Daniel Levi De Barrios:Marrano Poet Laureate

Readers of the history of cryptoJews secret Jews or Marranos as they are also known (I use Marrano sparingly as it has for me pejorative connotations) come to understand that many of them wavered in their commitments to become permanent members of a formal Jewish community

This phenomenon repeated itself from the 16th to the 18th centuries when Spanish and Portuguese Jews left Iberia finding their way to Holland Italy England and the Ottoman Empire These émigrés may be divided into three groups

The first of them having openly lived as Christians continued to do so This had obvious advantages even if they lived in those somewhat liberal countries allowing Jews to settle within their borders The second group swung back and forth between Judaism and Christianity as it suited them for business or social reasons Finally there were those who returned to Judaism and remained permanently faithful to that choice despite hardship lack of real knowledge of Jewish practices and for men the necessity of circumcision

One cryptoJew with a history of vacillation between a Jewish and a Christian life was Daniel Levi de Barrios He left Spain as a Christian remained one for a while in his new home in Italy acknowledged his Judaism returned to Christianity and finally embraced Judaism anew He was a soldier a poet and a religious philosopher who spent the last days of his life in Amsterdam as a man returned to the faith of his ancestors Daniel Levi de Barrios is known to history as the “Poet Laureate of Amsterdam”

The de Barrios family was originally Spanish They fled to Portugal after the Expulsion of 1492 Throughout the years they maintained a Jewish consciousness The family returned to Spain settling in Montilla after one of their kinsmen was executed at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition It was in Montilla that Daniel de Barrios (he was also known as Miguel de Barrios) was born in 1635 While his family finally left Spain for North Africa he chose to live in Italy where some close family members also resided He came first to Nice and then the port city of Leghorn which had a large lively and important Jewish community of traders Today Leghorn is known as Livorno

A relative urged him to openly acknowledge his Judaism He did so and married Deborah Vaez the daughter of an inlaw In 1660 the young newlyweds joined a colonizing group of 150 souls bound for the New World The group all had similar backgrounds of cryptoJudaism and abuse by the Inquisition They left the port of Leghorn for the West Indies but the voyage turned tragic for de Barrios Deborah and others suffered greatly from lack of drinking water When their vessel dropped anchor at Tobago near the Spanishheld island of Trinidad she was already very ill She died shortly after the group’s arrival

Devastated by his loss de Barrios abandoned Judaism and left the colonists for Europe where he enlisted in the Spanish army in 1662 Obviously his superiors were unaware of the Jewish period of his life He carried off the ruse very well since after a while he rose to the rank of Captain While he had little contacts with Judaism during his military career he did visit Amsterdam where he married for a second time to a Jewess Abigail de Pina How he with a Jewish wife was able to avoid any suspicion as to his true religion is a tribute to his skill in concealing his origins

During his twelve years as a Christian soldier in the service of Spain he wrote of the cities he visited and the important personages he met He must have had some Jewish contacts because he was aware of Shabbatai Zevi history’s “False Messiah” whose presence set many Jewish communities aflame with hopes the long awaited Messiah was on his way His writings began to reflect a mystic cast By 1674 he left the army

De Barrios settled in Amsterdam; this time as an avowed Jew earning his living as a writer He exhibited bizarre behavior while awaiting the coming of the “False Messiah” De Barrios’ wife Abigail finally and in frustration implored rabbi Jacob Sasportas to consult with the despondent and depressed poet The rabbi took a practical approach with his congregant pointing out that he had an obligation to support his family and to maintain his health Disillusioned at the Messiah’s lack of appearance de Barrios finally settled down to the work of earning his living as a writer and an acute observer of Jewish life in Amsterdam He extolled weddings and births in the community and memorialized the deaths of citizen worthies for which he received payments from grateful patrons De Barrios was prolific in his subject matterranging from the city’s academic life to lauding its Burghers

He also wrote touching poems dedicated to those who had suffered at the hands of the Inquisition There was even a poem begging forgiveness for that period in his life when he lived as a Christian De Barrios’ talent as a poet was recognized through his membership in Amsterdam’s Academia de los Floridos The writers were called mantenedores or Champions of the Poetic Arts Some of its members were responsible for helping exiles from Iberia to return to Judaism It is interesting to note that most of the poets at this time wrote in Spanish or Ladino

Scholars and critics are uniform in observing that de Barrios’ output is uneven at best But one must understand that his poetry was his only source of income De Barrios had to write to eat and thus much of his work flatters his sponsors patrons newlyweds and the deceased whose virtues he put on paper Almost everyone agrees that his many religious poems and the works that were not sponsored are his best Among these are: La memoria renueve el dolor (Remembrance renews the pain) written after the death of his second wife and Dias penitenciales (Days of penitence)

It is important in understanding de Barrios to emphasis that once he decided to return to Judaism and settle in Amsterdam he did so completely and without any reservations Much of the body of his unsolicited work was written on many Jewish themes to the point where scholars recognize him as a religious philosopher His poems praise Sephardic culture and the Jewish community of Amsterdam and are tinged with mysticism

The Encyclopedia Judaica implies that Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Jewish Bride” is a portrait of de Barrios and his second wife Abigail de Pina De Barrios died in 1701 and on his tombstone are etched some of his writings Daniel and Abigail had a son Simon who was born in 1665 He too showed talent as a poet He traveled to Barbados where he died in 1688

Viewing de Barrios with the advantage of three centuries of hindsight we should try to understand the political and social pressures that he as a cryptoJew in the seventeenth century had to struggle with in order to return to Judaism Life was certainly much easier for de Barrios in his early life and all the others who chose not to acknowledge their secret heritage Yet the act of uprooting their lives to leave Spain or Portugal implies a strong desire to escape from repressive regimes and pe haps openly announce their true faith Today we can learn much from the barriers they had to scale in order to assume an unhampered Jewish life The pressures they faced excluding the horrors of the Inquisition are in many ways similar to the ones many worldwide Anusim face today After all if we do not learn from history from whom can we learn?

Marble Floor Map Celebrating Portuguese Conquests
at the Monument to the Conquistadores in Lisbon

References:

I have not included any examples of de Barrios’ poems because I could only find them either in original Spanish or in French translations I do not feel myself qualified to translate serious poems in either language

Roth Cecil A History of the Marranos Jewish Publication Society (ed) 1959
Arbell Mordehay Daniel Levi de Barrios Poeta dramaturgo i istoriador
Aki Yerushalaym Kol Israel Jerusalem #15 Special Ed (This work was written in Ladino)
Encylopedia Judaica Volume 4 B Jerusalem 1975
Scholem Gershom Shabbetai Zevi Schocken Books 1957
Ezratty Harry A 500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean Omni Arts (2d ed) 2002

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