Paul Rose – The Bnei Anusim of Portugal – survival against the odds
My wife and I have just returned from a short break in Lisbon, where we were privileged to take part in a Jewish history tour given by the marvellous guide and art historian, Paolo Scheffer.
During the course of the four hour plus tour (which seemed to fly by in a matter of minutes thanks to Paolo’s enthusiastic and engaging delivery) it became apparent that not only were Jews involved in many of the most significant achievements of what was once the world’s greatest trading nation, but that having secretly maintained many of the traditions of Judaism over hundreds of years, the Bnei Anusim (descendants of forced converts) now face massive opposition from the orthodox Jewish movement in their attempts to return to the fold.
The following is a small sample of what we learned:
- Prior to the inquisition, Portugal had the largest Jewish community in Europe, some 250,000. As of last year there were only around 700 affiliated Jews in Portugal, although this number may be rising as Jews that are fleeing the dire situation in France and Belgium are not only going to Israel. The census of Portugal a few years ago had 5,000 self-identified Jews.
- The inquisition reached Portugal later than Spain, but was far worse in its impact as the options were to convert or die. In Spain, there was an additional option to leave.
- To this day, Paolo’s mother, who lives in a fairly remote village, still goes to the butcher every week to buy pork which she feeds to her dog immediately upon returning home. This is just one of the rituals that the crypto (secret) Jews observed over the centuries to avoid arousing the suspicion of their neighbours.
- Lisbon was the scene of a terrible massacre of Jews in 1506, when at least 3,000 were murdered in three days. The rampage continued for a further five days, but there are no reliable records of the additional number that were killed during that period. When Lisbon decided to promote itself as a city of tolerance, the local Jewish community managed to get a memorial erected to commemorate 500 years since the Inquisition. The inscription on the memorial reads “In memory of the thousands of Jews, victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism, murdered in the massacre started on this square on the 19th of April 1506.” The memorial stands just in front of the church where the massacre started and sadly, it is regularly defaced with anti-semitic graffiti, the latest of which is a communist emblem, as can be seen in the photos below. Paolo and others regularly remove the graffiti, as the local council has no interest in doing so. A wall of tolerance next to the memorial has Hebrew writing which, at the time of our visit, had been defaced with support for ISIS.
- The Sephardic Bnei Anusim in Portugal have faced a long history of discrimination from the ultra-orthodox Ashkenazim since the 19th century. Paolo himself underwent an orthodox conversion in the USA and is eligible to make aliyah, but is refused entry to the Shaaré-Tikvá Synagogue in Lisbon and is not accepted as part of a minyan. This disgraceful situation applies to hundreds of people who are desperate to rekindle their Jewish identity. For some years there was an attempt by an Americam Masorti rabbi to build a community, but this was largely unsuccessful as he was not living in the country. In the last five years, there has been a Chabab rabbi living in Lisbon and he has been having a great deal more success in tending to the Anusim who manage to find him. He gets stopped in the street regularly by people who are aware of some strange family customs that indicate a Jewish past and are keen to find out more about their heritage.
I would urge anyone visiting Lisbon to take the tour to gain a fascinating insight into both the general and Jewish history of the place. Bookings can be made at www.lisbonexplorer.com
Here is a video about Bnei Anusim: Rediscovering Ancient Roots