Historian traces legacy of covert Jews in Brazil

History of Portuguese crypto-Jews focus of talk at Princeton University

By: Rachel Silverman
   The story of the Jewish people is one of survival and perseverance.
   This narrative is certainly true for Jews who, though forcibly converted to Christianity during the Inquisition, have secretly maintained their Jewish faith to this day.
   Last week, French historian Nathan Wachtel shed light on these covert Jews, or crypto-Jews. Speaking at Princeton University, Dr. Wachtel discussed the legacy of Portuguese crypto-Jews in northeastern Brazil.
   Though Portugal offered a safe haven for Jews up until the 15th century, a series of religious campaigns, initiated in 1497, presented Jews with a devastating ultimatum: conversion or death. Newly baptized Christians were dubbed marranos — the Spanish word for swine — and were subject to the watchful, ruthless eye of the grand inquisitor.
   Despite the hostility, Portuguese Jewry continued behind closed doors, Dr. Wachtel said.
   When Portuguese ships set sail for the New World, new Christians brought their customs — both unconscious and conscious— in tow.
   For example, Dr. Wachtel said Brazilian marranos do not eat pork, in keeping with the Jewish custom of kashrut. They light candles for "the angels" on Friday night and often take Saturday as a day of rest. Marrano families read the Old Testament every evening, and fast in August and September, as Jews do during Yom Kippur.
   "All these clues suggest the survival of a long marrano memory — whether it is conscious or not," Dr. Wachtel explained.
   During his fieldwork in Brazil, Dr. Wachtel spoke with many marranos who were unaware Jews exist today. They believed, instead, Judaism to be a thing of the Bible that vanished long ago.
   Many marranos Dr. Wachtel interviewed were also unaware they had a connection with these ancient peoples.
   "The history of their memory is a history of oblivion," Dr. Wachtel said. "They were shocked to discover family traditions that they thought were Christian were not."
   Other marranos, upon learning of their mixed ancestry, had a difficult decision to make. Should they remain faithful to marrano customs, become agnostic or take up a new religion — such as Catholicism, Presbyterianism or Judaism?
   Dr. Wachtel said the responses varied widely.
   "It’s a reflection of the complexity of the new Christian experience," he explained.
   One man he interviewed became a pastor, and then later, upon learning of his hybrid faith, an outspoken leader in the Jewish community.
   Another prominent bishop Dr. Wachtel spoke with continues to profess both Christian and Jewish identities. Dr. Wachtel showed a picture of the bishop’s castle — adorned with a huge Star of David.
   "He wants to convert his castle into a center for Hebraic studies," Dr. Wachtel told the audience.
   Mr. Wachtel is the director of the School of Social Sciences at the College of France. This semester, he is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study. His works include "Jewish Memories," "Gods and Vampires" and "The Vision of the Vanquished: The Spanish Conquest of Peru Through Indian Eyes."