The Sephardic Diaspora After 1492

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

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Amsterdam

The fate of the Sephardic conversos in western Europe was intimately bound up with the successes of the newly formed Dutch Republic, which became a major global economic power in the 17th century. Dutch entrepreneurs established a network of trade with a center that was relatively tolerant of diverse faiths, making the Netherlands an ideal place for conversos to settle.

Though initially establishing only private prayer gatherings, by 1639 Sephardic Jewish immigrants in the Netherlands constituted a legally recognized entity that could boast of three synagogues and a Jewish cemetery, as well as a variety of religious confraternities and a charitable organization for the provision of dowries for young women of Portuguese descent.

The Sephardic Jews in the Netherlands were soon joined by Ashkenazic Jews seeking refuge from the turmoil of the wars wracking Central and Eastern Europe in the 17th century. The added economic strain of new settlers and the social difference between the proud and acculturated Sephardic Jews and the impoverished Ashkenazic Jews often gave rise to tensions and a search for different means to alleviate the population pressure. In some cases, this population pressure was the impetus for Jews to seek new sites for settlement, most significantly in England and the New World.

Following the conquest of Brazil by the Dutch from Portugal in 1623, small numbers of adventurous conversos and Jews settled in the New World. When Brazil was retaken by the Portuguese in 1654, 23 Sephardic refugees from Brazil made their way to the port of New Amsterdam. Their arrival in Colonial America laid the foundation for the Jewish community of the United States in the centuries to follow.

Returning to the Law of Moses

Unlike those communities that witnessed direct continuity across time, the converso communities of western Europe, which had no legal Jewish settlements since the 13th century, had to create the fabric of Jewish life from scratch. This was not easy, as not all conversos were interested in return, and the experience of living as Catholics without access to Jewish texts and leadership had given converso religion an unusual coloration.

Conversos depended on legend and folklore, for example, in their elevation of the holiday of Purim and their valorization of the Book of Esther, whose heroine lives in a gentile court without revealing her Jewish identity.

Converso communities also perpetuated a bifurcation between religious and secular life, often limiting their engagement with Jewish tradition to the sphere of ritual, and leaving business and other "secular" practices outside of the purview of Jewish law. For example, arrivals in these new Jewish communities often adopted Hebrew names and circumcised all the males of the household, ascribing particular salvific power to this ritual as a form of Jewish rebirth.

However, unlike extant Jewish communities on other parts of the continent, communal statutes seldom governed economic matters.

In this respect, the returned conversos may be seen as forerunners of a religious modernity that distinguished between the authoritative place of Jewish law in private ritual matter, but did not seek its guidance in matters deemed secular. Generations of balancing an internal Jewish identity as crypto-Jews with a more expansive external self yielded a Judaism that was, for them, a religion, not a total way of life.

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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.