Terminology

menorrahTerminology matters. We need to be careful that we are accurately describing what we know rather than speculating about what we do not. Within Jewish genealogy the most common error is to assume that all descendants of Iberian Jews either were Jews or wanted to be Jews. The Early Modern period (roughly 1492-1750) marked a transition from a medieval religious-centric sensibility to the Enlightenment. People had complex identities, and we shouldn’t simplify them or seek to impose a modern sensibility. The danger is that once we start treating speculation as truth we can draw wrong conclusions.

I tend to use the official term of the local authority. Someone of Jewish descent might be a New Christian in Spain and Portugal and a Jew in Amsterdam (if attending synagogue). He might also self-identity as a member of the Nation. And then sometimes I also use ‘Western Sephardic’. This is already a bit clunky. Introducing speculative value-laden terms such as anusim or crypto-Jews can, I feel, further muddy the waters.

Some people now say they are offended by the use of the word ‘marrano’. Excluding very specific circumstances, when people start referencing Marranos, anusim and crypto-Jews it is often an indication they have been looking on Google rather than researching in the archives.

Anus/ Anusim/Anousim – Hebrew meaning ‘Forced ones’. Today this term Bnei Anusim (children of Anusim) is used by some to refer to all descendants of Iberian Jews (or believed descendents)

Ashkenazi – A Jew from Germany, Central or Eastern Europe

Ascamot – Rules of a Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community

Converso/Conversa – Someone who converted. Normally refers to a Jew, but could be a Muslim.

Crypto-Jew – Can refer to a Jew who has falsely taken a Catholic identity whilst continuing to maintains some form of Jewish tradition (for example, the Chuetas in Mallorca and the community in Belmonte in Portugal). The term is now also adopted by those making unevidenced claims of descent from New Christians, for example some people in New Mexico. A third usage you may encounter online is the claim by neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists that virtually any successful non-Jew is labelled a ‘crypto-Jew’, meaning that they are hiding an (imagined) Jewish identity.

Eastern Sephardi – Means those descendants of Iberian Jews (and later members of other communities absorbed by them) that eventually settled in the Ottoman Empire.

Ger (Plural: Gerim) – Someone with no genealogical ties to Judaism, but who sincerely wishes to convert.

Halakha – Jewish religious law

Hebrew Nation – See O Nação

Italki – An Italian Jew, generally meaning from a community pre-dating the Sephardic arrival in Italy.

Jew – According to the traditional understanding (which I think is also the Israeli definition), a Jew is the child of a Jewish mother or someone who has converted to Judaism according to Halakha. In Iberian usage it might be a derogative or inaccurate way of describing a non-Jew with Jewish ancestry.

Judeo-Espanol – A spoken language of the Eastern/Ottoman Sephardim, largely derived from Medieval Spanish. Sometimes incorrectly called ‘Ladino’.

Kahal – A Jewish congregation.

Kettubah – Wedding certificate.

Ladino – A written Sephardic language. The spoken Judeo-Espanol language is sometimes incorrectly called Ladino. There are unconnected dialects also called Ladino, including in Spain and New Mexico.

Litvak – An Ashkenazi Jew of Lithuanian origin or tradition.

Maghrebi – A Jew from North Africa

Mizrahi – A non-Arab Middle Eastern Jew

Must’arabi – An Arab Jew

New Christian – The official term referring to someone of Jewish and Muslim origin. A number of professions were closed to New Christians.

O Nação [Portuguesa] – The self-description of the community of Western Sephardic merchants, and can include both those professing Catholicism and Judaism.

Portuguese – Obviously meaning Portuguese, but in Spanish usage can carry the implication that the person is a New Christian.

Processo – An Inquisition file on an individual prisoner.

Romaniote – Indigenous (non-Sephardi) Greek Jew

Safeq (plural: Sefequim) – A person whose Jewish lineage cannot be ascertained.

Secret Jew – A crypto-Jew.

Sephardi – A Jew of Iberian origin and/or a Mizrahi Jew.

The Nation/The Portuguese Nation – See O Nação

Temani – A Yemenite Jew

Tribunal – A regional branch of the Inquisition, e.g. The Tribunal of Toledo.

Tudesco/Tudesca – Literally ‘German’, meaning an Ashkenazi Jew.

Vindo/Vinda – A new arrival at a Jewish community, assumed to be from the Peninsula.
Western Sephardi – The preferred academic term to refer to descendents of those Jews who were living in Portugal after 1492.

Of course, a number of these descriptions are generalisations. People often had fluid identities.