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Portuguese Marranos and the Global Search For Belonging
By Naomi Leite
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Hidden Within, Imported from Without
A SOCIAL CATEGORY THROUGH TIME
ON A BONE-CHILLINGLY COLD DAY IN NOVEMBER, the caretaker of Portugal's sole remaining medieval synagogue told me a story, one I had heard several times before. As we sat huddled by the electric space heater, the only source of warmth in the small, damp stone sanctuary, the elderly man explained that most Portuguese people have "Jewish blood" (sangue judeu). To illustrate, he recounted a legend set during the time of King José I, who reigned from 1750 to 1777. "The story goes," he began,
that King José declared a law that all descendants of Jews must wear yellow hats. So the prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, went to a store to buy three yellow hats, and then went to the palace to talk to the king with the hats under his arm.
The king looked at him, saw the three yellow hats, and asked: "Oh, Marquis, what are those hats for?" And he said, "Your Majesty, I was following orders when I got these, because I don't know of a single Portuguese in Portugal who doesn't have Jewish blood running in his veins."
The king began to laugh and asked: "So, why do you have three?" The prime minister said: "One is for me, another for the Inquisitor General, and another in case Your Majesty should wish to cover His head."
The caretaker, himself a self-avowed descendant of Jews, would tell this story to most of the visitors who came to the Tomar synagogue — now a museum — that day, whether they were Portuguese or foreign. He would ask Portuguese visitors their surnames, often telling them their names were "New Christian," a statement they readily recognized as meaning that they too had Jewish ancestry. Many were interested and asked questions, or said they already knew; others, like the twenty-five-year-old pharmacist who wandered in out of the rain thinking he was visiting another museum altogether, shook their heads and said, "Oh, I wouldn't know anything about that." The caretaker feels it is important that all of his visitors understand the implications of his country's Jewish past for the Portuguese people of the present, as well as for Jews worldwide. Although he is not a practicing Jew, his wife, who also greets visitors and who is also a descendant of Jews, wears a large Star of David pendant that never fails to attract the attention of the tens of thousands of Jewish tourists who come through the building's doors each year. When foreigners ask if they are Jewish, the caretaker and his wife generally say yes.
The Star of David pendant and avowal of Jewish descent, the story of the three yellow hats and questions about surnames, mean different things to Portuguese visitors than to foreigners, to whom the polyglot caretaker speaks in English, French, Spanish, Italian, even basic Hebrew. For to be "Jewish" in Portugal is no straightforward matter: while the social category "Jews" (judeus) has existed in Portuguese society for well over a millennium (Martins 2006), its meaning has varied continuously over the past five hundred years. At different moments in time, Portugal has been described as a place of Jewish refuge; a hostile landscape, stripped of Jewish life; a locus of flourishing but perilous hidden Judaism; a modern European nation with a Jewish population of less than .0001 percent; and a country whose entire population has "Jewish blood." At any given point, was the Portuguese landscape teeming with Jews, or were there none at all? This is a question of social classification, not of descent or faith, for what has changed in each case is nothing more than context: over time the definition of "Jews" and the constitutive components of "Jewishness" have shifted continuously, and with them the population to which they refer.
In this chapter, I pursue two interrelated aims: (1) to track this complex social category across centuries, teasing apart its various meanings and subcategories over time; and (2) to provide the broad historical context — as recorded by historians and as remembered by diverse stakeholders in the present — for the emergence and rapid growth of urban Marrano associations in the late 1990s and 2000s. The role of continual foreign attention and intervention will prove crucial here, as Portuguese Jewishness has always been caught up, one way or another, with an outsiders' gaze. Long ago, there was a population called "Jews" who were both Portuguese and very much part of the Jewish people, writ large; through a series of tragic events, those Jews effectively vanished from the Jewish world, "lost" to their brethren in other countries. They were not forgotten, however, and memory of their loss became the stuff of Jewish legend. Their loss was remembered in Portugal as well, as a lingering presence and as a remembered identity passed down through families and even entire communities. Without that memory, there could be no claims to ancestral Jewishness by the urban Marranos, nor feelings of relatedness from the foreign Jews who came to meet them. At the same time, the story of Portugal's "lost" Jews continuously surfaces in academic texts, popular media in numerous languages, and widely distributed tourist materials, providing fodder for their lasting presence in everyday Portuguese discourse and in the litany of catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people. In the intervening centuries, however, other populations in Portugal have been identified as "Jews" (or "Jewish"), according variously to self-ascription or to ascription by other Portuguese or by diverse constituencies abroad. If the category's slipperiness becomes confusing as we move along, it is because categorical confusion itself is a defining feature of Jewishness in the Portuguese social landscape, past and present.
From an anthropological perspective, ethnic and religious categories are socially produced and hence malleable. Social boundaries that distinguish one group from another, the cultural and phenotypical characteristics defining this or that ethnicity, inevitably change with time and context. Moreover, as Frederik Barth writes in the classic volume Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, social divisions persist irrespective of the specific individuals and characteristics that populate them; such divisions "entail social processes of exclusion and incorporation whereby discrete categories are maintained despite changing participation and membership in the course of individual life histories" (1969: 9–10). The category "Jews" persists in Portuguese society even as its criteria and meaning change, and consequently individuals and even entire populations move in and out of its domain. The same is true of "Marranos," a category whose boundaries seem to shift with each speaker, sliding closer to or further from "Jews" or "Catholics" with context and signifying a range of different groups: medieval forced converts to Catholicism who secretly continued to practice Judaism; their descendants, past and present, who over generations developed a syncretic religion, a unique hybrid combining elements of both Judaism and Catholicism; and those today who identify as descendants of the historical Marranos but grew up without any secret rituals at all. While respecting its variable application, in this chapter I use Marrano interchangeably with hidden Jews and crypto-Jews to refer specifically to those individuals, past and present, who practice a secret, syncretic form of Judaism. However, these categories, like all social categories, have a tendency to blur around the edges, and where needed I add explanation.
From a relatively simple religious distinction between Jews and Christians in the medieval era to the extraordinary complexity of the Jewishness attributed to rural villagers by foreign Jews and Portuguese nationalists in the early twentieth century, this chapter traces the tangled history of a remarkably long-lasting social category. In the process, it recounts several historical episodes in which foreign Jews have attempted to make contact with Portuguese Marranos and foster their return to the Jewish people. The best known of these involves Belmonte, a mountain village where an intact community of crypto-Jews maintained a Jewish identity and rituals up to the early twentieth century, when they were first discovered. Although their fame has waxed and waned, these hidden Jews have never disappeared entirely from the Jewish imagination abroad; in the 1980s and 1990s they sought contact with the Jewish world and were discovered anew, causing an international sensation. The urban Marranos among whom I conducted my research had no ancestral ties to that community, but the continual light shone on Belmonte deflected onto them, distorting as much as it illuminated. Their story is deeply embedded in this broader historical, sociological, and imaginative context.
Let us begin with the medieval era, a time when Portuguese Jews and Catholics were neatly differentiated by an array of social distinctions. Politically the Jews were a distinct corporate entity, led by a head rabbi who reported directly to the king, with a parallel system of governance and justice rooted in rabbinic law (Martins 2006). Although quite economically and socially integrated, their difference was underscored not only by their religious practices but by heavier taxation than was levied on other subjects and by periodic royal decrees requiring that they wear distinctive clothing, hats, or insignias. A new form of differentiation began in the mid-fourteenth century, when Jews were required to live in segregated neighborhoods known as judiarias (Jewish quarters), ending a long history of Catholics and Jews living side by side (Ferro Tavares 1995).
Enforced social distinctions notwithstanding, while Jews in neighboring Spain suffered periodic violent oppression, forced conversion, and outright massacres, Portugal's Jews lived relatively undisturbed. Indeed, in the medieval era the Portuguese crown afforded them "rights unparalleled in the rest of Europe" (Gitlitz 1996: 48), such as the right — denied Jews elsewhere — to own land. Some fit the persistent stereotype of prosperous tax collectors, court astrologers, jewelers, mapmakers, and royal physicians (Saraiva 2001), but there were also farmers, millers, weavers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and small shopkeepers, regularly conducting business with their Christian neighbors and even serving alongside them in the king's army (Ferro Tavares 1982; Martins 2006: vol. 1). By the early fifteenth century Jews could be found from the poorest to the richest levels of Portuguese society, in more than one hundred cities and towns throughout the kingdom. Despite their residential segregation, so socially integrated were they that in the 1420s the cardinal of Lisbon openly reproached Christians and Jews for dining in each other's homes, attending each other's weddings, and celebrating family occasions together (Ferro Tavares 1995: 64). Today, popular histories and tourism materials celebrate this prolonged period of coexistence as a golden age, one said to reflect an inherent Portuguese tendency to embrace and incorporate difference.
Despite the diverse ways Jews were marked as a distinct population, there is little scholarly consensus on their number. Historians' estimates for the fifteenth century range from 30,000 to 75,000, roughly 3 to 8 percent of a national population of one million (Martins 2006: 1:121). The difficulty of fixing an estimate is partly due to the continuous addition of Jews emigrating from Spain. Beginning in 1391, when anti-Semitic riots broke out across Aragon and Castile, and continuing throughout the fifteenth century, they came in droves, fleeing pogroms in which synagogues and entire neighborhoods were burned, thousands of Jews killed, and thousands more forcibly converted (Roth 1941, 1964). Initially the refugees were quietly absorbed into Portugal's preexisting Jewish communities, but the situation changed radically with the Spanish Edict of Expulsion in 1492. Given four months to convert or leave, most Spanish Jews chose departure. Crossing the border into Portugal, still an apparent haven of coexistence, was a logical choice.
The Spanish Expulsion had enormous consequence for Portuguese Jewry (Soyer 2007a). During the summer of 1492 alone some 50,000 to 200,000 exiles entered Portugal, joining the thousands of Spanish Jewish families that had already arrived and the many tens of thousands of native-born Jews. The demographic implications are striking: with this sudden influx, by 1493 as much as 20 percent of Portugal's resident population would have been Jewish. Five hundred years later these figures have become central facts of Portuguese history, promulgated in popular texts, on the internet, and on Jewish heritage tours. During my fieldwork, I often heard foreign visitors comment on medieval Portugal's importance as a rare place of refuge, a haven where Jewish literature and scholarship flourished. One tourist, a Portuguese American academic of newly discovered Jewish ancestry, exclaimed to me that given the numbers involved, "Portugal was the most Jewish country in the world!"
Remarkable in themselves, these population estimates are more dramatic still for their abrupt reversal: within five years of the Spanish Expulsion, the number of Jews in Portugal would plummet to zero. Initially, Portugal's King João II offered the Spanish Jews sanctuary, provided that they left within eight months. But he failed to make sufficient transport available for their departure; most had no choice but to remain and were declared slaves, their assets seized. The following year, attempting to coerce conversion, the king ordered hundreds of Jewish children taken from their parents, baptized, and — unless the parents converted as well — sent with Christian families to populate the African equatorial island of São Tomé. His successor, Manuel, came to power in 1495 and promptly began negotiations with Ferdinand and Isabella, the famed reyes católicos of the Spanish Inquisition, to marry their daughter. Having expelled the Jews from their kingdom, the Spanish monarchs refused the marriage until Manuel agreed to purge his own lands. The resulting Portuguese Edict of Expulsion, issued on December 5, 1496, gave all Jews ten months to convert or leave. Immediately there followed a series of decrees designed "to completely and forever eradicate Judaism — and even its memory — from Portugal" (Saraiva 2001: 11). Synagogues were closed and their communal property, from books to dwellings, seized and redistributed. Privately owned ritual objects and Hebrew books were confiscated and Jewish cemeteries were destroyed. Within two years the judiarias would be unrecognizable, the streets renamed and populated entirely by Catholics.
Despite this attempt at total erasure, traces remain. A street called Rua da Judiaria (Judiaria Road) can still be found in Lisbon's Alfama district, as in dozens of other Portuguese towns, and in nearby Sintra there is a Beco da Judiaria (Judiaria Alley). Many villages also have a Rua Nova (New Street), said to be the name given to the main thoroughfare of a judiaria upon its transformation into an ordinary neighborhood (Ferro Tavares 1995: 77). Indicative place-names — Monte dos Judeus (Mountain of the Jews), Vale do Judeu (Valley of the Jew) — dot the landscape, rewarding the traveler patient enough to find them. Today these toponyms serve as clues to the location of former judiarias and, given the scarcity of other physical remains, are often key sites on heritage tours of "Jewish Portugal" (Leite 2007).
The Edict of Expulsion notwithstanding, Portugal's Jews were never expelled. Yet we know that by the end of 1497, none remained. How can this be so? Historians believe the king could not accept the economic impact of losing such a large segment of his people, particularly a population so "industrious and profitable" (Roth 1964: 160). Instead, as historian Maria José Ferro Tavares (1995: 74) puts it, "under the guise of expulsion, King Manuel laid out a Machiavellian plan that would simultaneously achieve religious homogeneity in the kingdom and allow the continued presence of the minority which he had no intention of seeing leave Portugal." That plan unfolded in numerous decrees designed to curtail emigration and coerce conversion. Immediately after Manuel's Edict of Expulsion, for example, departures from the kingdom were drastically curtailed, many points of embarkation were closed to Jews altogether, and all Jewish children under age fourteen were ordered baptized and placed in Christian homes unless their parents agreed to be baptized with them (Lipiner 1999: 74; Roth 1941: 57–59).
Excerpted from Unorthodox Kin by Naomi Leite. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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