Changing of the Guard at Porto’s Synagogue

Twenty-nine-year-old Rabbi Elizier Shai Di Martino smiles easily. He and his young family have recently arrived in Porto, Portugal, courtesy of Shavei Israel. He will work with the Bnei Anousim at the Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue, the “Cathedral of the North,” built by Captain Barros Basto during the 1930s with the financial help of the descendants of the Marrano Diaspora in New York, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Shangai.

Rabbi DiMartino must have expected to move to Portugal someday; why else would he have taught himself Portuguese years ago? Growing up in Rome, he was keenly aware that the most common surname in the Jewish community was DiPorto, i.e., “from Porto.” He practiced his Portuguese in long conversations with his good friend from Belmonte, Yosef Rodrigues, while both were studying at the Midrash Sefardi Institute in Israel.

When pressed, he describes himself as a medievalist Sephardi. He detests labels. His heroes, apart from Captain Barros Basto (he cried when he finished reading his biography), include Maimonides (Rambam) and Portuguese-born Abrabanel Gersonides, and he thinks Aristotle also had some important things to say. He is not too keen on post-modernism. However, he sees a silver lining in post modern angst; it has weakened the Church’s moral authority, thereby making it easier for descendants of forced ones to return to community-based Judaism. He has made an oath with God and he intends to bring back His flock.

Rabbi DiMartino is big on building community, but not big on big business. He is a certified shohet but is not going to get involved in commercial activities: rather he will provide his services to the community. Besides, he says, it’s a lot easier to keep kosher than most people think. He eats lots of fresh fish, vegetables, and rennet-free dairy. He asks about vegan restaurants in Porto (there are several).

He is well versed in Marrano history; his own family has New Christian roots in southern Italy from the time of the Spanish domination. He is here to set the record straight, to finish the wrestling match with the Inquisition. (After all, in what other language is Monday the second day of the week (Segunda-feira)? Why, Hebrew, of course.) He agrees with Professor Moises Espirito Santo’s thesis that Portuguese derives from Latinized ancient Hebrew (the language of the colonizing Phoenicians thousands of years ago).

Rabbi DiMartino asked to work with the Bnei Anousim in Portugal because although they may know less, they “want more.” He has started various Return classes and dreams of implementing the yeshiva program of Rosh Pina created by Barros Basto, which he says is as challenging as any in Israel. He acknowledges that he has big shoes to fill, but says he cannot afford to lose. It’s been too long.

His easygoing manner and deep conviction of community-based Judaism will go a long way to ensuring his success.

(Editor’s note: The writer, who conducts Jewish tours of Portugal, is president of Ladina, a Porto-based nonprofit society dedicated to the recovery of Sephardic-Marrano memory in Portugal [see ladina.blogspot.com]. He describes himself as a Portuguese-born former lawyer who spent most of his adult life in Canada. A returnee in Portugal, he insists, “We don’t mind the use of the term Marrano; in fact we consider it a badge of honor!”)