Portuguese Catholics Re-embrace Their Jewish Roots

The Inquisition extinguished much of the country’s Jewish population. But now some Catholics with Jewish origins are taking pride in their heritage, even though they have no intention of converting.

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The Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal.
The Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal. There are 70 members of the local Jewish community today.Credit: Rachel Delia Benaim

PORTO, Portugal - On a cloudy Sunday morning, Francisco Lima, a 20-year-old university student, trekked into Porto’s misty central square to embark on a tour based on the complicated religious history of his family and others like it, which he conducts regularly for interested visitors.

Walking through the streets of what was once the Jewish Quarter of the northern Portuguese city, before the Inquisition was formally introduced there in 1536, Lima pointed out obscure Hebrew plaques on the colorfully tiled buildings that are typical of local architecture, and repeated the rumor of the recent discovery of a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) that has not yet been widely publicized.

Some of the buildings with a Jewish past are obscure and unexpected, like the So Bento da Vitória Convent, an ornate structure which now serves as an events hall but was, according to Lima, who is well versed in local Jewish history, “named for the Catholic victory over the Jews in the area.”

Lima’s personal life story shares a similar transition: While he is descended from Jews on his great-great grandmother’s side, he now identifies as a Catholic, as do most of his fellow countrymen.

The city's hidden Jewish artifacts hint at a paradox, not just in the buildings themselves but among the people. There is immense pride in the local Jewish heritage, but the memory of the brutal history that erased it centuries ago still lingers, with plaques and tours commemorating those events. On a deeper level, some locals, like Lima, are becoming aware of their Jewish roots but remain happily Catholic, even as Jewish life around them is gradually being revitalized.

“There are a lot of Jewish things that have been found, and also some that haven’t yet been found,” Lima explained, walking down one of the city’s sloping cobblestone streets.

Lima’s great-grandfather, Francisco Bráz Rodrigues, was one of the founders of Porto’s modern Jewish community, established in 1923. He grew up with a vague knowledge of his Jewish roots: Although his father was Catholic, his mother was a crypto-Jew – a reference to persons who were forced to convert during the Inquisition but secretly continued to practiced Jewish rituals. Her parents died when she was young, however, and she was sent to live in a convent.

“She was raised as Christian, but she remembered the prayer chants, the Jewish ones, from when she was young and still recited them,” Lima said.

Captain Arthur Carlos Barros Basto, a World War I veteran and crypto-Jew also known as the "Portuguese Dreyfus" – for being discharged from the army because of anti-Semitism – converted to Judaism in Morocco, and returned to Porto to establish a Jewish community there. He facilitated Jewish conversions, including that of Lima's great-grandfather Rodrigues.

Rodrigues was at one point featured on the cover of an issue of Halapid, a local Hebrew language journal whose back issues are now displayed in the modest Porto Jewish Museum. The museum is located on the second floor of the Mekor Haim synagogue, the largest synagogue on the Iberian Peninsula. Rodrigues was also apparently instrumental in efforts by the Porto community to save other Jews during the Holocaust, according to his grandson, Gonçalo Quelhas Lima, Francisco’s father.

While Quelhas Lima said his grandfather never told him what he had done during World War II, a professor at Porto University who is an expert in that era of Portuguese history has said that Rodrigues was likely one of a few locals who indeed saved refugees: “He would drive to the Spanish border at night and pick them up and bring them back to Portugal, [where officials] would let them pass through safely.”

The facade of the Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto. The local community is hoping for an influx of Jews thanks to new citizenship legislation.Credit: Rachel Delia Benaim

Reviving the heritage

Despite this deep and relatively recent connection with their roots, the Limas do not consider themselves part of Porto's existing Jewish community, and don’t have a strong relationship with it either. They don’t claim to be Jewish and don’t want to convert, but they feel invested and want to help revive the local heritage, which they do by organizing tours and running modest educational events which attract locals, university students and tourists.

The guides speak of the fate of a small community that went into hiding even before the Inquisition reached Portugal from Spain, forcing Jews to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion. Many of the Jews of Porto apparently quietly accepted their fate as bnei anousim, roughly used to mean New Christians.

The Inquisition reached a peak in the city in 1542-1544, when 100 of these New Christians were publicly persecuted for maintaining Jewish tradition in secret. Lima related this story as he gestured toward the town square where the Jews were burned.

Throughout the centuries of persecution, many local Jews fled to the remote northern mountains where they had more freedom to practice their religion. Unlike their counterparts in Spain, who, according to tour guide Jovan Gibson-Aviance, often adopted Christian last names like de la Cruz (“of the cross”), and Santo (“saint”) – the crypto-Jews of Portugal assumed names with "agricultural" overtones: like Pereira (“pear tree”) and Oliveira (“olive tree”). Walking through Porto’s residential areas today, it is not uncommon to see such surnames on the mailboxes.

Though the Inquisition ended in 1821, Jewish life was still barred in Portugal. In 1834, the new Portuguese constitutional monarchy placed severe restrictions on religious practices, with the aim of achieving a wholly secular society. Even centuries-old monasteries were closed in the Catholic country during that era. After Portugal was declared a republic in 1910, however, religious communities were once again allowed to flourish. Though there had not been a sizable Jewish community in the country, the early 1900s did see an influx of merchants, among them Jews, into Portugal’s coastal cities.

In the 1970s, in response to national political developments, the country as a whole began to embrace faith and “people started returning to their Jewish roots,” explained Abraham Lavender, a professor of sociology and Sephardi studies at Florida International University. That was a time of expanded exploration of Jewish roots, he noted, because “a lot of crypto-Jews were moving from Catholic villages where there was had been much social control [by the church],” to cities like Porto and Lisbon where they could “speak out and define their identity.”

'Genetically Jewish'

“These people were genetically Jewish,” Lavender said, and they were proud of that fact. But it was a complicated sort of pride, he noted, involving acknowledgement of the fact that the Catholic faith they had embraced was responsible for the pain of their ancestors.

Some individuals have converted to Judaism, like Amalia “Pereira” Schogger, one of some 200 persons who last month attended the largest gathering of Jews in Portugal since the Inquisition, in Porto. Schogger said she had never really felt like she belonged to any community until she joined the Jewish student union at her university. But other individuals, even those whose parents were inclined toward certain aspects of Jewish tradition, like Quelhas Lima, prefer not to convert.

Nowadays, the Jewish community of Porto numbers approximately 70 people, according to its spokesman, Michael Rothwell. They are hopeful of an influx of newcomers shortly due to the new Portuguese citizenship law, allowing a fast-track path to citizenship for Jews whose families were expelled during the Inquisition.

The community has Shabbat and festival services, a fully functional mikveh, and a cemetery that was opened earlier this month. Within the next eight months, “we plan to open a Talmud Torah [Jewish religious school],” said Devorah Elijah, a local board member.

Rothwell said that members of Mekor Haim have not experienced anti-Semitism in recent years. Speaking at the synagogue last month, Rui Moreira, Porto’s mayor, boasted of his own Jewish roots. For his part, Rabbi Doron Achiel, a London-based rabbi and spiritual leader who is helping locals to spearhead the revival of their community, noted every time he visits, people approach him and say, “my family was Jewish too.” This is something that also happens to other Jewish visitors in the city.

Despite the rejuvenation process, Quelhas Lima and his son Francisco are keeping their distance. “I don’t live Jewish, but I don’t have any problems with that. Only 0000.1 percent of my life has anything to do with Jewish,” said the latter. Then he finished giving a tour of Jewish Porto.

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