RETURN My 50year Search for My Jewish Self Identity and Heritage

Presentation of Steve Gomes at the Conference of the SCJS
San Diego August 2002

Shalom

Today marks the celebration of my first Rosh Hashanah as a Jew! When I entered the mikveh or ritual bath at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles before a Beit Din or rabbinical court it was the single defining moment of my life It is difficult to describe in words what happened on that day Monday March 25 2002 (12 Nisan 5765) when Stephen Gomes a PortugueseAmerican Catholic completed his conversion to Judaism It was a completion – a sense of coming fullcircle of finding and reclaiming my elusive longlost Jewish soul my neshama for now and always never to be lost again All of the pain challenges and uncertainties I experienced over the years in this search pale by comparison with the magnificent emotional splendor of that defining moment When Rabbi Steven Tucker of Temple Ramat Zion of Granada Hills Rabbi Mark Diamond and others including my 81year old Catholic mother and members of my Jewish community witnessed my return to my people I knew I was home at last

It has been a 50year journey to recover the Jewish heritage of my ancestors My tale could begin with the discovery in 1996 that my father’s 16th century ancestor was buried in the Field of the Jews in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal Or it could begin with telephone conversations with relatives bearing my maternal great grandmother’s name De Quintal who whispered in carefully shaded tones “you know they say we are Jews”

Instead I want to tell the story of my conversion from the highly personal perspective of self – discovery Starting from about seven or eight years old I began to realize that in some important but seemingly unknowable way I did not fit in with the rest of the kids at the Catholic schools I was sent to By the time I was in college the feelings began to change becoming more insistent and more impossible to ignore I experienced a growing realization that something nameless ineffable undefined was calling me But what was it? One day in graduate school my best friend Stephen Wiel with no warning popped a totally startling and mind altering question to me “Why are all your friends Jewish?” Not only did I not have answers for what I thought at the time a completely crazy question; I couldn’t fathom why he asked it in the first place But ultimately it was the first clue that put me on the track to my return His question stayed with me resonated stewed percolated until one brisk Pittsburgh winter day I woke up with the question “Could I possibly be Jewish?”

For those of you who have been Jewish from birth I am not sure you could put yourself in the mindset of the unsettling road of inquiry this question posed for me It is an identity shattering kind of question which at that time had no basis in fact It was relentless I could not shake this feeling that I was in fact seemingly Jewish somehow – someway It is very hard to describe this feeling One author who had a similar experience described it as a journey Through the Unknown Remembered Gate My drive to unravel the mystery of this illusive Jewish identity became like a mysterious unexplainable compulsion At the time the best way I could find to describe it was to compare it to how the main character was portrayed in the movie Close Encounters of a Third Kind

After I received my PhD I moved to Reno Nevada One cold snowy night I found myself sitting in my hot tub with another good friend a psychiatrist named Ed Lynn (Jewish naturally) discussing this feeling I had I said “Ed is there something wrong with me?” At first he laughed about it But then he said “You know that there is something called the Jewish soul or neshama You might be having an experience with that phenomenon” For some reason that really rang a chord with me

But at the time I knew nothing about the concept of a Jewish soul nor did I have any knowledge of the anusim the Hebrew term for Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity In 1980 I moved to San Francisco The “calling” was continuous and unrelenting I spoke to many rabbis They all uniformly discouraged me Then one day I was introduced to Rabbi David Zeller He accepted me as a student Unfortunately before I could make much progress toward conversion the rabbi’s wife suddenly died and left him with three very young children to raise He moved to Israel and my study took a detour

For the next ten years I filled much of my spare time studying my family history I engaged in a lot of genealogical and historical research It began to become increasingly evident that I could actually be a direct descendant of Jewish ancestors from the Portuguese Inquisition in 1497 I studied the history of the Inquisition in Portugal which convinced me to redouble my effort to convert

I have since learned that on my mother’s side of the family her grandfather who it is speculated knew that he was Jewish changed his name when he entered the US in Hawaii in 1868 He changed his name from Joëo Baptista de Quintal to John QBaptist

Right now I am trying to learn all I can about the Quintal family name and history Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a Portuguese Jewish Heritage Tour While I was in Portugal with the help of members of the SaudadesSefarad Group I was able to locate the medieval Portuguese village of Quintal in north central Portugal which I was told by a passerby “This was a Jewish village” This was the source of our family name Some of the buildings are still in use I was amazed to find a Hebrew inscription carved into one of the solid rock Lintel stones in the interior of one of the doorways

So far I have learned that during the Portuguese Inquisition while many Jews fled to other countries to avoid forced conversion most were forced to remain and then forced to convert as opposed to Spain where observing Jews fled the country According to Flavio Mendes Carvaho in Raizes Judaicas no Brasil: O Arquivo Secreto da Inquisicao (Jewish Roots in Brazil: from the Secret Archives of the Inquisition) available in Portuguese only there were 177 cases of judaizing (New Christians practicing Judaism) prosecuted during the Lisbon autos do fe against persons with the surname Gomes and five with the surname de Quintal The name means from the village of Quintal with a population of 200 men women and children at the time

While this history is and continues to be under researched in Portugal there is mounting evidence (see Netanyahu’s The Origins of the Inquisition) that this massive crime committed against Jews by the church and royal establishment was actually motivated primarily for greed to allow confiscation of the property and assets of those accused The religious accusations were primarily a diversion designed to enlist the support of the uneducated illiterate masses and incite their anger Remember at that time the church did not allow peasants to learn to read – even to read the Bible Only the Jews could read write and do math and accounting because of their emphasis on reading the Torah and on education in general

For me stepping into the mikveh brought me full circle I was home at last The feeling is still very new and very vivid for me; I am fully certain for the first time I truly know who I really am at the core of my soul without a trace of doubt or lingering hesitancy This sense of certainty is a great gift both s concrete as the presence of my limbs yet as ineffable and ephemeral as vapors arising from San Francisco Bay on a misty winter morning Others have also written about their feelings when the moment they discovered their Jewish identity The descriptions are almost always in the same general tone

Besides great joy the certainty of this “knowing” also brought with it a great sadness I felt the pain of our forefathers and ancient grandmothers having their children their traditions their very heritage forcefully ripped away seemingly forever until now Somehow these events of 500 hundred years ago became as fresh and vivid inside of me as if it happened yesterday And now I feel such a great responsibility to rectify this loss in some way to make it somehow worthwhile Even if I only could have a small role in helping a few Portuguese descendants find their way back to their heritage their true identify their real roots then I will be at peace

Until then I cannot seem to rest I feel such a commitment and dedication to helping my fellow Portuguese understand the overwhelming evidence and artifacts of their former connection to their Jewish roots Once my own “discovery” sank in never to be lost again I could look at my fellow Portuguese with wonder and amazement Now I can’t be in Portugal or with Portuguese and not see the evidence of their Jewish heritage everywhere in their mannerisms superstitions body language words family practices their way of being in the world personal philosophies customs and their stubborn propensity to debate All of these practices and cultural effects have roots in their common Jewish ancestry

For me Judaism is a proud common history that influenced a culture and through adversity forged a unique people who made tremendous contributions to the world and to tikkun olam repairing the world The Portuguese my people are as yet almost totally unaware of just how deeply linked they are to their PortugueseJewish roots and how their culture derives so directly from their Jewish heritage Their continuing inability to embrace their inheritance is such a shame But there are signs of hope that seem to be gaining momentum including our ground breaking Jewish Heritage Conference Tour to Portugal in June (see Summer 2002 issue of HaLapid page ) Since participating in the tour I have spoken many times at synagogues about my discovery of my PortugueseJewish roots and what it has meant to me

I speak about how even in my own immediate family these vestiges of Jewish family practices persist They are small clues into the past but for most of us that is all we have Just last week I discovered that my great grandfather on my mother’s side: Joëo Baptista de Quintal actually had two sons named Jacob and two sons named Benjamin (of twelve sons and one daughter Ludvina very Dutch) I asked my mother why that was since I only knew about one greatgreat uncle Benjamin and one greatgreat uncle Jacob? She said it was because for generations her family had a “peculiar” tradition as long as she could remember they named their children after relatives who had died So when their first son Jacob died in his first year of life they named another son after him and the same with Benjamin Even my middle name Laurence is named after my mother’s brother a pilot in WWII who died trying to making sure that a German tank did not overtake an American position

Another touching remnant of our tradition is the fact that my grandmother on my father’s side always baked braided Portuguese sweet bread on Friday mornings It looked and tasted exactly like challah – the first time I saw challah I thought it was Portuguese sweet bread As a kid I could hardly wait for Fridays because we would stop at my grandmother’s house after school and have toasted fresh Portuguese sweet bread with butter and dip it in hot chocolate My brothers and I thought it was such a great treat When I asked her why she did that she said she did not know but it made her feel good because that is what her mother and her mother’s mother and all the women in her family did as far back as she could remember from the time she was a small girl

An additional vestige is the tremendous focus in my family on the value of education My brothers are all either very highly educated or own their own businesses I am a college professor former CEO businessman and consultant and am blessed (or cursed depending on one’s perspective) with an intense curiosity about everything The Jews in Portugal were instrumental in establishing one of the earliest known universities in Europe They stressed education even at the smallest village levels On our tour we could see the symbol of a candle flame on the doorpost at the entry to their one room schools indicating that education and the study of Torah brought light into the world

It saddens me to see that most modern Portuguese don’t see this link to their Jewish heritage much less honor and cherish it for what it gave them much of their cultural sou the very essence of what it means to be Portuguese My hope is that in some small way by participating in and supporting activities such as the Saudades website/listserve (wwwsaudadesefaradcom) I can play a small role in helping modern Portuguese at least catch a glimpse of the magnificent tradition and heritage that was taken from them and how it has so influenced who they are to this very day Since I have discovered my Jewish Portuguese roots I feel so proud to be Jewish and to know that once before the inquisitionwe were major contributors to the art culture business expansion trading life and the very heart of Portuguese society ¡Va com Hashem!

STEPHEN L GOMES PhD addressed the 2002 SCJS Conference on this subject He has also spoken about his return to Judaism before synagogue and cultural groups 

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