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1 janvier 2007 / 19h22
- Retour au judaisme: les circonciseurs (Mohalim) de Curacao

par Mordechai Arbell Certains marranes qui gagnèrent le continent américain pensaient qu'il leur serait possible d'y vivre libres en tant que juifs.
Return to Judaism: The Circumcisers (Mohalim) of Curacao, by Mordechai Arbell
It is a well known fact that among the conversos who continued to live in Spain and Portugal, there remained a strong feeling of Jewish consciousness and some of them, despite the mortal danger, continued their Jewish practices. Some of these conversos, after leaving the Iberian Peninsula and returning to Judaism, became prominent Jewish scholars in those same subjects forbidden to them under the menace of the Inquisition.

There was a constant flow of converso emigres that continued until the 20th century. I will deal here only with those conversos who reached the American continent, where they believed it would be possible for them to live freely as Jews.

Typical examples are offered by the cases of two of the most famous Sephardic Jewish poets in the Diaspora.

Daniel Lopez Laguna (1635-1730), born to converso parents who lived in France, was sent to study in Spain. Arrested there by the Inquisition, he began to translate the book of Psalms from Hebrew into poetic Spanish. He managed to escape and reached the island of Jamaica where he completed his monumental poetic translation, Espejo Fiel de Vidas, read to this day. 1

The other, Daniel Levi de Barrios (1625-1701), born as a converso in Montilla, Spain, went with his family to live in Oran, Algiers (then a Spanish colony), to distance himself from the Inquisition. From there he escaped to Leghorn, Italy, where he returned to Judaism. He left for the Americas, to the island of Tobago, an after the death of his wife, made his way to Amsterdam, becoming there a famous poet, writer, and chronicler. 2

One of the centers in Amercia where conversos returned to Judaism was the island of Curacao. Conversos on their way to different parts of America or those already on the American continent came to Curacao to be circumcised and return to Judaism.

Therefore, it is not surprising that in the second half of the 18th century there were at least seven circumcisers in Curacao with the title "Mohel Muvhak" (expert circumciser), in a community of less than 2,000 souls. The reason was the constant influx of conversos to be circumcised. The circumciser was an important figure in the community, and usually rendered his services gratis. If expenses were involved, they were paid by the community.

The religious leaders of the Curacao Jews paid special attention to the conversos.

Many of the leaders were conversos themselves. The Chief Haham (Rabbi) Eliahu Lopez was born in Malaga in 1648 and arrived in Curacao from Amsterdam to serve as Haham in 1693. The chief Haham Samuel Mendes de Sola was born in Lisbon in 1699 and came to Curacao in 1741.

These two leading Hahams did everything possible to facilitate the reconversion of the conversos reaching Curacao, but their numbers were not always published, nor where their names, especially not of those who held Christian ecclesiastical functions.

Among the conversos who came to Curacao from Spain and Portugal to reconvert, there was a Dominican friar, a Fanciscan father, and a Catholic priest. 3

One cannot reach exact numbers of those who became Jews again. In some circumcisers'records -- found and studied by the Haham Isaac Emmanuel of Curacao -- one finds :

--- Between 1705 and 1728, Mosseh Athias de Neyra circumcised 20 conversos

--- Between 1721 and 1730, Abraham Semah Aboab circumcised 19 conversos

--- Between 1725 and 1728, David Nunes Carvallo circumcised 4 conversos

--- Between 1725 and 1731, Isaac Semah Aboab circumcised 8 conversos, most of them
coming from Spain

--- Between 1730 and 1731, Moseh Raphael de Veiga circumcised 5 conversos.

Among those circumcised were people more than 70 years old who dared to risk the operation. Among those mentioned are Ishac Henriques Fereira and Abraham Fernandes.4

These are very limited examples, but they show that over the years the total number was quite high, considering what the figures would be if we had all the records of circumcisers during at least 150 years.

A grave incident occurred in 1718 when Abraham Campanal, from Newport, Rhode Island, died after his circumcision, presumably form infection. As a result the Jewish community was not permitted for a certain period to circumcise Christians.(Conversos were considered Christians until they officially reconverted. Until then Jews could circumcise New Christians arriving form Spain and Portugal.)

Campanal was a member of the founding family of the Portuguese Jewish community in Newport. The leaders (parnassim) of Newport who asked in 1764 for funds from Curacao to build their synagogue, Aaron Lopez and Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, were themselves conversos who had arrived directly from Portugal to Newport, and reconverted there.

The conversos were not discouraged and continued arriving in Curacao. The last registered circumcision of a converso was that of J. Fonseca who arrived in 1822 form Portugal. 5

The Curacao Jews traded with the Spanish colonies in Central and South America, trading which was legal for the Dutch, but considered illicit by the Spanish. Ships owned and manned by Jews were at times captured by the Spaniards, who hauled the Hews to Cartagena, Colombia, or to Spain, to be tried by Spanish courts. Those who were born Jews could be released by payment of ransom, usually paid by the communities of Gibraltar, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Amsterdam, or Curacao. Former Conversos who had returned to Judaism were handed over to the Inquisition, either in Spain or Cartagena. Therefore, as a preventive measure, Jewish seafarers persuaded the Dutch Governors of Curacao to issue certificates that they had been born in Curacao, and not in Spain or portugal, and the circumcisers issued a document that they were Jews form birth and had been circumcised shortly tereafter.

All of the foregoing makes the study of the numbers of those who reconverted even more complicated. The fact remains : there was a constant flow of conversos leaving Spain and Portugal up to the middle of the 19th century to different parts of the world in order to reconvert, and one of the centers for their return to Judaism was Curacao.


1 Concepcion Cabezas Alguacil, "Un Acercamiento a la Obra de Daniel Lopez Laguna: Espejo Fiel de Vidas," in Miscelania de Estudios Arabes y Hebraicos, University of Granada, pp. 151-162.

2 Daniel Levi de Barrios, "Triumphal Carro de la Perfeccion," in Triumpho del Gobierno Popular, Amsterdam 1673, pp. 631-36.

3 Isaac S. and Suzanne A. Emmanuel, History of the Jews in the Netherlands Antilles, Cincinnati 1970, p. 118.

4 Idem

5 State Archives of Netherlands, The Hague (Curacao 310, May 14, 1822)..

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