My First Encounter with Portuguese Anussim - First Part

By ©Inacio Steinhardt

Saturday, May 21, 2005

In the year of 1963, in my home town, Lisbon, in the eve of Yom Kippur, I went as usual to the "Shaare Tikva" synagogue, the only one in town.
I arrived early and went directly to my permanent seat, not far from the entrance, on the right side. I took the opportunity to read from the prayer book, Ibn Gebirol's "Keter Malhut", which is usually read after the evening prayer.
People started to gather inside, and saluted each other.
Then a gentleman whom I had never met before came and set next to me. We said hello to each other, and introduced ourselves. The gentleman was Mr. Abraham Gidekel, a lawyer from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who happened to be in Lisbon as a tourist, with his wife, and came to the synagogue for the Holiday.
He asked several questions about the congregation and inevitably was surprised when I told him that the whole community did not exceed 500 persons!
However, I knew then that several nucleus of crypto-Jews were to be found in the North of country. We, the Jews of Lisbon, did not have any acquaintance with them, but I happened to have some theoretic information about those New Christians, as they were known.
Back in 1952, when I was a young lad, I had been in Jerusalem and I met there the late rabbi Zeew Gold, who was then the head of the Golah Education Department at the Jewish Agency. Rabbi Gold was very inquisitive about the Marranos of Portugal. I didn?t know much myself about them.
I could only repeat to the rabbi a few stories that my Father, a businessman who used to travel a lot to all parts of the country, had told me about people that he had met in different circumstances in the villages in the North, and had strange reactions when told that he was a Jew.
"I have the impression" - my late Father used to say -  'that these people are Jews, as we are".
Once, he stayed over the Shabbat in a small village, in a small pension. Friday evening, on his way to the dinning room, he passed a door that was ajar and a tiny light came from inside the room. Fearing of fire, my Father opened the door to a room in the darkness, where he saw a large pot inside which an oil lamp was burning.
The owner of the pension came immediately and politely told him that this room was private and guests were not allowed in.
Instinctively my Father told her that she should not be afraid because "I am a Jew myself and my wife lights candles every Friday evening".
The woman made herself ignorant of what he meant, but gave him special treatment from there on.
Rabbi Gold heard patiently my stories and urged me that, on my return to Portugal, I should try to investigate the whereabouts of those people.
I didn't have much opportunity to do so, but in the library of the Jewish Club I found the monthly newspaper "Halapid", published by Captain Barros Bastos. I was also fortunate to find one day in an antique bookshop, a copy of Samuel Schwartz's book "Os Cristדos-Novos em Portugal no Sיculo XX", which had been out-of-print for a long time. In this book I found most of the information that I had when I met Mr. Gidekel.

While I was talking to Mr. Gidekel about this, I noticed that the door of the synagogue opened, and Antonio, the concierge, introduced two black-suited men, showing them the first seats to the right of the door, used usually by non-Jewish visitors.
Something inside me urged me to talk to the men. I told Mr. Gidekel that I had a strange feeling about them. I approached their seats, said hello and asked who they were.
"We are JEWS from Belmonte".
This was my first encounter with our brethren the Portuguese anussim.

(to be continued)



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