Portuguese Jewish Heritage Conference Tour:

Those who gathered on June 9 in Lisbon were taking part in something very new and at the same time very old

Without the modern phenomena known as cyberspace and the Saudades website this probably could not have taken place at all or at least been delayed many years and not featured the same players At the same time their journey had the hallmark of an ancient ritual a search for roots and spiritual renewal

Not everyone shared this intention at the beginning Some had come along at the invitation of friends Others were looking to enhance their field of expertise Yet eight days later when they sat in a circle and shared experiences and insights on the final evening it was clear all had arrived at the same place

Saudades (wwwsaudadescom) is the birthchild of Rufina Bernadetti Silva Mausenbaum SCJS member who lives in Johannesburg South Africa She told the story of her cryptoJewish odyssey in HaLapid’s Fall 2001 issue (“Saudades: a Journey Full Circle”) Now an observant Jew and community leader she has made several times what she and her sisters laughingly call their haj to Portugal and the island of Madeira where family roots are deep

After a year of discussion with leaders of SCJS Kulanu Sephardic House and other organization and online correspondence Rufina recruited Mariana Sande y Castro a Lisbon specialist in Portuguese Jewish heritage travel to help draft an itinerary and coordinate a tour and conferenceonthemove Twentytwo persons were recruited and on June 9 they met for the first time at the designated hotel in Lisbon

The participants hailed from Central and South America (Brazil Ecuador Mexico) North America (US and Canada) Africa (South Africa; one was a member of the Lemba people) and Europe (UK Belgium) The religious backgrounds included observant and “casual” Jews (Sephardic and Ashkenazi those born Jewish converted or “returned”); those who knew their ancestors were Jewish and those who suspected it; and practicing Catholics or Christians At the start only a few had met others of the group before facetoface; the contact had been mostly virtual Yet there was excitement as they connected the real persons before them with their online personalities and contributions The tour/conference group soon became a community one might say a family where you like most of the people most of the time some of the people some of the time and try to love the rest unconditionally in spite of whatever

With Sergio Palma a knowledgeable and amiable guide and a comfortable airconditioned tour bus (without bathroom) the group visited over twenty cities and villages Some of the visits were brief stops sandwiched between the larger or more significant communities where the group stayed overnight

Twentysix persons had been recruited as speakers from among the specialists in Saudades ranks and from Portuguese universities municipalities synagogues and tourism offices They gave their presentations in scheduled stops at universities museums tourist offices and hotels and over the microphone in the bus This writer gave hers sitting in the front seat of the bus mike in hand as the Alentejo landscape spread before her through the driver’s large window

The group seemed to be made up of twentytwo knowledgeable people each of whom had developed as questioning individuals who don’t think inside the box This led to stimulating conversations discussions and yes arguments over bus aisles in restaurants and hotel rooms It also meant that Sergio was saddled with individuals for whom time was relative when something deemed significant delayed return to the bus on schedule It also strengthened this writer’s appreciation for the variety of the learning experience intellectually and personally

Then there was the spiritual element The presence of Rabbi Leo Abrami gave leadership and meaning to kaddish and blessings said in places where Jews had been burned at autodafés and in visits to reclaimed but not functioning synagogues in communities like Castelho de Vide In one dancing and pillarhugging took over after the solemnity as the travelers expressed joy that Jewish prayers could be said once again in synagogues some dating from the fourteenth century There were tears shed throughout the journey as individuals mourned the sorrow of their people and in some cases their very families’ ancestors In the village of Cabanas do Viriato the group planted a tree in homage to Aristides de Sousa Mendes WWII Portuguese counsel in Bordeaux who saved thousands of Jewish lives disobeying his government by issuing exit visas

Always there were the hospitable Portuguese people This writer remembers warmly the people whose laundryfestooned backyards in Guarda were invaded by eight of us lead by a local historian and her son of cryptoJewish background as she pointed out the ruins of an ancient synagogue half buried in an industrial landscape by the river I imagined ten strangers appearing suddenly near my back door and understood the ire of one local resident while marveling at the general good humor of the rest

There was the former mayor of Castelho de Vide who told us he descended from New Christians and lead us through the streets of the Juderá­a to an ancient well the focus of local cryptoJewish and healing legends Many drank from the crystalline waters fresh and cold from nearby mountain sources

Some of the travelers discovered family names and sites during the journey One participant met at least two individuals with the same double surname who came from the same line primos Another spent time before the tour visiting the medieval village of his ancestors All of us knew that we had been privileged members of a pilgrimage to significant sites where our coreligionists present and past suspected or known lived worked and died Despite differences in nationality age race and present religious persuasion we were and are indeed all primos