Cryptic, These Crypto Jews

In this fascinating book about Portugal's New Christians, Samuel Schwarz describes just how hard it was to gain their trust.

"Hanotzrim Hakhadashim Beportugal Be'meah Ha'esrim" ("New Christians in Portugal in the 20th Century") by Samuel Schwarz, translated from Portuguese and annotated by Claude B. Stuczynski, Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History & Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 287 pages.

It has taken 80 years for a Hebrew translation to come out of Samuel Schwarz's book on the Cristaos Novos - "New Christians", published in Portugal in 1925 - although it deals with one of the most traumatic and unforgettable chapters in Jewish history.

It is a story whose general lines are familiar to the Israeli public: the discovery in Portugal of the descendants of the anusim, the crypto Jews of Iberia, who have secretly practiced Jewish customs, kept Jewish holidays and continued to recite special prayers until today. They live in various villages and towns in Portugal, mainly in the northeast of the country, in Beiras and Tras-os-Montes, but can also be found in Porto and Coimbra in western Portugal.

This book, with a detailed, in-depth introduction by Dr. Claude B. Stuczynski, an expert in Portuguese Jewry, is a fascinating read, but it also strikes an emotional chord. Appended to the text is a collection of prayers translated into Hebrew (a collaborative effort of the poet Shulamit Halevy and editor Ruth Toeg), in addition to an extensive bibliography.

Samuel Schwarz, born in Poland in 1880, received religious instruction at a traditional "heder" as a child, but went on to study road and bridge engineering in Paris. At the age of 24, with a degree in mining engineering, he worked for oil refineries in Baku, Azerbaijan, and in coal mines in Poland, England and Spain. At 34, he married the daughter of a Zionist banker, Shmuel Barabash of Odessa. In the wake of World War I, they fled Russia, finally settling in Lisbon, Portugal. Working at a tin mine in east Portugal, Schwarz discovered the New Christians, as the converted Jews of Portugal and its colonies (Brazil, Goa and Capo Verde) were called.

When the kings of Castilla decided to "cleanse" their country of Jews, members of the Jewish community were given the choice of converting to Christianity or expulsion. The majority left, but a few converted. Some of the Jews crossed the border into Portugal. Others went to Morocco, France and Italy. Many chose to settle in the Ottoman Empire. Scarcely five years had passed before the scenario repeated itself in Portugal, when the king sought the hand of a member of the Castillian royal family. But in this case, the Jews were not allowed to leave. The entire Jewish population was forcibly baptized. A handful managed to escape.

Burned at the stakeIf it is true that close to 20 percent of the population of Portugal was Jewish at the end of the 15th century, as the scholars claim, one gets an idea of how many of today's Portuguese citizens have Jewish roots. Over the years, they assimilated in Christian society, except for small pockets of Jews who continued to practice their religion in secret. Of those who clung to Judaism, many were tried by the Inquisition in the 16th and 17th centuries. Such trials were even held in Brazil. The accused were burned at the stake or imprisoned in monasteries for the rest of their lives.

Notwithstanding all the persecution, one still finds small groups who have preserved Jewish customs and recite Jewish prayers, albeit in Portuguese. Three holidays are observed: Yom Kippur, Passover and the Fast of Esther. In addition, they keep the Sabbath and pray three times a day. They have special burial customs and do not eat pork on the Sabbath or holidays. They marry only within the community.

As Claude Stuczynski observes, quite logically, the New Christian phenomenon was probably more of a response to prejudice than a "positive, self-motivated embrace of Jewish identity." The New Christians were bitterly scorned and hated in Portugal. A pogrom in Lisbon in the 16th century left more than 2,000 of them dead. Stuczynski writes that until the early 20th century there were churches in the northern provinces where New Christians were forced to sit behind partitions.

"The Awakening," a wonderful novel by Spanish author Ana Maria Matute published in Hebrew translation many years ago, challenges Stuczynski's conclusion. In her account of growing up in Majorca in the 20th century, Matute writes about the despised "chuetas"; descendants of the local crypto Jews; who were actually devout Catholics but were still treated with disdain and shunted to the margins of society.

Samuel Schwarz writes about the New Christians of Belmonte and how hard it was to gain their trust. He discovered that the women were the ones who safeguarded these traditions and knew the prayers by heart. At communal gatherings, they served as cantors and ran the services. "These poor women did not know Hebrew and were not even aware it existed," he says, "so they continued to be suspicious of me. This went on until one evening, as we tried yet again to convince the New Christians that we were members of the Jewish people, an old woman asked us to recite at least one prayer in 'the Jewish language you say is spoken by the Jews.'"

Schwarz chose the Shma prayer "Hear O Israel". Each time he uttered the word "adonay" ("the Lord") the women covered their eyes with their hands. "When we finished," he writes, "the old woman turned to those around her and announced in a tone of great authority: 'The man is a Jew. He said adonay!'"

Living in the darkSchwarz, it bears pointing out, was not the first person to "discover" the New Christians, but his encounter in Belmonte inspired him to research the phenomenon, and the publication of his book triggered a wave of writing on the subject, some of it anti-Semitic in tone. Schwarz breaks new ground with his findings about the wide dispersion of New Christian communities and the collection of prayers he appends to the book.

One of these prayers is hauntingly similar to the "Yigdal Elhohim Hai" ("Exalted is the Living God") hymn recited in the morning service; a lyrical rendition of Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles of Faith." It is called the "Ani Ma'amin" ("I Believe") prayer and appears in the original Portuguese, followed by a Hebrew translation, as are all the prayers in the book. The Portuguese text is not an exact translation of the Hebrew hymn, which is believed to have been written in Italy in the 14th century by Emmanuel Haromi, but it is very close.

One cannot help but wonder how this hymn survived. The mind boggles to think that Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles of Faith," composed in the 12th century and chanted toward the end of the morning service on weekdays, became part of a Portuguese prayer recited by crypto Jews who did not even know the Hebrew language existed and refused to talk to Schwarz because they believed that secrecy was integral to their religion. Incredibly, Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles," or the hymn based on it, has survived in Portuguese for 500 years; and they never even heard of Maimonides. Which shows how cultural values can live in dark and unknown corners for hundreds of years until one day they burst forth into the light, virtually unchanged, despite a change of language.