Friday, 18 April 2008

Portugal: "For 500 years, we were Christians outside the house and Jews inside"

From TJP Lopez marks Pessah alone, as his ancestors did for centuries by Shelly Paz

“While the Spanish still do not like to be called Marranos, the Portuguese feel differently. "In Portugal, Marrano means not just a pig's leg but is also an adjective used to describe a determined person who fights for what he believes in and doesn't give up," Prof. Filipe Ferrão, 51, a neurophysiologist from the University of Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, told the Post.

"I was raised in Porto with all these customs I didn't understand. For example, we were constantly told not to count stars while pointing to the skies. We were told that if we did so our fingers would be calloused. Years later, I learned that Jews know Shabbat is over only when they count three stars in the skies. Our parents were afraid that if we did so, we would be suspected as hidden Jews," Ferrão recalled.

"Our dining table was rectangle and whenever I placed bread on it horizontally, my mother used to come over and tell me to move it. She never said why, but it became second nature to me. When I grew up, I understood it was in her attempt to prevent me creating a cross."

It took Ferrão 20 years to complete the process of returning to Judaism. He and 15 other Marranos were converted by a Jerusalem rabbinic court in January 2007. (…)

"One needs to live in a Jewish community with an authorized rabbi for a year before starting the legal process with the rabbinate in Jerusalem, and for me it was impossible since there was no rabbi and no solid community in Porto when I started the process," he said. "But now I feel like I paved the way for others. And I've stayed in Porto to help them."

Ferrão converted with his wife and their younger child, who is 19. Their older child is 26 and married, and was not interested in going through the process.

Participants in the convention [fifth convention for Spanish and Portuguese Marranos of the Shavei Israel organization] described many strange customs that were passed down to them. Several spoke of having a special dining room table with a hidden drawer, in which a bowl with a piece of pork in it was kept in case a neighbor stopped by.

Others noted that their ancestors had chosen acceptable Christian names that constituted a secret code to signal insiders they were descendants of Jews "Before the Inquisition, the Jews were 30 percent of the population of Portugal. If you browse a Portuguese phone book today, you'll be amazed how many 'secret' Jewish family names are in it," Ferrão said.

To decrease assimilation, many Marranos married within the extended family and into families they knew shared their history.

Most of the descendants still have no idea of their origins, and many who do know nonetheless have no interest in returning to Judaism, participants said. Others are simply interested in exploring their roots or in searching for spiritual reconnection with the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Annually, a couple of hundred Marranos pursue conversion and about half of them are interested in immigration to Israel. (…)

Paulo Vitorino, 40, a father of six and a businessman from Lisbon, insisted to the Post that "I am a Portuguese Jew, not a converted Jew. For 500 years, we were Christians outside the house and Jews inside."

He said he had found out about his Judaism at the age of 24, after his mother died. "My father told us we are Jews and that we can choose between the synagogue and the church. I chose the synagogue."

But Vitorino protested that in Portugal "we are Jews without the backing of the State of Israel or the local Jewish community. They don't accept us. And this, to me, is the new Inquisition.""

Portugal, the Jews and Israel - a difficult relationship
The Marquis of Pombal and the 3 yellow hats
Campaign to rehabilitate Captain Barros Basto, the 'Portuguese Dreyfus'
Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul who saved thousands of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust

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