The tragic events which befell the Jews of Spain and Portugal 500 years ago were commemorated in March in Deerfield Park Florida using poetry ladino songs and conversations with scholars I organized the event feeling there should be a day to recall these tragic events for Jews who know almost nothing about this period of Jewish history

My interest in the socalled crypto Jews was sparked years earlier as a student at the Canadian Jewish Teachers’ Seminary by the famous Jewish anthropologist Dr Cham Shoskess lecturing at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal (which still flourishes today) I also was moved and inspired by the Yiddish song “Zog Marran” (Tell Me Marrano) by poet Avram Reisen The last verse of the song asks “Tell me Marrano what will happen when your seder songs are heard by your oppressors?” The reply is “If the enemy will capture me I will die singing”

My first contact with Jews other than American and European was in a camp in Marseille where Jews from North Africa were waiting for passage to Israel My friend Mischa Cheifetz and I had volunteered to work with the Youth Being Montrealers we were able to communicate with our newly found brothers and sisters in French We soon learned of the historic connection between North African Jews and those who fled Spain

The day I was longing for finally arrived The Negbah a small Israeli ship was ready to bring the North African immigrants to Israel Mischa and I were in charge of a large group of Youth from Morocco It was an emotional exciting experience for us We celebrated Purim on the ship acting out the Purim story in costume sang Israeli songs and did some dancing A spiritual bond developed between us and the youth during the tenday voyage When we arrived in Haifa a representative from Kibbuz Naan took our children from us We were no longer needed I was heart broken

In Israel I joined “Sherut Chalutzi L’Yisrael” (Pioneer Service for Israel) and was sent to Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley to be a Youth LeaderTeacher to a group of 48 youngsters from Morocco I was with them for three and onehalf years

A year later I visited Jewish communities in Morocco It was there in a Hebrew school that I heard Ladino for the first time Very young boys were seated in a circle on the floor of a small room chanting Hebrew passages and translating them to Ladino just as young boys in the European cheder (one room school) and students in the Yiddish schools in Montreal translated the Hebrew passages to Yiddish

This was my background as a HebrewYiddish teacher in Montreal and New York and a youth leader and educational therapist in Israel I was introduced to the Society for CryptoJudaic Studies in the early l990’s by my friend Bill Fern who is a supporter of the Society and the American Sephardi Federation He speaks Ladino Portuguese and Spanish The two of us visited Braganca and Belmonte in northern Portugal to meet the crypto Jews It was not easy In Belmonte we met Elias Nunes who was the community leader and after much coaxing he took us to his uncle’s home
On a narrow cobble stone street were these small houses In the uncle’s house the Eastern wall off the living room was decorated with Israeli posters and a collection of Hanukah lamps The home filled quickly with Jewish neighbors wanting to meet the American Jewish visitors What an experience!

We also visited a small Jewish museum with a few artifacts The wife of the caretaker proudly showed us the silver Magen David necklace she wore and in strong voice announced to us in Portuguese “We are no longer afraid”

For years I had wondered why there was no date on the Jewish calendar to commemorate the terrors of the Inquisition Now in 2003 I was living in the midst of a large Jewish cultural community in Century Village in Florida’s Deerfield Park I decided to hold such a commemoration I decided to call it “From Sad to Glad”

We were surprised how many in the community came forward to participate As the event moved along we counted a crowd of 180

In my opening remarks I told the assembled community members we were observing the sad events of the past but also using the event to announce the start of a campaign The Belmonte Project to support the Jews of Northern Portugal the anusim who were returning to the open practice of Judaism

Dr Abe Gittelson former Director of the Board of Jewish Education in Broward County set the tone tracing the history of the Crypto Jews Shula Robin read a poem she composed for the occasion “My Lost Brothers and Sisters” while Sylvia Stipelman recited a poem by Shulamith Halevy an Israeli poet Cantor Brian Shamash and Sharon Chasan of Congregation Bnai Torah in Boca Raton sang Ladino songs Storyteller Roslyn Perry related the tragic story of the Portuguese Jewish children forcibly converted to Christianity and sent to Sëo Tomé an island off the coast of Africa

Dr Abe Lavender Professor of Sociology at Florida International University and an active member of SCJS related the latest findings of DNA research as they apply to Jewish ethnicity In a lighter vein I invited the audience to take home their copies of HaLapid which contained Kitty Teltsch’s story on the Belmont anusim (Winter 2003) Volunteers passed around two giant salad bowls I asked them to fill them up with greensand I didn’t mean lettuce This was the kickoff of the Belmonte Project Since renamed Saudade Sefarad the project supports the anusim of Portugal as they learn about their ancestors and no longer have to observe their faith in secret The American Sephardi Federation has agreed to be Saudade’s umbrella agency accepting contributions which enable Americans to make tax exempt gifts to the Federation noting that they are for the Belmont Project

We are sending the Belmonte community prayer books which they requested in Hebrew and Portuguese Jewish holiday and history books for children and youth as well as mezuzot and kipot We are also reaching out to the anusim communities of Oporto and Lisbon We also hope to send a young man from the community to Israel for rabbinical training In addition plans include arranging gatherings of young people from nearby communities to share Jewish educational and cultural experiences In addition we are exploring arranging an English translation of David Agosto Canelo’s The Last Crypto Jews of Portugal originally in Portuguese which describes Belmont’s religious and secular practices including words to prayers developed over 500 years in the absence of rabbinical leadership

YAACOV GLADSTONE is a retired teacher of Hebrew and Yiddish who also directed a special education program for a preschool developmentally disabled children in Harlem New York City