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Sticks and Stones

by Eduardo Mayone Dias
University of California, Los Angeles

"I do not adore sticks and stones, only the God of Israel"

The Jews, New Christians and Crypto-Jews of Portugal

  By the time Portugal acquired her independence, circa 1143, sizable Jewish communities had already been established in the country. Throughout the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Jews and New Christians constituted the intellectual and economic Úlite of the country. They were the physicians, astronomers, cartographers and  royal treasurers, tax collectors and advisers. Many wore fine silk clothes and gilt swords and rode beautiful horses. They embodied the concept of capitalism in a mainly rural and feudal society. Their lives, however, were always influenced by two contradictory factors: most of the time they enjoyed preferential royal protection and all the time they suffered a violent hostility from the Church and the common people.

   Although legislation regulating their lifestyle was occasionally extremely restrictive, monarchs often granted them special privileges. They were exempted from military service, and, contrary to the situation in Spain, were allowed to own real estate. Whether they were always enforced or not, strict laws protected them. Individuals who referred to Jews in derogatory terms could be fined. Punishment for those attacking ghettos included execution. After a particularly cruel massacre occurred in Lisbon in 1506, in which about 3,000 New Christians were murdered, King Manuel ordered the hanging of 45 of the main culprits, including two Dominican friars who had incited the mob.

    On the other hand, Jews were regarded by the Church and the masses with the usual European misconceptions of the time: they poisoned wells, killed Christian babies to celebrate black masses with their blood, brought about the plague and earthquakes, prostitution and sodomy were prevalent in their midst, and Jewish men had tails and menstruated.    Thousands of Jews entered Portugal after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 subject to the payment of a sizable head tax. However, a few years later, King Manuel of Portugal, pressured by Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain  whose daughter he wanted to marry, also gave all Jews residing in Portugal the choice between conversion or expulsion. The king did not actually want to be deprived of Jewish knowhow and economic potential, so when the deadline for conversion or departure approached, he had thousands of Jews congregate in Lisbon for embarkation to the country of their choice, but at the last minute informed them that no ships were available and had them dragged to church to be forcibly baptized.

    Although the anussim were granted a twenty year period in which their beliefs and practices would not be investigated, soon afterwards, in 1536, the Inquisition was established in Portugal. What followed for over two hundred years needs  not be related. It was only after the liberal revolt in 1820 that the so-called Holy Office was extinguished. In the following years Jews trickled in, mainly from Gibraltar and Morocco. They were mainly merchants, who revolutionized trade practices in the country. Their descendants, and others who later emigrated to Portugal, including refugees from Nazi Germany and occupied countries, although scarce in number - now only about 1,500 - have distinguished themselves in banking, medicine, education and other activities.

    Fear of the Inquisition has marked some secret Jewish communities up to present times. Isolated in mountainous areas near the Spanish border, they have maintained a sketchy Judaism under the pretense of being Catholics. Deprived of rabbis, temples, yeshivas or religious books, they lost much of the previous orthodoxy. When they were discovered by a Polish mining engineer, Samuel Schwarz, over seventy years ago they believed they were the only Jews in the whole world and did not know that the Hebrew language existed. At first they refused to believe that Schwarz was Jewish, as a Jew would never admit openly to his religion. His final acceptance only came when he recited Shema Israel for them and they were able to recognize the word Adonai.    They had been forced to abandon the practice of circumcision and the celebration of any public festivities. In order to mislead the inquisitors they celebrated Passover and Yom Kippur a few days before or after official dates, hid the Shabbat lamp inside a clay pot and had women lead their services.

Catholicism made some unavoidable inroads in their lives: they worship Saint Moses and Saint Queen Esther, celebrate an occasion they call Little Christmas (roughly coinciding with Hannukah) and use a Judaized form of the Lord's Prayer. They reluctantly attend some Church services, but do so under mental reservations. A formula still murmured to this day upon entering a Catholic church goes approximately like this: "I enter this house, but I do not adore sticks or stones, only the God of Israel".

    From poor peddlars riding mules from village to village along mountain roads, many of them have in recent years become prosperous merchants and owners of garment factories. Also a movement to return to official Judaism has picked up momemtum, mainly among the younger generations of their rapidly disappearing main community, in the town of Belmonte. The local Crypto-Jewish community dwindled from a few hundred to about 150 in our days. (Emigration and marriage outside the group mainly accounted for this decline.) However, out of the remaining 150, about half has opted for "Return", as their expression for reconversion goes. Several of them have visited Israel and learned Hebrew. They now have a synagogue, a rabbi and the only mikvah in Portugal. A feud with the Belmonte City Hall is still going on in regard to concession of land for a Jewish cemetery.

    At present probably only some 100 Crypto-Jews survive in the whole country. The admirable tenacity with which they have preserved their spiritual roots in the face of almost unsurmountable obstacles is both a strength and a weakness. For centuries they have clung to their faith and rejected assimilation in a remarkable process of cultural retention. However, it was this very endogenism that is fatally leading to an extinction  only one generation away.

Lashon, Vol.5, n║2, March-April, 1993


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