The Converso Project Announced at the IAJGS International Jewish Genealogical Conference
While thousands upon thousands of Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492 (and in 1497 in Portugal) and settled around the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, those who remained in Spain had a different existence. Theconversos, anusim or New Christians (NC) were suspect and often targeted by the Inquisition.
The world thought that those who had remained in Iberia, Latin America and elsewhere had assimilated and were lost forever to the Jewish people. Incredibly, a phenomenon has unfolded in the past 20 years as the descendants of those NC have emerged from the shadows of history.
They seek to learn more about their Jewish roots, identify with their ancestral heritage, and some openly return to Judaism. Although this began as a trickle, it has spread quickly and today covers the entire Western Hemisphere – a vibrant movement of large, unpredictable proportions. Numerous internet forums and social media, individual activists and Jewish organizations are now devoted to these bnei anousim (children of those who were forcibly converted).
The potential effects of this dramatic development have yet to be understood or addressed by world Jewry and the State of Israel. These returnees could dramatically alter whom we see as Jews.
In 1391, across much of Spain, and again in 1492, hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism following bloody persecutions, murders and the destruction of Jewish communities. Scholars estimate some 100,000 individuals were forcibly converted. In 1497, the Portuguese Jews faced the same fate.
Of those who remained, many were outwardly Catholic, but secretly observed Jewish practices in an “underground” existence. As New Christians, they were suspect and targeted by the Inquisition for Judaizing - following Jewish practices.
Thousands upon thousands of Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492 and then settled around the Mediterranean, in North Africa, in the Ottoman Empire, retaining elements of their background as Sephardic Jews and maintaining names, music, language, cuisine and customs. The New Christians later migrated to the New World, including Latin America and the Caribbean), while some remained in Spain and Portugal.
For those who stayed, however, things were different. As new converts, targeted for suspicious behavior, families began to change their names and adopt aliases to obscure their backgrounds. This makes it difficult for today’s scholars to identify who was whom and of what family. Endogamy, marriage with the group, was a mainstay of NC society. Ultimately, most NC families were connected in multiple ways.
The history of this group is Jewish history, amenable to academic study and scrutiny and within the field of genealogy. On a personal level, genealogical research is the one major tool that bnei anousim can utilize in their attempts to identify and verify their ancestry. This may be internal, for peace of mind, or external, to be recognized by Jewish authorities as zera yisrael (of Jewish descent).
By enhancing self-identity and Jewish awareness of this group, genealogy provides a tangible bridge from past to future for individuals and for the Jewish people.
A major goal is to enable contemporary descendants of the New Christians to connect genealogically to their Jewish ancestors. Another is to provide tools to enable scholars to perform analyses, such as migration pattern studies and demographics including occupations, family customs, longevity and more.
Sources include original Inquisition records of Spain, Portugal and tribunals in Colombia, Mexico, Peru and elsewhere. Especially useful are records of marriages, births and return to Jewish life in Amsterdam and London, where the refugees reverted to their Jewish names, and began to lead Jewish lives again. Records from Brazil and the Caribbean will be included.
Data will be collected from many sources and entered, including names, dates, relationships, aliases, and digitized records. Users will be able to access all data and may be able to track their ancestors, for example, from Spain to Amsterdam to the Caribbean.
There is important work by many historians in books, dissertations and articles in many languages, in many countries. These contain a wealth of data, although almost all work has been carried out with the goal of recording history, not genealogy. To make use of this material, reliability is crucial.
Only information from approved sources will be permitted. If a crypto-Jewish family tree is submitted, the Project will look at the data source for each person, such as birth certificate or church document. Some trees have no sources; others are taken from random books that are not acceptable. All names in the database will have primary data sources.
Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition and archival records hold extensive genealogical data, but each Inquisition document or court case may be 300 pages or more. This personal information will enable that are mainly, but not exclusively, demographic. The ability to trace the diaspora of the New Christians may yield fascinating solutions to historical riddles.
The database should change the historiography of the Iberian Inquisitions as the migration paths of Iberian Jews will be revealed. It will enable descendants of Iberian Jews - now living around the world - to search for and perhaps locate elusive family information.
Sources are still found in unexpected places; not everything is digitized. Genie Milgrom and Prof. Avraham Gross recently visited the Amsterdam City archives, The Ets Haim Library archives of the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue, and the Archives of the Rosenthaliana Collection (University of Amsterdam). They also discovered data to digitize in London and Jamaica.
The multi-tiered Converso Project will gather information that has been accumulating for centuries in multiple sources in many countries. The data is staggering, but including it in one genealogical database will create a new scholarly tool of great value. For Jewish historiography, the Project will open up new horizons. Also, individuals seeking Iberian Jewish roots will also find the database most useful.
Spearheading the Converso Project is genealogist Genie Milgrom, born in Havana, Cuba to Roman Catholic parents of Spanish ancestry. She was able to fully document that her family descended from a direct, unbroken maternal Jewish lineage spanning 22 generations, back to 1405 pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal. She is the author of two books that received 2015 Latino Author Book Awards (My 15 Grandmothers, the Spanish edition Mis 15 Abuelas and How I found My 15 Grandmothers, A Step by Step Guide). Genie is the president of Tarbut Sefarad-Fermoselle in Spain, and immediate past president of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies, she writes for several online sites, for the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian Crypto Jewry (FIU University), and received the State of Florida Genealogy award for outstanding achievements and advances in the pioneer work she has done in genealogy.