Honour our Portuguese Sephardic Ancestors

My father always called me by my first name, Rufina, the name of his mother, the one who had suffered so much humiliation and shame for keeping the Antepura (Yom Kippur). She kept it by disappearing for a whole day and night by going into the fields, so that she could fast, he was extremely proud of her because of her determination to maintain the religion of our ancestors against all odds. Rufina, he told me, meant Ruth, and that she came from a very ‘good’ family, meaning Jewish.

Growing up in South Africa, Rufina sounded very ‘foreign’ and so, outside my home, I was called by my second name, Bernardetti (blessed), taken from an italian source. Unhappily.

…yet, when I converted to orthodox judaism, I never mentioned our ‘family secrets,’ sticking to the ever unmentioned rule of secrecy within our closed family circle…

I only looked up the meaning of that precious name, Rufina, after my father’s death in 1982. I traced it in the Encyclopaedia Judaica and learnt that it was used between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, written in Greek, and described her to have been the ‘mother’ or ‘president’ of the synagogue in Smyrna, Turkey. Once more, I understood the very specialness and tenderness of always calling me by my inherited name.

Pain and frustration engulfs me — I was about six at the time — as I recall my father being physically abused by a couple of young thugs because he was a ‘foreigner’, a Portuguese immigrant to South Africa.(he arrived in 1936), when anti-semitism became another evil in Portugal. I wonder what would have happened had those thugs known that he was also Jewish? That incident, from so long ago, remains imprinted in my mind, shared only with my gentle and loving father. This episode was just another secret to add to the many other ‘family secrets’ buried beneath the ashes of centuries of fear and shame. Was that one of the reasons he came to South Africa, so young, with no knowledge of English, very little formal education, to start a new life free of prejudice, once more to be open and proud of his Jewish heritage? Did the enduring prejudice against crypto (secret) Jews in Portugal impel him to leave; and did his ‘foreigness’ in South Africa prevent him from reverting back to Judaism? Sadly I will never know the answer.

At that time, growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, I had often wondered why we never discussed these secret issues and practices openly. How naive I was, thinking as the young often do, to have all the answers; ready to ‘take on’ the Jewish community, the Portuguese government, in fact, the whole world, yet, when I converted to orthodox judaism, I never mentioned our ‘family secrets,’ sticking to the ever unmentioned rule of secrecy within our closed family circle. Would anyone have believed me then, as even now, a most unlikely situation very few can comprehend. Would the rabbis of the Beth Din (Jewish Judicial Council) have known about the crypto-Jewish phenomenon? I doubt it.

Today, so many years later, few are aware of the many crypto Jewish and “Marrano” studies and research conducted as more people are starting to question their past. Universities around the world are researching this most unusual situation,with whole departments devoted to the Anousim (forced converts) Crypto-Jewish and “Marrano” history, culture and practices; why it should still be a part of people’s lives 150 years after the inquisition ended. Concentrating on educating (especially the Jewish diaspora) to understand the descendants of their persecuted ancestors with sensitivity and understanding.

Researches are helping to make sense of the lost past full of shame and humiliation which continues in the present; being rejected by family and friends of the Gentile community when one chooses to return to the religion of one’s ancestors, Judaism. Returnees then have to ‘prove’ their claim to Judaism! The fear, justified or not, rests with what might happen if the ‘family secrets’ were discovered. It continues with the secrecy being a part of the religion transmitted through the ages along with the rituals and traditions that have caused such pain and complexity of identity, making it difficult for many of the descendants to acknowledge their Jewish past.

Upon my request to convert, it took a long time before I was accepted, which I believe is the norm. I was wanting to convert back to the religion of my ancestors by choice. At my first audience before the Beth Din in Cape Town, I was asked who my friends were, the names of people who knew me, and with whom I associated, among many other questions. It took another six to eight months before I was summoned back to appear before them once more. At this time I discovered that they had interviewed, singly and individually, the people whose names were on the list I had given them at the previous meeting, in order to ‘find out more about me.’

I wonder, would my Anousim heritage have been accepted and acted in my favour had they known about it? Who knew or cared of the suffering and shame experienced by my Portuguese-Jewish ancestors, those wretched souls who had no choice, were converted by force, their only choice being baptism or martyrdom. We, the Diaspora Jews were still in shock after the Nazi holocaust, so, I faced the Beth Din much like my ancestors had faced their inquisitors 500 years ago; fearful, anxious and intimidated. I remember sitting in the austere atmosphere, a young, inexperienced girl, alone, facing a long table of stern looking rabbis who fired questions at me from across the ‘divide’; never knowing from which angle or which rabbi the next question would come. I was facing my personal inquisition.

I went to a predominantly Jewish day school in Cape Town. There I met and mixed with mostly Jewish children, often going to the synagogue with them. As I grew up I dated jewish boys, with my parents blessing. It was a matter of pride in my family home where I was repeatedly told how ‘Jewish’ I looked and behaved, and when we achieved any success, it was because my sisters and I were so ‘Jewish’ (like my grandmother.) We accepted this as it was meant, as a compliment. A distinct memory from that period was that had we remained Catholic, and in the ‘old country,’ I, being the second daughter, would have become a nun, a protective scheme used by crypto-Jewish families. Were I a son, I would have had to become a priest; in that way the family secret rituals would be relatively safe, as a priest, I would then also have been the family ‘confessor.’

What I do know and have experienced most of my life, is what it feels like ‘not to belong.’

Paradoxically it was also a way to gain access to Hebrew books and studies. Going through the records of the Auto-da-Fe (Act of Faith) it explains why so many priests, monks and nuns were amongst the exposed judaizers! The marrying of first cousins was very common, another way of keeping the secret rituals and religion safe and within the family. We were often described as coming from a ‘good’ (Jewish ) family, the ‘not so good’ being of mixed affiliations, and frowned on. I grew up on the Old Testament, a firm favourite in our home, and the love instilled in us for G--d, Israel and the Jewish diaspora has a far deeper meaning now that I know more of the truth surrounding the mystery of my lost heritage. At the time, my sisters and I accepted it as the norm for a ‘Christian’ home, because although I was baptised in the Catholic Church, my parents became Protestants when I was 4 or 5 years old. Another fairly common practice amongst crypto-Jews on leaving Portugal, at that time.

Today, older and wiser, I am accepted as a Jewess, having taken many years after my conversion to Orthodox Judaism, and yet often, 30 years later, I am still referred to as a ‘convert.’ I realise that many people will never fully comprehend, not only my lost heritage and culture, but the phenomenon of the many anousim around the world. Although forced to convert they managed at the risk of death to keep some vestiges of Judaism alive over the centuries. Living in the oldest country of Western Europe, and after hiding for 500 years they came to believe they were the only Jews left in the world, having lived in the remotest areas, seeking refuge and anonymity in little villages throughout Portugal and the Islands (Madeira and the Azores).

For me, it is a miracle that Portuguese Judaism survived at all, and believe the time has come to honour and acknowledge our ancestors who lived under such adversity. What I do know and have experienced most of my life, is what it feels like ‘not to belong.’ Born in South Africa, I was neither African, English, Afrikaans, Jewish, nor Portuguese. Having known the rejection, shame and humiliation that continues with the descendants of those brave souls that have gone before. I want to make a difference by breaking that cycle, by talking about the ‘secrets’ and causing an awareness among the Portuguese and Jewish communities.

Our Portuguese Jewish ancestors, unlike anywhere else in the world, had no choice. Unlike Spain, where many converted or were forced to leave, the Portuguese Jews were not allowed to leave when Portugal closed the exit doors in 1497, the ones who managed to escape during those 300 turbulent years of the Inquisition, were the wealthy who paid the bribes for permission and documents needed to leave Portugal. They left as Conversos or ‘new-Christians,’ and once safely settled where they were free to practice their religion, did so by reverting back to Judaism. The rest of the Anousim left behind with no means of escape, continued living lives of fear, suffering the gruesome existance of deceit, shame and death.

I am extremely proud to be a descendant of a very special and tenacious people who managed against all odds to keep their religion alive. The very obvious ‘religious’ names found among the Portuguese were used in years gone by to prove their genuineness as ‘super’ Catholics, a testimony to the stressful conditions they endured. Names like: de Jesus (of Jesus), Espirito Santo (Holy Spirit), a Santa Maria (of Saint Mary) amongst many others. It is believed the Penitente sect (a self-flagellating Catholic sect) of being from a similar source: the need to prove their ‘super’ Christianity.

Until the Jewish Diaspora accepts and understands this part of our history, when Portugal tried to become Judenrein, a chilling forecast of what was to come with Nazi Germany; to understand the centuries of suffering of the many Portuguese Jewish martyrs as another chapter of Jewish history, not to be ignored but accepted as part of our tragic past, until this time the shame and humiliation will remain.

Until the Portuguese Gentiles accept our combined and forever intertwined history with pride; this shared history will continue to be a ‘blot’ on the ‘purity’ of their genealogy and shameful for many. The Portuguese are mostly Roman Catholic, but are estimated to be 80% of Jewish admixture. We, the Sephardic Jews, and the Portuguese Catholics, share the same forefathers, the noble house of Israel, King David, King Solomon… how proud our Gentile family of Portugal should be of such history and lineage. Together, let us accept our heritage with pride — for we are one.

rufina @ netactive.co.za Mon Sep 29 09:17:42 1997

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