Kol Nidre and the Bnei Anusim
As we approach Kol Nidre, the Jewish prayer recited in the synagogue preceding the evening service on Yom Kippur, it is important to think about those for whom Kol Nidre was a lifeline to their almost lost Judaism. I am, of course, referring to the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities, otherwise known as the Bnei Anusim (lit., descendants of the forced).
From the 14th century onward masses of Jews were forced to adopt Christianity, sometimes at the point of the sword and on many occasions even without prior knowledge.
The most famous occasion was when the Jews of Portugal were to be expelled in 1497, and their only port of exit was to be from Lisbon. While all the Jews gathered in the infamous Rossio Square, they were surrounded by guards while priests poured baptismal waters over the entire crowd. According to the Christian theology of the time, this meant that they were no longer Jews and as “New Christians” they were thus barred from leaving Portugal.
For many centuries after, these Anusim would be forced to attend church and live their life openly according to Christian tradition, while secretly adhering to what Judaism they could recall. There are two major days in the Anusim calendar: Purim and Yom Kippur, both vital for different reasons.
Purim was a very important festival because they looked to the heroine, Esther, as an inspirational example of one who kept her religion quiet for the sake of her people; she was for them the first Anusa. Yom Kippur became extremely important since it gave the Anusim an opportunity to renounce all the vows they had publicly made while pretending to be Christian to avoid unspeakable torture and the inquisitorial pyre.
Thus, every year all over the globe, descendants of Anusim would gather in secret, sometimes after the Inquisition had ceased to be a menace, and recite some form of the Kol Nidre prayer. The prayer book of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews still has a reference to those imprisoned by the Inquisition, when the reader declares a blessing for “A todos nossos Irmaos, prezos pela Inquisicao.” This is obviously so ingrained in the tradition that the Sephardim still pray for those affected by the Inquisition, an institution unparalleled in Jewish history for the longevity of its reign of terror.
Although it is inconceivable to many, there are tens of millions of Bnei Anusim in the world today. I am not talking about anyone who has Jewish ancestry, which accounts for many times this number; I am referring to those who are aware of their Jewish roots and seek an interest in or even a reconnection with Judaism and the Jewish people.
There are amazing stories of people who have had some sort of tradition passed down to them over centuries.
Almost every Jewish tradition has been kept somewhere by some family of Bnei Anusim. There are amulets that have been passed down from generation to generation that contain the mezuza scroll. There are women who go to a dark room every Friday at dusk to light candles in a bowl of water; the water was so that in case the inquisitors would arrive, they could quickly extinguish the flames. This is done to this very day, and many times without even their closest family ever becoming aware of this ritual, until it is time to explain it to the eldest daughter.
There are the “Chuetas” of Majorca who would leave pots of cooked pork on their doorstep but never eat from them. There are the Jews of the mountainous Belmonte region who kept themselves so far from other people they believed they were the only Jews left in the world, until another Jew stumbled upon them last century.
Even upon questioning they denied everything, until they saw him recite the first line of the Shema, which was the only Hebrew prayer that remained in their liturgy.
The Inquisition and Expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula left an indelible mark on Jewish history, perhaps like no other event. Only a couple of centuries before, Iberian Jewry had accounted for around 90 percent of world Jewry. Today, only a small number of Jews can trace their heritage back to Spain or Portugal.
The Expulsion and Inquisition set off chains of events that helped shape Jewish history: Shabtai Zvi, Hassidism, Kabbala, the Haskala, Zionism and the first Jewish communities in the US and the UK, to name but a few.
There are still many people today for whom the Inquisition is still a reality, in essence if not in effect.
Simple Google searches of inquiry about the origins of the family name or peculiar familial customs, genealogical interest and DNA advances have meant that for the first time in many generations, our seemingly lost brothers and sisters are reconnecting with their heritage and the people they were cruelly ripped away from.
As Jews we are responsible for one another, and this is supposed to ring true especially when we undergo judgment at this time. We do not pray for our own welfare but the welfare of all of Israel.
This Kol Nidre we should all think about those who are still living a nightmare forced on them and their ancestors to steal them away from the remnant of the House of Israel. We should pray for their return to our people, as the Halacha exhorts us, and perhaps think about assisting groups that attempt to make this return a reality.
The writer is a former senior government adviser and the president of Reconectar, an organization seeking to reconnect the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities with the Jewish world.