Kol Nidre and the Anusim

As we approach Kol Nidre, the Jewish prayer recited in the synagogue at the beginning of the evening service on Kippur, it is important to think about those for whom the Kol Nidre was a lifeline to their almost lost Judaism. I am, of course, referring to the Anusim (the ‘forced ones’), those forcibly converted Jews originating in the Iberian Penninsular and their descendants.

From the fourteenth century onwards masses of Jews were forced to adopt Christianity, sometimes at the point of the sword and on many occasions even without their knowledge. The most famous occasion was when all 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 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 Kippur, both vital for different reasons. Purim was a very important festival as they looked to the heroine Esther as inspiration of one who kept her religion quiet for the sake of her people; she was for them the first Anusah. Kippur became extremely important as it gave the Anusim an opportunity to renounce all the vows they had publicly made while pretending to be Christian to avoid the inquisitorial pyre.

Thus every year all over the globe, descendants of Anusim would gather in secret, sometimes centuries after the Inquisition had ceased to be a menace, and recite 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 these Sephardim still pray for those affected by the Inquisition.

Although it is inconceivable to many, according to some figures, there are over a million descendants of Anusim in the world today. I am not talking about anyone who has Jewish ancestry, which accounts for almost every other Spaniard and Portuguese living, I am referring to those who are aware of their Jewish roots and seek an interest in or even a return to Judaism.

There are amazing stories of people who have had some sort of tradition passed down to them over centuries. There was a story of a nun in Brazil who would curse in Hebrew every time she made the sign of the cross until an Israeli tourist explained to her what she was saying. There are ‘amulets’ that have been passed down from generation to generation that contain the mezzuza 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 in case the inquisitors would arrive they could quickly extinguish the flames. This is done to this present 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 leave pots of cooked pork on their doorstep but never eat from it. 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 examination they denied everything until they saw him recite the first line of the Shema, which was the only Hebrew prayer they knew.

The Inquisition and Expulsion from the Iberian Peninsular left an indelible mark on Jewish history, perhaps like no other event. There was a reign of terror, similar to the Gestapo that lasted for many centuries. Only a couple of centuries before, Iberian Jewry had accounted for over 90% of world Jewry. Today, only a few per cent 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; Shabbatai Zvi, Hassidut, Zfat Kabbalists, 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. Groups like Shavei Yisrael, Casa Shalom and Saudades are implementing very important roles in bringing these people back to the heritage that was stolen from them. These groups should be supported and not belittled like some recent articles have done. As Jews we are responsible for one another and this is supposed to ring true especially when we sit in 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 take in the prayer and think about those who are still living a nightmare enforced 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 and perhaps think about assisting those groups who attempt to make it a reality.

 

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