Joseph Cohen Belinfante, I

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Joseph Cohen Belinfante, I

Birthplace: Lisbon, Portugal
Death: circa 1526
Spalato, Dalmatia
Immediate Family:

Father of Meir Cohen Belinfante, I

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Joseph Cohen Belinfante, I

Belinfante Family Odyssey: Around the World from Portugal

by Randall Belinfante, Librarian/Archivist of the American Sephardi Federation

In the dark days of 1526, Joseph Cohen Belinfante, collected his family about him and boarded a ship bound for Dalmatia in the Balkans. They left behind them what must have been a relatively prosperous home in Lisbon, Portugal. Yet, they were a family of Marranos, and they could no longer tolerate life in the Catholic nation of Portugal.
The Portuguese kings had at first welcomed the Jews -- back in 1492 -- when they were expelled from Spain. Indeed, the independence enjoyed by the Jews aroused resentment, especially among the clergy in Portugal. In 1496 however, the Portuguese King Emanuel I (the Fortunate--1495-1521) decided to marry the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain; and they demanded that he first expel or convert all the Jews within his country's borders. Not wanting to lose his financial middle men, the king tried to allow the wealthiest Jews to remain, on condition that they converted to Christianity. This last was not an easy task, since the Jews were not enthusiastic about converting. When the Jews refused to convert voluntarily, Emanuel tried to force them. On March 19, 1497, government officials forcibly seized and baptized all the Jewish minors they could lay their hands on, hoping that this would prevent their parents from attempting to flee. When a large group of some 20,000 Jews still insisted on emigrating, the order went out directing them to assemble at Lisbon. When they were assembled they were ceremonially baptized and declared to be "New Christians." Unintimidated by this turn of events, many of the conversos still attempted to emigrate, prompting King Emanuel to try to stem the tide by withholding the right of emigration from the New Christians. He was thus determined to keep the Jews in Portugal.
Yet, despite the King's appreciation of the conversos, there was little love lost among the Portuguese majority for the unwelcome guests. Indeed, in the spring of 1505, 2,000 New Christians were massacred during a Lisbon riot, thoroughly convincing the Jews or "New Christians" that they were not welcome, even if they had converted to Christianity. The Jews were actually stuck in a kind of religious limbo: they were no longer Jews (supposedly) and yet few considered them to be true Christians either. They were just Marranos. In actual fact, we don't know the extent of the Belinfante family's Christian faith, but we know that they must have at least postured or they would not have been permitted to remain as long as they did. Yet, they must also have clung to their Jewish faith because we know that Joseph's grandchildren worked as Sofrim (writers of Sifre Torah) and Hazanim first in Dalmatia and then Belgrade after they escaped Portugal.
Faced with lives embittered by prejudice and religious persecution, the Belinfantes fled the Iberian Peninsula for safer regions in the Balkans. We don't know if it was their intended destination, and the sea voyage must have been horrendous (the chances of being drowned in a shipwreck or being captured by pirates were very great). Yet, somehow, the Belinfante family managed to find its way to the shores of Dalmatia.
Upon reaching the Balkans the Belinfantes must have gone through the painful process of openly becoming Jews once again. They had not lost their links with their faith, but those links had been severely weakened. In the restorative atmosphere of the Balkans, their faith was revived, and by the end of the 15th Century, Joseph's great grandson, Meir Cohen Belinfante was serving as a Sofer in the Croatian town of Split. Split was a free port, governed by the Venetians, which was perched right on the edge of Ottoman Empire. There the community was protected from the Inquisition, and maintained as a link between the Christian and Ottoman worlds. Those Jewish merchants who settled in Split were exempted by the Ottoman Empire from paying the residence tax, while at the same time, they enjoyed immunity for their capital from the Venetian government.
From Split, Meir's son Joseph, moved to Belgrade in Serbia. There he became a Hazzan (Cantor) in one of the Belgrade Synagogues. The community there appears to have found security with the Turkish conquest in 1521, and it continued to dwell there until the approach of Austrian invaders in 1688. In all probability, the family dwelled in the Jewish mahala ("quarter"). This would have allowed them to be near other Jews, and would also have allowed them to walk to the synagogue on Shabbat. Tensions apparently increased during their lifetimes, climaxing in the Austrian invasion in 1688. Anticipating the invasion, Turkish anissaries attacked and plundered the Jewish quarter. The Austrians attacked a few months later, and after capturing the city, their soldiers indiscriminately burned, looted, and killed the entire population. Most of the Jews were deported and sold into slavery, but a few escaped. Among the escapees were Joseph's son, Meir, and his grandson, Zaddik, who appear to have departed the region in 1689 and moved to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Our records indicate that Zaddik was born in Belgrade in 1675, and so he would have been a young man of 14 years at the time.
Once they reached Amsterdam, Meir pursued a career as an author and a teacher of theology. One of his sons, Zaddik was to grow up to become a Rabbi, preacher, and a Talmudic writer in Amsterdam. Other children were to also continue in his path as theologians. Not everyone was to remain in Amsterdam however. One of Meir's grandsons was to journey to the other side of the world, and was to become a Hazan in Barbados. Others found themselves settling in Jamaica, Curacao, and other points in the Caribbean. And still others were to follow Menasseh ben Israel and settle in England-- there are a long list of Belinfantes recorded in the marriage and burial records from London's Bevis Marks Synagogue.

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Joseph Cohen Belinfante, I's Timeline

Lisbon, Portugal
Age 17
Went from Portugal to Dalmatia
Age 17