Friday, July 14, 2006

Iberian Jews Return to their Roots

A new exhibition documenting the lives and struggles of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews has opened in Tiberias.

June 26, 2006

Ashley Perry - European Jewish Press

The exhibition will shed a light on the little-known narrative of the Bnei Anusim from the Iberian Peninsula who were forced to embrace Christianity. The exhibition is called "The Journey of Spanish & Portuguese Bnei Anusim: Past, Present and Future”, and is designed and produced by an organisation called Shavei Israel, which translates as "Israel Returns". Shavei Israel searches for and assists people who have Jewish roots or ancestry and yearn for a return to the Jewish People. The exhibition documents the heroic struggle of those who desperately clung to their Jewish identity even through sometimes extremely dangerous circumstances. Many documents on exhibit are translated to English, Hebrew and Spanish. Moral and religious responsibility Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund told EJP: "The idea of the exhibition is to demonstrate that the phenomenon of the Bnei Anusim is very much with us." Freund wanted the Israeli public and the wider world to understand that these people are not from the history books, that there are Bnei Anusim around today. The exhibition is even arranged chronologically, beginning in Spain and Portugal and extending to this very day. Freund said that his organisation return about 100 Bnei Anusim a year to Judaism. He added that the Jews of Israel have a "historical, moral and religious responsibility" to the Bnei Anusim. The phenomenon of the Bnei Anusim developed in 14th-century Spain and Portugal when thousands of Jews were forcibly converted or coerced into accepting baptism and recognised as Christians. Many of these Jews never inwardly clung to their Jewish identity and rejected Christian beliefs, even while the Inquisition was at its most powerful. Centuries would pass and a family's true identity would be hidden from much of the outside world and kept within the close family circle. Struggle for survival The exhibition shows the trials and tribulations that the Bnei Anousim had to endure to survive and pass their secret on to the next generation. One of the most famous Bnei Anousim was Dona Gracia – otherwise known as Hannah Mendes Nassi – a 16th-century Portuguese aristocrat. Mendes Nassi's family were mostly burnt at the stake by the Inquisition, forcing her to leave Portugal. She managed to get her vast fortune out of Portugal and spent the rest of her life attempting to rescue Jews from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. The exhibition is housed in the Dona Gracia House in Tiberias, which was named after Mendes Nassi to commemorate her work. She also convinced the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to open Jewish houses of learning and worship in the town by the Kinneret.