Marrano History



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The Nutshell History of Marranos of Portugal

By Manuel Azevedo

The Jews of Portugal pre-date the founding of the nation in 1143. When Afonso conquered Lisbon from the Moors in 1147, there already existed thriving Jewish communities in Iberia (Sepharad), perhaps dating as far back as the time of King Solomon. Afonso welcomed his Jewish subjects and appointed Yahia ben Yahi, the chief rabbi of Santarem, as his treasurer, tax collector, and chief rabbi of the newly formed nation state, Portugal.

Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Portuguese Jews (Sephardim) enjoyed unparalleled freedom, wealth and power. They occupied key positions in government, academia, and commerce, and especially the professions of medicine, science and law. Even when Hebrew was later prohibited, doctors could continue to possess Hebrew books. Places of worship and schools flourished. Jews established the first printing presses in Portugal at Faro, Lisbon and Leiria. The first eleven books printed in Portugal were in Hebrew. The nautical charts of Abraham Zacuto guided Vasco da Gama to India. Portugal even accepted over 100,000 Spanish Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, albeit with conditions.

Following the death of King John II in 1495, his successor, Manuel sought to marry the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel. As a condition of their consent to the wedding, the Catholic monarchs of the newly created country of Spain demanded the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal as they had done in 1492. Accordingly, on or about the 5th of December of 1496 king Manuel ordered Jews and Muslims to leave Portugal by October of 1497. He permitted the Muslims to leave but he had no intention of allowing the Jews to do so.

The scheming Manuel, coveting the Spanish throne, did not want to lose his most learned, creative and productive subjects, not to mention his personal physician, tailor, royal mathematician, royal astronomer, his government financiers, etc. He encouraged “his” Jews to convert to Christianity. He tried to persuade and cajole them, even bringing converted rabbis from Spain to preach to them. When his impatience grew, he took away their children to be raised by Catholic families, but if they converted, the families would remain intact. Of the stubborn lot of over 20,000 who held out until the end, he ordered that they assemble in the "Estaus" palace, today’s national theatre at the north end of the Rossio in downtown Lisbon. The promised ships never arrived to ferry the Jews away. First the King withheld food and water from the assembled for three days, after which he ordered them all baptized, even if Church elders protested! Only a handful of Jews were permitted to leave, such as Abraham Zacuto, the King’s physician.

Henceforth there were supposedly no more Jews in Portugal, only Christians, Old and New. King Manuel ordered the confiscation of all synagogues and their contents. Yeshivas, kosher producing facilities and all communal property were seized. Hebrew books were prohibited and ordered to be deposited in the synagogues. Contrary to some reports, the books were not burned, Manuel may have been cruel, but he was not stupid. He sold the valuable Hebrew manuscripts, many brought to Portugal in 1492. The books turned up in places such as North Africa and Goa. Many synagogues were converted into churches, including the grand synagogue of Lisbon which was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755. Many contemporary Misericordia churches are former synagogues such as the Misericordia chapel in Vila Real or the Misericordia church in Leiria.

Following the forced baptism, the King encouraged marriages between Old Christians who had titles and “pure blood” and New Christians. He prohibited the inter-marriage of New Christians. There would be no inquiry as to the religious practices of New Christians in their private homes for 20 years but they were not free to leave the realm. However, following the Lisbon massacre of 1506, when two to four thousand New Christian men, women and children, were slaughtered over a period of three days, the King extended the 20 year period and removed many disabilities such as the ability to emigrate or the prohibition on inter-marriage.

The Lisbon massacre, the subject of a recent book by Susana Mateus Basto and Paulo Mendes of the Alberto Benveniste Centre for Sephardic Studies and Culture at the University of Lisbon, signalled a failure of King Manuel’s policy of integration. Most of the New Christians, outwardly Catholic, had remained Jewish in their hearts. The New Christian secret Jews became known as Marranos, from the Portuguese "marrar", i.e. forced, or from the Aramaic-Hebrew Mar Anus, a forced one, like the widely used Hebrew term today, Anousim, although some historians claim the once pejorative term derives from the Castilian term for swine.

Distressed at the growing rift between New and Old Christians, the King sought permission from Rome to introduce the Inquisition has had been done in Spain in the late 15th century. However, Marrano bribes paid to high ranking Church officials in Rome, including Cardinals and no doubt the Pope himself, thwarted the introduction of the Inquisition in Portugal until 1535 and although the first auto de fe was held in 1540, the Inquisition did not get into full swing until 1580, thus enabling several generations of Marranos to develop a unique secret Portuguese Jewish culture.

The ambiguous Portuguese Marranos became known throughout Europe as "Men of the Nation". Being Portuguese in 16th century in Europe was synonymous with being Jewish. The Marranos established flourishing Jewish communities in Amsterdam, Bordeaux, London, Hamburg, Venice, Livorno, Salonica, and Constantinople, amongst others. In the New World, the relatively small number of Marranos established communities in Brazil, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Newport Rhode Island, as well as the Caribbean Islands. The success of the American war of Independence owes its success to the financial and material aid provided by the Marranos, then openly professing their Judaism, such as the money and ships provided to George Washington by Aaron Lopez, the wealthiest merchant of the thirteen colonies, born Duarte Lopez in Lisbon.

The Marranos prospered both in business and government wherever they went. It was a the son of a Marrano, Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel (Manuel Dias Soeiro) of Amsterdam, born in Lisbon or Madeira, who convinced Oliver Cromwell in 1656 to allow Jews back into England. The Marranos established the coffee, diamond and tulip industries in Amsterdam. They were instrumental in establishing the stock exchanges of Amsterdam, London and New York. They controlled the sugar and tobacco industries, and regrettably were involved in slavery, amassing huge fortunes.

This rising merchant class created the world’s first truly global Empire (see The First Global Village, How Portugal Changed the World by Martin Page, now in its 8th edition). Lisbon became one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. However, not even the huge bribes paid to the pope and cardinals could keep the Inquisition at bay forever. With the onset of the Inquisition, many of the wealthy Marranos left Portugal, contributing to the decline of Portugal. The poor Marranos, the old and infirm had no option but to remain, becoming even more secretive. Thousands were burned at the stake, including most of the leading intellectuals of the University of Coimbra in the early 17th century. Even Antonio Homem, the chancellor of the University and an advisor to the pope was burned alive in 1624 (he also happened to be a Marrano rabbi). The ones that left established the oldest extant synagogues in the U.S.A; England, and Holland, Touro synagogue, Newport, R.I; 1762 (founded in 1658), Bevis Marks synagogue, London 1701 (founded 1656), and the Esnoga, Amsterdam, 1675 (amalgamated from three communities dating fro 1598). The Esnoga, undisturbed by the Nazis, stands as the model synagogue for the Western Sephardic world. Bevis Marks in London is a replica, one-quarter its size.

The philosophers Baruch Espinoza, Frances Sanches, Uriel Acosta, Montaigne, and David Ricardo were all Marrano descendants. So were rabbis Ben Israel and Aboab Fonseca, the first rabbi in the Americas (Recife, Brazil, 1635). The father of French impressionism, Camille Pissaro was descendant of a Marrano born in Bragança, in the Tras Montes region of Portugal. So too were les freres Peyrere (Pereira) of Bordeaux and later Paris, contemporaries and associates of the Rothchilds. Portugal has yet to recover from this extraordinary brain drain.

It was not until the liberal revolution of the early 19th century that the Inquisition was abolished. Although the Marquis of Pombal invited Jews back to Portugal at the end of the 18th century, very few took up his offer. Some Jews from North Africa and Gibraltar did establish communities in Lisbon, Faro, and the Azores in the 19th century but eventually disappeared. The only surviving remnant maintains a synagogue in Lisbon, Shaare Tikve, and recently a museum opened in the Faro Jewish cemetery.

However, to the surprise of many, indigenous Marranos did survive nearly 300 years of the Inquisition. In 1920, Samuel Schwarz, a Polish engineer working in Portugal, encountered a community of Marranos in the interior of Portugal (Belmonte) who had managed to preserve some of the secret rituals, including prayers, of their ancestors. At first distrustful and denying any Jewish connection, they opened up only after Schwartz recited a Hebrew prayer, in which one of the women elders (women handed down the secret prayers from generation to generation) recognized the Hebrew word, Adonai.. Today Belmonte boasts a modern new synagogue and professional Jewish museum.

About the same time as Schwartz learned of the Marranos of Belmonte, Captain Barros Basto, a decorated World War I veteran founded a synagogue for Marranos, the Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto on the second floor above a store. This charismatic army captain embarked on campaign to convince Marranos to return openly to normative Judaism. In full uniform, sometime on horseback, he travelled the isolated communities of Tras Montes and Beiras, founding several Jewish communities, including Bragança, Covilha and Pinhel. Some estimate his adherents at the time upwards of 10,000. Cecil Roth, who first met him in 1926, described Basto as the most charismatic man he had ever met.

In 1930 Roth published the Apostle of the Marranos, a short biographical monogram translated into French. Roth’s pioneering classic, History of the Marranos, published shortly thereafter owes much to the Captain’s infectious enthusiasm.

The Captain was a visionary leader. In the middle of the depression and in face of the wave of anti-Semitism in Europe, and with the financial help of the descendants of the Marrano Diaspora in New York, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Hamburg and the Kadoorie family of Shanghai, the Captain built a huge magnificent synagogue in Porto, which he dubbed, "the Cathedral of the North". He wanted to make sure no Marrano would feel ashamed walking into a synagogue. He would impress them. It would be a source of pride and a beacon of strength to all the Marranos of Portugal, especially in the north. While the Nazis were destroying synagogues throughout Europe, and the students of the German college next door were throwing rocks at the windows of the newly built synagogue, one man stood up and built a lasting memorial to the Marrano legacy. He is a true hero.

It did not take long for the Catholic Church to respond. They built a bigger church, in the same architectural style as the synagogue, just up the road. Teachers and doctors who had adhered to the Captain’s call suddenly had no students or patients. There were mischievous public demonstrations against the presence of synagogues in the provinces. The totalitarian government led by Salazar in Lisbon was not too enamoured with the Captain, who had hoisted the Republican flag in Porto in 1910. The powerful enemies of the Captain organized a campaign to destroy him. He died a broken man and the Marranos once again withdrew into obscurity. (see Barros Basto, the Marrano Mirage by Alexandre Teixeira Mendes, forthcoming,

However, the story is not over. Today, following the visit of the Sefardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar to the Mekor Haim Kaddoorie synagogue in Porto in 2004, another Marrano renaissance is in the air. There are active Marrano, Conservative, Orthodox and Liberal communities in Porto, Belmonte and Lisbon. There is a nascent kosher industry producing wine and olive oil, including the first kosher port wine ever produced. Portugal’s first kosher restaurant will open shortly. Every month it seems, there is a new book published on Marrano Jewish history. There is now a Portuguese branch of Sefer publishers, one of the largest Jewish publishers in Brazil. The tanach was recently launched in Portugal. The first book on the Lisbon 1506 massacre of New Christians sold out quickly. There are new Jewish museums in Belmonte, Faro and Porto. Another two will open next year in Covilhã and Trancoso. Who knows, a yeshiva may be next. There is a future for Jews in Portugal; they did not die in vain. The Inquisition did not succeed.

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from the August 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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