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Bem-Vindos, Judeus!

After 500 years, Portugal wants its Jews back, and some are coming

Rod James
April 15, 2016
Photo: Wikipedia
Kadoorie Synagogue, Porto, Portugal. Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia
Kadoorie Synagogue, Porto, Portugal. Photo: Wikipedia

In March 1492, high on Catholic dogma after the successful conclusion of a seven-century-long fight against the Moors, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of (what would become) Spain ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews by July 31 of that year—with the punishment of summary execution for those who didn’t leave or convert. Portugal’s Jews were forced to follow in 1497. Fortunately, this was a period of good relations between the Jewish people and the Ottoman Empire. The Sephardic Jews journeyed south toward North Africa; southeast toward the Balkans, modern-day Turkey, and Greece; and as far east as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. When more draconian laws came, targeting even those with a drop of Sephardic blood for the Inquisition, converts to Christianity followed. But now, more than 500 years later, the descendants of the dispossessed, who ended up as far afield as Cuba, China, and Australia, have the chance to go back.

In January 2015, the Portuguese parliament ratified a bill allowing descendants of exiled Sephardic Jews to apply for citizenship. Spain passed its own law in June. The Spanish law is full of hedges and ambiguities; for example, it is not clear which documents can be used to prove your Sephardic ancestry, and the law has to be renewed after three years. By contrast, the Portuguese law is permanent and requires applicants only to “demonstrate a traditional connection to a community with Portuguese Sephardic origins” through signifiers such as “family names” and “family language.” When seeking religious certification from the Jewish communities of cities like Porto or Lisbon (two of three Jewish communities in the country, the third being the tiny mountain village of Belmonte) papers from legal or religious bodies, family trees, photos, letters, and even sound recordings of Ladino being spoken are admissible. Once you’ve gained certification, you are on a relatively smooth road, probably no more than six months, to citizenship.

In Portugal, interest has been strong. The Jewish communities of Lisbon and Porto (also known as Oporto) have already awarded around a thousand certifications from a pool of nearly 10,000 applicants, with a majority processed by Porto, the historic center of Portuguese Jewry. Which raises the question: Half a millennium after their ancestors were forced out, who are these Jews, half-Jews, or scarcely Jewish Jews who are applying for citizenship? What are their motives? And how do members of the Portuguese Jewish community feel about the possible arrival of tens or even hundreds of new members in a place where synagogue attendance numbers in the twenties, on a good day?

A majority of applications are from Turkey, followed by Israel and Brazil, though Porto alone has received applications from 40 different countries. Most of those applying appear to be doing it out of acknowledgement of their roots or to draw a symbolic line under a long period of exile. Most applicants have no intention of actually moving to Portugal, particularly those of working age. The unemployment rate is 13 percent in Portugal, higher among young people. But rising tensions in countries such as Turkey, where government rhetoric is becoming increasingly anti-Semitic, and the political and economic crisis in Brazil, mean that many Jews are keeping their options open.

“Some feel more comfortable with a second passport, especially if they live in countries where there are tensions, political problems, maybe even anti-Semitism” said Jose Carp, president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon. And successful applicants “can come and live and work in the European Union, which is part of the reason.”

A minority of applicants, mainly older, are considering moving to Portugal. Yigal Ben Zion, who moved from Turkey to Tel Aviv in 1990, can trace his family tree back to Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the famous legal code, who was born in Toledo, Spain, and later escaped to Portugal. Ben Zion was educated in a Sephardic Portuguese environment and remembers Ladino being spoken at home by his grandmother. Quite happy in Israel, he applied for citizenship largely as a way of solidifying his connection with his own history. In January he was invited to attend a Shabbaton at the synagogue in Porto, the largest event in the synagogue’s history. He was so impressed by the event, the city, and the people he encountered that he is now considering a permanent move.

“I had a very good impression; I want to come with my wife and family to Portugal and then we will decide,” he said. “Every person that I spoke to in Portugal tells me there is no anti-Semitism from the taxi drivers, you can wear a kippah, people can pray at the synagogue. I think it’s a unique country in Europe now, where people can pray and openly expose their Jewish belonging.”

Loris Grossman and her husband Harry will be making the long trip to her ancestral home, Porto, in June. Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, she remembers the mahogany seats, brass nameplates, and sand-covered floor of the Portuguese Sephardic synagogue; she spoke with sadness about the rapid dispersal of the Jewish community amid the violence that followed Britain’s withdrawal in 1962. Her family moved to Perth, Australia, on the recommendation of an Australian cricketer whom they met in the Caribbean, and they have been there ever since.

“From my synagogue in Jamaica, they traced my family tree back 500 years so I thought why not [apply]?” she said. “We are going to take a trip to Porto, drive around see what it’s like. I thought the connection might be nice because that’s where most of the Jewish people are in Portugal.”

While “Australia is home,” she said, she thinks Portugal has potential. “We could probably go there [to Porto] for two or three months of the year. We are pretty much semi-retired.”

Not everyone has the benefit of a family tree going back 500 years, and many Brazilian applicants, in particular, are struggling to put together the documentation they need. The first New Christians, or converts, arrived in Brazil in 1500, but the extension of the Inquisition to the Portuguese colony meant that any chance of reverting to Judaism was lost and the new arrivals were quickly assimilated. That is, if they were even Jewish in the first place. Large numbers who went to Brazil pretended to have been Jews, as genuine Christians who declared themselves not guilty of the sin of being Jewish were often executed for being “unrepentant.”

One descendant of these cristãos-novos is Marcelo Guimaraes, who in 2000 founded ABRADJIN, or the Brazilian Association of Descendants of Jews of the Inquisition, an organization with 1,200 members, one in 10 of whom he says are either applying or considering applying for Portuguese citizenship. He is also the founder of the Inquisition History Museum in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, which he curates and paid for with his own savings.

Guimaraes was told by his parents and grandparents that the family came to the state of Minas Gerais in the early 1800s (the Inquisition ended in 1821) looking for work in gold mines. His family kept the Sabbath and carried out kosher slaughter, and he remembers the wearing of black ribbons during shiva. Yet a lack of documentation, which he believes is due to a combination of assimilation and the church and government trying to “hide history”—pretend the inquisition didn’t happen—is impeding his progress. Still, he’s optimistic that he can gather enough evidence to make his application a success.

“Looking for your family name in the Catholic Church archives is very difficult but possible,” Guimaraes said. “It’s very slow. The Catholic Church has a thousand books of registers and it’s necessary to look one by one. And it’s an expensive process. The church requests a tax [fee] for you to look in these books.”

The Jewish communities of Lisbon and Porto seem to have quite different approaches to the law of return. The Lisbon community views its role as largely functional, a part of government bureaucracy that just happens to have a cultural and religious flavor, and the people there don’t expect the law to have a dramatic effect on the local community. The community of Porto, on the other hand, sees the law as an opportunity for revival.

Up until a few years ago, the 50-member community struggled to make ends meet, its beautiful Kadoorie Synagogue falling slowly into disrepair against Portugal’s gloomy economic backdrop. But the law of return, which was first discussed in 2013, saw a revival of interest in Portuguese Sephardic history and brought an influx of Jewish visitors, many of whom became donors. The community has used this money to open a kosher hotel, and there are a kosher shop, school, and cemetery in the works.

The money has started to come in and with it, the people. Or so hopes Michael Rothwell, who is on Porto’s Law of Return committee. Rothwell believes that a significant number of Turkish applicants will move to Porto, particularly as the political climate becomes more fraught; he also sees many more Jews moving from within the European Union, especially France. “The Ottoman empire saved the Jews 500 years ago,” he said, “and hopefully we can help save the Jews from Turkey 500 years later.”


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Rod James is a financial journalist based in Lisbon.