After 1492, many of the Jews who remained in Spain, and later Portugal, were called New Christians or Converso. Many abandoned their Jewish faith entirely, but despite their conversion, all New Christians were under suspicion until the early 1800’s when the Spanish Inquisition ended. The Old Christians called the New Christians “Marrano” (pig) and discriminated against them. Some of the New Christians, who kept some measure of Jewish practices, became Crypto Jews.
Before 1492, Jewish men practiced their faith in the synagogues. When the synagogues closed, the men lost their ways in which to worship. The women became the authors of Crypto Jewish practices. It was the women who initiated the rituals and ceremonies in the home. In doing so, Jewish laws had to be altered and secretly observed.
On Sunday the Crypto Jews would dutifully attend Mass and have their children baptized. On Friday night and on Jewish holidays, adults and trustworthy older children would gather in a windowless room. A woman would light the Sabbath candles often placed in a bowl of water, which could be easily extinguished if necessary. In hushed whispers these brave devout Jews worshiped; keeping, as best they could, the laws set forth by God. As the generations moved farther down the line, the practices dimmed and were lost from one generation to the next.
The entire Converso populations in Spain, or Portugal, lived a life of dreaded uncertainty. Both New Christians and Crypto Jews lived with the fear that the terrible knock of the Inquisitor would come to their door. A century or so later, New Christians continued witnessing other Converso or Crypto Jews burned at the stake. This sent Converso and Crypto Jews alike fleeing Spain and Portugal. The Crypto Jews, who might desire to return to public worship in places such as Amsterdam, were divided by decades away from openly Jewish practices. They had to undergo re-education to be admitted fully into Jewish society.
Once abroad, many chose to live openly as Jews. Others instead kept their Crypto Jewish status. Those who chose to remain Crypto Jews, even in tolerant countries such as Holland and later England, carried within themselves the horror of the Inquisition and the knowledge that the hostilities could all happen again. These Crypto Jews were given a Christian name to be used in public. The Christian name was the one recorded in church records. A Jewish given name was only used at home. Surnames were changed or altered to better blend into the host country in which they settled in. If they were forced to move, another name variation or change occurred. The openly practiced Amsterdam Jews used aliases in International business to protect not only themselves but also associates and family who remained in Iberia.
The Sephardim entered Western Europe in a time of violent upheaval. Religious wars would destroy peace for many years. In the north, Protestant Reformation brought religious tolerance to those of Jewish heritage. Protestants regarded the conversion of Jews to be the beginning of the new millennia and the second coming of Christ. Huguenots, who were often Converso, sought to protect the Crypto Jews by hiding them in their congregations. The Conversos, who straddled the Christian and Jewish ideologies, used their knowledge of both religions in interfaith discussions with other dissident Christians in Holland.
Countries, such as Germany, sought for the Sephardim to settle in their borders. In Germany, Hamburg became a vibrant economic center because of the Sephardic community there. The Sephardim were welcome as long as their numbers stayed small and their religious observance obscured. As the seventeenth century emerged, the Sephardic communities in Western Europe gradually won the right to worship and live with only a few restrictions. Amsterdam became the largest community of openly practicing Sephardic Jews. Jewish expertise in printing took hold as English Bibles were produced in mass quantities. Denmark seeing the success of Hamburg, also invited the Sephardim to settle in their borders. Small Sephardic communities were established in Aalborg, and Copenhagen.
Soon religious persecutions drove the poorer Ashkenazim out of Eastern Europe. This alarmed the newly established Sephardim. As they grappled with the obligations of finding refuge for their Jewish brethren, the ugly specter of Anti-Semitism was feared. Soon the Sephardim would remain vastly outnumbered by the Ashkenazim in every western community. Each group operating independent of the other kept its own set of synagogues, charities, and burial grounds.
The Crypto Jewish presence England was centuries old. By 1100 A.D. an early Jewish population in England had been established. Anti-Jewish riots and widespread murders began in 1189. The English Jewish community was finally expelled in 1271 A.D. after repeated requests to be allowed to leave. Many of the English Jews moved to Scotland where they joined Scottish Jews who had already established a presence a few centuries earlier. The English Jews, who remained in England either truly converted or became Crypto Jews. Thus the Jews in Scotland and the few remaining Jews in England learned early a valuable lesson, which was to assimilate as a protective measure against losing their fortunes and their very lives.
Sephardic Jews, who came as merchants to England, joined the small secretly organized Jewish communities in the 1500’s. As the Sephardim in England slowly made their presence known, they were met with tolerance and curiosity. Radical Protestants found themselves drawn to the Old Testament and the Hebrew language. Theologians hoped to uncover the secrets of the Bible by understanding Hebrew. The Millenarians were reminded that Hebrews still existed, thus portraying Jewish people in a positive light. Many Jews voluntarily converted to Protestantism. English Protestants were familiar with conditions in Holland where they had come in contact with Jews. They saw first hand the economic benefits of religious tolerance. The Sephardic Jews continued to increase in numbers, and in late 1600’s established the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.
Unlike the rest of Europe, the Jews of England were not restricted to Ghettos. The English Jews lived and worshiped freely. Many Jews integrated completely. The wealthy Jewish class, in an effort to assimilate into English society, often in just two or three generations converted to Protestantism. The Polish Ashkenazi fled the persecutions of their native homeland and sought better opportunities in England. Left without the stability and support of the Jewish ghettos, the poor classes of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews found it difficult to keep Jewish law. They too assimilated into Protestant society.
It is interesting to note that the Spanish Inquisitors, with torture and mass murder, failed to extinguish the candle of Jewish faith in many families. Instead, in just a few generations it was English tolerance and Protestantism that dismantled the Judaism of their descendants.Please see here and here and here for more information.