You have surely heard of the 'Golden Age' of the Jews of Spain, almost a thousand years ago. - That was the time when Spain was ruled by the Arabs. Many, great and famous Jews, Talmudists, poets, philosophers and physicians, flourished in Spain in those days. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Rabbi Judah Ha-levi, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Rabbi Abraham ben Ezra, Rabbi Solomon ibn Gabirol, Rabbi Joseph In Migash are but a few of the famous people you have read about in our "Gallery of Our Great." Many Jews also occupied high positions in the affairs of State, as advisers or ministers of the Arab rulers, the Caliphs, such as Hasdai ibn Shaprut, Rabbi Samuel Hanagid, and others. Jewish statesmen and financiers, merchants and craftsmen, helped to develop the trade and industry of the land. There were famous Talmudic academies (Yeshivoth) in the Spanish Jewish communities, and Jews lived happily, materially and spiritually. This happy state of affairs lasted for about two hundred years, then came to a sad end. First there was a change in the Arab rulers, who were no longer friendly to the Jews. Then Spain gradually came under the rule of the Christians, who drove the Arabs out and became the new masters.
Strangely enough, the Jews helped the Christians drive out the unfriendly Arabs, but soon found themselves 'out of the frying pan into the fire,' as the saying goes. For no sooner were the Christian kingdoms firmly established in Spain, than terrible times began for the Jews: Fanatical, monks spread the fire of hatred against the Jews, who would not accept the Christian faith. There were bloody riots and attacks against Jews. Jews were faced with the bitter choice: the cross or the sword; and while many Jews chose to die for their faith, others had not the strength to do so and became 'Christians' in name only, secretly practicing their Jewish faith. They were called 'Marranos' (pigs) by the Christians, who despised them and hated them. The heads of the Church began to watch them, and established a secret court, the Inquisition, where suspected Marranos were tortured in order to be forced to confess their loyalty to their Jewish faith. Then they would be burned alive publicly, to drive terror into the hearts of the other Marranos.
Nevertheless, the Marranos showed wonderful courage, and secretly continued to practice their faith in the cellars of their homes. They married only among themselves, and remained faithful to the religion of their ancestors. As the persecutions against the Jews increased, the number of Marranos grew. The Inquisition decided that as long as there were Jews in Spain, the Marranos would not assimilate with the Christians, and anyway the Jews were no longer wanted in Christian Spain. And so it came about, that when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain united all Christians under their rule, they were persuaded by the Inquisition to drive the Jews out of their land. On Tisha b'Av, in the year 5252 (1492), the Jews of Spain were driven out of the country; only those who agreed to become Christians were allowed to remain. Some 150,000 Jews then left their homes and wealth behind, and wandered out of Spain. That was all that was left of the Jews who had once lived so happily in that country. Many of them found a refuge in nearby Portugal, but after five years they were even more cruelly expelled from that country.
The Marranos continued to lead their lives as before, and the Inquisition had its hands full for hundreds of years afterwards.
Here we give you the history of a famous Marrano family, some two hundred years after the Expulsion from Spain, and Portugal.
The Marranos, who lived in Spain and Portugal in constant terror of their lives, had but one hope: to escape to some friendly country in order to throw off their hateful disguise and become Jews openly.
Such a family was the Nunez family. For many generations this family kept up its Jewish faith in secret, and some members of it met a violent death at the hands of the Inquisition. (A Clara Nunez was burned in Seville, Spain, in 1632, and in the same year Isabel and Helen Nunez were also condemned to death for loyalty to their Jewish faith). One branch of the family, living in Portugal, was among the most distinguished of noble families. Although it was nearly 250 years after the Expulsion from Spain and Portugal, this family secretly still observed the Jewish religion. It was headed by Samuel Nunez, who was born in Portugal, and became a great physician. He was appointed Court Physician to the king of Portugal. In addition to his services to the Royal Family, all the nobility considered it a privilege if he attended them. Not only professionally was Dr. Nunez in demand, but he was invited to all the important society affairs. Also, when he arranged a banquet or a ball in his own beautiful palace on the Tagus river, the elite of Lisbon society would be among his guests.
Dr. Nunez was still quite a young man when he reached the dizzy heights of success in professional and social circles. This naturally created jealousy among his competitors, and the Inquisition gave them an excellent opportunity of trying to get him into trouble.
Although on the surface Dr. Nunez was as good a Catholic as any churchgoing Christian, the leaders of the inquisition took note of the warnings given them by the doctor's enemies. They managed to smuggle an "agent" into the household of the Nunez family, in the guise of a servant, so they would be informed on what went on within the family circle.
Finally the agent reported that the Nunez family was definitely practicing the Jewish religion in secret, for every Saturday, they all retreated to a synagogue in an underground part of the Palace, where they threw off their pretense of being Christians, and worshipped in true Jewish fashion.
Although the leaders of the Inquisition succeeded in getting the whole Nunez family arrested and thrown into prison, their joy was short-lived, for Dr. Nunez was a very popular man and had influential friends among the nobility. They talked the weak king into getting Dr. Nunez and family freed from prison and reinstated in the palace as the Court Physician. Usually the king was completely influenced by his "Father-Confessor" - a Catholic priest, but in this case he said nothing to him of his decision (backed up by the whole royal family) but gave orders that the Nunez family be freed immediately and allowed to return to their home in the palace on the Tagus River.
There was one condition, however, which marred the happiness of the Nunez family in their release from prison, and that was, that two officials of the Inquisition were to take up residence with the Nunez family to make sure they would not practice the Jewish religion. This, of course, made Dr. Nunez seek plans to escape, for himself and family. But how manage this under the ever watchful eyes of the Inquisitors?
Dr. Nunez hit upon a brilliant and bold idea. He arranged a Banquet and Ball and invited all the important people of the city. These included many high-ranking officials who, though they had him under suspicion regarding his faith, were only too happy to accept the invitation to his -Banquet at which it was considered a privilege to be present.
The banquet was over and the ball in full swing when Dr. Nunez stopped the orchestra and made the following startling announcement:
"My friends, I have a very pleasant surprise for you! You are all invited to follow me and board my yacht which has been prepared for your pleasure. The evening's entertainment will continue there, with the Captain all ready for you. This way, Ladies and Gentlemen!" Saying which, Dr. Nunez stepped out, and all his guests followed excitedly, delighted with the unexpected surprise.
They picked up their cloaks and, chattering animatedly, boarded the yacht which was gently rocking outside the palace.
What the guests did not know was that a not-so-pleasant surprise awaited them. For about an hour or so after they had boarded the yacht they suddenly became aware that they were moving! And judging by the speed, this was no yacht but a large boat. Yes, they were in fact sailing away from the shores of Portugal at full speed, heading for the friendlier shores of England. Friendlier, that is, for the Nunez family. For Dr. Nunez had every detail arranged with the help of his relatives, the Mendez family, one o£ whom married the lovely daughter of Dr. Nunez. He had secretly succeeded in selling part of his estates and possessions and had transferred the money to England through secret couriers. Thus he had been able to get a British captain to bring his brigantine to the Tagus River on the night of the banquet, and it was ready and waiting to receive its load of passengers.
Dr. Nunez quickly reassured his guests that, as soon as they reached the shores of England, the boat would immediately turn around and bring them back to their homes. As for himself, Dr. Nunez, his guests would have to admit that it was not his fault that he was compelled by the Inquisition to leave the country which had been so ready to accept his services and knowledge, but had not allowed him and his family to live according to their faith and conscience.
By arrangement, the Nufiez family transferred to another boat which was leaving England with another party of Marranos on its way to Georgia, N. America, to establish a colony there. In the summer of the year 1733, the party of Marranos, headed by the Nunez family, arrived in Savannah, Georgia. They were warmly welcomed on arrival there by the English governor, James Oglethorpe, a tolerant and understanding man.
When the trustees in London learned that Oglethorpe had granted the Jewish refugees farmland, and that they had built homes for themselves and were getting nicely established, they sent an indignant protest to Governor Oglethorpe, saying: "We do not wish the new land to become a Jewish colony!" The governor, however, was a fair-minded man who realized how fortunate the new land was to have such valuable refugees. Dr. Nunez would certainly makes himself useful in that semi-wilderness, for few professional people cared to come out into that pioneering country. The other refugees, too, had brought their skills and wealth with them, but even had they not done so, the kind governor had no intention of making these newly-arrived Jews suffer further persecution in this new country. They had suffered enough in the lands from which they had fled.
When the trustees in London continued to urge Oglethorpe to send away the Jewish settlers, he pretended, that he would give their orders his consideration. Yet the records of those days, still preserved in Savannah, Georgia, show that not only did he not send away the Jews, but that, on the contrary, he granted the Jews even more land and privileges.
History tells us that Dr. Nunez and his family later moved to Charleston, South Carolina. But some members of his family remained in Savannah, and cultivated the six rich estates granted them by Oglethorpe, for the valuable services to the colony given by the family of Dr. Nunez. Later, the son-in-law of Dr. Samuel Nunez moved to New York and became the spiritual leader of the newly-founded Portuguese community. A descendant of this-branch of the family of Dr. Samuel Nunez Ribiero was the mayor of New York; Dr. Manuel Mordecai Noah, one of whose projects was the establishment of a Jewish colony in America.
You will surely agree that the family of that fine, courageous, G-d fearing physician, Dr. Samuel Nunez-Ribeiro, deserves a proud place in Jewish history.