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Marranos – Who Were the Spanish Converted Jews?

אירנה רוזנברג
אירנה רוזנברג

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Who were the marranos? In Sephardi-Jewish history, marranos were Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution, but continued to observe traditional Jewish life in hiding. The term was originally derogatory, mocking the marranos and their descendants.

These days, descendants of Spanish Jews have the option to obtain Spanish and Portuguese citizenship. We are an Israeli law firm that specializes in helping those whose ancestors were expelled from Spain and Portugal to receive the rights they are entitled to under law. In this article, Advocate Irena Vasilyeva explains the history of the expulsion from Spain and Portugal.

History of the Spanish Marranos

The Marranos - who were the Spanish Converted Jews? In the late 14th century the Spanish Jewry faced a danger of extinction by an eager Spanish mob, composed of tens of thousands of rioters. They were incited by the Archdeacon Ferdinand Martinez in Seville, who preached over the years against the alleged Jewish heresy, disloyalty, greediness, pride in wealth and interest-taking. The angry mob entered the Juderia, the Jewish Quarter, attacked the residents and robbed their property. Despite intervention by the Mayor of Sevilla and his orders that the rioters are prosecuted and punished, Archdeacon Ferdinand Martinez continued with the hateful incitement.

Three months later the rioters entered the Jewish Quarter, blocked both its exists, and set it on fine. About 4,000 Jews were murdered that day. Most of the survivors converted to Christianity or left Seville. These riots were the beginning of a cruel wave of riots, spreading in the course of three months to Castile, Aragon, Catalonia and Mallorca. The riots implied more than the price of life and property. This was a turning point in the Sephardi Jewish realm. Thousands of Jews started converting their religion. It is estimated that over 100,000 Jews truly converted (conversos) and seemingly-converted (marranos).

The Life of the Marranos and What Became of the Expelled Jews

The marranos continued to live together in crowded communities. They were wealthy and had great influence on matters of the State, the Church and the King’s Court. However, they continued to be hated as their true Christian identity was scrutinized. The Jewish communities around the world considered the marranos to be martyrs. The other communities retained contacts with the marranos and strengthened their belief in the God of Israel over the years of riots.

The Inquisition, on the other hand, was convinced that only final expulsion of all Jews from Spain may terminate the Jewish influence on civil life. The purity of faith became the national policy of the Catholic regime. On March 31, 1492 this resulted in the horrible verdict, the order for expulsion of all Spanish Jews. In 1497 Portugal announced on expulsion of all Jews. A minority of the Jews were saved from expulsion through baptism and conversion, increasing the number of marranos. However, most Jews refused to convert and were forced to exile. The expelled Jews chose not to convert and immigrated to countries where they were not forced to hide their religion. These were mostly countries under Muslim regime.

Expelled Jews Integration in the Muslim World:

Most expelled Jews who chose not to convert emigrated to Northern Africa and the Ottoman Empire. There, their cultural and religious achievements were prominent. They taught their format of prayers, traditions and customs to the local Jews. Although at first the local Jews retained the differences in prayer format and separation between synagogues of the expellees, over time the Sephardi traditions started to assimilate among the local Jews. As the communities mingled, they would choose a single representative Rabbi for the entire unified community.

One exception is the Tunisia Jewish community that chose not to adopt the Sephardi traditions, but preserve its own tradition. In the Muslim world these expelled sepharadic Jews enjoyed religious tolerance and the right to live Jewish life in the open, free to reveal their Judaism. At first, the expellees called the North African and Ottoman Empire Jews “Musta’arabi Jews”, since they thought they looked like their Arab neighbors. Today, the North African and former Ottoman Empire communities are called Sephardi communities, as they continue the traditions, prayers and customs that were prominent in Spain and Portugal before the expulsion.

Contact us to receive legal advice – Portuguese citizenship attorney

If your surname is included in the list of names of expelled Jews of Spanish descent or if you have documents proving that you are a descendant of expelled Jews, please contact us. Our Jerusalem and Tel Aviv based law firm would be happy to schedule a meeting and provide legal aid in obtaining Portuguese citizenship.


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