Interviews Reveal Family Ties
to Secret Survivors of the Inquisition
This is a rich and fascinating resource on Iberian Jews and their descendants, a treat for Jewish readers and historically minded readers alike.Library Journal (starred review)
Much has been written about the Inquisition, and about the Marranos, or Conversos, those Sephardic Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism to surviveand to avoid being burned at the stake in Church-sponsored genocidal ceremonies known as autos da fé. Even converting to Catholic Christianity was no guarantee against persecution, because anyone with Jewish blood was suspected of heresy. Many Jews and Conversos fled to the New World to find haven from the Inquisition, only to be persecuted by newly formed Inquisitions in Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Those Jews who stayed in Iberia and converted routinely lost everything: their homes and possessions, their livelihoods, their freedom of worship, and often even their names.
Over the centuries the descendants of the Marranos were assimilated into mainstream societies wherever the Sephardic Diaspora took them. Some families made a point of remembering, secretly, that they were descended from Jewish ancestors. Many, however, forgot their Jewish heritage over the generations, so that all that now remain are some vestigial customs and traditions that they do not fully understand. Such customs often involve dietary restrictions, house-cleaning routines, rituals of mourning and burial, and favorite games and pet phrases.
Intrigued by this phenomenon of inherited customs and traditions, Jewish historian Sandra Cumings Malamed conducted extensive interviews with people of Spanish or Portuguese ancestry, many of whose names indicated that they might have descended from Marranos. What she found was a remarkable congruence of living history: Catholic or even non-believing families who still clung to customs and values that indicated the strong possibility that they had Jewish hereditary roots.
Those interviewed were generally surprised and genuinely pleased to learn about the possibility that they might be descendants of Inquisition survivors. In many cases, what they learned has changed their lives, giving them an identity to cherish. In the words of one interviewee, You enhanced my learning about the Spanish Inquisition and the very likelihood of my being of Sephardic Jewish lineage. My appetite to learn more about my heritage is strong.
Sandra Cumings Malamed is the author of The Jews in Early America: A Chronicle of Good
Taste and Good Deeds. She has lectured throughout the United States and abroad at historical societies and museums and has been a scholar in residence for many private organizations. She has served as visiting curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the American Jewish Historical Society in Waltham, MA. She lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.