Journeys Through Space and Time

It’s difficult to say when my interest in cryptoJews began For as far back as I can remember I was intrigued by stories of secret Jews lighting candles in their cellars In my memory the stories of these rituals take place in the mountains of Peru isolated towns in Spain or in longforgotten places shrouded in mystery

After I became editor of Hadassah Magazine in 1980 I suddenly had a lot more literature at my disposal and one of the books I recall reading around then was Dan Ross’ Acts of Faith which included a chapter dedicated to Nissan ben Avraham the only Jewish descendant from Majorca who had returned to Judaism after 500 years and who had moved to Israel

If I had to pinpoint one thing however that put me on the steady path of the cryptoJewish story it would be an unsolicited manuscript I received in 1987 It was from Rabbi Joshua Stampfer of Portland Oregon who had written about his experiences among the secret Jews of Belmonte Portugal

It was a spellbinding story Rabbi Stampfer had traveled to the town twice hoping to make contact with the local Jews who were indeed still practicing rituals in secret On his first visit contact was extremely difficult and he left disappointed But on his second visit a year later everything had changed and he ended up being invited to conduct the first public Shabbat service in the town in five centuries

The part of the story that moved me most came at the end of the service when a woman approached the rabbi and asked him to say the priestly blessing for her daughter As soon as he did so he was besieged by virtually every adult in the auditorium asking for the same blessing for their children and grandchildren

That might have been the beginning and end of my experience with articles about anusim Journalists have a nagging tendency to deal with a story once and then move on I did not yet appreciate how wide a landscape the subject covered or how it would come to affect me personally

Two years later I made my first visit to Spain to write about places of interest for Jewish travelers I visited Majorca and despite my knowledge of the cryptoJewish history it didn’t occur to me to look for living Jewish descendants Fortunately the Spanish National Tourist office was ahead of me When my guide met me at my hotel he introduced himself as Joan Aguiló and told me proudly that he was a chueta as Majorca’s anusim were known

He took me to the city’s medieval jewelry district and as we walked down the main street he gave me a running commentary “This shop is owned by Jews” he said pointing “and that one over there The one across the lane was Jewish owned until a few years ago and the next two after that are still Jewish” He was in fact talking about people whose families had not been openly Jewish since the midfifteenth century and hadn’t even been secretly Jewish since the end of the seventeenth Yet everyone in Majorca thinks of them as Jews Joan explained that the Jewish descendants most of whom were practicing Catholics and considered their ancestry a badge of shame still lived in the same neighborhood as their Jewish ancestors and many practiced the same professions

That night a Friday Joan took me to Majorca’s only synagogue the congregation was mostly retirees and vacationers from England and who should show up but Nissan ben Avraham the man I had once read about who was home on only his second visit from Israel in ten years

On that trip to Spain a curator at Barcelona’s City Historical Museum recommended a film about the region’s Jewish history and suggested that when I got back to New York I contact the filmmaker Pat Snyder I made the contact and found Pat’s interest in cryptoJews on top of my own recent experience infectious My discussions with her were part of the motivation for my decision in 1992 to devote an entire issue of Hadassah Magazine to the 500th anniversary of the expulsion from Spain and how the expulsion reverberated down to our own time One of the articles in that issue was written by Pat a feature on cryptoJews in the American Southwest who were just beginning to emerge

In 1994 I went to Rio de Janeiro to do an article on the city’s Jewish community and sights and while there I met a woman and (this was Rio remember) fell in love I’ll leave out the romantic part of the story and concentrate on the linguistic details One of the byproducts of my courtship and marriage was a new tool for studying anusim the Portuguese language I could now interview people and read source material that had previously been beyond my reach

In 2000 I made my own trip to Belmonte It had been 13 years since Rabbi Stampfer’s article and many things had happened in the community Rabbis had come to teach mainstream Judaism More than 180 people had gone through formal conversion back to Judaism and a new synagogue had been dedicated in 1996

I was also to discover what had not changed and to develop an even greater respect for Rabbi Stampfer and others who had visited before me On my third night in Belmonte I was at a Shabbat dinner in the synagogue An Elderhostel group of about 35 people was being hosted and I was seated next to Francisco Vaz the community’s president After hamotzi Vaz leaned toward me and asked just above a whisper if all the people in the tour group were Jewish I told him they were “Then why” he asked “are they leaving in the morning and not spending all of Shabbat with us?”

The question was a pivotal moment of my five days in Belmonte First the conspiratorial way he asked me signaled that after struggling to get people to open up I had achieved a level of intimacy Even though their Jewishness is now in the open even though I had arrived with personal introductions even though I spoke Portuguese I found it hard to get people to talk After 500 years Belmonte’s Jews had come to view secrecy not only as a survival tactic but as an integral part of Judaism as they understood it Most of the Jews there are just naturally reserved

The other thing Vaz’s question crystallized for me was the community’s focused faith How is it he seemed to be asking that our families sacrificed for 500 years for the privilege of observing Shabbat and here are free Jews virtually discarding the mitzvah by getting on a bus on Saturday morning to go sightseeing?

It seemed pointless to try to explain the varieties of Jewish observance and identity I had a chance to talk to several of the people from the Elderhostel group and most seemed to be involved Jews One woman in particular had been following the Belmonte saga for some time When she heard I was the editor of Hadassah Magazine she told me she remembered Rabbi Stampfer’s article all those years before

I left Belmonte determined to make the rounds of other communities of anusim My next journey took me to Recife Brazil where the cryptoJewish scene couldn’t have been more different In contrast to the Portuguese community that had endured 500 years of unity in secret the Brazilian anusim generally form loose communities in large cities after leaving their secretive conservative villages behind Without the long tradition of unity they tend to fragment

Broadly speaking I found two groups in Recife One was made up of those who have undergone conversion and integrated with the mainstream Jewish community so thoroughly that their cryptoJewish background seems no more than a curiosity like saying their forebears had come from one town instead of another The other group consists of people who have either rejected the idea of conversion or feel themselves rejected by the mainstream community They are more holdouts than rejectionists most of whom have attached themselves to the idea of a formal ceremony of return as opposed to conversion

One of the holdouts told me he considered the idea of converting a humiliation “How can you convert salt into salt?” he asked The holdouts have a spokesman in the person of Pedro Albuquerque an affluent business consultant from a family that has played a leadership role among anusim for generations Despite his role as a leader he reminded me of some of the caution I had seen in Belmonte Though he had been interacting with the mainstream Jewish community for several years when I met him he had just given his first interview in which he publicly identified himself as a Jew and he was not happy with the results The article based on the interview had run in a local paper and said Albuquerque “claimed” to be a Jew “I don’t claim to be anything” he told me still feeling the insult “I am what I am”

Every time I visit a community of anusim I whet my appetite for the next visit I’ve explored the communities that have been on secret Jewish maps for centuries and also discovered new ones that were barely formated Just as there is no real way to say where my interest in this unique but varied branch of the Jewish family began there is also no telling when if ever my search will come to an end

Alan Tigay is Editor of Hadassah Magazine and a member of SCJS

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