In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, captured the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian peninsula. Isabella sent Christopher Columbus sailing west to find a new route to Asia. The king and queen also gave their Jewish subjects a choice – convert or leave.
Many converted, as had other Jews during previous generations of persecution. Some took ship to North Africa, Italy and eventually the Ottoman Empire. A smaller group tramped west, across the Portuguese border. There they found an established Portuguese Jewish community. Just five years later in 1497, the King of Portugal demanded that all Jews convert, without the right of emigration (except for a handful of families). Many of these ‘New Christians’ received little or no formal instruction in Roman Catholicism and continued to secretly adhere to Judaism, or what they could remember of it.
This site addresses the genealogy of these ‘New Christians’, some or all of whom are also know to history as Western Sephardim, A Nação Portuguesa, Men of the Nation, Spanish & Portuguese Jews. Other names have been applied and misapplied including: anusim, bnei anusim, crypto-Jews and marranos. On this site I will use ‘Sephardic’ as shorthand for descendants of ‘New Christians’. This single word covers a wide and fluctuating set of identities from fervent Catholic to fervent Jew, everything in between, and eventually even Enlightenment philosophers. It is an error to imagine our ancestors as normative Ashkenazi Jews forced to adopt a public cloak of Catholicism. This was a group of people on a temporal journey from medieval Iberian Judaism to what we would recognise as a modern identity. This site will focus on what historians call the Early Modern period, roughly from 1492 to 1750. The reality is that there is little genealogical evidence before the Council of Trent (1545-1563) instructed Catholic parishes to maintain baptism, marriage and death records.
I recognise that other communities are also called Sephardic, including the Eastern Sephardim of the former Ottoman Empire (our kinsmen who went east, when our ancestors went to Portugal) and many Jews from the Near East and Middle East who share our core religious traditions. In Israel ‘Sephardic’ can often mean ‘not Ashkenazi’. I have included a Terminology page.