Who is a Portuguese Jew?

By ©Inacio Steinhardt

Saturday, May 21, 2005


I have been interested in the history of the Jews in Portugal since my childhood and particularly in the crypto-Jews of Portugal since the 1950s;"

But then this statement would raise another question: "What KIND of Portuguese Jew am I? Who is really A PORTUGUESE JEW?"

I was born in Portugal.

I have always been a proud Jew and a patriotic Portuguese without prejudice of being also a committed Zionist and a patriotic Israeli. My parents where Ashkenazis, immigrants from East Europe. I am a Portuguese of first generation.

What would Lopes Cardozo of New York, or Vaz Dias of Haifa--or so many others in the Old and New World who descend from the ancient, vigorous Jewish population of Portugal that came to such an abrupt end with the forced conversion of 1497--say to this?

They would probably say that a "tedesco" - the name they apply to Ashkenazi Jews - is not entitled to the honourous title of Portuguese Jew. And they would probably be right.

. And for that matter, Rufina from South Africa, and Helio Cordeiro from Sao Paulo, they see themselves the remnants of the crypto-Jews, that defied the Inquisitions and maintained their Jewish traditions in the secret of their homes for more than 500 years. Aren't they more Portuguese Jews than me?

And my friends in the villages of the Northeast of Portugal, Francisco Gaspar in Rebordelo, Moises Abrantes in Fundao, Alipio Diogo Henriques in Belmonte, Olivia Rodrigues from Vilarinho dos Galegos, to mention just a few who are pointed by their neighbors as "judeus".

And the other Lopes Cardoso's, and Almeida Santos, and Graca Moura, and the Navarro's and the Espirito Santo's, well-known names of the Portuguese society, to whom the taunt of "judeu" is applied from time to time as a stigma by their detractors. Aren't they Portuguese Jews?

Who else? According to some estimations, based in reliable sources, the Jewish population of Portugal in 1497, amounted to about 200,000 persons, in a total of 1,000,000 Portuguese. One of each 5 Portuguese was a Jew. The number of those who escaped the forced conversion was about 5,000.

No wonder then the reaction of my ancient schoolmates, whom I met for dinner, on my first visit to Portugal after making aliah. When I told them that I was on a research trip to the "marrano belt" in the North, almost every one of them invited me to start in his home...

Without reaching any conclusion on the degree of "Portugueseness" of my Jewish identity, the fact that I was born in such a small community of mainstream Jews - what we used to call "golah betoh golah," a "Diaspora inside the Diaspora"- contributed largely for the challenge I found in learning more about the hidden reality of the Portuguese Judaism, something that we didn't learn in our normal school curriculum.

On the way the Divine Providence found to introduce me to the first crypto-Jews, click here for«My First Encounter»



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