Attrition among Anusim descendants


I was asked today by journalist and author Andrée Aelion Brooks about the term “attrition” – a term she has coined to discuss persons of Crypto-Jewish ancestry who had identified with the Jewish community falling away from this identity, a phenomenon she found prevalent in Portugal, and one she reported was much-discussed at a recent conference in El Paso.

Even though I am not sure I would use the term, it reflects an important concern. (As are issues of continuity and disappearance through assimilation at many levels of the Jewish community). 

Various Jewish communities have worked hard with persons of converso background interested in a return to Judaism. Brooks reports a considerable phenomenon in Portugal that persons who had been interested in asserting a Jewish identity, and returning to Judaism, either no longer do so, or their family members either no longer support them, or their children have not use for this identity. I certainly have seen that there is something similar in the US although I have no way of assessing the prevalence of this phenomenon.

She asked me about ways to respond: It seems to me that a “birthright” style program might be particularly useful to counterqact this, especially for young adults. (Taglit-Birthright provides heritage trips to Israel for young Jews from around the world). Although Birthright has not been around long enough to assess its long-term effect, it appears to be very successful in promoting a sense of Jewish identity in a cohort in which this was a problem.

In general, individuals who have taken major steps to identify as Jewish, including asserting a strong identity with the Jewish community as it is, seem to me to have less “attrition.” This should hardly be surprising; I would say the same about any component in the Jewish community and for that matter, any population in any diversity group. But let me stress that this means that these individuals assert a complex and rich identity:they have moved, in some important ways, from having their most important identification within the community as “Anusim descendants returning to Judaism” –to identifying “Jews.”  

It seems to me that this reflects, at least in part, the coming of age of this phenomenon, and its broad acceptance both in Jewish and Iberian-heritage populations. While we can identify references to modern survivals of crypto-Judaism, and movements to among such persons to identify with the Jewish community going back to the 1930s, for example, in Portugal, and the 1970s and earlier in the United States, there was an explosion of interest in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, the idea that some Spanish-heritage persons had Jewish ancestry was shocking to many. Twenty years later, the idea is highly acceptable to many—even welcomed as part of the heritage. There may be a controversy in some circles about whether Jewish practices were preserved, or whether the practices that are cited as “Jewish” actually are. But in my experience, the Iberian-heritage community is proud to assume that some of their ancestors were Jews or Moors, not only Spanish or Portuguese Catholics—and this is far different from what went before. There are some who assert a kind of classic limpieza de sangre “purity of blood” notion that Iberians were all Catholics; with Moors and Jews trampling in the Peninsula for some eight centuries but then all thrown out. But I encounter this approach a lot less today than two decades ago.

The greater acceptance of this heritage may mean that there is less driving a person of Spanish –Jewish heritage to identify as Jewish. The United States has provided a society in which Jews could fit in, and would not always be reminded by society of their difference. This has now happened for descendants of Anousim: having Jewish heritage is seen as necessitating a specifically Jewish or “Crypto-Jewish” identity by fewer people, and it is no longer necessary to identify as “Jewish” to find acceptance as a descendant of conversos.

I am not sure there is a backlash, so much as a “been there done that” approach. The approach, too, reflects the maturity of the movement: it’s been twenty years, and it is time to take stock.

It seems to me that the members of this group who will retain Jewish identity are those who fully identify and assimilate into the Jewish community—being active in the community or moving to Israel and being nearly indistinguishable from other persons in the Jewish community—and firm enough about their own identity as “Jews” (rather than “Anusim”).  This does not preclude also identifying as converso descendants, but it seems to me that if the converso identity is their sole mode of belonging to the Jewish community their identity is not as strong. Indeed, this is already the case, as many from traditional crypto-Jewish communities and other communities not part of the Jewish mainstream have largely either adapted mainstream Judaism–sometimes with a few unique nods to their heritage–or have rejected this, in favor of retaining their host culture (and weakening ties to Judaism, which is seen as the mainstream form of Judaism). This has inevitable negative impact on the preservation of the overall traditional lifestyle that may have brought them or their parents to identify as Jews: it is either rejected in favor of some part of mainstream Judaism, or the link with the mainstream Jewish community is downplayed; in the modern world, the forces leading to the globalization of culture mean that in the latter case, maintaining customs unique to a small number of villages or a single region is likely a losing battle  

A number of models suggest to me that it might be crucial to retain and adapt one or two traditional practices as markers of this identity (for example, special candlesticks or developing a strictly kosher taco-based food item with a name recalling a crypto-Jewish past) to serve as ethnic Jewish food alongside the knish and felafel. This means that the “Anousim Identity” and most of the ways this group asserts a unique identity will become watered down–one of many choices that are clearly part of a mainstream Jewish identity. But it is probably inevitable for those who wish to identify as Jews, and finding a way to make Anusim descendants no more unusual than, say, Russian or Moroccan Jews within the Jewish community may be the only viable way to counteract attrition. But it will not in and of itself help such persons assert and retain a Jewish identity: ultimately, they will see this as a choice, and such things as the relative attractiveness of the Jewish and  overall cultures, the welcome offered by the community, and succeful acceptance into such communities will play important roles.   

Seth Ward 
Religious Studies
University of Wyoming

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