Launching the Converso Genealogy Project: Tracking the Diaspora of the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities

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I was born into a Roman Catholic family in Havana, Cuba, but from a young age, I felt Jewish and inexplicably was drawn to all things Jewish. After converting to Orthodox Judaism at age 34, I found clues along my maternal line that showed I might actually descend from Spanish Jews who had been forced to convert. Thus, started the longest road I have ever walked.

[This article is based upon a presentation at the 37th International Conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) held in Seattle during August 2016—Ed.]

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Finally, I was able to prove to myself and to my family that we did descend from a direct, unbroken maternal Jewish lineage spanning 22 generations and going back to 1405 in pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal. This costly and extended effort grated on my nerves, alienated my family and, at times, made me doubt my visceral instincts. In the end, I had amassed boxes of documents that included Inquisition court cases, Catholic baptism certificates, notarial deeds, and marriage and death certificates on each one of my grandmothers. Most importantly, I totally satisfied the Orthodox Beth Din (rabbinical court in Israel) that I did indeed descend from such a lineage. For more than ten years, I researched my family’s past, crisscrossing through many small villages in Spain and Portugal, looking for and hoping to find my Jewish ancestry. Not only was the prospect of succeeding a daunting one, but the possibility that I had no Jewish ancestry at all petrified me, because I had always felt Jewish in my soul. What if I was wrong?

My search had been extremely difficult as I hit genealogical brick walls along the way. My family was not exactly cheering me on to find this heritage, so it was a very painful process. After all the years and heartache this search took, the rabbinical acceptance was not nearly as important an accomplishment as the fact that, having become active on social media, I had found thousands and thousands of individuals like myself, innately Jewish but born into Catholic families and now scattered around the world. These individuals looked to me to lead the way back home to their own ancestry. I knew that most had neither the resources nor the wherewithal to walk the same road.

I published three books, My 15 Grandmothers, How I Found My 15 Grandmothers (Mis 15 Abuelas (Spanish title), hoping that they would serve as a guide to those crying out and trying to “come home.” I began to speak publicly and often in the United States, Israel and Latin America. I held many hands through my travels, but I knew that no matter what I did, it just would not be enough. It saddened me that what I had done for myself, I could not do for all of those who wanted to break their bonds to the Catholic Church. It also caused me great grief to know that I had held Jewish history in my hands in musty archives all over the Iberian Peninsula, and that few knew just how much of our history remains available, waiting to be unearthed.

Sometimes miracles happen, and they come in strange and unexpected ways. I experienced one of those miracles first hand at the 2014 IAJGS conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was approached by Sallyann Sack, editor and co-owner of AVOTAYNU, a true pioneer and maven in the Jewish genealogy world, and Ambassador Neville Lamdan, chairman of the board of the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy (IIJG) in Israel. We sat down for a cup of coffee, and they asked what I would do for future generations with the knowledge I had amassed if money were no object. I had never before given this even a second’s thought, yet slowly, and on a paper napkin, in that hotel coffee shop, I explained and detailed the bones of the project we have today. That napkin turned into a tablecloth and the tablecloth into a flag that we will now carry home as we bring this project to light.

I contacted Professor Abraham Gross of Ben Gurion University in Israel, head of theInstitute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies at Netanya Academic College. His familiarity with Sephardi and Anousim history, as well as his current work with descendants of converso Jews, seemed to make ours a logical association. Thrilled that he agreed, we set out together to put flesh on the bones of this important genealogical and academic project to which the IIJG has enthusiastically added its support and sponsorship. Together, we will make our dreams come true.

The Converso Project

The Converso Project aims to establish a comprehensive genealogical database of the diaspora of the New Christians, Jews who converted to Christianity more than five centuries ago in Spain and Portugal and their descendants up to the end of the 18th century.

At the academic level, our goal is to make a significant contribution to New Christian studies and, at the family historian level, to assist individuals seeking to explore their New Christian roots. The term New Christian is one historians use when speaking of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism. Catholic Spain and Portugal called them New Christians, and their governments made a distinction between them and those who had always been Catholic, whom they called Old Christians.

Brief Historical Background

Life became precarious for Spanish Jews during the second half of the 14th century, but the primary blow that undermined that highly successful and prosperous Jewry struck in the summer of 1391. It was a watershed moment that was to shake Hispano-Jewish communities to the core. A wave of “popular” persecutions, which swept throughout Castile and Aragon, left a bloody trail of Jewish martyrs on the one hand and, on the other hand, an unprecedented number of conversos, Jewish forced-converts to Catholicism (in Hebrew, anousim). Scholars estimate the number of those conversos to be as high as 100,000 individuals. Two more waves of conversions in the following quarter century sealed the tragic fate of Spanish Jewry.

While a remnant of the former Jewish communities struggled along, the conversos, now called New Christians, (henceforth NC, interchangeable with conversos and other common appellations such as marranos and crypto-Jews), entered Christian society and did well for themselves. They prospered while occupying positions that had been closed to them prior to their conversion.

It took a full generation of a forceful rejection of outward Jewish practices for the NC to adapt to their new, underground status. They would go to Church on Sundays and practice all outwardly Catholic rituals, but at first did not relinquish things such as not eating pork, cleaning the house for Shabbat and other Jewish practices. The charge of Judaizing––namely, retaining a measure of Jewish identity, whether in practice or only in belief in the “Law of Moses”––became common as New Christians were caught practicing these rituals underground. Everyone knew who they were, and the NC did not blend easily into the Old Christian Society; old habits and customs were hard to break.

A virtual civil war between Old and New Christians developed in the middle of the 15th century, eventually leading to the establishment of the Holy Office of the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 in order to root out the so-called “Jewish heresy” from within Spanish Catholic society. The Church set up Inquisition tribunals in several cities throughout Spain. After a decade, the Inquisition issued a recommendation to expel all professing Jews from Spain, having reached the conclusion that the NC would persevere in their heresies as long as other openly observant Jews remained among them. The Edict of Expulsion of April 1492 decreed that by the end of July that year, no Jew would be allowed to set foot on Spanish soil unless he had converted to Catholicism. Jews were invited to convert or leave the country with only the clothes on their backs.

Those who left and joined Jewish communities around the Mediterranean Basin (mainly North Africa and the Ottoman Empire) are the ones who today are called Sephardic Jews. Many still retain elements of their Spanish background: names, music, language, cuisine and customs.

The situation was quite different for the former Jews who stayed behind in Spain after the Expulsion. Now, as new converts, they joined the ranks of the earlier NC. They also became targets for investigations by the Inquisition tribunals. At that point, families began to change their names and adopt aliases in order to obscure their Jewish backgrounds, thus making it difficult for modern-day scholars to identify who was whom and to what family they belonged. Endogamy, marriage within the group, became a characteristic of NC society, and ultimately, most NC families were connected in some way, many in multiple ways.

In 1492, many Spanish Jewish refugees crossed the border into Portugal. After five years, they too, along with the Jews of Portugal, were forced to convert by order of King Manuel. Hence, another large group of New Christians was created. The perceived problem of judaizing in Portugal eventually brought about the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536.

In the 16th century, many NC left Iberia and found havens in Christian territories such as Ferrara, Livorno and Venice, Italy; Bayonne, Bordeaux and Rouen, France; and Antwerp, Belgium. In the 17th century, others found their way to new communities of NC refugees in Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. Still others fled to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Central and South America, including some islands in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. The Spanish Inquisition, however, extended its long arm to those distant places in the Americas by setting up tribunals in major cities such as Cartagena, Lima and Mexico City. Likewise, the Portuguese Inquisition reached the NC who settled in Brazil.

Generations have passed since the abolition of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions in 1834 and 1831 respectively. Most have thought that those who remained in Iberia, Latin America and elsewhere had assimilated into their surrounding Christian society and were lost forever to the Jewish People.

Incredibly, and often after a complete loss of awareness of their Jewish roots, a phenomenon has unfolded in the past two decades in which descendants of those medieval and early modern NC have come out of the shadows of history. They seek to learn more about their Jewish roots, identify with their ancestral heritage and even take the ultimate step of openly returning to Judaism.

This phenomenon, which started as a trickle, has been spreading fast and wide, and today covers virtually the entire Western Hemisphere, where it forms a vibrant movement of large and unpredictable proportions. This can be seen from numerous Internet forums and social media, as well as the growing number of approaches to individual activists and Jewish organizations now devoted to those bnei anousim(descendants of the anousim). The potential effects of this dramatic development have yet to be understood and addressed by world Jewry and the State of Israel. These returnees could dramatically alter whom we see as Jews, as well as the number of Jewish people who want to stand up and be counted as such.

Academic and Individual Implications

No matter the nature of their inner identity, NC operated within a Christian world. Yet the history of the group is a part of Jewish history, amenable to academic study and scrutiny, in the first instance within the field of genealogy. On the individual level, genealogical research is the one major tool that the bnei anousim can utilize in their attempt to identify and verify their roots. Their need for authentication may be an internal one, for their own peace of mind, and an external one, to be recognized by Jewish authorities as zera yisrael (of Jewish descent). It goes without saying that by enhancing the self-identity and Jewish awareness of the bnei anousim at the group level, genealogy can provide a tangible bridge from past to future with consequences both for the individuals involved and the Jewish people.

Methodology

A major goal of this project is to enable contemporary descendants of the New Christians to connect genealogically to their Jewish ancestors. Another goal is to provide tools to enable scholars to perform analyses never before possible, such as studies of migration patterns and demographics of the NC diaspora including their occupations, family customs, longevity and much more.

To reach these goals, large swaths of data must be analyzed not only to follow the diaspora of the NC, but also to track their migratory patterns and genealogical data. To do this, we have analyzed the different sources and information that exist, but mostly have been hidden and/or unused by scholars. Among the sources are the original Inquisition records of Spain, Portugal and other outlying Inquisition tribunals in Colombia, Mexico, Peru and elsewhere.

Especially useful are the many records of marriages, births and return to Jewish life in Amsterdam and London. In these two cities, the New Christians changed their names back to their old Jewish ones from their Christian names and, after a while, began to lead normal Jewish lives again including all the rituals of brit milah (circumcision), marriage and more. We also will use sources from Brazil and the Caribbean islands, where some NC moved after leaving Spain and Portugal. Some went directly from Portugal while others migrated first to Amsterdam and then to the Caribbean.

From these “stops along the way,” data will be collected from the Inquisition records themselves, primary sources such as Church and synagogue records, existing family trees of families evaluated to be genuinely NC as well as selected secondary sources from historical studies, dissertations and similar material.

All of this data will be put into a database that includes not only names and dates but also relationships and aliases. Individuals working for the project will digitize records in various types of collections all over the NC diaspora. In a way that is similar to Ancestry.com, the database will be able to access the data from all the individual uploads and, hopefully, find the same person first in Spain, then in Amsterdam and finally perhaps, in a Caribbean island. That way, for example, those who suspect that they come from one of these NC families can follow their own information back and maybe see that they were stuck going back in time because they could not find the Jewish reference. We will show all the aliases a single person used, and using our data, a person doing a search may conceivably see that the Juan Ramos they were following but could not trace further back in time, actually was a person named Moses Levy.

Challenges

Much important work conducted by numerous historians to date is scattered in various books, dissertations and articles in many languages and in various countries. These studies contain a wealth of data, although almost all that work has been carried out with the goal of recording history, without genealogy in mind. To make use of this material, its reliability is crucial. The project directors will establish criteria by which to consider secondary material trustworthy enough to be utilized for the project.

In this context, the issue of how to deal with existing family trees owned by private individuals is even more problematic. Project managers will check and verify each such tree before it is integrated into the project’s databases. The reason such a thorough review must be done is that only information from approved sources will be allowed as a genuine source. If someone approaches us with a Crypto Jewish family tree, we will look at the source of information for each person on that tree. Is there an original birth certificate or Church document? What type of documentation accompanies each name on the tree? Some trees have no sources; others are taken from random books that we cannot approve for the project. At the end, all names in our master database will have primary data sources.

Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition records hold extensive genealogical data, but the size of each judgment or court case is daunting. After the 15th century, not all files dealt exclusively with the crime of judaizing. Some dealt with witchcraft, sodomy, or other types of behaviors that the Church considered heretical. Project managers will seek ways to access this huge body of material easily and efficiently. For example, dissertations and other published historical works may facilitate access to certain files because through the centuries, one or another academic has already taken a single file and studied it in depth; in such cases, we can access information straight from the dissertation. To cope with the problem of having to have a specialist physically read through the thousands of Inquisition court cases—each with 300 pages or more—we will consider accepting, at least in part, both primary and secondary sources that will be methodically identified and described in extensive bibliographies. This means that if an academic has already reviewed a particular case in detail to use for his own dissertation or used a particular case in a bibliography, then we will probably feel comfortable extracting the genealogies that are in these files. Of course, this only will be done on a case-by-case basis.

Project Outputs and Sources

The project will generate a comprehensive database accompanied by a user guide. The massive amount of personal information will enable quantitative and statistical studies that are mainly, but not exclusively, demographic. The ability to actually trace the diaspora of the New Christians may yield fascinating solutions to historical riddles. For example, I know that my family lived as Crypto Jews in the Braganza area of Portugal in the late 1600s, because I have Inquisition documents to show that they were constantly caught there. I know that eventually many of these Crypto Jews left for Amsterdam, but no records exist of ships leaving or arriving in Amsterdam. Historically, all we have are records—via their marriages and cemetery rec­ords—of the same Jews suddenly appearing in Amsterdam. I see the names of my family showing up in Amsterdam, but I cannot trace a true line because of the missing pieces. I also see my family names in the Curacao community, but again, I am missing the linking pieces. These are the riddles of the New Christian Diaspora that we hope to clarify when we are able to database all the names and dates along with their histories and genealogies. Such a database should also change the historiography of the Iberian Inquisitions (related and unrelated to the New Christians), because we will know the exact migration paths of the Iberian Jews. This database will enable descendants of Iberian Jews who now are scattered throughout the world, to search for—and perhaps to locate––family information that otherwise would not have been available to them.

Since we began to design this project, we realized that sources frequently are found in unexpected places, and not all are digitized. Earlier this year, the authors visited the Amsterdam City archives, the Ets Haim Library archives of the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue as well as the Archives of the Rosenthaliana Collection at the University of Amsterdam.  Professor Gross conducted similar searches in London, while I worked in Jamaica with Dr. Ainsley Henriques who has been recording Jewish Jamaican history for decades. We found much data to upload and digitize that has never been seen before. Months ago I started to upload much of this data myself to explore potential problems in reading medieval handwriting and deciphering the aliases that NCs used. Sometimes calling themselves by two or three different names, they wove a truly tangled web. Yet, having done this work myself for my own history, I know that it is entirely possible to untangle these webs.

Conclusion

This multi-tiered project will gather information that has been accumulating for centuries in multiple sources and in various countries throughout the world. The amount of data is staggering, but bringing it all together into one genealogical database will create a new scholarly tool of inestimable value. For Jewish historiography, the project will open up new horizons that have been closed until now. In addition, individuals seeking their Iberian Jewish roots also will find this database invaluable and well suited to their needs.

Genie Milgrom

Genie Milgrom

About Genie Milgrom

Genie Milgrom was born in Havana, Cuba, into a Roman Catholic family of Spanish ancestry. In an unparalleled work of genealogy, she was able to fully document her unbroken maternal lineage going back as far as 1405 to pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal. She is president of Tarbut Sefarad-Fermoselle in Spain, and Immediate Past President of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies. She is the author of the book My 15 Grandmothers, Mis 15 Abuelas in Spanish as well as How I Found My 15 Grandmothers, A Step By Step Guide. The books have won the 2015 Latino Author Book Awards. She also writes for several online sites including www.esefarad.com as well as the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian Crypto Jewry from FIU University. She was awarded the State of Florida Genealogy award for her outstanding achievements and advances in the pioneer work she has done in genealogy.

Genie Milgrom, Avotaynus