion ceremonies and, ultimately, immigration to Israel.
But there is one sobering exception to this scenario. Beginning in the early 20th century, a number of communities in Portugal were unearthed as “Marranos”—that is, descendants of the once proud crypto-Jewish nation that came into being when Iberian Jews were coerced into baptism and then persecuted for centuries by the Spanish Inquisition. (Marrano is a contemptuous Spanish epithet for “swine” or “filth” that eventually became the standard appellation for this community of Conversos, or converts.) Other groups of Marranos have been found in rural communities in just about every territory ever colonized by Spain and Portugal, from South America to Texas and New Mexico, as well as in places like Turkey, where refugees of the Inquisition were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire.
Forced to hide their true inner religious identity in order to survive in medieval Hispanic Catholic societies, the distant and diluted remnants of the Marranos (or “Judaizing New Christians,” as they were sometimes called) often made great sacrifices to observe what they could, and could remember, of the Jewish tradition and maintain their credo that “salvation comes only through the Torah of Moses.” Centuries of living outwardly as Christians while maintaining, usually without recalling why, the barest vestiges of their original Jewish faith took a severe psychological toll. Secrecy and avoidance of any displays of their residual Jewish practices, combined with public lives of pious Catholicism, became entrenched over the centuries, along with a deeply ingrained fear, bordering on paranoia, of being outed. True to form, most contemporary Marranos have tended to fear their rediscovery as Jews and resisted rejoining the people of Israel, from whom they were cruelly separated half a millennium ago.
Jewish historians have long been divided about the complex question of the Marranos’ “Jewishness.” At one pole is the so-called Jerusalem school of Jewish historiography, which has stubbornly maintained that, despite their centuries-long disconnection, the Marranos remained Jews in every meaningful respect. At the opposite pole are historians like Benzion Netanyahu (the 100-year-old father of the Israeli prime minister), who, giving weight to the overwhelming consensus of rabbinical opinion spanning almost five centuries, have insisted that in initially choosing baptism and later failing to take advantage of the opportunity to leave pre-Inquisition Portugal, the Marranos forfeited their membership in the Jewish nation and situated themselves outside Jewish history.
In an ambitious new work, the intellectual historian Yirmiyahu Yovel rejects both these -approaches, favoring instead a portrait of the Marranos as neither Jewish nor Christian but something sui generis—“the other within,” in the striking phrase that serves as the title of his book, the summa of his distinguished career as a scholar of Baruch Spinoza and premodern Jewry. More important, Yovel believes the phenomenon of Marranism marks a new and significant element in the Jewish historical narrative, one that anticipated the varieties of Jewish identity that would emerge in post-Enlightenment Europe.
The heartbreaking history of the Marranos begins with the forced conversions of tens of thousands of Jews at the height of the Christian conquest of Spain. Jews had lived in Iberia since the 8th century, and although they were subjected to forced conversions and punitive Church inquiries into the sincerity of those conversions by the Kingdom of Aragon as far back as the mid-13th century, the continuous existence of a community of secret Jews starts with the wave of pogroms that erupted in Seville in 1391. No major Jewish community was spared. The eminent Jewish philosopher Hasdai Crescas witnessed the horrors in Barcelona:
Using bows and catapults, the mob fought against the Jews assembled in the Citadel, beating and smashing them in the tower. Many sanctified the name of God [that is, died for the Jewish religion] among them my own only son, an innocent bridal lamb. . . . Some slew themselves, others jumped from the tower . . . but all the rest converted. . . . And, because of our sins, today there is no one in Barcelona called an Israelite.
Despite Crescas’s reference to “many” martyrs, the historical record suggests that the majority of Spanish Jews confronted with the slogan “Death or the Cross” chose the cross. Over the course of the ensuing century of Christian persecution, which reached its nadir with the final expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492, some 200,000 Jews saved their lives by accepting baptism and, at least outwardly, leading Christian lives. Eighty thousand of their more resourceful brethren escaped to Portugal, thought to be more tolerant; but in short order they, too, faced a cruel fate: mass conversions in 1497, followed by a royal decree prohibiting the New Christians from leaving the country. The net result of this merciless entrapment of the Portuguese Conversos was that the enduring epicenter of Marranism became Portugal and its colonies.
It is certain that for a significant number (according to some historians, well over half) of these Conversos, the new “faith” was a façade, solely the consequence of lethal coercion. Not only did they remain Jewish at heart, they continued for centuries to observe elements of Jewish religious ritual, at great risk to their lives. The Marranos’ historically remarkable tenacity generated a popular image of them in Jewish memory as not merely fully Jewish—a dubious status given their choice of conversion and subsequent high rates of intermarriage with original Christians—but as righteous heroes who sacrificed their lives “for the sake of Heaven.”
One of Yovel’s notable achievements is challenging this misnomer and complicating its more sophisticated adoption by historians. He vividly recounts an abundance of Converso biographies that illustrate the complex spectrum of their identities and beliefs—from fervent Catholicism to pious Judaizing to a deep skepticism about both religions that he identifies as the earliest manifestations of modern Jewish secularism.
In Yovel’s view, the Jewish romancers of the Marranos fallaciously assume that the barest and most residual Judaic behavior on the part of the Conversos constitutes evidence of their Jewishness. (Their scholarship, he notes with grim irony, often accepts at face value the “discoveries” by overzealous Inquisitors of supposedly “Judaizing” practices among the New Christians.) Among his most fascinating refutations of this notion pertains to the endurance among a large number of Marranos of the practice of eating the slow-cooked Sabbath stew, known among Spanish and Moroccan Jews to this day as adafina (what American Jews call cholent). While the genesis of this dish, which is prepared before sundown on Friday, lies in the biblical prohibition of kindling a fire on the Sabbath itself, Yovel notes that its enduring popularity among the Conversos hardly constitutes proof of Sabbath -observance:
The Inquisitors’ meticulous concern with this dish highlights their bias in identifying secret Jews. Adafina, with its hearty ingredients and prolonged cooking is indeed distinctive—not of Jewish cult but of Jewish gastronomy. . . . It is well known that food preferences, especially for distinctive ethnic dishes, are the last customs to disappear in immigrant and assimilating societies, the readiest object of group nostalgia, and the last bastion of ethnic characteristics.
That even those Marranos who retained secret religious practices failed to take advantage of a long period of clemency in Portugal, from 1507-1536, when they were given permission to leave the country without their relatives’ suffering retribution, convinces Yovel that their Judaic beliefs were hardly fervent. Still, he does not go as far as the likes of Benzion Netanyahu (whose work Yovel derides) in seeing subsequent Marrano history as a non-Jewish phenomenon. He suggests a provocative analogy to the beliefs of moderns:
Most Judaizing Marranos no longer yearned for Judaism as a concrete reality, but as an ideal, infinite dream. This is similar to the contemporary Jewish yearning for the Messiah, expressed in the saying “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which is also not pronounced with any concrete intention. . . . Jews have educated themselves to wait for a messiah that does not really come . . . not in our lifetime, but in a Messianic era, which is always deferred and projected beyond the present.
Of course, there was nothing removed or dispassionate about the messianic faith of the victims of the Spanish Expulsion and Inquisition. Don Isaac Abarbanel, the greatest Jewish scholar to leave Spain in 1492, produced three tracts in which he viewed the calamities as heralding messianic times. Messianic fervor was even more feverish among Marranos who managed to escape from Portugal in later decades. In a book otherwise so comprehensive, Yovel’s silence about the later susceptibility of the Marranos to the 17th-century false messianic movement of Shabbetai Zevi is surprising. This is especially the case since, after Zevi’s conversion to Islam in 1665, many of his followers in the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Greek city of Salonika, assumed a false Islamic identity, becoming known as “Donmeh.”
That a large number of Donmeh today are known to descend from Portuguese Marranos is not surprising. They were practiced in the art of religious dissimulation long before becoming Sabbatians. What is more than a little shocking is the widespread accusations by radical Islamists and assorted other anti-Semites in contemporary Turkey that their enemies—beginning with founder of secular Turkish democracy, Kemal Ataturk, himself—are Donmeh conspirators. Given Yovel’s near obsession with the degree to which the Marranos prefigured modernity, his omission of this fascinating chapter is regrettable.
At any rate, he argues that in time, a significant number of Marranos developed an active hostility to all religious dogmas and ecclesiastical authorities.1 Citing numerous statements from the Inquisition’s archives of Marrano confessions that indicate a disdain for supernatural beliefs, he concludes that many of them had replaced their Jewish faith not with a Christian one but with a “growing concern for this-worldly secular affairs and even religious indifference and skepticism.”
The examples he adduces—-especially those that concern dietary and other ethnic “habits”—are usually convincing, but there are instances of Marrano religious observance that suggest more -piety than he allows. Consider the -remarkable testimony of a Church inquisitor:
In the city of Seville, an inquisitor said to the duke: “If your Grace wishes to know how the Marranos keep the Sabbath, let us go up the tower.” They climbed up and he said: “Look around: here is a Marrano house and there is another and here are many others. You won’t see any smoke coming out of these houses despite the harsh winter, because they don’t light fire, as it is the day of the -Sabbath.”
That Yovel fails to distinguish this form of Sabbath observance from a fondness for stew reveals the extent to which his overarching thesis tends at times to cloud his judgment. It is, after all, one thing to continue to enjoy grandmother’s favorite dishes but quite another to freeze in one’s own home in order to sanctify the Sabbath. Yovel likewise misses the extent to which elements of Marrano liturgy and ritual held fast to the Jewish tradition.
Still, Yovel’s detailed economic history of the Portuguese Marranos serves to buttress his depiction of a class defined less by spiritual than by worldly bonds. It was during the period of broad royal tolerance -after the Lisbon Massacre of 1506 that the vast majority of Marranos who remained in Portugal came to dominate the mercantile class and were dubbed homens de negocios (businessmen). Yovel argues that the Marranos’ unique historical experiences, secretive rituals, and internalized religious skepticism helped them to form strong internal business networks, which in turn forged in them a new kind of identity, rooted less in medieval allegiances to God, Church, and King than in a “modern,” secular kind of ethnic solidarity.
There was another powerful element to the Marranos’ otherness. The suspicion among Iberia’s pious “Old Christians” that the descendants of the Conversos never fully or properly accepted Catholicism was hardly the simple result of the persistence of quirky -remnants of Judaic religious practices. It betrayed something deeper and more ominous than religious -prejudice: namely, racial hatred, arguably the first overt manifestation of it in Jewish history. While the notorious Limpieza de Sangre (Purity of Blood) statutes of 1449 and 1467 that led to massacres of New Christians in Spain were ultimately revoked, they were re-enacted in Portugal in the 1550s, reflecting the deepest feelings of both the Iberian peasantry and the Catholic clergy about the true nature of the masses of baptized Jews.
Yovel brilliantly captures the long-term effects on the Marranos’ identity and consciousness of being confronted by the pincer-like, contradictory demands of the Inquisition, which ostensibly required nothing more than “purity of faith,” and the racial Limpieza statutes, which demanded “purity of blood”:
The Limpieza forced the Jewish designation upon the Marranos, while the Inquisition denied their right to adopt it. Thus, even if Marranos wished to accept the denomination of Jewish attached to them through Limpieza, they were not permitted to do so. The Inquisition denied a person the right to be what the purity of blood rules said he could not escape. This left the Marranos suspended in the air. . . . The opposition between Limpieza and the Inquisition had complementary effects. It produced the typical Marrano situation as an inner exile, a person of unstable identity and, partly in a metaphorical sense, a new wandering Jew.
The deracinated, interiorized cast of mind of the Marranos, Yovel is resolute in concluding, was to become the common property of modern Jewry: “What happened to the Conversos in the confines of the Iberian experience as an exceptional phenomenon in their times prefigured the fundamental condition of Jews everywhere in modern times.” He points to a host of similarities along the split identity of the Marranos and that of modern, secularizing Jews who, in the words of the Hebrew poet Judah Leib Gordon, aspired to “be Jews in their tents, and men when they go out.” And then, of course, there followed the confrontation of deeply assimilated, even converted, Western European Jews with modern racism.
We are all Marranos now: the thesis is nothing if not provocative. But as with any work written under the spell of such a grand idea, problems abound. Yovel sees Marrano “influence” in far too many places, even where the links are thin and abstract. For one thing, even the 19th-century maskilim, or Jewish enlighteners, far from hiding their identity, were intent on adapting Judaism to European culture precisely in order to ensure its survival. Judah Leib Gordon was a Hebrew, not a Russian, poet, and his passion was to renew the Jews’ ancient language and identity, not to conceal them. Yovel himself cannot help conceding that all his fascinating parallels are of little more than phenomenological interest and that he has proved nothing of concrete historical significance: “Should the Marranos then be seen as anticipating Haskalah, the movement that promoted Jewish modernization? Not quite.”
Perhaps the most striking rebuttal of Yovel’s theory is the self-determination of the Marrano remnants themselves. His affecting portrait of the community in Belmonte touches upon its members’ reluctance to be reintegrated into contemporary Jewry or repatriated to Israel, and speaks resoundingly: “This is their revered tradition, the way their ancestors have always kept their religion, and this is how it should be. . . . Secrecy had become important to the Marranos as a religious value. The mask had acquired ritual meaning in itself, and duality was now practiced for its own sake.”
1?This follows the central argument in Yovel’s earlier book, Spinoza and Other Heretics, which located the origins of Baruch Spinoza’s Jewish heresy in his Marrano lineage. See André Aciman’s review in “Was Spinoza a Heretic?” (Commentary, August 1990) and my own discussion in “Romancing Spinoza” (Commentary, December 2006).