The Sephardic Diaspora After 1492

Or, the story of how the so-called marranos returned to Judaism.

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By the 16th century, Jewish life in Spain and Portugal--the Jewish "Sepharad" that had boasted of a vibrant cultural life in the Middle Ages--was officially non-existent. Spanish Jewry had been exiled in 1492, and all of the Jews of Portugal, many of whom were refugees from Spain, were forcibly converted only five years later, in 1497. Many of these converts, known as conversos, assimilated fully into Iberian society. But a significant segment maintained a façade of Christianity while still clandestinely retaining as much of their Jewish belief and practice as possible.

brazilian synagogue

Sinagoga Kahal zur Israel, Recife, Brazil,
established in the 17th century.
Photo courtesy of Ricardo Andre Frantz


Over the next few centuries, many of these crypto-Jews settled in Western Europe. The migration of the Sephardic Diaspora from Spain and Portugal heralded a dual process of return: return to lands uninhabited by Jews for centuries, and return to ancestral practices that did not have the benefit of a chain of tradition to faithfully transmit them.

A People Apart, A New Exodus

Though the Jews of Portugal had been forced to convert, there was no official enforcement of that conversion, so they were generally free to practice their Judaism secretly. During the early 16th century, crypto-Jews (disparagingly labeled marranos, literally swine, by Christians of pure lineage) entered many levels of Portuguese society and forged a group identity that, on account of its conversion as a complete group, maintained resilience and vitality.

But the introduction of the Inquisition into Portugal in 1536 spurred waves of crypto-Jewish emigration. The pressure to flee persecution was compounded with a search for greater economic opportunity. 

Ironically, many conversos first moved to Spain, as it offered greater wealth and, according to Inquisitorial practice, could not punish crimes against the faith committed in Portugal. Portuguese Jewish migration was so extensive that, for many Spaniards, "Portuguese" became a synonym for "Jew."

Returning to the West

The rise of mercantilist economic doctrine in the 17th century attuned western European states to the value of international merchant activities, a niche Portuguese conversos were poised to fill as men of international trade and high finance, whose activities encompassed much of the exchange between Europe and its overseas colonies. So, under the guise of Portuguese merchants, conversos began to settle in Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and southwestern France.

Outside of Spain, the first major entrepôt for conversos seeking refuge was usually Italy. In Venice and Livorno, conversos returning to Judaism often remained separate from the established Jewish communities, but could not fully avoid contact and a modicum of influence and interaction.

France, by contrast, had expelled all of its Jews in 1394, and had not repealed such laws. Thus, when crypto-Jews entered France in the 16th century, it was always as Christians. Conversos in France slowly came to shed this façade, beginning in the 1660s, but only received government recognition of their Judaism in the 18th century.

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Joshua Teplitsky is a doctoral candidate at New York University in the departments of History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies. His research focuses on the Jewish experience in early modern Prague, and the culture of Jews in early modern Europe more generally.