Fundamentally Freund: The Torah returns to Trancoso

More than five centuries after Portugal’s Jews were compelled to convert to Catholicism, the Torah has finally returned to Trancoso.

Man holding Torah returning to Trancoso,  Portugal 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Michael Freund)
Man holding Torah returning to Trancoso, Portugal 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Michael Freund)
Slowly but energetically, the festive procession made its way through the narrow and winding alleyways of the ancient Portuguese town.
The sounds of buoyant Hebrew song cascaded off the cool stone walls, prompting residents to open their windows and stare inquisitively at the unfamiliar sight, as dozens of people from across the country danced and clapped in a rousing surge of emotion.
Among the participants, who were all swept away in the moment, many a moist eye could be seen glistening in the midday sun at this remarkable and most unexpected turn of events.
More than five centuries after Portugal’s Jews were compelled to convert to Catholicism, the Torah has finally returned to Trancoso.
In a moving ceremony organized with the local municipality this past Sunday, Shavei Israel, the organization I founded and chair, arranged for the dedication of a Torah scroll to inaugurate the village’s new Jewish cultural and religious center.
It will serve the large numbers of B’nai Anusim (people whose Iberian Jewish ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries and whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”) who reside in the area.
The facility, named the Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation, is named after a 17th-century Trancoso-born physician and philosopher who came from a family of B’nai Anusim. Cardoso later moved to Spain with his family and then fled to Venice to escape the Inquisition, where he and his brother Miguel publicly embraced Judaism.
He went on to publish a number of important works on philosophy, medicine and theology, including a daring treatise in 1679 titled The Excellence of the Hebrews, which defended Judaism and the Jewish people from various medieval stereotypes such as ritual murder accusations and the blood libel.
The initiative for the center came from Trancoso’s mayor, Julio Sarmento, who invested more than $1.5 million in erecting the modern structure, which will include an exhibition about the Jewish history of Portugal and the renewal of Jewish life in the region in recent years.
At Sarmento’s insistence, the building also contains a new synagogue, Beit Mayim Hayim, “the House of Living Waters,” whose name was suggested by Rabbi Raphael Weinberg of Jerusalem, the first rabbi to visit Trancoso.
Near the entrance to the synagogue is a memorial wall filled with the names of B’nai Anusim who were tried and punished by the Inquisition for secretly practicing Judaism, including some who were publicly burned at the stake in the 18th century, nearly three centuries after their ancestors had been dragged to the baptismal font.
LOCATED IN the Guarda district in Portugal’s northeastern interior, the charming village of Trancoso was home to a flourishing Jewish community prior to the expulsion and forced conversion of Portugal’s Jews in 1497.
A local journalist and historian, Jose Levy Domingos, who has spent decades lovingly recording and preserving the town’s Jewish past, has discovered well over one hundred stone etchings and other physical traces of that bygone era in Trancoso’s old Jewish quarter, some of which are poignant and emotive.
On typical Jewish homes, for example, the windows were laid out in a decidedly asymmetrical fashion, at varying heights and lengths, creating a sense of architectural imperfection and inadequacy.
Domingos explains that this was done intentionally because the Jews wanted to underline that only the Temple which once stood in Jerusalem embodied perfection.
Many of the medieval homes have crosses engraved adjacent to the entrance as an ostensible statement of piety. Fearful of running afoul of the watchful eyes of the Inquisition, Trancoso’s B’nai Anusim also engaged in this practice, albeit with a twist.
Domingos points out that at the bottom of the etching, they added what appear to be three prongs, as if holding up the cross. But to Jewish eyes, it is clear what their real intention was, as the three spokes clearly form an inverted “Shin,” the Hebrew letter that is often used to denote one of the Divine names.
This was how Trancoso’s hidden Jews sought to cling to their heritage, subtly indicating that they had not forgotten, nor abandoned, the faith of their forefathers.
It is in memory of their tenacity that we gathered dozens of their descendants, all of them Portuguese B’nai Anusim, to take part in the ceremony this past Sunday. Symbolically, we began the procession with the Torah facing a large and imposing cathedral in the very same public square where the Inquisition had once tormented Trancoso’s hidden Jews.
Speaking to the assembled crowd, my voice cracked with emotion as I pointed at the basilica and told the B’nai Anusim, “we are here today because your forefathers did not surrender to those who sought to force them to abandon their faith. They bravely and stubbornly clung to their Jewishness in secret, risking everything.
Let us all take inspiration from their example.”
As we neared the synagogue, I noticed a young man, one of the B’nai Anusim from a nearby village, looking longingly at the Torah, but seemingly shying away from it at the same time. Taking the scroll, I went over to him and offered it to him to hold. He hesitated for a moment, the surprise on his face giving way to joy as he lovingly embraced it and danced it towards its destination.
It was, I later discovered, the first time since his ancestors had converted to Catholicism in 1497 that he or anyone else in his family had ever held a Torah in their arms, as far as he knew.
And then I understood as clearly as I have ever felt before: the Jewish spark cannot be extinguished.
We truly are the immortal nation.