16 September 2009

Portugal: The secret is out

Tracing the Tribe is getting ready for Rosh Hashanah and trying to get out new posts on interesting stories. This story on the Jewish community of Lisbon, Portugal is in that category.

The story in Haaretz focuses on crypto-Jews, forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition.
They trace their Jewish roots to the 15th and 16th centuries, to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions in which thousands of Jews were murdered and countless others were forced into exile or to convert. Many became crypto-Jews, practicing secretly. They were classified in Jewish law as Anusim, Jews who are forced to abandon their religion against their will, but continue to practice insofar as possible.

Their modern-day descendants call themselves Bnei Anusim - sons or children of the Anusim. They are also known by the derogatory Spanish term "Marranos" ("swine").
It includes information on the recent genetic study indicating that one-third of Portugal's people have Jewish ancestry, as well as the facts surrounding the Bnei Anusim phenomenon. This is challenging the mainstream Portuguese Jewish community, for Israel's Chief Rabbinate in Israel and for the Bnei Anusim themselves.
Architect Joao Santos, in his late thirties, says he found out he was Jewish a few years ago when he came upon typical Jewish candlesticks that had been passed down through his family. Others speak of deathbed confessions by grandparents, unexplained family customs or the findings of extensive genealogical research.
While he is not seeking conversion because he knows who he is, other Bnei Anousim are looking for formal recognition and conversion. Shavei Israel, in Jerusalem, is an organization working to assist these individuals and organizes conferences attended by numbers of these conversos.

The organization works with Jose Ferrao Filipe, leader of Porto's Jewish community. He is the only Bnei Anousim who heads a community formally recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

The article also details the story of Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, the "Portuguese Dreyfus." A military hero - descended from Anousim - he was falsely charged, court-martialed and expelled from the army in 1943.

Barros Basto converted to Judaism in the 1920s, established a synagogue and seminary in Porto, and visited rural areas to encourage others to rejoin public Judaism. He served as rabbi and mohel (ritual circumciser) of his small community. Because he had not been certified, the Jewish mainstream community was not happy and a smear campaign was directed at him, aided by Jews.

He died in 1961, and efforts to clear his name go on. Porto's synagogue has a small museum dedicated to Barros Basto.

Although the Porto site was built to accommodate hundreds, Filipe says they have trouble maintaining it. Jewish tourism is seen as a possible source of funding; some towns are planning projects:

- Covilha is renovating its old Jewish quarter, planning to build a Jewish museum and culture center on the ruins of an ancient community structure.

- Trancoso offers tours by Bnei Anousim guides, has completed a catalog of door panel markings demonstrating missing mezuzot, and plans to hold a Jewish festival.

Read the complete story at the link above.


  1. Anonymous5:59 PM

    Hi Schelly, My name is Fran Vita. I'm a friend of Rabbi Barbara. Recently verified my anusim roots and Bar mitvahed my son at the same time. (Oy Vey!) My Jewish/converso family is from Tropea in Calabria. Loved everything you have written about the history. It's obvious that my surname VITA was derived from the Spanish version Vidal and they went from Spain to Sicily to Calabria where they did convert. Maybe we could talk after the holidays and you could direct me further. YOu really do great work. Thank you. Fran

  2. Hi, Fran. I'm delighted to hear from you. Sorry it took so long to respond - you know what the holidays are like! Thank you so much for your kind words. Rabbi Barbara has my private email or you can always write to the ask email for the blog.
    Have any of your male relatives been Y-DNA tested at FamilyTreeDNA.com? There is a very active Sicilian DNA group that would very much like to have your family's results included.