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Portugal’s Talking Stones

Portugal The Trancoso stone which can be found in the east of Portugal, near the Sierra Estrella mountain range

Published in Hebrew in Makor Rishon, 10.5.2013.

Translated by Norman Silbert

Photos by Michael Tuchfeld

The stones talk in a small town called Trancoso in the east of Portugal, not far from the Sierra Estrela mountain range. They tell a story, going back more than 500 years, of blood, terror, and fear. While wandering through the narrow alleys of the old part of the town which, until the end of the 15th century, had been a thriving Jewish center, the stone walls tell the grim story of hundreds of families who were forced to convert to Catholicism but who tried their best to maintain their Jewish heritage. However, this heritage was lost during the centuries that followed.

Next to the houses' entrance are crosses carved into the stones. Jewish families used these crosses to publicly announce that they had obeyed the king's command and converted to Christianity. The more zealous among them displayed a sign saying: "Here lives a proud Christian family." However, a more critical examination reveals these are not simple crosses. The crosses' arms are decorated with additions.

"The Jews outsmarted their oppressors," says journalist Jose Halevi Domingos, a public figure who devotes his time to tracking down the descendants of the Marranos, and bringing them back to Judaism. "To the crosses they added twelve arrow-tipped arms to signify the twelve tribes of Israel. Some added a base shaped like the Hebrew letter 'Shin' upside down. This represented the Hebrew word 'Shaday', meaning God, which was on the mezuzah that they no longer had on their doors. Others created the name 'Hashem' (God) from left to right, or added lines arranged according to the fundamentals of the Kabbalah. Almost everyone found a way to remind himself, and possibly also his neighbors, that his conversion had been forced upon him and that secretly he continued to practice Judaism."

More than 500 such symbols were found in Trancoso. Jose Domingos points out a small window in a wall and invites us to look inside. "This was the home of Antonio Silva. In order to prove to his Christian neighbors that he was a good Christian, he displayed an impressive collection of statues of Saint Antonius, after whom he was named. But take note of what is hiding between the statues," says Domingos, adding that candle sticks shaped like menorahs stood in the corner which they would light in secret every Shabbat evening in a concealed niche inside the house.

Today, the menorah stands proudly in the courtyard of the house. Dozens of families from Trancoso, Belmonte, Castelo de Vide, and other towns in the region, decided to come out of the closet and publicly announce that they were the descendants of Jewish families who had practiced their Judaism in secret who had not capitulated to the terror of the Inquisition. For five hundred years they have been Marranos – a pejorative term meaning 'pigs' in Portuguese used for those forced to convert. They were also called 'new-Christians,' 'conversos' (those who have converted), or 'cryptojudeus' (secret Jews). During recent years, more and more Portuguese are identifying themselves as descendants of the Marranos and are not apologetic about publicly declaring themselves Jews.

Jose Levi Domingos at the Jewish Museum at Belmonte

After a moving visit to the Jewish museum in Belmonte, we passed a small shop selling flour and fabrics. Only in Portugal are these two items sold together. The woman standing in the entrance, pointed to herself and her elderly mother sitting inside the dingy shop and said 'Judeus.' She also pointed to the entrance. For five hundred years, there had been no mezuzah. Now there is a plastic one. I wondered whether it contained a real scroll, telling myself it really doesn't matter.

"It's an amazing process," says Rabbi Elisha Salas, who now serves as the rabbi of Belmonte. More than seventy years ago, this was the first town in which descendants of the Marranos were discovered. "Not a day goes by without my receiving a telephone call or a text message from someone who got my number and wants me to help him return to his Jewish roots."

Pocket Mezuzah

Today, thousands in Portugal practice pseudo-Jewish customs without knowing their origin or understanding what they are doing. On Fridays, women light a candle in a niche in the wall, under the table or inside a hidden container. They are convinced that this is a Christian religious custom. They are still called new Christians despite the fact that, over the centuries, they have become ordinary Christians. A conservative estimate puts more than 20% of Portugal's citizens as descendants of the Marranos. Some are afraid, others proud. Many publicly declare they want to return to their Jewish roots.

Rabbi Elisha was born in Chile as Miguel Salas, son of a Christian family, who grew up to be an Evangelical preacher. He made his way to Judaism following serious questions that arose from his reading of the scriptures. For example: How is it that Christianity, believing in what is written in the Bible, completely ignores practical commands such as keeping the Sabbath or the laws of kashrut? Slowly, he found himself growing away from the church and closer to Judaism. At first, he converted to Conservative Judaism but, feeling this was not enough, he came to Israel and underwent an Orthodox conversion. He studied Hebrew at an ulpan and wanted to study the Torah. After a short stay on Kibbutz Migdal Oz and in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, an organization called Shavei Yisrael (Returning Jews) sent him to assist the Marranos in Portugal, since he spoke Spanish. Apparently, the organization was unaware that the language in Portugal is not Spanish, but Portuguese – a language he picked up while working there. Rabbi Salas walks around in Jewish garb, his tzitzit exposed like long payot. His black kippah stands out against the white stones of the town. "This is the complete antithesis of the destruction the Inquisition tried to achieve here," he states. His family remains in Israel and he sees them every one to two months.

Jose Domingos himself embraced Judaism many years ago. He remembers how, as a child, the teacher sent him out of the class because there were not enough places for 'Judeus'. When he returned home in tears his mother explained to him that he was not just any 'Judeu' but a descendant of the tribe of Levi. His great-grandfather had come to Portugal from Izmir in Turkey, via Morocco. He had been a professor at the University of Coimbra, but was fired. During the period of the dictatorship, his grandfather was a political prisoner and was released only after the coup of 1974. "We are a mixed family," he says. "We speak Ladino – Judeo Espagnol – my wife is Ashkenazi from Brazil, and we have returned fully to Judaism."

Today he is a journalist with his own radio program and writes for a local newspaper. He is also a key activist on behalf of Jews and Israel. Many of the artifacts displayed in Belmonte's Jewish museum belonged to his family. Among them is a Torah brought from Spain and a pocket mezuzah Jews used to carry with them and kiss whenever they left the house. This replaced the mezuzah on the door, which they were no longer allowed to display. Even today, many of the descendants still stretch out to kiss both sides of the empty doorframe.

Domingos and Rabbi Salas introduced us to the deputy head of the Jewish community in Belmonte, Joao (Yohanan) Deugo. The head of the community, a young man of around thirty, was busy and unable to meet with us. Deugo himself, a descendant of a Marrano family, remembers his mother used to light a candle under the table every Friday, without being able to explain why. "It's what my mother and grandmother used to do," she would explain to her friends, "and so I do it as well".

Domingos recounts that a few months ago a man from Mogador in northern Portugal, Manuel Dos Anjos Lopez, called and asked to meet with a Jewish rabbi. "I understood what he wanted and went with Rabbi Elisha to meet him. When we arrived, he took us to another room and there, on the table, were old candlesticks, frayed kippot, and the remnants of talitot. He explained that these items had been passed down through his family for generations but, up until now, he had been afraid to show them. There was great excitement. Lopez, a Jewish name, laid out a spread for us and, at the end of the meeting, recited an ancient prayer in Portuguese that he said had been passed down in his family from generation to generation. 'Now I can leave this world having seen a real Jew and a real rabbi with my own eyes,' he said, and began to weep while the rest of us followed suit …" says Domingos, ending his story.

"There was a young French woman, who had been sent by her family in France to her grandmother in Portugal to bring back proof that she was Jewish," Domingos tells us. "She told me that as soon as she asked whether they were Jews, her grandmother became terrified and said: 'You must not ask such questions.' The young woman said she saw the inbred fear in her grandmother's eyes. Three hundred years of democracy had not been able to free them of their fear. It seems that the Inquisition may have been around in Portugal during the 19th century, and people still feel it exists, even those who were born 150 years after it ended," Domingos explains.

Expulsion of the Jews

More than 500 years have passed since the Jews of Portugal were issued a royal command to convert to Christianity. It was four years after the Catholic royal couple of Spain, Fernando and Isabella, expelled the Jews from their country. One to two hundred thousand made their way to neighboring Portugal where Afonso V welcomed them.

Near Castelo de Vide, not far from Trancoso, a small Roman bridge stands next to a tower that once housed the tax collectors. On the tower is a small sign with a Magen David. The sign tells the story of those expelled from Spain, which, at the time, was on one side of the bridge. On their arrival in Portugal, they were forced to pay the king a heavy entrance tax.

Before the expulsion from Spain, Don Yitzhak Abarbanel was one of Afonso's advisers. He, however, had been accused of complicity in a plot to murder the king and was forced to flee to Spain. In 1492, he was summoned to appear before the king of Spain and handed the order of expulsion.

Afonso actually wanted the Jews. He saw them as a source of revenue for the kingdom, which was expanding to territories abroad and discovering new continents and countries. His son, Manuel, also employed Jews in positions such as court physicians, astronomers, cosmographists, mathematicians, and interpreters. One of the well-known Jews, Abraham Zacuto, was an astronomer and mathematician who served as a secret adviser to the famous explorer Vasco da Gama on his travels to India. Zacuto, also a Kabbalist, had written several books. He improved the astrolabe, a 15th century gadget, with a system of wheels allowing mariners to calculate their position according to the stars, and even to calculate the exact time. One of his best-known works is a description of the solar system, a type of mariners' bible known as Almanach Perpetuum. A rare copy of the book is in the archives of the town of Evora, not far from Lisbon.

On the day we visited the library, the manager had taken the day off. His assistant told us that the rare copy is in the vault in the basement of the building and no one is permitted to remove it. After much pleading, he agreed and asked us to return two hours later - which we did. His darting eyes betrayed the fear in his heart. "I'll probably be fired tomorrow," he mumbled to himself. In his hand, he held something covered in a white fabric. He was wearing white gloves, and with great reverence, he revealed the 500 year-old book. Very cautiously, he showed us the yellowing pages containing sketches and important, complex calculations. Inside the library you could almost hear the sound of history as it flashed by; or was it the sound of waves breaking against the caravels on their way to strange, distant lands across the ocean, using the pages of this book as a GPS?

However, not even all the scientific and astronomical assistance provided by the greatest Jewish minds would help in the hour of need. Portugal's king, Manuel, was set on marrying the daughter of the Catholic king of Spain who despised the Jews. The princess came with a price tag; an unequivocal demand to accept the order of expulsion to remove all Jews from Portugal. Manuel decided to act prudently. He did not want to expel the Jews since he knew that with them would go the money and benefits they had brought to his kingdom. He decided to expel Judaism rather than the Jews.

The first step was to separate the children from their families, sending them away for re-education. The port of Lisbon witnessed heart-wrenching scenes; toddlers torn out of their mothers' arms placed in boats headed for distant monasteries and nunneries where they would be taught to be Catholics. Some parents even killed their children by drowning them or by throwing them from high windows to prevent them from being forced into apostasy.

On December 4 1496, the order of expulsion was delivered and Jewish property confiscated. The target date was eight months away. On the ninth day of the month of Av in 1497, about 2,000 Jews gathered in Lisbon, believing that the king intended to expel them and send them by boat to countries of refuge. But there was no boat in the harbor.

While they were waiting, dozens of priests and guards arrived at the square and began dragging the Jews toward churches, sprinkling them with holy water and declaring them converted. 

Jose Levi Domingos studies the list names of those who died in the Inquisition

In this way, the king cleansed Portugal of all its Jews. Although Manuel declared that during the coming twenty years, there would be no investigation of whether these new Christians were practicing Catholics, the establishment of the Inquisition in 1536 marked an end to the period of quiet. Originally, the function of the Inquisition was to conduct investigations and bring people suspected of heresy to trial, without mentioning that it was directed particularly at the Jews. The new Christians were, in fact, the immediate suspects. Tens of thousands across Portugal were tried before the Inquisition's four courts that did not restrict itself to the borders of Portugal but spread its tentacles to the colonies in Brazil and Goa in India. Thousands were burned at the stake in ceremonies of auto-da-fe (act of faith), mostly women immediately suspected since they raised the children. Two hundred and eighty five years of Inquisition ended only in 1821 at the order of the Portuguese parliament. Seventy years earlier, the Marquis da Pombal had brought it under the jurisdiction of the civilian judicial system.

Cards in the Cellar

In towns and cities, thousands of Marranos living in the shadow of a reign of fear and terror, created a double life. In the small town of Castelo de Vide lived the Tapadzio family, who were blacksmiths for hundreds of years. One of the last descendants of the family, Carolino, was elected mayor of the town following the fall of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974 after the democratic coup. Today, Carolino receives visitors who have come to his town to visit what was the synagogue of a grand community.

"Following the expulsion from Spain more than four thousand Jews came here, but the town was too small and so they spread throughout the surrounding area," he explains. "They wanted to continue with the manual labor they had done in Spain, but when the expulsion order was given they were forced to leave the Jewish neighborhood, the Juderia, and move to Christian neighborhoods, while the Christians seized the Jewish homes in a kind of land exchange."

Carolino recounts that after the establishment of the Inquisition, persecution began, and many fled to Turkey, Holland, and America. The few who remained were forced to live outwardly as Christians. Some of them were discovered and four hundred were burned at the stake. Many practiced their customs in secret, baking matzo for Pesach and even slaughtering a sheep on the eve of the festival. They did not know exactly when Pesach fell and celebrated it at Easter, creating a Judeo-Christian custom that continues even today.

The town of Castelo de Vide reconstructed the small synagogue destroyed after the order to convert was delivered, and made it a museum. Carolino points out the niche that held the Holy Ark. He took us down to the bottom level that held the oven used to bake matzoth, and the mikveh. The picturesque stone alleyways, set against the magnificent scenery, made it difficult to believe that Jewish blood had flowed here like water.

"The Portuguese Inquisition was far crueler than its Spanish counterpart," said Carolino. "It increased surveillance of the conversos while torturing and burning them alive. The Jews found ways to conceal the fact that they were secretly practicing Judaism. They had no Jewish calendar and kept Yom Kippur on September 10 every year, passing the day playing cards in the cellar of the house, perhaps as a reminder of the days when they used to gather in the cellars to pray together.

In Belmonte, the village elder was charged with deciding what day Yom Kippur would fall – somewhere between the end of summer and the start of fall. Rabbi Salas recalled how they used to clean out their houses and eat matzah and bitter herbs at the start of spring. When somebody died, the elders took on the task of cleansing the body.

Carolino took us to the family blacksmith shop. He still has the tools passed down in his family for hundreds of years. Across the road is the home of a Jewish doctor, Marfuso. His house has a secret door which leads to a small synagogue in which several new Christians used to gather to pray in secret.

"The most important day was the fast of Esther (the day before Purim). The day was strictly observed and many used to fast for three days, as is written in the Scroll of Esther," says Domingos. "Esther was the archetypical Marrano in that she never revealed her people and her land of birth. She is a sort of Santa Esther of the conversos."

Portuguese Dreyfus

The search for the conversos reveals an unbelievable story and more and more details are coming to light over the years. Shmuel Schwartz, a Polish mining engineer, who came to Portugal in 1919 and visited the isolated villages, discovered the first Marranos. He used to introduce himself as a Jew and asked the villagers whether they, too, knew any Jews. In one of the villages he came upon a group of women who were distrustful and demanded that he recite a prayer in the holy tongue to see whether he was actually Jewish. Schwartz began with 'Shema Yisrael,' and was surprised to see that as soon as he uttered the word 'Adonai' the women quickly covered their faces with their hands. He discovered that this was the only word that remained of all the prayers of the Marranos, which are now recited in Portuguese. 

A hidden door connecting two apartments to enable food and Jewish objects to be delivered without being exposed

A Portuguese military officer, Carlos de Barros Basto, used to ride through the villages on horseback together with a doctor, and circumcise the Marranos. He managed to return sixteen thousand people to Judaism, set up a synagogue in Oporto called Makor Hayim (the source of life), the Rosh Pina yeshiva, and a newspaper called Halapid (the torch). He converted in Tangier, studied Hebrew, and changed his name to Avraham Ben Harosh. He used to write the names of the people he had circumcised in his bible, which is on display in the Jewish museum of Oporto. The church did not approve of what he did, and in 1943, he was dismissed from the army and became known as the Portuguese Dreyfus. His imprisonment caused great consternation among the Marranos and some went back into hiding in the villages. Also, the rumors about the decimation of European Jewry taking place created further concern."The new Christians avoided marrying old Christians," says Domingos. "The result was that marriages sometimes remained within families causing congenital problems in their offspring, such as retardation, particularly hairy women, fat men, and more."When entering a church, Marranos would utter a prayer quietly in which they declared that they blessed neither the place nor the wood and stone icons in it. The Inquisition often accused them of blasphemy, of disrespecting the cross, and of mocking the saints, and many were burned at the stake because of these charges. The Jews were banned from having Jewish names and therefore adopted Christian names such as Christo, or names of trees and animals - for example: Pinheiro (pine), Graveto (hedgehog) and others.

"Domingos recently published the story of two young people: He came from a Catholic family in Madrid and she from a Protestant family in Lisbon. The two met, and he mentioned that his mother went to the market every Friday to buy pork. However, when she got home she would wrap the pork in paper and throw it away. The young woman was stunned. "My mother used to do the same thing," she replied. She knew stories from the Bible and he knew the New Testament. They began to question their mothers about the secret, and on learning the truth, they converted, and moved to Israel. Today, they conduct a religious way of life and live in one of the settlements.

Domingos took us to see his personal project, the Yitzhak Cardozo Jewish Center he established in the heart of the Jewish neighborhood. Cardozo, a Marrano who had lived in the seventeenth century, was Philip IV's, the king of Spain personal physician, as well as a Portuguese cultural hero. The name of the street on which the center is located also bears his name. Domingos' excitement increases as he tells us that an engineer had come to the building across the way from the center and begun surveying in preparation for renovations and linking it to the center. We climbed the steep stairs into the small apartment. "Come, let me show you something", said Domingos, taking us to the back room. There he opened a window that led to nowhere. "This was the access to the neighboring apartment," he told us. "The Jews used to pass food for Shabbat and candlesticks to each other without having to go into the street and risk exposure. All the homes here are linked by secret passageways."

The mayor of Trancoso, Julio Cermanto, is proud of the openness toward the Jews shown by his city. "I understand that people are always searching for their roots and want to know where their families came from. Here in Portugal the law permits dual identity. In fact, Portugal was always a safe haven for Jews."

Israel's Rabbinate Unhelpful

Together with his wife, the rabbi of Lisbon, Rabbi Eliezer Shai de-Martino is trying to cater to the various groups of Portuguese Jewish communities. He is trying to create a Jewish communal life and organize activities suitable for everyone. In the past, Lisbon had four separate communities. Today, a single, beautiful, a 100 year-old synagogue, Shaarei Tikvah, operates. There is also a small Conservative community and during the past year, a Chabad member has begun playing a minor role in activities.

"Israel's rabbinate is unhelpful", sighed Rabbi Eliezer. "Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar visited here a while ago but unfortunately showed a complete lack of understanding of the delicate situation in which Portugese Jewry finds itself. His officials were hard-liners and, sadly, behaved crassly." This has forced the rabbi to contact rabbinical conversion courts elsewhere for assistance in the work of bringing Judaism's lost sons back into the fold.

Even Rabbi Salas from Belmonte travels distances to Oporto or other villages to deliver a class in Judaism to a new group of conversos who wish to embrace Judaism. In Belmonte, he heads a community of about fifty Marrano descendants, some of whom have converted. The elegant synagogue has a Torah scroll, and a minyan every Shabbat. They even produce kosher wine. He is content. "I know what it is like to grow up among gentiles when your heart is Jewish," he said: "Someone comes along and hears a strange language – Hebrew. If he comes back time after time, that says something. If he continues to come it is a sign that his soul has a true need."

It turns out that even in a small place like Belmonte, Jews remain Jews. There, too, disputes occur between the different communities. "When I arrived, there were four different communities," Rabbi Salas tells us. "I was able to make the peace and today there are only two."

Domingos also managed to tell us about a conversation he had with a priest of the Church of Saint Antonio who complained about the Jewish center being built too close to his church. "Even before he started to complain, I politely asked him to pay 300 years of rental for the period that the church has stood on Jewish land in the heart of the Juderia."

Yosef Domingos smiles. No Jew has dared to give an answer like that to a Christian priest in Portugal for at least the past five hundred years! 



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