Portugal's Secret Jews Come Out of Hiding

Centuries after the country's Jews were expelled or forcibly converted to Christianity, thousands of Portuguese Bnei Anusim proudly claim Jewish heritage.

Cnaan Liphshiz
Cnaan Liphshiz

A bearded man in a red velvet skullcap, chain-smoking on Shabbat at a garden cafe while preaching to friends about the Torah, would be an odd sight anywhere. And he would particularly stand out in Lisbon, with its small Jewish community.

The man, Joao Santos, a regular at Cafe Principe Real, could easily be written off as another colorful urban character. But in today's Portugal his eccentricity is not out of context. It is part of a national trend: The turning toward Judaism of thousands of Portuguese who believe they are descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity hundreds of years ago.

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").

Recent genetic studies show that some 30 percent of Portugal's population has Jewish blood. Around 7,000 Portuguese identified themselves as Jewish in a 2006 national survey, although only 1,000 have formal affiliation. As more Portuguese discover their Jewish roots, leading Bnei Anusim figures are taking up prominent positions in Portugal's Jewish community.

The reemergence of the Bnei Anusim phenomenon has created challenges for Portugal's mainstream Jewish community, for the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and for the Bnei Anusim themselves - many of whom seem to share a deep sense of exclusion and frustration alongside a profound desire to belong to the rest of the Jewish people. This summer, hundreds of Bnei Anusim convened in Barcelona for a conference focusing on Israel advocacy.

Santos, an architect 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.

In the elevator of his parents' apartment building, Santos removes his skullcap and conceals the Star of David he usually wears around his neck. "We don't speak much about religion," explains Santos, before beginning his weekend visit. He says he has no interest in converting to Judaism. "Why should I?" he asks. "I'm already Jewish."

Other Bnei Anusim, however, seek formal recognition as Jews, including conversion. They are aided by Shavei Israel (formerly Amishav), a Jerusalem-based organization that seeks to strengthen the connection between the Jewish people and "lost Jews" from around the world. The group, which maintains a permanent emissary in Portugal, has assisted dozens of Bnei Anusim converts in the country.

One of Shavei Israel's partners in Portugal is Jose Ferrao Filipe, the leader of the Jewish community in Porto, in the north of the country. In November he became the only member of the Bnei Anusim to head a Jewish community that is formally recognized by Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

Asked about resistance from the Catholic Church to conversion efforts in this deeply Catholic country, Filipe and Shavei Israel emissary Rabbi Daniel Litvak say they have not encountered any hostility. But this was not always the case. Opposition to the Bnei Anusim phenomenon goes back to one of its very first proponents, involving the sad story of the man dubbed "the Portuguese Dreyfus" - Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, a military hero who in 1943 was expelled from the army on false charges.

In the 1920s Barros Basto, a descendant of Anusim, converted to Judaism and helped establish a synagogue and seminary in Porto. He toured rural areas encouraging others to rejoin the Jewish people.

Before long he headed a community of several dozen, and acted as rabbi and mohel (ritual circumciser), although he had never been certified as such. That created enemies for him within the Jewish community. Under the dictator Antonio Salazar, the right-wing Catholic Action movement began a smear campaign against Barros Basto, aided by members of the Jewish community. His seminary was closed down and he was court-martialed on charges of immorality.

The charges stemmed from the fact that while acting as a mohel, Barros Basto would suck the blood from the circumcision wound to clean it, as is customary in some streams of Judaism. He died in 1961, half-blind and "broken," by some accounts. Efforts to clear his name continue, and Porto's modern synagogue has a small museum in his honor that contains his desk, typewriter and part of his library.

Little remains of Barros Basto's original community, but Porto's Jewish community today has a few dozen people who identify themselves as Bnei Anusim. The nucleus for this community was formed a few years ago, when Filipe and 16 other Bnei Anusim underwent a mass conversion that was approved by Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

The long, hard path

"The conversion process was very long and hard," Filipe says. "It was a battle we fought to prove we are part of the Jewish people," Filipe explains while standing in the hall of Porto's modern-style synagogue, which his community built and dedicated in 2005.

Paulo Vitorino, another descendant of Anusim from Lisbon and a former activist in the Socialist Party, says he understands the desire to receive the Chief Rabbinate's approval, but nonetheless resents the reality that demands it. "We don't need to become Jewish, we are and have always been Jewish," he says. Vitorino, his wife and five children underwent Orthodox conversion in 2004, with help from Shavei Israel. The Chief Rabbinate has not yet recognized the 2004 conversion, which was approved by Lisbon's chief rabbi.

Litvak, who in addition to being an emissary for Shavei Israel serves as Porto's rabbi, teaches Torah lessons three times a week to Bnei Anusim groups. He takes a more cautious view. "There is no way of knowing for sure who is really Jewish here," he says. "This is why when a Ben Anusim seeks conversion he or she must undergo the same scrutiny as other converts."

Litvak recalls a few cases of people who presented themselves as Bnei Anusim and asked for his help in converting but who later turned out to be Christian missionaries. "They wanted to use our organization to move to Israel and try to proselytize for Jesus," he says.

Vitorino, 42, says that even after converting some Bnei Anusim are not treated as equals by Portugal's Jewish community or by Israeli religious authorities. "I can't pray in my own city because the Jewish community leaders won't let me in," he says.

Prof. Esther Mucznik, vice president of the Lisbon Jewish community, confirms that Vitorino is persona non grata at the synagogue, owing to "some of his activities," which she says she cannot discuss. As a rule, she says, the community does not differentiate between Bnei Anusim converts and other Jews.

"We are a very liberal community and anyone who is Jewish is welcome to join us," says Mucznik, a scholar of Jewish studies, during an interview held at Lisbon's main synagogue, the Sephardi Sha'arei Tikva. It is a relatively small yet opulent building, with elaborate antique decorations and old wooden furniture that contrast with a modern milk-glass ceiling. "Some of our members are Bnei Anusim, others are converts. Some of us are Ashkenazi, others are Sephardi. There is no 'us' and 'them' here," she explains.

Filipe describes the relationship between his Bnei Anusim community and the Lisbon community as "cordial," but says there have been "some unfortunate cases of exclusion." He also notes that Lisbon has much more in the way of financial resources.

As proof he points to the walls of the library, adjacent to the museum room honoring Captain Barros Basto. The walls are blue and green with moss due to a leaky roof the community cannot afford to fix. "We built this synagogue to accommodate hundreds, as a sign of hope, but we have trouble maintaining it," Filipe says.

Jewish tourism might provide some funds, and some Portuguese towns are preparing to tap into that potential resource. The northeastern Portugal city of Covilha, for example, is renovating its old Jewish quarter. City officials in Covilha, which has no Jewish community today, plan to create a tourist route through the historic Jewish district and to build a stylish Jewish museum and culture center on the ruins of one of the community's ancient structures.

Other towns offer guided tours of their old Jewish quarters. In nearby Trancoso, most of the guides are Bnei Anusim. They show visitors special markings that crypto-Jews incised on stone walls after the Portuguese Inquisition. Remarkably well-preserved, they include Hebrew letters that, when read inversely, spell: "Horror," or flattened door frame panels marking the absence of a mezuzah. The city has recently completed a project to catalog every such marking. It is also planning to hold a Jewish festival soon, which will be the first Bnei Anusim cultural event in Portugal, one the city hopes will become annual.

Jewish revival

Asked about the Hebrew letters that baptized Jews dared to engrave above their doors during the Inquisition, Mucznik says: "Crypto-Judaism is a Portuguese phenomenon, not a Spanish one. In Spain the expulsion was simpler, clearer. Either you convert, or you go away. In Portugal it was more complex than that because in fact the Portuguese didn't want the Jews to leave. Though ruthless by any standard, the Portuguese Inquisition was less definite than the Spanish one." She adds, "Some towns were so heavily Jewish that the people there depended on the Jews. And so they had to show some flexibility."

Michael Freund, the founder of Shavei Israel, gives three reasons when asked about the roots of the Bnei Anusim revival. The first is that both Spain and Portugal only recently opened up to the world following the fall of their respective dictators, Franco and Salazar. Freund, who was deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office during the first term of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adds that the Internet also plays a role: "In the past, a person wanting to reconnect to his Jewish roots or to study the subject had to make a public act by going to the library or the bookshop. The Internet changed all that."

Freund also points to a general European desire to transcend political boundaries and create a broader entity. "Human beings are tribal by nature. We all seek a sense of identity. It could just be that, ironically, the attempt to get beyond narrow identities is driving more individuals to seek out an identity to belong to."

Freund says that the Bnei Anusim's link to Judaism translates into support for Israel, noting that during the recent war in the Gaza Strip, members of the community took part in a pro-Israel demonstration.

Others say the Bnei Anusim involvement in Israel advocacy is marginal and that their interest in Judaism seldom extends to Zionism.

"The demonstration during the Gaza war was organized by Christian evangelicals, not Bnei Anusim," says one Israeli who works in Portugal and is involved with Israel advocacy. "Generally speaking, the Anusim movement is not Zionist in nature but it does create a very positive background for Jews and Israel," the source adds, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Shavei Israel and the source also disagree on the potential for immigration to Israel by converted Bnei Anusim. Freund and Litvak put the number on thousands, while the anonymous source says that "realistically speaking," the movement will not result in significant numbers of immigrants.

"I realize that Bnei Anusim are a very appealing subject for press coverage because it's an interesting phenomenon," says the Israeli source, who has been in Portugal for two and a half years. "But in truth, it's a very marginal affair that concerns about two percent of the Portuguese population, and that's probably how it's going to stay."



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid Is the Most Israeli of All

An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court Leaves a Barely United States

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

A Palestinian flag is taken down from a building by Israeli authorities after being put up by an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, in Ramat Gan, Israel earlier this month

Israel-Palestine Confederation: A Response to Eric Yoffie