People Of The Book:
Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition
By Dr. Henry Abramson
A remarkable testament to the tenacity of the Jewish spirit, Samuel Usque’s Consolations for the Tribulations of Israel (1553) was written in Portuguese to fortify the spirit of Converso Jews living under the threat of the Inquisition. Mere possession of this book was life-threatening, yet it was cherished by many a Converso household, struggling to hold fast to an internal Jewish identity while maintaining a Christian faÃ§ade for the outside world.
Little is known of the author other than the sketchy autobiographical details gleaned from the Consolations. He was most likely born in Portugal to a Spanish Jewish family who settled there after the expulsion of 1492. Portugal extended a mixed welcome to these Jewish refugees, offering them shelter in exchange for crushing residency fees, but even this temporary respite ended when King Manuel sought the hand of a Spanish princess who demanded that he render his country Judenrein before they married. Manuel was loath to sacrifice the financial benefits that came with his Jewish population, so he implemented a cruel series of policies that included the forced removal of 700 Jewish children from their parents’ arms and banishing them to the remote island of San Tome off the coast of west Africa (according to Usque’s near-contemporary account, the children starved or were devoured by the giant lizards indigenous to the island). Under extreme duress, the remnant of Portuguese Jews finally agreed to accept nominal Christianity, while Manuel promised that their private practices would not be subjected to the searching examination of the Inquisition.
Manuel’s status quo was maintained until 1531, when the Inquisition was formally introduced to Portugal. It is important to note that the Inquisition was not directed at Jews per se, rather it focused on those Jews who were baptized, even against their will, and secretly maintained attachment to Judaism. Christians labeled these people with the opprobrious term Marranos (the word literally means “pigs”), while Jews called them anusim (“coerced”) or Conversos. Ironically, the zealous pursuit of Jewish converts at any cost created a greater problem for the Church, since the waters of baptism washed away all social and legal disabilities, allowing the so-called New Christians to rise to prominent positions in the economic, cultural, and even religious life of Portugal. Furthermore, and contrary to expectations, they stubbornly refused to assimilate, choosing rather to marry among themselves, live in discrete neighborhoods, and by and large continue their social lives as they had before the charade of conversion.
During the early decades of the 16th century, Usque received a strong education in the Greek and Latin classics, suggesting he may have been enrolled as a student at the famous University of Lisbon. This would not be surprising for a talented Converso youth, and his command of Hebrew and the Bible indicates he may even have been a student in the Divinity school. Despite his possibly priestly studies, he received clandestine training in the forbidden literature of the Talmud and Maimonides, and apparently acted as a secret rabbinical leader to Conversos. He was forced to flee Portugal after 1531, eventually finding himself in the free Italian city-state of Ferrara, which sheltered many prominent Jews from the reach of the Inquisition. Two of the most powerful Jewish women of the era were residents of Ferrara: Benvenida Abravanel and DoÃ±a Gracia Nasi. The latter in particular supported Usque’s work, seeing it as a literary extension of the funding she provided to the secret “underground railroad” that spirited Portuguese Conversos to religious freedom in the lands of the Ottoman Empire.
The Consolations is composed of three long dialogues between the shepherd Ycabo (a thinly disguised anagram for Yacob, representing the Jewish people) and two angelic figures posing as shepherds, named Numeo (Nahum, or “consolation”) and Zicareo (Zecharia, or “memory”). Written in elegant Portuguese, the shepherds lament the historical tribulations of the Jewish people, placing them sequentially within the context of biblical prophecy and invariably ending with the promise of messianic redemption. Perhaps the most historically valuable element of the Consolations is the third dialogue, in which Ycabo describes the sufferings of Portuguese Jewry–no doubt based on Usque’s personal experience.
The message of the Consolations is clear and consistent throughout: the Jewish people have endured centuries of persecution, yet they have always remained steadfast in their faith and earned redemption. The same would hold true, argued Usque, for the embattled Portuguese Jews, ending one day in the ultimate redemption with the coming of the Messiah.
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.