Monday, September 14, 2009

Portugal's secret Jews come out of hiding

A bearded man in a red velvet skullcap, chain-smoking on Shabbat at a garden cafe while preaching to friends about the Torah, would be an odd sight anywhere. And he would particularly stand out in Lisbon, with its small Jewish community.
The man, Joao Santos, a regular at Cafe Principe Real, could easily be written off as another colorful urban character. But in today's Portugal his eccentricity is not out of context. It is part of a national trend: The turning toward Judaism of thousands of Portuguese who believe they are descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity hundreds of years ago.
They trace their Jewish roots to the 15th and 16th centuries, to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions in which thousands of Jews were murdered and countless others were forced into exile or to convert. Many became crypto-Jews, practicing secretly. They were classified in Jewish law as Anusim, Jews who are forced to abandon their religion against their will, but continue to practice insofar as possible.
Their modern-day descendants call themselves Bnei Anusim - sons or children of the Anusim. They are also known by the derogatory Spanish term "Marranos" ("swine").
Recent genetic studies show that some 30 percent of Portugal's population has Jewish blood. Around 7,000 Portuguese identified themselves as Jewish in a 2006 national survey, although only 1,000 have formal affiliation. As more Portuguese discover their Jewish roots, leading Bnei Anusim figures are taking up prominent positions in Portugal's Jewish community.
Santos, an architect in his late thirties, says he found out he was Jewish a few years ago when he came upon typical Jewish candlesticks that had been passed down through his family. Others speak of deathbed confessions by grandparents, unexplained family customs or the findings of extensive genealogical research.

Little remains of Barros Basto's original community, but Porto's Jewish community today has a few dozen people who identify themselves as Bnei Anusim.  Asked about the Hebrew letters that baptized Jews dared to engrave above their doors during the Inquisition, Mucznik says: "Crypto-Judaism is a Portuguese phenomenon, not a Spanish one. In Spain the expulsion was simpler, clearer. Either you convert, or you go away. In Portugal it was more complex than that because in fact the Portuguese didn't want the Jews to leave. Though ruthless by any standard, the Portuguese Inquisition was less definite than the Spanish one." She adds, "Some towns were so heavily Jewish that the people there depended on the Jews. And so they had to show some flexibility."

Michael Freund, the founder of Shavei Israel, gives three reasons when asked about the roots of the Bnei Anusim revival. The first is that both Spain and Portugal only recently opened up to the world following the fall of their respective dictators, Franco and Salazar. Freund, who was deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office during the first term of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adds that the Internet also plays a role: "In the past, a person wanting to reconnect to his Jewish roots or to study the subject had to make a public act by going to the library or the bookshop. The Internet changed all that." (Haaretz)

Click here to read the entire article. For further research, visit JewishGen's Sephardic SIG and this JewishPress article about the Jews of Portugal.

1 comment:

  1. In the Portuguese Old Peoples Home in Montreal, many of the women, when leaving their room, will kiss their fingers and touch the door frame. ( kissing the non existing mezzuzah) They are mostly from the Azores. They do not know why they do it, only that it is done by their family.

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