Lopez marks Pessah alone, as his ancestors did for centuries

For Marranos in Spain and Portugal, a hesitant reconnection to a long-hidden Jewish identity.

pessah good 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
pessah good 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
TORREMOLINOS, Spain - As Jews here and in the Diaspora sit around the Seder table this year, Antonio Lopez, 41, will draw the curtains in his house in Toledo and mark Pessah privately and alone, just as his ancestors have done for hundreds of years. Lopez is a descendant of a Jewish family that was forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Like many other descendants of Marranos (Bnei Anusim in Hebrew), he was never told that he was a Jew. But Lopez, whose job is to identify counterfeit euro bills in Spain's National Central Bank, followed the clues his mother and grandmother had left over the years and realized, six years ago, that his ancestors had secretly maintained elements of what had been their Jewish life. "There was a hidden room with no windows in my grandmother's house where she lit candles on Friday evenings after making sure the house seemed empty," Lopez told The Jerusalem Post earlier this month, when we met up here at the fifth convention for Spanish and Portuguese Marranos of the Shavei Israel organization. "It was hard to maintain Jewish customs. I was raised in a small and highly religious village near Toledo. My grandfather, who fought in Spain's Civil War, was accused of being a Jew and was killed over it after the war," he went on. "After that, my family withdrew further and kept the secret even tighter." Lopez wore a kippa to the convention. Underneath his shirt he was wearing tzitzit, just as his grandfather did. But he does not normally cover his head and is still hesitant about discussing his new/old Jewish identity. Even though he came out of the closet for the convention, Lopez's own family is not aware of its Jewish heritage. He said he had investigated his relationship to Judaism on the Internet, via the Spanish archives of the Inquisition that meticulously document its actions, and through friends and relatives. "There are probably around 20,000 Marranos in Toledo who continue to maintain a Catholic lifestyle," he said. "Ancient customs like not mixing meat and milk or not eating pork have been customary there for ages and, according to the books, these point to the strong presence of the Jewish community in Toledo prior to the Inquisition." Lopez is one of a growing number of descendants of Jews hunted during the Inquisition to have emerged from the shadows in the past two decades, looking to reconnect with the Jewish people and return to the faith. Spanish Jewry was one of the oldest and most successful Diaspora communities before the Inquisition. But from 1391, it faced waves of expulsion, persecution and forced conversions. Finally in 1492, the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, formally expelled the last Jews. Many of those who remained behind had been compelled to convert to Catholicism, but preserved their Jewish identity covertly. Tens of thousands of Spanish Jews sought sanctuary in Portugal. Then, in 1497, the Portuguese king presented the Jews living in his realm with a choice: convert or die. Some chose death, but most either fled or were dragged to the baptismal font. When the doors of the New World swung open in the 16th and 17th centuries, Brazil came to play an important role for the Marranos; it offered the possibility of a new life and the hope of one day returning to the faith of their ancestors. But the long arm of the Inquisition reached across the Atlantic and continued to hunt down those accused of secretly practicing Judaism. The derogatory name Marrano, "pig's leg" in Spanish, was given to the converted Jews by their Christian neighbors. "If someone was suspected of keeping his Judaism secretly, the members of the community would give him a piece of pork to eat in front of them. If he or she refused, they would be brought in front of the Inquisition's court for a cruel trial," Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum explained. Birnbaum, 49, made aliya from Uruguay 36 years ago. He works for the Chief Rabbinate and volunteers with Shavei Israel among the Spanish-speaking communities of the Bnei Anusim. During the convention, he gave advice to participants, prayed with them, explained the origins of traditions and, at their request, taught them how Shabbat should be observed. While the Spanish still do not like to be called Marranos, the Portuguese feel differently. "In Portugal, Marrano means not just a pig's leg but is also an adjective used to describe a determined person who fights for what he believes in and doesn't give up," Prof. Filipe Ferráo, 51, a neurophysiologist from the University of Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, told the Post. "I was raised in Porto with all these customs I didn't understand. For example, we were constantly told not to count stars while pointing to the skies. We were told that if we did so our fingers would be calloused. Years later, I learned that Jews know Shabbat is over only when they count three stars in the skies. Our parents were afraid that if we did so, we would be suspected as hidden Jews," Ferráo recalled. "Our dining table was rectangle and whenever I placed bread on it horizontally, my mother used to come over and tell me to move it. She never said why, but it became second nature to me. When I grew up, I understood it was in her attempt to prevent me creating a cross." It took Ferráo 20 years to complete the process of returning to Judaism. He and 15 other Marranos were converted by a Jerusalem rabbinic court in January 2007. He came to the convention to support and inspire those who are trying to follow suit. "One needs to live in a Jewish community with an authorized rabbi for a year before starting the legal process with the rabbinate in Jerusalem, and for me it was impossible since there was no rabbi and no solid community in Porto when I started the process," he said. "But now I feel like I paved the way for others. And I've stayed in Porto to help them." Ferráo converted with his wife and their younger child, who is 19. Their older child is 26 and married, and was not interested in going through the process. Participants in the convention described many strange customs that were passed down to them. Several spoke of having a special dining room table with a hidden drawer, in which a bowl with a piece of pork in it was kept in case a neighbor stopped by. Others noted that their ancestors had chosen acceptable Christian names that constituted a secret code to signal insiders they were descendants of Jews "Before the Inquisition, the Jews were 30 percent of the population of Portugal. If you browse a Portuguese phone book today, you'll be amazed how many 'secret' Jewish family names are in it," Ferráo said. To decrease assimilation, many Marranos married within the extended family and into families they knew shared their history. Most of the descendants still have no idea of their origins, and many who do know nonetheless have no interest in returning to Judaism, participants said. Others are simply interested in exploring their roots or in searching for spiritual reconnection with the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Annually, a couple of hundred Marranos pursue conversion and about half of them are interested in immigration to Israel. Michael Freund, the founder and the chairman of Shavei Israel, said that two parameters guide its operations among the Bnei Anusim: it reaches out to those who have "a biological connection that can be proved and a strong feeling of identification with the Jewish people." Freund is well aware that most of those who in recent years have been searching for their historical roots are not interested in becoming religious or making aliya. "And that's okay. We live in a free world and the Jewish religion is not missionary. Our goal is to strengthen the connection of those who ask to return to faith, those who wish to reconnect with the Jewish people and those who want to immigrate to Israel." Freund added that "People forget that up until three decades ago, Spain and Portugal were dictatorships where the church was extremely powerful. It is only recently that people have started feeling it is safe to come out of their closets and search for their truth." He added that, in this day and age, the search can be conducted entirely privately, without any personal exposure, via the Internet - searching family trees, and joining chat rooms, on-line forums and mailing lists. Freund said he understood the rabbinate's refusal to make it easy for those who once were Jews and now want to return to their people. However, he urged some changes in the tough procedure - "little things like honoring the returned Jews with a 'diploma of returning' instead of a 'diploma of conversion.' It's something small but it's symbolic for them and it humanizes the entire process." Paulo Vitorino, 40, a father of six and a businessman from Lisbon, insisted to the Post that "I am a Portuguese Jew, not a converted Jew. For 500 years, we were Christians outside the house and Jews inside." He said he had found out about his Judaism at the age of 24, after his mother died. "My father told us we are Jews and that we can choose between the synagogue and the church. I chose the synagogue." But Vitorino protested that in Portugal "we are Jews without the backing of the State of Israel or the local Jewish community. They don't accept us. And this, to me, is the new Inquisition." The writer was a guest of Shavei Israel in Torremolinos.