Officially, Jews who converted in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries were known as Cristianos Nuevos (New Christians), but were commonly called conversos. Spain and Portugal passed legislation restricting their rights in the mother countries and colonies; only Christians were allowed to go to the New World. Despite the dangers of the Inquisition, many conversos continued to secretly and discreetly practice Jewish rituals.
After the Alhambra decree of 1492 numerous conversos, also called Xueta (also Chueta), in the Balearic Islands ruled by Spain, publicly professed Roman Catholicism but privately adhered to Judaism, even through the Spanish Inquisition. They are among the most widely known and documented crypto-Jews.
In Greece, "Romaniote Jews" have been present for a little more than two thousand years. Greek Jews played an important role in the early development of Christianity, and became a source of education and commerce for the Byzantine Empire and throughout the period of Ottoman Greece. During World War II, their community suffered devastation in the Holocaust after Greece was conquered and occupied by the Axis powers, in spite of efforts by Greeks to protect them. In the aftermath of the war, a large percentage of the surviving community emigrated to Israel or the United States. Greek Jews today largely "live side by side in harmony" with Christian Greeks, according to Giorgo Romaio of the Jewish Museum of Greece. They continue to work with other Greeks, and Jews worldwide, to combat the anti-Semitism in Greece.
Crypto-Judaism existed also in earlier periods, whenever Jews were forced or pressured to convert to the majority religion by the rulers of places where they resided. Some of the Jewish followers of Sabbatai Zevi (Sabbateans) formally converted to Islam. Later followers of Jacob Frank ("Frankists") formally converted to Christianity, but maintained aspects of practice of their versions of Messianic Judaism.
Crypto-Jews persisted in Russia and Eastern European countries influenced by the Soviet Union after the rise of Communism with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The government, which included secular Communist Jews, did not force Jews to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, but regarded practice of any religion as undesirable. Some faiths were allowed to continue under strict supervision by the regime. Since the end of Communism, many people in former Soviet states, including descendants of Jews, have publicly taken up the faith of their ancestors again.
The "Belmonte Jews" of Portugal, dating from the 12th century, maintained strong secret traditions for centuries. A whole community survived in secrecy by maintaining a tradition of endogamous marriage and hiding all external signs of their faith. They and their practices were discovered only in the 20th century. Their rich Sephardic tradition of Crypto-Judaism is unique. Some now profess Orthodox Judaism, although many still retain their centuries-old traditions.
As one of the towering figures in Judaism and the publisher of the Mishneh Torah expansion of the Talmud, Maimonides also issued a landmark doctrinal response to the forced conversions of Jews in the Iberian peninsula by the zealous Almohads:
In his Epistle on Martyrdom, however, Maimonides suggested that the persecuted Jew should publicly adopt Islam while maintaining crypto-Judaism and not seek martyrdom unless forced to transgress Jewish commandments in public. He also excoriated one writer who advocated martyrdom for "long-winded foolish babbling and nonsense" and for misleading and hurting the Jews. In a sweeping view of the Jewish past, Maimonides marshals examples of heretics and sinners from the Bible to show that even oppressors of Israel were rewarded by God for a single act of piety or respect. How much greater then, he argues, will be the reward of the Jews "who despite the exigencies of forced conversion perform commandments secretly."
Maimonides championed rationalism over the then-accepted practice of martyrdom when facing religious adversity. This consequently legitimized crypto-Judaism by the religion's standards, and provided doctrinal backing for Jews during the centuries of the Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834).
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, several incidents of forced conversions happened prior to 1492 and outside of Iberia. One of the earliest conversions happened a century after the Fall of Rome and was in Clermont-Ferrand. After a member of the Jewish community in Clermont-Ferrand became a Jewish Christian and was persecuted by other members of the community for doing so, the cavalcade in which he was marching persecuted his persecutors in turn:
The participants in the procession then made an attack "which destroyed [the synagogue] completely, razing it to the grounds." Subsequently, Bishop *Avitus directed a letter to the Jews in which he disclaimed the use of compulsion to make them adopt Christianity, but announced at the end of the missive: "Therefore if ye be ready to believe as I do, be one flock with us, and I shall be your pastor; but if ye be not ready, depart from this place." The community hesitated for three days before making a decision. Finally the majority, some 500, accepted Christianity. The Christians in Clermont greeted the event with rejoicing: "Candles were lit, the lamps shone, the whole city radiated with the light of the snow-white flock" (i.e., the forced converts). The Jews who preferred exile left for *Marseilles (Gregory of Tours, Histories, 5:11). The poet Venantius Fortunatus composed a poem to commemorate the occasion. In 582 the Frankish king Chilperic compelled numerous Jews to adopt Christianity. Again the anusim were not wholehearted in their conversion, for "some of them, cleansed in body but not in heart, denied God, and returned to their ancient perfidy, so that they were seen keeping the Sabbath, as well as Sunday" (ibid., 6:17).
The Clermont-Ferrand conversions preceded the first forced conversions in Iberia by 40 years. Forced baptisms of Jews took place in Iberia in 616 at the insistence of Visigoth monarch Sisibut:
Persistent attempts to enforce conversion were made in the seventh century by the Visigoths in Spain after they had adopted the Roman Catholic faith. Comparatively mild legal measures were followed by the harsh edict issued by King Sisibut in 616, ordering the compulsory baptism of all Jews. After conversion, however, the anusim evidently maintained their Jewish cohesion and religious life. It was undoubtedly this problem that continued to occupy Spanish sovereigns at the successive Councils of Toledo representing both the ecclesiastical and secular authorities...Thus, steps were taken to secure that the children of converts had a Christian religious education as well as to prevent the older generation from continuing to observe the Jewish rites or from failing to observe the Catholic ones. A system of strict supervision by the clergy over the way of life and movements of the anusim was imposed...
In the 12th century, Muslim extremists known as the Almohads forced conversions of Jews to Islam in their conquest of Al-Andalus, a Muslim-ruled territory in the Iberian peninsula. In the 13th century forced conversions took place in Italy, spreading as far as Apulia, where the Anusim Italqim assimilated to the point of not being recognized as Jewish. A later observer wrote: "[T]heir forefathers were Jews who adopted Christianity 150 years ago, rather from compulsion than of their own free will."
The Xueta (also known as Chueta) are a minority on the Balearic island of Majorca (Mallorca). They are descended almost entirely from crypto-Jews forced to convert in 1391. The term "xueta" literally translates to "pig" in Catalan, similar to the old Spanish (Castilian) term and marrano, both of the same meaning.
Today, they comprise a population of 20,000–25,000 on an island of 750,000. They have adhered to Roman Catholicism for centuries but have only recently seen a lessening in tensions with ethnic Majorcans. According to some Orthodox rabbis, the majority of Xuetes are probably Jewish under Jewish law (by descent from Jewish mothers) due to the low rate of intermarriage by these people with outside groups. Only recently have intermarriages between the two groups been more prevalent or noticeable.
Since the late 20th century, several Xuetes are reported to have "reconverted" to Judaism. Some have become rabbis.
The Neofiti were a group of crypto-Jews living in the Kingdom of Sicily, which included all of Southern Italy from the 13th to the 16th centuries.
There have been several communities of Crypto-Jews in Muslim lands. The ancestors of the Daggatuns in Morocco are thought to have kept up their Jewish practices a long time after their nominal adoption of Islam. In Iran, a large community of Crypto-Jews lived in Mashhad, near Khorassan, where they were known as "Jedid al-Islam"; they were mass-converted to Islam around 1839 after the Allahdad events. Most of this community left for Israel in 1946. Some converted to Islam and remained in Iran. In one central Iranian village, local Muslims practice many Jewish customs, such as women lighting a candle on Friday night (the eve of the Jewish Sabbath). Before sundown on Friday, they prepare a small fire which they leave on throughout Saturday, so as not to ignite the fire on the Sabbath.
In 1494, after the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas, authorized by Pope Alexander VI, Portugal was given the right to found colonies in the Eastern Hemisphere. In the East, according to Walter Fischel, the Portuguese found use for the crypto-Jews in Goa and their other Indian and Asian possessions. Jews were used as "letter-carriers, translators, agents, etc." The ability of the Sephardic Jews and anusim to speak Arabic made them vital to Portuguese colonial ambitions in the East, where they could go on diplomatic and trade missions in the courts of the Mughal Empire and elsewhere. India also attracted Sephardic Jews and anusim for other reasons. In his lecture at the Library of Congress, Sanjay Subrahmanyam said that crypto-Jews were especially attracted to India because not only was it a center of trade in goods such as spices and diamonds, but India also had established and ancient Jewish settlements along its Western coast. Although Jews were able to openly worship in Southern and Eastern India with the Bene Israel, Malibar, Cochin, and Baghdadi Jewish communities, they experienced severe violence and persecution from the Muslim influence in Northwest Punjabi India. The presence of these older communities offered the anusim, who had been forced to accept Catholicism, the chance to live within the Portuguese Empire, away from the Inquisition, and, if they wished, they were able to contact the Jews in these communities and re-adopt the faith of their fathers. The presence of crypto-Jews in India aroused the anger of the Archbishop of Goa, Dom Gaspar Jorge de Leão Pereira and others who wrote polemics and letters to Lisbon urging that the Inquisition be brought to India. Twenty-four years after Portuguese Inquisition began, the Goan Inquisition came to India in 1560 after Francis Xavier - who was made a saint by the Catholic Church - placed a request for it to the King of Portugal. The Inquisition in all the Portuguese territories put roughly 45,000 people on trial with "the most active court being in Goa." The Goan Inquisition initially targeted anusim and Jews, but like the Inquisitions in Europe, it also targeted crypto-Muslims, and later Hindus. The Catholic Church destroyed a significant number of the Inquisitorial records, the number of victims in the Goan Inquisition is estimated to be roughly one-third of the total figure, based on the records which remain. The presence of crypto-Judaism in India continues to be an ongoing field of academic research.
The region of Pakistan - Afghanistan, according to the Theory of Pashtun descent from the Israelites, is where the 10 "lost tribes" of the Kingdom of Northern Israel were banished. Under British rule, Pakistan did have Jewish residents who openly identified as Jews. They were primarily from India's Bene Israel community, but there were also Jews from Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. After Pakistan gained independence in 1947 and the subsequent creation of Israel, most of Pakistan's Jews, fearing a violent backlash, fled to Israel, India, the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Most of those who remained became crypto-Jews, and hid within other more acceptable minority groups such as the Parsis (i.e. Zoroastrians), and Christians. According to the 2013 electoral list, there were 809 people who identified as Jews and were eligible to vote in Pakistan. If those who are crypto-Jews are included, the population size would probably be around 2000 individuals.
Crypto-Judaism was documented chiefly in Spanish-held colonial territories in northern Mexico. Numerous conversos joined Spanish and Portuguese expeditions, believing there was economic opportunity in the new lands, and that they would have more freedom at a distance far from Iberia. Different situations developed in the early colonial period of Mexico, the frontier province of Nuevo León, and the later northern frontier provinces. The crypto-Jewish traditions have complex histories and are typically embedded in an amalgam of syncretic Roman Catholic and Judaic traditions. In many ways resurgent Judaic practices mirrored indigenous peoples' maintaining their traditions practiced loosely under a Roman Catholic veil. In addition, Catholicism was syncretic, absorbing other traditions and creating a new creole religion.
Some of the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain went to Portugal, but in 1497 that country effectively converted all remaining Jewish children, making them wards of the state unless the parents also converted. Therefore, many of the early crypto-Jewish migrants to Mexico in the early colonial days were technically first to second-generation Portuguese with Spanish roots before that. The number of such Portuguese migrants was significant enough that Spanish colonists began to use "Portuguese" as a synonym for "Jewish" for their settlers. Immigration to Mexico offered lucrative trade possibilities in a well-populated colony with nascent Spanish culture. Some migrants believed that this region would be more tolerant since the lands were overwhelmingly populated by non-Christian indigenous peoples and it was far removed from the metropole.
Colonial officials believed that many crypto-Jews were going to Mexico during the 16th century and complained in written documents to Spain that Spanish society in Mexico would become significantly Jewish. Officials found and condemned clandestine synagogues in Mexico City. At this point, colonial administrators instituted the Law of the Pure Blood, which prohibited migration to Mexico for New Christians (Cristiano Nuevo), i.e. anyone who could not prove to be Old Christians for at least the last three generations. In addition, the administration initiated the Mexican Inquisition to ensure the Catholic orthodoxy of all migrants to Mexico. The Mexico Inquisition was also deployed in the traditional manner to ensure orthodoxy of converted indigenous peoples. The first victims of burnings (or autos de fé) of the Mexican Inquisition were indigenous converts convicted of heresy or crypto-Jews convicted of relapsing into their ancestral faith.
Except for those allowed to settle the province of Nuevo Leon under an exemption from the Blood Purity Laws, the number of conversos migrating to the New World was reduced.
The colonization of New Spain took place as a northward expansion over increasingly harsh geography, in regions that were occupied by tribes angered at the encroachment; they formed loose confederations of indigenous peoples to resist the settlers. Spain financed the expansion by exploiting mineral wealth, enslaving or forcing indigenous peoples to labor in mines. It established encomiendas for raising livestock, thereby displacing the local people. The indigenous peoples of the North-Eastern quadrant of New Spain (Nueva España) proved particularly resistant to colonial pressures. The Chichimec, Apache, and other tribes resisted conversion to Christianity, and avoided being impressed as laborers or slaves on Spanish ranches and in mines. The Spanish believed such peoples made the frontier (frontera) a lawless region.
Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva, a royal accountant, was a Portuguese New Christian. He received a royal charter from the Spanish Crown to settle Nuevo León, a large expanse of land in the hostile frontier. Because of the dangers and difficulties of this region, Carvajal y de la Cueva received an exemption in his charter from the usual requirement that he prove that all new settlers were "Old Christians" (of at least three generations) rather than recently converted Jews or Muslims. This exemption allowed people to go to Nuevo León who were legally barred from entering New Spain elsewhere. Carvajal was authorized to bring 100 soldiers and 60 laborers to New Spain; many have been documented as Crypto-Jews.
With Carvajal as governor, Monterrey was established as the center (now in the state of Nuevo León). Within a few years, some people reported to authorities in Mexico City that Jewish rites were being performed in the Northern Province and efforts to convert heathen indigenous peoples were lax. The principal economic activity of Carvajal and his associates seems to have been capturing Indians and selling them into slavery. Carvajal's Lieutenant Governor, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa, led a large expedition to New Mexico in 1591 in an effort to establish a colony. Castaño was arrested for this unauthorized expedition and sentenced to exile in the Philippines. The sentence was later reversed, but he had already been killed in the Molucca Islands when the Chinese slaves on his ship mutinied.
The governor, his immediate family members, and others of his entourage were called to appear before the Inquisition in Mexico City. They were arrested and jailed. The governor subsequently died in jail, prior to a sentence of exile. His niece Anna Carvajal had been tortured and implicated all the family in so-called charges. They were all executed by burning at the stake for relapsing into Judaism, except for one nephew who escaped arrest.
The governor's nephews changed their surname to Lumbroso. One of these was Joseph Lumbroso, also known as Luis de Carvajal el Mozo, who is said to have circumcised himself in the desert to conform to Jewish law. He committed suicide to avoid being burned at the stake. His memoirs, letters and inquisition record were preserved and are held in the archive. Two other nephews also changed their names to Lumbroso and migrated to Italy, where they became noted rabbis.
When Carvajal was in office, the city of Monterrey became a destination for other crypto-Jews who wanted to escape the Mexican Inquisition in the south of the territory. Thus, Nuevo León and the founding of Monterrey are significant as they attracted crypto-Jewish migrants from all parts of New Spain. They created one of the earliest Jewish-related communities in Mexico. (The Jewish communities in modern Mexico, which practice their Judaism openly, were not established until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after considerable immigration of Ashkenazy Jews from eastern Europe, and Mizrahi Jews from Turkey and Syria.)
Due to the Inquisition activities in Nuevo León, many crypto-Jewish descendants migrated to frontier colonies further west, using the trade routes passing through the towns of Sierra Madres Occidental and Chihuahua, Hermosillo and Cananea (Canaan), and to the north on the trade route to Paso del Norte and Santa Fe (both cities in the colonial Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico). Some even traveled to Alta California on the Pacific Coast.
In the late 20th century, in modern-day Southwestern United States specifically New Mexico, which was former territory of New Spain, several Hispanos of New Mexico have stated a belief that they are descended from crypto-Jews of the colonial period. While most maintain their Roman Catholic and Christian faiths, they often cite as evidence memories of older relatives practicing Jewish traditions. Since the 1990s, the crypto-Jews of New Mexico have been extensively studied and documented by several research scholars, including Stanley M. Hordes, Janet Liebman Jacobs, Schulamith Halevy, and Seth D. Kunin, who calls them Hispanos. Kunin noted that most of this group in New Mexico has not formally embraced Judaism nor joined the organized Jewish community. Though some have been sceptical, such as Folklorist Judith Neulander argueing that people could be referring to traditions of modern Ashkenazi Jews migrants and Evangelical Protestant Christians who purposely acquired and employed Jewish traditions. More recently, Evangelical Protestant Christians have opened missionary groups aimed at cultivating evangelical doctrine in Southwestern American communities where crypto-Judaism had survived. The highly influential Hordes has been charged with "single-minded speculation based on largely ephemeral or highly ambiguous evidence" for his conclusion that modern-day Hispanos who claim crypto-Jewish roots are heirs to an unbroken chain of transmission. Kunin responded to some of this criticism in his book Juggling Identities: Identity and Authenticity Among the Crypto-Jews.
In the department of Antioquia, Colombia, as well as in the greater Paisa region, some families also hold traditions and oral accounts of Jewish descent. In this population, Y-DNA genetic analysis has shown an origin of male founders predominantly from "southern Spain but also suggest that a fraction came from northern Iberia and that some possibly had a Sephardic origin". Medellín has a tradition of the marranada, where a pig is slaughtered, butchered and consumed on the streets of every neighborhood each Christmas. This custom has been interpreted as an annual affirmation of the rejection of Jewish law.
A safe haven destination for Sephardic Conversos during the Spanish Colony was Santa Cruz de la Sierra. In 1557 many Crypto-Jews joined Ñuflo de Chávez and were among the pioneers who founded the city. During the 16th century some Crypto-Jews that faced persecution from the Inquisition and local authorities in nearby Potosí, La Paz and La Plata moved to Santa Cruz, as it was the most isolated urban settlement and because the Inquisition did not bother the Conversos there; as a frontier town it was meant to be a buffer to the Portuguese and Guaraní raids that threatened the mines of Peru. Some settled in the city of Santa Cruz and its adjacent towns, including Vallegrande, Postrervalle, Portachuelo, Terevinto, Pucarà, Bolivia, and Cotoca.
Several of the oldest Catholic families in Santa Cruz are of Jewish ancestry on the paternal side; some practice certain traditions of Judaism. As recently as the 1920s, several families preserved seven-branched candle sticks and served dishes cooked with kosher practices. It is still customary among certain old families to light candles on Friday at sunset and to mourn the deaths of close relatives by sitting on the floor. After almost five centuries, some of the descendants of these families acknowledge Jewish ancestry, but practice Catholicism.
Some Crypto-Jews established themselves in the outskirts of San José, Costa Rica since the 16th century. They passed as Catholics in public and practiced their Jewish rituals in privacy. In the town of Itzkazú (modern day Escazú), some Crypto-Jewish families did not maintain secrecy. Locals started to associate their rituals and unintelligible prayers in Hebrew with witchcraft. Since then, Escazú has been known in Costa Rican folklore as the "city of the witches".
In Peru, conversos arrived at the time of the Spanish Conquest. At first, they had lived without restrictions because the Inquisition was not active there at the beginning of the Viceroyalty. With the advent of the Inquisition, New Christians began to be persecuted, and in some cases executed. The descendants of these colonial Sephardic Jewish descent converts to Christianity settled mainly in the north of the Andes and of the high jungle of Peru, where they married local women and became assimilated.
In addition to these communities, Roman Catholic-professing communities descended from male Crypto-Jews are said to exist in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and in various other countries of South America, such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, Peru and Ecuador. From these communities comes the proverb, "Catholic by faith, Jewish by blood".
All the above localities were former territories of either the Spanish or Portuguese Empires, where the Inquisition eventually followed and continued investigating Crypto-Jews who had settled there. The Inquisition endured longer in the colonies than it had in Spain.Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi was a 16th-century international banker who created an escape network that saved thousands of Crypto-Jews from the Inquisition. She was also a patron of Jewish writers, and a diplomat on behalf of her people. She attempted to start a modern state of Israel.
Luis de Carvajal was the governor of the state of Nuevo León, a northern Mexico province in which the restriction against immigration from conversos was relaxed in order to encourage settlement of this unstable frontier area. He accepted numerous crypto-Jewish conversos who had been living in Portugal since the Expulsion of 1492.
Luis de Carvajal el Mozo, a nephew of Jose Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva, is the only known crypto-Jew of the Spanish colonial era whose memoirs have been preserved.
Antonio Fernandez Carvajal was a Portuguese merchant in London; "like other Marranos in London, Carvajal prayed at the Catholic chapel of the Spanish ambassador, while simultaneously playing a leading role in the secret Jewish community, which met at the clandestine synagogue at Creechurch Lane."
Author Miguel de Cervantes may have been a crypto-Jew or of crypto-Jewish descent.
Roderigo Lopez, a converso who fled from Portugal to England and became physician to Queen Elizabeth I, may have been a Crypto-Jew.