"Marranos" by Moshe Maimon (1893) via Wikipedia

by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Most of the thousands of non-Jews who convert to Judaism every year in the U.S. and Canada are surprised to learn that a non-Jew who wants to join the Jewish people and become Jewish, will be welcomed; but only after being warned that Jews have often been oppressed and persecuted. Even people who have discovered a Jewish ancestor, and desire to return to their Jewish heritage and join the Jewish people, should carefully read about what happened to a Portugese army officer who more than 80 years ago, discovered he was descended from Marranos (Jews forcibly converted to Christianity as a result of the Inquisition).

When the king of Spain decided to “cleanse” the country of Jews in 1492, the Jewish community was given the choice of converting to Christianity or expulsion. The majority left, but many converted. Most Jews crossed the border into Portugal. Others went to Morocco, France and Italy. Many chose to settle in the Ottoman Empire. Scarcely five years had passed before the scenario repeated itself in Portugal. But in this case, the Jews were not allowed to leave. The entire Jewish population was forcibly baptized. A handful managed to escape.

If it is true that 15 to 20 percent of the population of Portugal was Jewish at the end of the 15th century, as some scholars claim, one gets an idea of how many of today’s Portuguese and Brazilians have Jewish roots. Over the years, they assimilated in Christian society, although small pockets preserved a ritual or two or remembered that an ancestor or two were Jews . Of those who clung to Judaism, many were tried by the Inquisition in the 16th and 17th centuries. Such trials were even held in Brazil. The accused were burned at the stake or imprisoned in monasteries for the rest of their lives.An example of the amazing return of one man in Portugal was related by Henrique Zimmerman in an Israeli newspaper, HaAretz 2/17/12, as follows:  I was born and raised in Porto, Portugal. One of the most significant places in the lives of the local Jews was the neighborhood synagogue, impressive and grand, but nearly empty. The Makor Haim Synagogue was built in the 1930s by Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basto.

Barros Basto, born in 1887, was a World War I hero who fought in Belgium. Before that he had belonged to the group that toppled the monarchy in Portugal and founded the republic in 1910, when he himself raised the flag of the new government. The republic was critical of the Church and carefully guarded religious freedom. In the 1920s Barros Basto learned from his grandfather that he had Jewish roots. In the light of the new religious freedom in Portugal, he decided to return to his forefathers’ people and religion. He went to Tangier, Morocco to convert. The orthodox rabbis at the local rabbinical court, due to their objection to conversion, tried to get Barros Basto to convert in Algeria. Barros Basto replied that he would not leave without completing the process, which he believed was merely a technicality since he already felt like a Jew. He was eventually converted in Tangier.

When he got back to his homeland he set about establishing a Jewish congregation for the first time in over 400 years – the first since the expulsion of Jews from Portugal. He built and founded a school, a community newspaper, and our synagogue, Makor Haim. When other Portugese with Jewish ancestors heard about Barros Basto they began streaming to the place. “We too are Jews, even though our family converted to Christianity following the expulsion from Portugal in 1497,” they told him. Encouraged by the new congregants, Barros Basto began traveling all over northern Portugal in search of lost Jews. And he found them. They were amazed by the Jewish captain. “Let us build a community openly, there is nothing to fear. We are a republic,” he told them. Thus it was that hundreds of young people joined him and came to the school he founded in Porto, where they studied Judaism and Hebrew. A doctor descended from Marranos helped him to perform ritual circumcision ceremonies on the students, and there was a wealth of Jewish activity. Graduates of the school he founded . became teachers and went back to their hometowns to teach their Marrano neighbors.

In 1928 Portugal was rocked by another revolution that restored to the Church the power it had during the days of the monarchy. The priests did not look kindly upon the new movement that was trying to bring thousands of Marranos back to the Jewish people. Furthermore, with the change of government, the Portuguese attitude toward the country’s Jews in general also changed. Once, at a military ceremony dedicated to WWI heroes, somebody declared publicly that Barros Basto should not be given a medal because of his religion. Tensions worsened in the 1930s, when a fascist government arose in Portugal. In 1937 Barros Basto was put on trial in two cases, one civil and the other military, and was found guilty of participating in circumcision ceremonies. After he was found guilty, the government stripped  his of his military rank and repossessed his pension. Inacio Steinhardt, an Israeli who emigrated from Portugal, wrote a biography about this Portuguese Dreyfus.

In 1961, Barros Basto died, far from the spotlight. His final request was to be buried at the cemetery in Amarante, the village where he was born, dressed in his military uniform, with his medals and the national flag. Inacio Steinhardt, an Israeli who emigrated from Portugal, wrote a biography about the Portuguese Dreyfus.

On April 25, 1974, young army officers led a velvet revolution that removed the dictator Marcelo Caetano. In 1975, Lea Barros Basto, hopeful that democracy had been introduced, asked parliament to do her husband justice and clear his name, but the military intervened and stopped the initiative. After the widow’s death, the couple’s daughter petitioned parliament, but she too was unable to accomplish anything. In 1997, in honor of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Portugal’s Jews, then-Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon paid a visit to the country. That same year, 1997, a synagogue called Beit Eliyahu was inaugurated in the town of Belmonte in northern Portugal, and many local residents have converted to Judaism.

Steinhardt describes a movement to return to Judaism that is on currently on the rise among descendants of the Marranos – not only in Portugal, but in the United States, South Africa and other places to which Portuguese migrated. He says there are websites and online blogs devoted to this subject, and that some descendants of Marranos have also come to Israel to convert or live. For those interested in becoming Jewish; you have been warned and you are welcome to join us.

Many people who become Jewish do not know of a specific Jew who was an ancestor but come from a population that contains the descendants of past Jewish communities.  Millions of Spanish and Portuguese speakers are descendants of Jews who were forcibly baptized during the 15th century. In 1391 there were anti-Jewish riots in several Spanish cities. Thousands of Jews were forcibly baptized. The Church viewed these baptisms as valid because the Spanish Jews had freely chosen baptism over death, unlike the Jews of France and Germany during the first and second crusades, who chose to kill themselves rather than be baptized. Over the next three generations there were additional riots that led to more forcible baptisms.

Of course, Jews forced to be Christians didn’t stop believing in Judaism, but they had to practice it and teach their children in secret. The Church knew this but they thought that all the children and grandchildren of the Marranos (as the secret Jews were called) would be indoctrinated in the true faith and become believers. This did not happen. In 1480 the Inquisition began holding trials in Spain. Over the next two centuries thousands would be tried/tortured, and imprisoned or executed. In 1492 all unbaptized Jews in Spain were exiled. Over 100,000 Jews left Spain, most of them going to Portugal. In 1497, they were expelled from Portugal, but first all their children were forcibly baptized, so parents who didn’t want to lose their children had to freely choose baptism. In later decades many of these secret Jews and their children came to the new world seeking freedom, so the Inquisition was established in Lima in 1570 and in Mexico City in 1571 Secret Jews fled to all parts of central and south America to escape. (see: A History of the Marranos by Cecil Roth) . Many of descendants of these people have Jewish souls and are now returning to the Jewish people. How would someone know if he or she could be one of them?

Signs of a Jewish soul.

1- You like to ask questions? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied you, although others didn’t seem to have a problem with this view.

2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child. You prayed to God the father more easily than Jesus the son of God, even though you were told to pray to Jesus. You couldn’t believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus couldn’t go to Heaven.

3- You found you related well to Jewish people you met at work or at school even though they were culturally different from your own family.

4- When you first learned about the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than did other members of your own family.

5- When you started to learn about Judaism the ideas and values seemed reasonable and the traditions and heritage seemed attractive.

The promise of democracy and religious Freedom in Portugal failed in the 1930’s. Let us pray that this promise does not fail again in our generation for Reform and Progressive Jewish congregations and their rabbis welcome everyone interested in learning more about Jewish music, culture and religion. For those interested in becoming Jewish; you have been warned and you are welcome to join us.
More information about reincarnation and becoming Jewish can be found in “God, Sex and Kabbalah” by Rabbi Allen S. Maller or at Rabbi Maller’s web site: rabbimaller.com   Judaism is for Non-Jews.