A Pilgrimage to Portugal

(Celebrating Our Portuguese-Jewish Heritage, an eight-day conference-tour of Portugal in June 2002. The group of 25, many of whom are descendants of Crypto-Jews from Portugal, included scholars, artists, history buffs and Sephardi activists.
The enthusiastic group toured the major sights of Jewish significance in Portugal in a motor coach, hearing a continuous flow of lectures and presentations by experts. Kulanu encouraged the participation of Dr. Rudo Mathivha from the Lemba community in South Africa to share the parallel and similar story of the Lemba. Here are some excerpts from Mausenbaum’s trip journal.)

We were welcomed at a reception by Castelo de Vides mayor, former mayor and other city officials, where we were briefed regarding the Jewish history and had the former-mayor, Carolino Tapadejo, take us on a walking tour of the old Jewish quarter.

…we sang and rejoiced in the old house of worship and in my mind, I could hear the voices and feel the presence of those in the past, joining us in song and celebration

He was proud and rightfully so of his role in getting Castelo de Vides Jewish history recognized. It was in this old and beautiful town that Mário Soares, then president of Portugal, apologized to the Jewish people in the presence of then Israeli Ambassador (to Portugal) Colette Avital in 1989. It occurred during Carolino Tapadejo’s tenure as mayor, so we were fortunate to have someone who was involved and instrumental in the restoration of the Jewish quarter take us on our tour. His passion and interest were infectious. It was clear that this project remains close to his heart. He admitted quite openly that he and possibly most of the Portuguese in this town could well be descendants of the forced converts from so long ago.

We negotiated the picturesque narrow cobble-stoned network of winding streets, and all the while were intensely aware of the large Jewish community that once lived in this beautiful and well-preserved Judiaria. The synagogue, and yeshiva, located on the corner of the Rua da Judiaria and Rua da Fonte, have recently been fully restored, with archaeological research having discovered three silos, dug out of granite and used for storing grain. As we had in other places, we sang and rejoiced in the old house of worship and in my mind, I could hear the voices and feel the presence of those in the past, joining us in song and celebration. As the mikveh has not yet been found, we indulged in a lively debate, all trying to work out where this essential part of Jewish law could have been housed.

Before leaving, I had the opportunity of stopping off at the shop of the last person in Castelo de Vides to identify today as an Bnei Anous (someone with whom I share a family name) and as I identified myself I was greeted with a warm, “Shalom.” Here we heard of visitors from Izmir, Turkey, whose ancestors had left Portugal, who had written documents and drawings of the Judiaria from the time of the forced conversions, and who on visiting the town could identify many of the places now documented, including the midwife’s home! This was how they managed to restore the synagogue with its original architectural lines intact, find the Rabbi’s house and the oven for baking bread!

En route to Covilhã, Art Benveniste (founder-member of The Association of Crypto-Judaic Studies) shared some fascinating accounts of contemporary Bnei Anousim, and of Portuguese-Jewish history and the forced conversion. Judith Cohen (ethnomusicologist) spoke about her research on musical traditions in Belmonte, Trás-os-Montes, and other parts of the Portuguese-Spanish border region, especially among Crypto-Jews, and once again we arrived at our destination with time on the bus having flown (due to our great speakers).

At Covilhã, we visited the Textile Industry Museum Exhibition, where it was no surprise (for us) to identify the many familiar names of “New Christians” and their professions. This area, situated near the foot of the Serra da Estrela, (Mountain of Stars) and all along the border of Spain, was densely populated by New Christians before and after the Inquisition. Many well-known figures of our history were from this area. It seemed perfectly apt that we were received at the University of Beira Interior by Prof. Maria Antonetta Gomes Baptista Garçia, who excitedly told us of the new Jewish Studies program introduced recently.

She is the author of two research books on the Jews of Portugal and Belmonte, and we were honored to have her give a fascinating and well researched lecture on the Jewish Influence and presence in the area, as well as the devastating effects of the Inquisition on (Jewish) life in Portugal. After questions and answers, we were on our way for the 15 minute drive to Belmonte, where we were to meet and have dinner with the Belmonte community.

The air seemed somehow fresher and cleaner in the mountain town of Belmonte. Here where the synagogue was inaugurated in 1996 to commemorate the abolishment of the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Portugal in 1496. The expulsion which never took place!

We talked, we laughed, we embraced, we sang Haveinu Shalom Aleichem, hugging and singing, truly amongst family.

The town has retained much of its medieval atmosphere, and among its most interesting sights are a 13th century castle, a Romanesque-Gothic church, and the Cabral family pantheon. The Jewish Quarter was situated outside the castle walls at the easternmost end of the town. Houses with crosses engraved in the stone close to the doors were inhabited by New Christians, Jews who had been unable to leave Portugal and were baptized by force, and enslaved.

But this was not why we had made the trip to Belmonte. We came to meet our family — people who, like our ancestors, had kept the flame of Judaism alive, secretly in their hearts throughout the generations.

Many of us in the group had waited for this moment, not quite knowing what to expect so much has been written and aired about this unique community high in the Serra da Estrela (mountain of stars). The lovely and deceptively small-looking synagogue (from the outside) overlooks a beautiful valley and as dusk falls we enter to join the locals at the Maariv service, well-led by a young Belmonte man, perfectly versed in Hebrew.

Our scheduled dinner with the community was held in the community hall downstairs in the same building as the synagogue. A beautiful large flag of Israel welcomed us and we joined the people we felt we already knew from the many articles and books written about them. What a dinner!

Rabbi Leo Abrami who we were fortunate in having as part of our group, made Ha’motzi before our meal and an evening of getting to know one another began. We did this by introducing ourselves individually and explaining our interest and connection to Jewish Portugal. We received a warm welcome and then it was their turn to introduce themselves to us, sharing their dreams and thoughts for the future.

We talked, we laughed, we embraced, we sang “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem,” hugging and singing, truly amongst family. For me personally it was coming home. For those who shared this dream, it was almost too much to bear. A number in our group met up with cousins in the Belmonte community. I was told by one member that I was a family member — she recognized my name and whether this is fact or not we bonded as if we were sisters! Singing, clapping, crying, we sang, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold) and by that time I could not contain myself any longer, tears rolling down my face. We ended with “Am Yisrael Chai” and in their eyes, I saw the reflection of my own feelings — tears of happiness and joy, shared by those of us who share so much more than can ever be expressed in words.

Sitting on the bus for the short trip back to our hotel, I felt reassured about the transition of the Belmonte Community. Yes, they need our help, our unconditional love and ongoing support, they need computers, they need a Hebrew/religious teacher, but they are on their way to a better future. We need to do our share in ensuring a Jewish future with nurturing, acceptance and love. In spite of the years of turmoil, shame, hiding, fear and deceit, they were once again in the fold of Jewish-life. May they and their future be blessed. Indeed, Am Yisrael Chai, rang in my ears what an apt way of ending a glorious day!

“What a special joy it has been for me to share the recovery of my Jewish neshama. […] I can really say that I am at home.”

There are many wonderful moments I cherish: Ernest Lopes Cardozo meeting his cousins, my meeting cousins? (which will need confirming) in Belmonte, the opportunity of sanctifying1 our old houses of prayer, having Rabbi Abrami lead us in prayer and song and say Kaddish at the three main Inquisition centers, meeting our people who are identifying as Jews in Portugal after we had believed that secret Judaism had completely died out two generations ago. The Jewish neshama (soul) is alive and burning bright once again, a miracle in itself.

One of our group mentioned that what they found exceptional was the genuine feeling of friendship and love among us, a group of intelligent and strong individuals who came together like a true family!

I felt that the tour given us by Jose Madeira da Costa and his gracious mother Teresa Pereira (the author) was a personal and amazing tour of the Jewish Quarters of Porto. I truly felt I was walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. Having Judith Cohen with us throughout was another special treat. Sharing her knowledge along the way, which culminated in her concert, was worth schlepping across the ocean for. Being able to honor the memory of our righteous Gentile Aristides de Sousa Mendes by planting a tree in his name was another special event. Hopefully we will continue to remember him, his wife and the whole family, who were so adversely affected by their good deeds. Having Rudo Mathivha join us was one of the best ideas. It was a wonderful way for her to fully understand that we, the Anousim and the Lemba, are facing similar problems in returning to normative Judaism. She is a wonderful and vibrant companion and inspired all with her account of the Lemba story.

The most precious part of the whole experience was the closeness and caring that I felt from every member of our group. “We were a unique and special fellowship of seekers on a divine pilgrimage, as well as accomplished individuals adding a meaningful educational/spiritual experience to our lives”2. I can’t explain with exact words the emotion that goes through the heart when one of us met, after centuries, with the soul, “the family that after three centuries were floating, apart, and in front of our very own eyes, embraced. That was a moment of tears of joy, of sadness, of glorious victory over evil. It was the song of survival. Right there in front of our eyes, the sweet song of freedom.”3

The contacts I made with many of our Bnei Anousim were worth the conference. Knowing that Portuguese Judaism has not died out with my grandmothers’ generation, but that there is a new awareness. It will need more visits and brainstorming to try and help the hundreds of Bnei Anousim still in hiding in Portugal today.

My fellow-travelers generously shared their comments and impressions from the trip:

  • For a mere Litvak, and a non-spiritual person, the intoning of the “El Malei Rachamim” and the Kaddish in the square outside the Inquisitors house was very moving, 500 years of memorial. (Saul Issroff)
  • What a special joy it has been for me to share the recovery of my Jewish neshama. For years, I have felt incomplete and puzzled by something missing in my life. Now that I have converted to Judaism and made this pilgrimage back to Portugal, the home of my ancestors, it has all become clear. This trip has erased all doubts. For the first time, I can really say that I am at home. My journey of reclaiming my Jewish heritage, my real identity, is finished. That journey has taken more than 500 years. (Steve L. Gomes)
  • It was a wonderful feeling to walk the walk of our ancestors, to pray in their honor with Rabbi Abrami, in the tongue of Israel, right in the sites where the Autos da Fe took place and so many died, burnt in many cases with green wood for further suffering, because they did not desist from practicing Judaism. To learn so much about their history, suffering and strength. They were real heroes, our ancestors, the New Christians, Marranos, Conversos, Anousim, whatever everyone wants to call them, they were Sephardi. (MVS)
  • The tour made something change, as your friendliness began something with the reestablishment of relations of the Portuguese people with Jewish presence. (Jose Madeira da Costa)