Portuguese Crypto Jews

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Portugal and Madeira

On August 19 1994, Haim Shapiro described in the “Jerusalem Post”, an ancient and secret Yom Kippur ritual still practised by Marrano families in northern Portugal. Women gather together and braid oil wicks while reciting 73 blessings, possibly corresponding to the number of names of G-d. This practise is quoted in the Shulhan Aruch. In addition to Belmonte and Oporto celebrations were held in Guarda for 600 crypto-Jewish families who live in the Portuguese towns of Fundao, Pinhei, Meda, Traconso, Idanha, Panamacor and Vilarinho dos Galigos, as well as in the Spanish provence of Galicia.

Even though the crypto-Jews of Belmonte have come out of hiding, other communities such as Tomar, still maintain secret Jewish lives and rituals; both personally and communally.

Ayre Hazary has published a lengthy survey of the crypto-Jewish community of the Portuguese island of Madeira, located in the Atlantic Oceon off the northwest coast of Africa, where his maternal great-grandparents came from. He conveyed reports of secluded candlelighting by at least three crypto-Jewish families there. They circumcise their new-born sons on the eighth day, observe the Sabbath, buy kasher meat from the Jewish community in Lisbon, and fast on Yom Kippur and the Fast of Esther. Though they wear gold crosses round their necks, they are practicing Jews.The names of Hazary’s maternal grandmother and great-grandmother were Gomes and Correira, names found in documents in Madeira today. Tito Benady, af historian from Gibraltar Jewry, noted that when some 200 Jews from Gibraltar were evacuated as non=combatants to Funchal, Madeira, at the start of WW2, they found a Jewish cemetery that belonged to the Abudarham family. The same family after whom the synagogue in Gibraltar was named.

The famous Menasseh ben Israel was born in Madeira. Cecil Roth wrote that his original crypto-Jewish name was Manuel Dias Soeiro.The family moved to La Rochelle and ultimately settled in Amsterdam. There Menasseh became the famous leader and rabbi of the Sephardic community and its representative to local non-Jewish intellectuals. He married a daughter of the branch of the Abravanel family trapped in Portugal and who had undergone forced conversion. Menasseh ben Israel is mainly renowned for persuading Cromwell to readmit the Jews into England in 1655.

The practice of medicine as well as the secret practice of Judaism remained in family.Dr Luis Gomes de Madeiros reached Amsterdam, reverted to Judaism and reclaimed the ancient Jewish name for himself and his children.One of Menasseh ben Israel’s brother-in-laws however, remained unconverted and became the a known poet in Madeira.Frieda Wolf wrote in ‘Avontaynu’ —– “still in our century, children enlisted in school on this extremely Catholic island had to show their certificate of baptism to be accepted, this being the consequence of the many New Christians and Judaizers who had lived there”. Anita Novinsky, an historian from Brazil, who has extensively researched the connection between Madeira and the Inquisition, also wrote; “Madeira, the Azores and the islands of the Atlantic were in great part settled by converted Jews.”

Sao Tome and Principe The Jewish history of Sao Tome and Principe, two small islands off the west coast of African Guinea, is one of tragedy, but also of Jewish continuity. In 1493, one year after many Jews were expelled from Spain and three years before the ‘expulsion’ from Portugal, King Manuel of Portugal, in seeking funds to finance his program of colonial expansion, imposed huge poll taxes upon the Jews.They were ordered to pay within a short period, and were threatened with fines if they failed to do so.

King Manuel wanted to colonize the islands of Sao Tome and Principe in order “to whiten the race” as he put it.The Portuguese did not want to settle in the fever and crocodile infested islands. When it was clear that the majority of the Jews could not pay the tax demanded, the king deported Jewish children aged 2 to 10 years of age to Sao Tome and Principe. In the port of Lisbon, no fewer than 2,000 children were torn from their parents and herded onto boats as slaves. This was reported by Rabbi Samuel Usque in his book “Tribulations of Israel”. Within a year only 600 children remained alive. Usque recorded that when parents of children saw that the deportation was inevitable, they impressed on the children to keep the laws of Moses; some even married them off to each other.

Gloria Mound notes that the entreaties of th parents were apparently not in vain, as reports reached the Office of the Inquisition in Lisbon that in Sao Tome there were incidents of open Jewish observance.The local church was greatly incensed. The bishop Pedro da Cuhna Lobo, appointed in 1616, became obsessed with the problem. According to an historical source, on Simchat Torah 1621, he was awakened by a procession, rushed out to confront it, but was booed by the demonstrators. In disgust he gave up and took the next ship back to Portugal.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a small influx of Jewish cocoa and sugar traders to the islands; two of them are buried in the Sao Tome cemetery. The islands obtained independence from Portugal on July 12th, 1975. In 1993 Israel’s first Ambassador, Dr Moshe Liba, was warmly received there. He found that “the descendants of the child slaves were still a very distinctive section of the population ( because of their lighter skin), proud of their historic past and desirous of contact with Jews outside.” Some Jewish customs had been maintained, although they are now greatly mixed with components of Creole societal values and cultural customs.

In order to commemorate the children who were torn from their parents in the 15th century, an international conference was held to coincide with the island’s twentieth Independence Day, on July 12th 1995. Participants attended from Israel, the US, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain. Hopefully, that joint sponsorship will further studies in this area. In Casa Shalom Institute for Marrano and Anousim Studies in Gan Yavneh, Israel, there are 571 pages of archival material that deal solely with the Jews of Sao Tome.


1) Gloria Mound, “Continuing Jewish Customs and Folklore in Ibiza and Formentera”.Proceedings of the Eleventh World Congress of Jewish Studies, Division D, Vol 11; Art, Folklore and Music (Jerusalem; World Union of Jewish Studies, 1994) 143 – 150.

2) Haim Shapiro, “Lies my Ancestors Told Me”, The Jerusalem Post, August 19,1994, 10 – 12.

3) Gloria Mound, “Judaic Research Continues in Balearic Islands and Sao Tome.”

From http://www.saudades.org/portcrypto.html

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