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Question 13.5:
Who are Crypto-Jews (also known as "marranos")?


At the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Jews were offered conversion or expulsion. Many chose to leave Spain (quite a few found safety in the Muslim Ottoman Empire), but others stayed behind.

"Marranos" actually started appearing with the first riots in the Juderias of Spain. Many were forced to convert to save their lives. These were naturally not faithful Catholics. The laws in 14th and 15th century Spain became increasingly oppressive towards practicing Jews, while providing an easy escape by conversion. Large numbers of middle class Jews outwardly took on Christianity to avoid the laws, while secretly practicing Judaism. [The term Marrano appears to be derived from the color of the robes of a Roman Catholic Bishop; Jews who converted were placed under the direct tutelage of that bishop. One source indicates that the term "marrano" means pig literally in Spanish, and notes that the converted Jews were called that because one of the ideals of the Spanish society in the times of the Catholic Kings was purity of blood--hence, if a person couldn't prove to be totally "clean" of blood (i.e., that they were a descendant of Christian Spaniards), they were called a marrano.]

Most of the remaining Marranic practice in Spain and Portugal today is from those religious Jews who escaped from Spain to Portugal in 1492, only to be trapped there later when the expulsion was instituted there as well. The most active Marranism in the Iberian peninsula is in the mountainous border areas between Spain and Portugal, in towns such as Belmonte'. Jewish outreach in these areas is achieving success in bringing them forward and restoring full Judaic practice, but many still fear burning or other persecution if they go public.

Some faithful Catholic converts were won by the efforts of famous apostates like Pablo de Santa Maria who went around disputing the rabbis and ordinary Jews, winning some converts. In the most famous disputation, with Nachmanides, he was soundly defeated, but the Franciscans published false reports of the disputation to win more converts. Nachmanides, who had been protected from heresy laws during the disputations, was forced to publish his refutations in public. He was forced into exile rather than be burned as a heretic. In any case, the faithfulness of these converts is doubtful, since the Order of Expulsion was primarily due to the recidivism of Conversos once they had to live next door to practicing Jews again. It was felt that expelling all open Jews was the only way to keep the Conversos Christian.

Among those who stayed behind were Jews who pretended to convert to Roman Catholicism, but who secretly maintained a practice of Judaism. The term "Marrano" to a pig or, figuratively, a slovenly, dirty person, and has acquired the sense of a reference to crypto-Jews. The etymology is from the Arabic MUHARRAM, which means forbidden, unclean, the opposite of HALAL (as in halal meat, the Muslim counterpart of kashruth meat). Those who speak Arabic use the expression "HARRAM" when disapproving something, as when scolding a misbehaving child. So the word does not really mean "pig," but because that meat is forbidden to Muslims, that expression became a synonym and the Spanish word MARRANO/A (the feminine form is an especially horrible insult for a woman) does indeed mean "pig" and is used along with the Latin "puerco/a" and "cerdo/a" and the onomatopoeic "cochino/a." Only 'marrano/a" is used to also refer pejoratively to crypto-Jews. Why? Perhaps the term refers to the swine which they'd publicly eat to demonstrate their outward conversion. It isn't clear if the "Old Christians" or the practicing Jews called them "marrano".

In Majorca the community was converted in the 1430's and are called Chuetas, from "pork lard" since they regularly keep pork lard boiling in cauldrons on their porches. They themselves still call themselves Israelitas in private, and ask forgiveness from el Grande Dio for worshipping in front of statues of a man. They typically sacrified (in a figurative, not literal, sense) their first born sons to the Catholic priesthood as a means of getting protection from Church persecution, so, ironically, many of the priests across the Baleiric Islands are from Marrano families.

Crypto-Jew is the correct term, as it also refers to Jews forced to adopt other religions and political philosophies while maintaining Jewish practices. Crypto-Judaism pre-dates the Inquisition, as Jews were forced by the Al-Mohavid invasions of Spain to become Muslims, creating Crypto-Jews who gradually fled to Christian districts for protection from the Muslims (see Roth's History of the Jews). In modern times outwardly Muslim Crypto-Jews are known to be in Meshed, Iran, and in Turkey.

A number of Crypto-Jewish communities survive today, especially in former Spanish-influenced regions, such as the southwestern U.S.A. They still maintain extensive secrecy after centuries. Other communities were lost to assimilation, but maintained residual Jewish practices such as lighting candles Friday night. Cohen's The Marranos and Prinz's The Secret Jews claim that the following are examples of such communities, although such claims have not been verified and are disputed by some:

Famous Hispanics who have acknowledged Marrano ancestry include Rita Moreno and Fidel Castro. Jews have played an important role in the history of Monterrey, Mexico. Frida Kahlo's father, Guillermo Kahlo, a somewhat reknowned photographer in his own right, was a Hungarian Jew.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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