The Secret to Understanding the “Marranos” of Portugal

It is six in the morning and I am at the Porto airport, bleary-eyed, waiting for Rabbi Elisha Salas, who is on his way back to Israel. He has been in Portugal on business overseeing kosher olive oil production which he developed while he was the rabbi of the “Marranos” (his words) for more than three years. He wants to build a Portuguese kashrut organization to promote Portuguese products in the Jewish world.

A “Marrano,” according to Salas, is a Jew in his soul who is still afraid to assume his Jewish identity in public.

A former accountant from Chile, Salas developed an extraordinary relationship with Portuguese small businesspeople during his stay in Portugal. He says they are all “Marranos” and acknowledge their heritage. They want to work in the Jewish world. However, they and other “Marranos” are fearful of assuming their identity. It’s in the genes, he says.

During his stay in Portugal he ministered to the historic Anous community in Belmonte and became the first rabbi of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, built by captain Barros Basto in the 1930s as hundreds of synagogues were being destroyed in Europe. In Portugal, Salas did not once encounter a single act of anti-Semitism even though he constantly wore his kippa. He says the Portuguese people have respect and carinho for Jews; that is why a small group of Sephardic Jews could return from North Africa in the beginning of the 19th century and establish an enduring community in Lisbon, protected by the government even during the darkest period of Jewish history.

Salas has no problem with the term “Marrano.” He says it no longer carries the pejorative connotation of the past. He uses the term to identify a group of persons with a common past. A “Marrano,” according to Salas, is a Jew in his soul who is still afraid to assume his Jewish identity in public. It is the same problem faced by Captain Barros Basto in the 1920s and 1930s, but instead of dealing with people from the hinterland of the northern provinces such as Beira, Trás-Os-Montes and Minho, the “Marranos” of today are to be found in cities such as Porto. They are professionals and small businesspeople, writers, artists, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. It is because their parents continued the Jewish precept of education, he says.

Salas made many good friends during his stint in Portugal, all Anousim. He says it is much easier to establish communication on an individual level. “Marranos” are not suddenly going to flock to yeshivas, he says. What is necessary is the cultivation of individual relationships to establish confidence and trust so that the genetic fear is once and forever eradicated. Then, it will be possible to create a Jewish civil society in Portugal as existed 500 years ago.