In an exclusive interview with JerusalemOnline, Shavei Israel head Michael Freund spoke about the significance of the Purim story for Anusim Jews who were forcefully converted to Catholicism following the Spanish Inquisition as well as their descendants.
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As Jews around the world prepare to celebrate Purim, it is pivotal to note that Queen Esther served as a model and inspiration for Anusim Jews that were forcefully converted to Catholicism following the Spanish Inquisition as well as their descendants over the generations, Shavei Israel head Michael Freund told JerusalemOnline an exclusive interview.
“They could easily identify with her faith as well as her being taken against her will to the king’s palace and her hiding her identity,” he noted. Freund added that Esther did everything in order to preserve her traditions while living in the palace and many Anusim were inspired by this for Esther revealing her true identity leads to the redemption of the Jewish people. He added that for the Anusim, the Purim story gave them great hope for the future because it implied that one day they too would be able to come out of hiding and “will herald the redemption of the Jewish people.”
For the Anusim Jews, Freund emphasized that Purim was a fast day: “It seems obvious that they could not openly celebrate Purim with a Megillah reading and feast.” He stressed that fasting is an action that is less likely to be detected by the neighbors and this led to the celebration of the fast of St. Esther: “In the 17th century, the Inquisition recorded cases of Crypto Jews observing days in honor of St Esther. We are speaking about 200 years after their forefathers were forced to convert. This shows the strength that this tradition maintained.”
Freund noted that it is easier for the Anusim to engage in Jewish rituals inside the privacy of their homes than it was to practice Judaism outside of the home. He stressed that it was the women who were the guardians of handing down “the family’s hidden Jewish identity. That is why the celebration of St. Esther resonated so strongly for it was a Jewish heroine that was put in that situation and that was something that the women of the Anusim families could identify with. Now, we are living 500 years after the forced conversions and more and more descendants of the Anusim are returning to their roots in a world where people are freer to do so than they ever were. Now, we are starting to see the dream of those Anusim, the dream of their family’s ultimate redemption, is finally coming to start to pass.”
Freund emphasized that the population of Bnei Anusim (descendants of Anusim) is enormous. “Whenever Spain and Portugal planted their flags, it was the first place for the Anusim to go in order to get away from the Inquisition,” he noted. “Unfortunately, that did not always work out for the Inquisition followed them to the far corners of the earth.” Freund stressed that there are Bnei Anusim living throughout Spain, Portugal, the Southwestern US, Latin America and some other places as well. He noted that some of them have formally returned to Judaism but it is a spectrum: “There are many people that have begun to explore their Jewish roots in a cultural and intellectual fashion rather than a religious way. For many people, it is a journey. Some are further along the journey than others. Some are wondering what this identity means to them or should mean to them. On the other hand, there are certainly tens of thousands who have in one form or another reconnected with Jewish practice.”
“I believe very strongly that we are the beginning of a tidal wave of return as more and more people of Jewish ancestry look to reconnect with their roots,” he concluded. “We have an exciting historical opportunity to bring back those Jews who were forcibly converted centuries ago and we owe it to their ancestors to do everything to make it happen. They were kidnapped against their will. The easiest thing would have been to forget about their past and to melt into the greater community yet at great risk, they nurtured in secret the Jewish spark within them and they passed that down to later generations. That Jewish spark has survived with them for centuries and it is beginning to glow again. We need to recognize this and to do our utmost to reach out to them.”