Hanukah Lights in Portugal to Burn Publicly for the First Time in 500 Years

For the first time since the forced baptism of 1497 (unlike Spain, Portugal did not expel its Jews, it simply baptized them all), Hanukah lights will burn in public in the old Jewish quarter of Olival, in downtown historic Porto. Ladina, a Porto based non-profit society dedicated to rescuing Portugal’s Jewish heritage, will erect a giant Hanukiah between two towering palm trees overlooking the red tiled rooftops of the Douro river, a stone’s throw away from the birthplace of Uriel da Costa, a little known New Christian whose tragic death in Amsterdam in 1640 greatly influenced Portugal’s most famous Jew, Bento de Espinoza, better known as Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher. Da Costa, who denied the immortality of the individual soul, is recognized as the world’s first modern secular Jew.

Rabbi Eliezer Shai di Martino, recently arrived from Rome will light the candle on the ten foot high locally made candelabrum on the 3rd day of Hanukah, Sunday, December 17th. In attendance will be members of the fledging Marrano community of the Mekor Haim synagogue known as the “Cathedral of the North,” built by Captain Barros Basto. The charismatic Captain, dubbed the “Apostle of the Marranos” by noted historian Cecil Roth had over 10,000 adherents in northern Portugal in the 1920s and 30s. He started building the synagogue in the year of the depression and with the help of the descendants of the Marrano Diaspora in New York, London and Amsterdam(and the Kadoorie family) finished it in 1938, the year of Kristallhnacht.

There is a strange rumble going on in Portugal, a puported Catholic country. Despite the forced baptism of 1497 and 300 years of the Inquisition, the Jewish soul has survived and is even making a comeback, albeit slowly. Hardly a month goes by in Portugal without a new book on Jewish culture, whether it is a foreign translation such as Martin Gilbert’s Letters to Aunt Fori or a homegrown work such as professor Jorge Martin’s monumental three-volumes, Portugal e os Judeus. From a new synagogue for the Marranos of Belmonte who secretly practiced essential Jewish rituals for 300 years, to the transformation of the Ashkenazi Ohel Jacob synagogue in Lisbon for returning Marranos, the deeply embedded sibylline roots of Jewish Portugal are sprouting new shoots.

The term Marrano was once frowned upon as a pejorative term for those Jews who were forcibly baptized (New Christians). Many academics prefer the term, Anousim, Hebrew for “forced ones”?. However, for people like Jorge Neves Oliveira, filmmaker and poet Alexandre Teixeira Mendes, both founders of Ladina, the term Marrano signifies survival against all odds. It is a badge of honour, a source of pride. The Inquisition did not triumph. Oliveira and Mendes are intent on rescuing the nearly lost Jewish heritage that once thrived in the Iberian Peninsula, otherwise known as Sefarad (hence the term, Sephardic Jews). And the Jewish world is taking note. Rabbi di Martino is in Porto courtesy of Shavei Israel, an organization dedicated to returning lost sheep to the flock. In Lisbon, the Conservative movement has facilitated the return of Marranos to normative Judaism by providing educational guidance and support.

Portuguese Jews once helped make Portugal a great centre of culture and education. From astronomy to politics to medicine, Portuguese Jews played an important role in the creation of a modern Europe. In commerce, the so-called “Men of the Nation” were instrumental in the development of modern financial markets of Amsterdam, London and New York (see the Coffee Trader and A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss or the Grandees by Stephen Birmingham).

Portugal is once again mired in economic woes and despite the dark period of the Inquisition, the remnants of its once proud and fiercely patriotic “Men of the nation” may have to come to the rescue, only this time they will be welcomed with open arms.


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