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Sephardim - Conversos - Marranos
Historical Overview

with Bibliography

A JewishGen InfoFile

Author: Bernard I. Kouchel


(Terms are in plural form)
(Hebrew) 'the coerced'. Jews who were converted to another religion by force. It was also applied to their descendants. Many of them continued to practice Judaism in secret.
'The converted'.
Hidden; secret; of obscure origin.
'Swine' (pejorative). Term applied in Spain and Portugal by Christians to descendants of the coerced, baptized Jews suspected of adhering to Judaism.
Willing converts from Judaism.

Divisions of Jewry in the Diaspora

(Ashkenazim and Sephardim are the two main divisions)
'People of the north'. Originally German Jewry, later came to designate Jews of northern France, Poland, Russia and Scandinavia. Yiddish was widely spoken by Ashkenazim.
People of the Levant. Jews of the eastern Mediterranean area that is now occupied by Lebanon and Syria and Israel.
'Eastern'. Jews of North African and Middle Eastern ancestry.
Jews of South and East Asian ancestry.
Jews of the Eastern Roman Empire, spread throughout much of Asia Minor (mostly under Roman control) before and after the destruction of the Temple. Latin speaking.
Descendants of Jews whose ancestors lived on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). In Mediterranean countries the Sephardim spoke Judeo-Spanish (Ladino).
Ethiopian Jews, Anusim, Karaites, Samaritans, and Lost Tribes.


Sephardim, Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, spoke a Judeo-Spanish dialect, written in Hebrew script, called Ladino. Many were forced to convert to Christianity between 1391 and 1497. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 the Sephardim settled in north Africa, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, the Balkans, and the Turkish Empire. Subsequently these communities were reinforced by refugees from Portugal.

Large groups later settled in the Netherlands, the West Indies, and North America. They and their descendants founded the Jewish communities of Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, and New Amsterdam (New York City). As they moved to more tolerant lands, many conversos openly returned to Judaism.

The term 'Sephardim' today has a broader definition. It includes all Sephardic communities, including Jews whose country of origin is Greece, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Syria, Turkey and Yemen.


A new and fascinating picture has emerged of descendants of those secret Jews living today as Catholics or Protestants but keeping alive family traditions which are unmistakably clear indications of Jewish origins.

Some families to this day light candles on Friday night, circumcise newborn sons, eat thin flat bread on Passover, use biblical names, and have family traditions of not eating pork. For the most part they consider such activities family traditions and did not ascribe them to Jewish identity until, in recent years, such facts have been made clear to them. Some have expressed interest in learning more about modern Judaism with a view toward re-entering the Jewish mainstream. Others are comfortable in their present religious affiliation but are intrigued by their history.


Robert Singerman completed a 720 page camera-ready manuscipt, SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE JEWRY: A BIBLIOGRAPHY (Greenwood Press 1993). Its over 5000 entries supplement the 5000 plus entries presented in a similar text by Singerman published in 1975. Address: Robert Singerman, Jewish Studies Bibliographer, Price Library of Judaica, 406 Smathers Library, University of Florida, Gainesville Florida 32611, USA. Phone (904) 392-0308]

FIRST AMERICAN JEWISH FAMILIES: 600 GENEALOGIES, 1654-1977, written by (the late) Rabbi Malcolm H. Stern, (KTAV Publ. House 1978, reprinted 1991.) This book should be viewed by anyone researching Sephardic lines. It contains genealogies of many Jewish families who settled in America prior to 1840, traced, where possible, to present. A quick look at the index shows many surnames which appear to be Spanish.


SUGGESTED READINGS by Nan Rubin. These books are on closely related subjects.
  • Eliyahu Ashtor, _The Jews of Muslim Spain_, 3 vols; Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1974-1985
  • Yizhak Baer, _A History of the Jews in Christian Spain_, 2 vols; Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1971
  • Fra. Angelico Chavez, _Origins of New Mexico Families in the Spanish Colonial Period 1598-1820_, Historical Society of New Mexico, Santa Fe, 1954
  • Martin Cohen, _The Martyr: The Story of a Secret Jew and the Mexican Inquisition_, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1973
  • Jane Gerber, _The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience_, The Free Press, MacMillan, New York, 1992
  • Richard Greenleaf, _The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century_, U. of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque
  • Ramon Gutierrez, _When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846_, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1991
  • Alexandre Herculano, _History of the Origin and Establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal_, KTAV Publishing, New York 1972
  • Stanley Hordes, _The Crypto-Jewish Community of New Spain, 1620-1649: A Collective Biography_, PhD Dissertation, Tulane University, New Orleans, 1980.
  • John Kessel, _Kiva, Cross and Crown: The Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840_
  • Seymour Liebman, _The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame, and the Inquisition_, U. of Miami Press, Coral Gables
  • David Nidel, _Modern Descendants of Conversos in New Mexico_, Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, Vol. XVI No. 3, pp. 194-292.
  • Harriet and Fred Rochlin, _Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West_, Houghton Mifflin Co, New York, 1984.
  • Cecil Roth, _A History of the Marranos_, Sepher-Hermon Press 1932, reprinted Schocken Books, New York, 1974.
  • Cecil Roth, _Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi_, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1978.
  • Frances Scholes, _Troublous Times in New Mexico, 1659-1670_, AMS Press, New York 1977.
  • Mark Simmons, _New Mexico, A Bicentennial History_, Norton, New York, 1977.
  • Robert Singerman, _The Jews in Spain and Portugal_, Garland Publishing, New York, 1975.
  • Henry J. Tobias, _A History of the Jews of New Mexico_ U. of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1990.
  • David J. Weber, _The Spanish Frontier in North America_, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1992.

MEXICAN SEPHARDIC SOURCES. Keep in mind that Monterrey, and the state of Nuevo Leon, was settled by 695 Jewish families escaping the Inquisition in Mexico City. Texas was formerly part of Nuevo Leon. Also, Alonso de Leon, son of the governor of N.L. who lived in Monclova, was from a family who lost several members in the Inquisition. He led 11 expeditions into Texas to find La Salle's Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek, the last in 1691. Mexican Sephardic sources:

  • Anything by Israel Cavazos Garza
  • Richard G. Santos, "Sephardic Jews and the Mexican Americans of Texas," (copy at UT Austin).
  • Rodolfo Gonzalez de la Garza, "La Inquisicion en Monclova a Medianos del Siglo XVIII," Estudios de Historia del Noreste (Monterrey, N.L., 1972).
  • Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, "Los sefarditas en nuevo leon: reminiscencias en el folklore" (Monterrey, N.L., Cuadernos del Archivo: March 1987).
  • Julio Caro Baroja, Inquisicion, Brujeria y Criptojudaismo, Tercera Edicion (Mexico, Ariel: 1974).
  • Eugenio del Hoyo, Historia del Nuevo Reino de Leon 1574-1723, Colleccion Serie de historia, Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (1972).
  • Vito Alessio Robles, La Juderia de Monterrey (Mexico, Bosquejos Historicos: 1938).
  • The American Jewish Historical Society holds trial records of the Mexican Inquisition. The manuscript collection [I-3], consists of 23 'procesos' (transcripts of trials) which took place 1572-1772, from the Mexican National Archives. Contact: Reference Department, American Jewish Historical Society, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011, Phone: (212) 294-6160; fax: (212) 294-6161,
  • History of the Ancient Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, by Dr. Moses Gaster
  • Geschiedems Der Portueesche Juden Te Amsterdam 1593-1925, by Silva Rosa
  • Handleiding Bij De Index Op Ketuboth Van De Portugeese Israelietische Gemeente Te Amsterdam 1650-1911, by D. Verdooner
  • The Economic Activities of The Jews of Amsterdam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries , Bloom
  • A Life of Menasseh Ben Israel, by Roth
SUGGESTED READINGS from back issues of AVOTAYNU: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy Extracted from Index to the First Ten Years, 1985-1994. (Vol/No/Pg)
  • Sephardic Jewry; recommended readings VI/4/52
  • Sources for researching my Sephardic ancestors VII/1/18
  • Spanish Inquisition in Americas VII/1/19
  • Biography of Sephardic Jews and the Holocaust VII/2/17
  • The Ottoman Empire and Jewish genealogy VIII/1/17
  • Ottoman Empire resources VIII/1/18
  • The Marrano Diaspora VIII/1/09
  • Additional resources for Sephardic genealogy VIII/2/59
  • Resources for Sephardic genealogy VIII/3/48
  • Book Review: The Sephardic Journey: 1492-1992 VIII/3/63
  • Book Review: Sephardim in America IX/4/65
  • Sephardic electronic archive developed X/1/64
  • Sephardic genealogical research in Morocco X/3/40

SUGGESTED READINGS by Yitzchak Kerem. For 20th century Sephard Jewry the key sources are the Central Archives for the Jewish People and the Alliance Israelite Universelle files and bulletins. Mina Rosen's lists of Turkish cemeteries are not yet published. For Greece look at publications by Molho, Recanati, and Emmanuel. For North Africa, look at Michael Laskier's books and Attals bibliographies.

For Latin America's Sephardim, Mordechai Arbel is preparing a bibliography. Latin American Sephard Jewry is divided into four parts; Balkan Sephardim; Damascas origin; Aleppo Sephardim; Moroccan origin.

For each of those groups throughout Latin America, you can find archival material and secondary material in most of the Latin American countries. If one doesn't have such a perspective, one will never find most of the Balkan Sephardim after they dispersed in the beginning of the 20th century. [Yitzchak Kerem , historian on Greek Jewry in the Holocaust. 30Mar94]

Other Resources

For Sephardic genealogy resources, sources and links to related topics, see Sephardic SIG: Sephardic Genealogy at JewishGen.  Then join Sefard Forum: E-mail Discussion List for Researchers of Sephardic Genealogies.  Here you can exchange information about relatives, books, language, history, migrations, local customs, research techniques and the realities of researching public records and genealogical data archives.

When the Inquisitors came from Spain and Portugal to the New World, the Marranos began to move northward, into areas we now know as the southern and southwestern United States. The Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives at the University of Arizona is a research center working on the history of the pioneer Jews of Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas and the emerging story of Hispanics who are seeking their Jewish roots from the Iberian Peninsula.

The archives has developed a research section for interviews conducted with Hispanics who may be descendants of converso families from Spain or Portugal. In addition, the Archives is developing a bilingual library on the Inquisition and publishes a newsletter.
Open to faculty, students, the media, and the general public. Address: Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives, University of Arizona, 1052 N. Highland Avenue, Tuscon, Arizona 85721 USA.

Published quarterly by the Society For Crypto Judaic Studies. The SCJS fosters research and networking of information into the history and contemporary development of Crypto Jews of Iberian origins. Membership is $20 per year and includes Halapid. Address: The Society For Crypto Judaic Studies, 333 Washington Blvd. #336, Marina Del Rey, Ca 90292

KULANU (All Of Us)
An American organization that studies and maintains contact with Jewish descendants from Portugal and Spain. For information, or their newsletter write to: Kulanu, 1211 Ballard Street, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA

The Hebraic Society for the Study of Marranismo which goes by the Portuguese acronym SHEMA -- provides study materials for converso descendants interested in studying their heritage. Address: Helio Daniel Cordeiro, SHEMA, Congregacao Israelita Paulista, Rua Antonio Carlos 653, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

[Information edited from published sources.]

Last modified: 15 April 2004 BIK

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