Jack White, February 2008

The return to Judaism of Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity 500 years ago represents one of the most incredible stories in Jewish history.

Spain, March 31st 1492.  Jews were given two choices, stay and convert to Catholicism or leave by July 31st only taking property not in gold, silver, jewels, or coined money so losing nearly everything and going to an unknown destination. The date by which they had to leave was also Tisha b’Av, the date we commemorate the destruction of the Temple. This edict resulted in 230,000 Jews being expelled from Spain, of these 50,000 were baptized to remain in Spain but some would be secret Jews while 180,000 sacrificed nearly everything and go to an unknown destination.

So, why did this happen?  Dimont in ‘Jews, God and History’ compares Christian feudal life to a vast prison.  Inside were three estates governed by strict rules - the serfs (95% of the population), priests and nobility.  Movement between these estates was virtually impossible.  The serfs were limited in what they could do, the priests were excluded from work and the nobles did not want to work,

During the feudal system the Jews were largely ignored by the Church as it faced a dilemma

·      Ignoring the Jews might be an admission that Jesus was not universally divine

·        On the other hand if the Jews were exterminated, as had others such as the Cathars, the Church could never claim that the Jews had acknowledged Jesus' divinity

Result - Jews were excluded from the feudal system to prevent them infecting believers with doubt. 

Then, three things occurred which changed everything

The first was the First Crusade in 1096 which extended the knightly prerogative of dying for honour to the common man.  To join the Crusade serfs were promised freedom, criminals pardon and sinners granted absolution. 

The second was usury. In 1123, the Jews were given a new function by the bishops of the Church when they decided Christians were not allowed to lend each other money with interest.  They knew banking was needed for economic development and interest charged on loans, otherwise there is no growth and your economy stagnates. So, someone had to lend money and that someone, the bishops decided would be the Jews.  So the Jews, were given the role of servants to the Christians with the degrading task of lending money — called usury  Often, money-lenders had to be included for Jews to be allowed to settle in European cities

The Jews became indispensable as they were the only ones allowed to lend and explains why they were granted charters of freedom and invited to stay by the nobles. However, lending money was precarious as it often created animosity. After all, who likes to pay back loans?  So a local nobleman or bishop who decided not to pay their debt would accuse the Jew of doing something terrible — such as killing a Christian baby. That way he could renege on his loans, confiscate Jewish property and then expel or even kill the Jews.

The third was the Black Death which in the 14th Century is estimated to have killed about half the population of Europe - about 25,000,000 people. There had to be a cause, Jews often being convenient scapegoats

The Catholic Church saw its objective as eliminating heresy - that is any Christian religious belief that didn't agree with established Church dogma.  The Pope saw the major threat to his power from sects challenging church doctrine and so their power and introduced a new weapon against heresy - the Inquisition.  Its purpose was not to eliminate Judaism.  Investigations, often by torture, through ecclesiastical tribunals controlled by Dominican monks, were to obtain admission of guilt and the names of other possibly supposed heretics.  Punishments ranged from being forced to visit churches to burning at the stake.  Burning and other penalties were carried out by the secular arm on their behalf.

This atmosphere was reinforced with the concept of racial purity which was expressed in law in 1449[1]  after riots in Toledo led to the First Statute of Purity of Blood and led to converts being banned from many official positions and many Old Christian becoming more influential.

Torquemada was a pious Dominican monk and confessor to Princess Isabella, the heiress of Castile (her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon leading to Spanish unification was arranged by a Jew called Abraham Senior). She was crowned in 1473 and Torquemada became Spain's Inquisitor General a decade later.  In his fifteen years at its head it grew from a single tribunal in Seville to a network of two dozen 'Holy Offices, elevating the auto da fé, the "act of faith," the rite of purification by burning alive, into a horrifying and fascinating spectacle. Further, to guard against the spread of heresy, Torquemada promoted the burning of non-Catholic literature—especially the Talmud

In 1492 he persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella to expel the Jews on the charge that they were proselytizing among their former co-religionists and previous conversion attempts had failed. Jews who stayed and were baptized were often Christians on the surface remained Jewish in secret.

Phillipa Gregory in a brilliant book entitled ‘The Queens Fool’ based on a Jewish family who fled to England from Portugal in the 16th century summarises the psychological climate of fear created by the Inquisition in saying said that there was no one more Christian than a Jew wishing to remain invisible’.

To help in identifying a secret Jew the Inquisition issued guides, so the population became a secret police, which listed habits or characteristics such as the following:

·        Put before your neighbour morsels of food such as pork, rabbit and conger eels and if he refuses to eat, he is a Jew.

·        Watch with great care everything your neighbour does on Friday.  Does he put on fresh linen?  Does he light candles at least an hour before honest men do?  Does his wife clean the house that day?  If you catch him doing those thing, you have a Jew.

·        Go to your roof on Friday two hours before sundown and watch all the chimneys of the city.  Any that stops smoking suddenly as the sun sets betrays a Jew.  Run and catch his name.

·        In church does your neighbour, while pretending to be a true man rock his head back and forth and bend occasionally at the waist?  Does he recite the psalms like an honest man, then refuse at the end to repeat the Gloria Patria?  Does he attend with special reverence whenever testimony from the Old Testament is mentioned?  Does his tongue seem to gag in is mouth when he is called upon to recite the phrase "Father, Son and Holy Ghost?"  If he does any of these things, then you have caught a Jew.

Jewish rituals and commandments were practiced through elaborate deceptions.  Some families secretly kept their Jewish names for many generations re-adopting them after escaping the Inquisition...

The story is told of the scholar Tomas de Salamanca.  One day his nine year old son burst into the street shouting "My father whipped me. He fasts on Yom Kippur.  After investigations lasting seven years sixty three of his close associates were burnt alive.  Among them were seventeen nuns who said Jewish prayers in their convent, thirty monks, seven priests and two bishops.

Following negotiations the Portuguese agreed to admit expelled Spanish Jews.  A large fee was payable for permanent residence.  The remainder paid less but would only be able to stay for eight months after which ships would be provided to take them elsewhere.

In the event of the 230,000 Jews expelled from Spain 50,000 remained and where the target of the Inquisition to discover who were heretics.    Of the remaining 180,000, 20,000 died and the remaining 160,000 went to other countries as potential marranos should they be forcibly baptized.  Of these about 120,000 went to Portugal most of whom went to other countries as the opportunity occurred. 

Few ships were provided as Jews became thought of as valuable economic assets and those remaining were forcibly baptised.  . .

Those converting were called New Christians or conversos, but the derogatory term in popular use was marranos (pigs or swine) though this meaning is no longer used.  They are also called anussim (Hebrew for 'forced ones') or crypto-Jews or as in England with ‘False Jew’, ‘Christian Jew’ and ‘counterfeit Christian’.

A secret religious culture developed called "crypto-Judaism." While attending church and conducting themselves as Catholics, externally, they maintained an acute sense of their Jewish identity, reciting some Jewish prayers and practicing some Jewish observances, often at great risk of being arrested by the agents of the Holy Office or being denounced inadvertently by a friend under torture.  In Majorca, Spain, the community was converted in the 1430's and called Chuetas, from "pork lard" since they regularly kept pork lard boiling in cauldrons on their porches. They still called themselves "Israelitas" in private, and families typically gave their first born son to the Catholic priesthood as a means of gaining protection from Church persecution. As a result, many of the priests from across the Baleiric Islands are from Marrano families.

That many New Christians and their descendants openly practiced Judaism after leaving Spain is shown by the number returning to Judaism 

The Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished on March 31, 1821.  The first estimate of the number processed and executed by the Spanish Inquisition was given by Juan Antonio Llorente, the Secretary General of the Madrid Inquisition from 1789 to 1801 and published, in 1822 in Paris under the title Historia critica de la Inquisición.  According to Llorente, over the course of its history, the Inquisition processed a total of 341,021 people, of whom at least 10% (31,912) were executed. He wrote, "To calculate the number of victims of the Inquisition is the same as demonstrating, in practice, one of the most powerful and effective causes of the depopulation of Spain."

To summarise

·        The Inquisition, created to maintain the power of the Catholic, emphasized the climate of fear based on religion.

·        By 1497 forced conversion saw no Jews remaining in Spain or Portugal.

·        Fear of the Inquisition saw many converts having a ‘dual identity’

·        Expulsion of the Spanish Jews created a new worldwide diaspora as in Amsterdam (which became known as the New Jerusalem) and in Brazil where a Jewish community appeared following the Dutch conquest of 1632.

·        Jews became associated with usury

·        Customs were passed through generations without those carrying them out understanding their significance.

·        Extensive kinship and mercantile ties developed with Jewish families around the world.

There are many fascinating stories of marranos who returned to Judaism in the 500 years since the expulsion. 

For example, the New Christian Hector Nunes who graduated at Coimbra University in medicine in 1543 and fled to England to join his family, became certified by the Royal College of Physicians and elected the Censor of the College in 1562.  His other role was as a major spice trader with Portugal provided cover for his espionage activities for Queen Elizabeth’s Ministers on Spanish military and naval movements and enabled him to give advanced warning of the Armada’s departure

Antonio Homem, chancellor of Coimbra university, head priest of the cathedral in Coimbra and advisor to the pope was burned alive in Lisbon in 1624 for being a secret rabbi.  His file in the national archives occupies more than 1,000 pages.

Dona Gracia Mendes left Spain for Portugal, finally settling in Constantinople.  One of the most remarkable women in Jewish history she helped many marranos.  She organized the unique boycott of the Italian city of Ancona by the Turkish Sultan and Jewish traders following their torture and burning of Jews.  Today, the House of Dona Gracia in Tiberias is a unique hotel, cultural center and museum whose goal is to emphasize the involvement and contribution made by women to humanity and the Jewish people in particular.

Those of you here today who are Sefardim will each have his or her own family story going back to the expulsion from Spain.

I would now like to tell you about Belmonte and Captain Barros Basto and then bring you up to date with some things happening in Portugal and of some Israeli organizations who are taking part.

In 1917, Samuel Schwartz, a Galician mining engineer was in the Portuguese town of Belmonte, near the Spanish frontier, when he discovered a group who thought they were the only Jews remaining in the world.  They would not believe Schwarz was a Jew, until he recited the Shema Yisrael and they recognized the name "Adonay." 

The discovery of a synagogue foundation stone dated 1297 shows their long history.  The community succeeded in maintaining its Jewish identity by marrying mainly among themselves and adhering to the belief in a single personal Deity who would redeem his people at the end of days.

They practiced some Jewish observances such as often lighting candles on Friday night but from where they could not be seen from the outside, having their own marriage ceremony including a declaration in Portuguese which said: Abram, Isaac and Jacob I commend you to His benediction,  some mourning customs such as the burning of a light during the first seven days of mourning and observing Passover and Yom Kippur a day or two before or after its date to confuse the Inquisition.

Keeping their existence secret also affected their diet and names.  For example they made Alheira, popular heavily seasoned sausages from rabbit and chicken, but gave the impression that they ate pork.  Christian names were used to blend into the local population.

In 1997, the dedication of their synagogue was attended by Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Portugal’s President Jorge Sampaio.  Today they also have a mikveh and Jewish museum.

Tomar has an ancient 15th century Jewish synagogue and mikveh, one of the two surviving monuments of medieval Jewish heritage.  The synagogue has become a national museum and features historic remains of medieval Portugese communities.  Yom Kippur services have been held at the synagogue because of the large number of Jewish visitors.


·        Probably a majority of Portugal's population are a result of the forced baptism in the 15th/16th centuries and the compulsory intermarriage of New and Old Christians.

·        The New York Times of December 6, 1996 reported that

Five hundred years after King Manuel I forced thousands of Jews to leave or embrace Roman Catholicism, Portugal offered atonement today for the royal edict.

The solemn commemorations were the culmination of a process begun by former President Mario Soares in 1988 when he first apologized to Jews for centuries of persecution suffered by their ancestors during the Grand Inquisition.

Events included the inauguration of a synagogue in the small eastern town of Belmonte, where Jews secretly preserved their religion and traditions for centuries,

Portugal's President, Jorge Sampaio, joined Israel's Parliament Speaker, Dan Tichon, and officials of the Portuguese Government and Catholic Church for prayers today in Lisbon's synagogue.

Then, speaking before a packed Parliament, President Sampaio called the expulsion of Portugal's Jews an ''iniquitous act with deep and disastrous consequences'' for Portugal, at the time one of Europe's richest and most powerful nations. He called the action ''a renunciation of the best we were and had.''

·        According to a recent European Union survey, Portugal is the least anti-semitic country in the Union..

·        There are Marrano returnee communities in Porto, Lisbon and Belmonte and the Algarve with a permanent rabbi in Lisbon and in Porto (through Shavei Israel).

·        New Jewish translations in Portugese such as the two volume Kitzur Shulchan Aruch by the Chabad-Lubavitch publishing house and by Jairo Fridlin, the editor and publisher of Sefer, Brazil's foremost publisher of Jewish books of the first complete Hebrew bible (Tanach).

·        Portuguese kosher wine is now available

·        Many marranos we met while in Porto have been to Israel and have formally converted to Judaism.

·        A big chanukia (similar to the one in Golders Green) is lit each year in the centre of Porto

·        In January 2007 a Mikve, presented by the Abecassis family, was formally inaugurated in Porto in the presence of the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and the Israel ambassador to Portugal

·        A synagogue, mikveh and Jewish museum in Belmonte

·        Many communities around the world are now collaborating with and helping Portuguese Jewry

·        April 19, 2008, will see a ceremony sponsored by the Lisbon Council to commemorate the 2000 Jews burnt in two enormous bon fires in the 1506 Jewish massacre in Lisbon.  It will be called the MEMORIAL TO THE VICTIMS OF INTOLERANCE and include sculpture contributed by the Catholic and Jewish communities.

Two Israeli organizations concerned with emerging communities are Shavei Israel and Kulanu

Spain is seeing a revival in its Jewish heritage.  For example Jews settled in Girona (Gerona) near Barcelona in the ninth century.  It eventually became a Kabbalah centre and was the home of Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Ramban).   Till September 15 2008 it is showcasing its Jewish heritage with a special package called “The Doors of Remembrance.”  which includes a dramatized walking tour allowing entrée to private courtyards and gardens.  Recently, much of the Call de Girona has been restored under the supervision of the Centre which also houses the Jewish History Museum (Museu d'Història dels Jueus).

Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto (the 'apostle of the Marranos)

Porto in northern Portugal was the setting for one of the major Jewish dramas of the 20th century

Today there is a a majestic synagogue called Mekor Haim (“Source of Life”) which, some 70 years ago, became the focal point of an extraordinary, if brief, revival of Jewish life among thousands of the region’s anousim (Hebrew for "those who were coerced," as many Marranos prefer to be called).  This nascent movement was led by a decorated Portuguese Army officer, Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto,

Born in a village near Porto in 1887 he grew up with vague memories of his grandparents who secretly lit candles on Friday nights and other Jewish rituals.

Inacio Steinhardt, Tel Aviv correspondent for the Portuguese News Agency and co-author of a 1997 biography says that “There does not seem to be any doubt that his grandfather knew of his family’s Jewish origins… and that he transmitted this knowledge to his grandson,” …At an early age he had a tendency “to abhor certain facets” of the Catholicism he was raised with, “and to idealize a more sublime relationship with the Creator.”

One Friday evening in 1916, while fighting on the European front, he went into the tent of a Jewish French liaison officer whom he saw lighting candles.  The Frenchman explained that it was a “Jewish Sabbath tradition”. Sachar in his book Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered writes “the dim memory of his grandparents’ ritual suddenly locked into focus.”  He returned to Portugal a changed man.

Determined to undergo formal conversion to Judaism he fulfilled his goal by returning to Judaism under the rabbinate of Tetuan in Spanish Morocco.

He established a synagogue in Porto and started a weekly newspaper, HaLapid, writing under his Hebrew name of Abraham Ben Rosh.  Often dressed in military uniform he visited areas of northern Portugal to reassure frightened people that it was at last safe to once more openly practice Judaism. Two medical doctors often accompanied him to any perform circumcisions required”.

He quickly became known as the “Apostle of the Marranos”, with international recognition of his work.  Within a few years the Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto was formally dedicated, the building donated by Elie Kadoorie on land purchased by Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris and with help from Bevis Marks who took part in its establishment.  Machzorim they donated are still in use.

Recognizing the importance of education he established a yeshiva on the synagogue’s premises, which he called Rosh Pina, Hebrew for “cornerstone”. Existing for nine years, it trained some 90 students in subjects ranging from Hebrew to Jewish history and tradition.

Unfortunately the anti-semitism rampant in Europe during the 1930s also swept through Portugal.  In 1935, a local Porto priest named Tomaz Almeida set in motion events that ultimately led to Barros Basto’s dismissal from the army and the disintegration of his movement.

Anxious to stem the tide of those abandoning Catholicism to return to Judaism, Almeida brought trumped up charges against Barros Basto to the police, alleging he was a “degenerate” who engaged in homosexual acts with his students. The Porto prosecutor brought charges leading the Portuguese Army to initiate court-martial proceedings against him. After dragging on for over two years, the case was finally dropped in 1937 for lack of evidence.

But the damage was done. By the mid-1930s the thousands inspired to investigate their Jewish ancestry and heritage quickly got the message that it was not yet safe to return to Judaism.. The movement then faded away almost as quickly as it began.

In 1943, the Portuguese Ministry of Defense, citing unspecified reasons of “good and welfare”, revoked Barros Basto’s commission as an officer and dismissed him from the service, leading historians to dub him the “Portuguese Dreyfus” (after the French general staff officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongly accused and convicted of treason in 1894).

And yet for a few brief years, thousands, whose ancestors had been coerced into adopting Christianity five hundred years ago, suddenly stepped out of hiding and sought to reclaim what had been taken from them by force.

Many books published about him to highlight his significance. The latest, as far as I am aware was by Puedro Sinde in September 2007 called THE PORTUGUESE DREYFUS.