In search of lost Jews

In search of lost Jews

Iberian Peninsula gives up its secrets

The memorial to Jews who perished in Portugal’s Inquisition, in downtown Lisbon.
The memorial to Jews who perished in Portugal’s Inquisition, in downtown Lisbon.

Two couples from Marlboro — Bella and Simon Zelingher and Barbara and Hal Crane — last year participated in a 15-day Jewish Heritage Tour of Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar, organized by Shai Bar Ilan Geographical Tours, an Israeli company with guides speaking both Hebrew and English. Both couples are affiliated with Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan. The Zelinghers also support and attend services at Monmouth Torah Links in Marlboro.

Bella Scharf Zelingher previously wrote about the group’s visit to Gibraltar, and here gives an account of their introduction to the fascinating story of the Crypto Jews of Portugal.

On our heritage tour, we learned about the Crypto Jews — those who secretly practice Judaism while publicly professing to be of another faith — of Portugal, who continued their Jewish tradition under cover for several hundred years, despite the dangers of the Inquisition. Many of the descendants of these “Anousim” (Hebrew for “those forced to convert”) have in recent years returned fully to their ancestors’ faith and practice; their story of Jewish survival is fascinating. 

The year 1492 was a pivotal point in world history. Not only did the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella send Christopher Columbus to explore the New World, but the Catholic royals completed the “Reconquista” (Reconquest) of Spain after several hundred years of Moorish rule. That very same year they also decreed that all Jews (and Muslims) were to convert to Catholicism or be expelled from Spain. 

Many thousands of Spanish Jews escaped to Portugal, settling in remote mountain villages near the border. However, in 1497, Portugal instituted its own Inquisition, and Jews were offered two choices: convert or die. 

We visited a few of the mountain villages the Spanish Jews settled in — Belmonte, Castello de Vide, Trancoso, Tomar. The villages are charming and picturesque, with narrow cobblestone streets. 

In Castelo de Vide we were escorted by a former mayor — Carolino Despajo — who himself claims Jewish roots. He had been instrumental in getting the municipality to purchase a building that had once been a synagogue and has been restored into a Jewish museum. He also showed us carved markings — mostly crosses — on the stone exteriors of many homes, indicating where the “New Christians” (forcibly converted Jews) lived. In this way the Jews proclaimed to the outside world they had converted to Catholicism. 

But the New Christians remained under close scrutiny — by the church and by their neighbors. If they were suspected of any “Judaizing,” there would be a trial, then possibly torture or death — including the “auto-da-fé” the “act of faith” that came to be associated with burning at the stake. We passed through a square with a Magen David marking the spot where mass public executions of New Christians and Jews who refused to convert had taken place. 

Despite these threats, many Jews clung to their practices in secret. Women lit candles Friday night and hid them under tables. They cooked and cleaned for Shabbat and holidays, and baked matza for Passover. The Anousim silently recited a special prayer when they went to church, proclaiming their enduring Jewish commitment: “As I enter this church, I will worship neither wood nor stone, but only God who governs the universe.” 

Many homes had niches built into the walls to hold a sefer Torah — a personal Aron Kodesh — perhaps concealed behind a false wall. We saw such a “Torah niche” at the ancestral home of Jose Levy Domingos, a prominent journalist who is involved in bringing the plight of the Anousim to wider attention. He also took us to Beit Eliyahu, the beautiful synagogue in the small town of Belmonte. For 500 years the town’s Anousim posed as Catholic while secretly practicing Judaism and marrying among themselves. In the 1970s, Belmonte’s approximately 200 Jews returned to open Judaism, and the synagogue was inaugurated in 1996. There is also an excellent museum on the history of the Portuguese Jews in the town. 

Belmonte is also where Samuel Schwartz, a mining engineer, arrived in 1916 to work. The Polish Jew became the first outsider to discover, quite by chance, its community of hidden Jews. When he first met these Anousim, they were surprised to hear there were other Jews in the world. They thought they were the only ones left. 

Then, in the 1920s a Portuguese army captain — Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto — whose family had been secret Jews, declared his true faith, at great risk to his career, and invited other hidden Jews throughout Portugal to “come out.” He was instrumental in getting the majestic Kadoorie Synagogue built in Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal. We visited that synagogue and also the museum there, devoted to the story of the Crypto Jews. 

These days Shavei Israel — an Israeli organization that is tasked with finding remaining hidden Jews throughout the world — is involved in helping these people find their way back to Judaism. However, many people fault the Jewish community at large for not doing more to “rescue” these hidden Jews much earlier. Many Jews, they claim, have been lost forever. 

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