10 December 2008

DNA: The Iberian "Pintele Yid"

Yes, a strange Yiddish phrase to use in describing Sephardim, and a good piece by Michael Freund in today's Jerusalem Post.

I can only hope that the international Jewish community sees this as a force for assisting converso families around the world to return.

I would hazard a guess that many Tracing the Tribe readers are not as aware as I am of the spread of messianic churches in the American southwest, and particularly in New Mexico, where an extremely high percentage of early residents - called the "old families" or "familias viejos" - are converso descendants. Many of these families are recruited by the messianic movement which is spending a huge amount of money on this effort. Many of these families have lost much of their knowledge over the centuries, since their arrival with various expeditions in the early 1600s.

Despite this, there are families wishing to return to Judaism. Historically, some who wished to return previously were rebuffed by the Ashkenazi community who knew nothing about Sephardic history or traditions and did not believe what those families claimed to be.

That situation over the years caused many converso families to retreat and to simply not call attention to themselves. Many families over time left the Catholic Church and joined Protestant movements as their ancestors had told them not to trust the Catholics. Many of them know their ancestors were burned alive and some have found actual documents in Inquisition court records.

And, while there are growing numbers of personal stories appearing about such individuals or families - some have willingly spoken to researchers - many more families will never speak to researchers or reveal family secrets. Some families with whom I am acquainted have preserved - in great detail - their traditions, customs and knowledge, have maintained birth and marriage registers and other essential details since arriving in the New World.

More than five centuries after the expulsion and forced conversion of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry, the results of a new genetic study might just spur a return of historic proportions to Israel and the Jewish people.

In a paper published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, a team of biologists dropped a DNA bombshell, declaring that 20% of the population of Iberia has Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

Since the combined populations of Spain and Portugal exceed 50 million, that means more than 10 million Spaniards and Portuguese are descendants of Jews.

These are not the wild-eyed speculations of a newspaper columnist, but rather cold, hard results straight out of a petri dish in a laboratory.

Michael details the study, led by Mark Jobling (University of Leicester, UK) and Francesc Calafell (Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona), analyzed the Y chromosomes of Sephardim in communities where Jews had migrated after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Those Y-DNA signatures were compared with those of more than 1,000 men living in Spain and Portugal. Because Y-DNA is passed from father to son over thousands of years, the scientists could measure the two groups, leading to the finding that 20% or 1/5th of Iberians are of Jewish descent.

While many stories on this study use the target date of 1492 as the date of mass conversions, this is not completely accurate. Michael correctly mentions the 1391 pogroms across Spain which resulted in thousands upon thousands of forced conversions, murders and finally the exodus of many Jews.

THIS RESULT underlines the extent to which our ancestors suffered so long ago in Spain and Portugal .

From the historical record, we know that as early as 1391, a century before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain , widespread anti-Semitic pogroms swept across the country, leaving thousands dead and many communities devastated.

In the decades that followed, there were waves of forced conversions as part of an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment for Jews. This reached a climax in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave Spain 's remaining Jews a dire choice: convert or leave forever.

Large numbers chose exile. American historian Howard Morley Sachar has estimated the number of Spain 's Jewish exiles at around 100,000, while Hebrew University 's Haim Beinart has put the total at 200,000. Others have spoken of even more.

But untold numbers of forcibly converted Jews, as well as those who voluntarily underwent baptism, remained.

These include, of course, the Anousim (Hebrew for "those who were coerced"), many of whom bravely continued to cling to Jewish practice, covertly passing down their heritage from generation to generation. In recent years, a growing number of Anousim from across Europe, South America and parts of the US have begun to return to Israel and the Jewish people.

He also details the grisly success of the Spanish rulers in persecuting, converting and eventually assimilating the Jews into the Christian majority.

For centuries thereafter, the ruthless arm of the Inquisition hunted down and killed suspected "Judaizers" or "secret Jews," ultimately forcing many to abandon the faith to which they had remained so heroically, and secretly, loyal. According to the late historian Cecil Roth, the Inquisition's henchmen murdered more than 30,000 "secret Jews." Some were burned alive in front of cheering crowds, while countless others were condemned for preserving Jewish practices.

This finding, says Michael, will likely take Iberia by storm. The New York Times story said that these results "provide new and explicit evidence of the mass conversions of Sephardic Jews" which took place more than five centuries ago on Spanish and Portuguese soil. Additionally, in 1493, the Jews of Sicily were then persecuted with the same "convert or else!" decree.

He calls it "the biological equivalent of the pintele Yid, the eternal and unbreakable Jewish spark that can never be extinguished.

And it is not only what this study says about the Jewish past. What does it say about the future? If the Jewish people undertake, he writes, a concerted outreach effort toward our Iberian genetic brethren, it could have a profound impact in a variety of fields, ranging from anti-Semitism in Europe to the future of Jewish demography.

Imagine if just 5% or even 10% of Spanish and Portuguese descendants of Jews were to return to Judaism. It would mean an additional 500,000 to 1 million Jews in the world.

And even if many or most choose not to return, it still behooves us to reach out to them. The very fact that such large numbers of Spaniards and Portuguese have Jewish ancestry could have a significant impact on their attitudes toward Jews and Israel , possibly dampening their anti-Semitism and anti-Israel slant.

For when someone discovers they are of Jewish descent, it is likely to create a greater sense of kinship for Jewish causes. Hence, we should seek to promote and cultivate their affinity for Israel and the Jewish people.

Michael adds - and I believe - that we have a historical responsibility to reach out to these descendants of forced conversions and the Inquisition, and to facilitate their return.

Through no fault of their own, their ancestors were cruelly taken from us. Centuries ago, the Catholic Church devoted enormous resources to tearing them away from the Jewish people, and it nearly succeeded.

Our task now should be to show the same level of determination to welcome them back into our midst.

Michael Freund is the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel which assists Anousim in Spain, Portugal and South America to return to the Jewish people.

I think Shavei Israel needs to add a major outreach component in the American southwest (and other US areas) to its plans.


  1. I had the sickening displeasure last week of meeting a Messianic "Jew" in training- a passionate missionary- at the wake of a mutual friend who is Catholic (no converso history that she knew of- she was an Italian catholic; however, her maiden name Catania is one used by conversos). The insensitive obnoxiousness of this woman had no bounds. Not only was she trying to convince me, a Jew, to accept Jesus as the Messiah (at a wake, yet), but she told me that she had been visiting our mutual friend twice a week at her bedside as she lay dying to pray with her. During my friend's last weeks, bedridden and unable to escape from the missionary, this Messianic "Jew" tried to convert her from Catholicism to Messianic "Judaism."

    This was my first personal experience with a Messianic Jew, and I hope it is my last. They are filling a need in the American Southwest where there are descendants of conversos who want to be Jewish again and have been rejected by some rabbis. The Messianic "Jewish" missionaries are meeting the needs of the people to return to their roots. They are intensely persistent, misrepresenting Judaism and fooling conversos into believing that they can be Jewish and still believe that Jesus is the Messiah. True Jewish outreach is desperately needed but it is already too late to re-capture those of Jewish ancestry whose religion has been stolen from them again.

    Judy Simon

  2. Anonymous5:37 AM

    I had an mtDNA test and I noticed apart from the Jewish matches I also had some matches from Sicily, Azores Islands, Canary Islands and the island of Rhodes. These were likely Anousim.