Hehaver-Ohel Jacob History | Part I
The Origin of the "Converted by Force", the Holy Office and a Legacy in the Portuguese Soul
The Ohel Jacob and the B'nei Anusim
The Ohel Jacob Synagogue arose in the 1930s, at a time when the Jewish community of Lisbon was mostly Sephardic and already established and structured for over a century in the city.
Having always represented a cultural elite (“Every city where children don’t go to school is destined to perish.” – Talmud) and having prospered in all directions, with emphasis on financial functions and political influence, these Sephardic Jews had contributed considerably to the development of Spain, especially in the Arab period, and for more than 1000 years, until the date of the Christian Reconquest, in 1492, at which time the “Catholic Kings” of Spain – King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile – sign the famous and infamous Edict of Expulsion of Jews and Muslims, giving them four months to abandon definitively the territory, having a majority of Jews (about a hundred and twenty thousand) fled to Portugal and a minority to Turkey. However, the Portuguese refuge would be far from an acceptable alternative. King John II, that reigned at the time, granted stay to the richer Jewish families in exchange for high amounts of money and he tolerated the more than 100,000 refugees under tip, giving them a period of eight months to leave the territory, enslaving the ones who couldn’t pay. But at the end of that given period, the majority of Jews was still in Portugal, since the monarch lacked his promise and restricted strategically the target locations for this emigration, reducing them to Tangier and Arzila, where Jews were persecuted and forcibly dispossessed of all their assets by merchants and sailors.
It is interesting to note that by the time of the coming of the refugees, there were about thirty thousand Jews in Portugal, which adding those one hundred and twenty thousand Jews who fled from Spain, the number of Jews totaled one hundred and fifty thousand souls, nothing more nothing less than around 15 per cent of all Portuguese population (estimated at around one million, at that time). This was an unique and unprecedented situation in the history of the Portuguese nation, and what could have been a good opportunity of financial growth for the Crown. However, instead of taking advantage of this opportunity, the current King eventually tarnished this period adding only tragedy and inhumanity to it. King John II ordered that the children be taken from their parents by force (approximately 700 Jews up to 14 years of age), and that they be sent to the island of São Tomé in Africa in order to populate it. He stated: ”These children shall be kept apart from their parents and their doctrines, and from whomever could speak to them in the law of Moses, so that they could become good Christians. As they grow up and marry in São Tomé they will populate the island“. Naturally, none of the children resisted the inhospitable climate and hazards of the island. This historical episode was behind King John II nickname’s change from “The Perfect Prince” to “The Tyrant”, having earned indisputable rejection from all the chroniclers and historians.
In the following reign, King Manuel I freed all Jewish slaves. However, this breath of hope would last for a short time; four years to be exact, until the date the monarch was to marry, for reasons of political interest, with Isabella of Aragon, daughter of the “Catholic Kings” who had expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain five years before. Queen Isabella demanded the same procedure of her parents from the future husband, so that by the time of the consortium, there would not be no more Jews in Portugal. King Manuel, was well aware of the drastic consequences his kingdom would suffer from the loss of a dominant middle class, composed mostly of Jews. They were active in commerce, manufacturing and also worked in the supervisory authorities areas of the kingdom. Also, all competent cartographers and navigators which were indispensable for the country’s expansion at sea, one of the most important sources of revenue for the Portuguese kingdom, were Jews or Muslims. The King agreed with the Queen initially and they married, but he went around the agreement and instead of expelling the Jews from the territory, the King appealed to various expedients in order to convert the Jews; forced baptism of their children, blockage of the exits by sea, and the promise of twenty years of a religious truce upon an apparent conversion. The King ordered the extinction of all Jewish quarters, the transformation of all synagogues into churches and the Jews began to be called new-Christians. Even so, thousands of Jews fled, spreading over several territories, particularly the North of Africa, Syria, Turkey, Palestine, France, England, Holland, Germany, Italy and Russia.
During the following reign, King John III asked for Spanish authorization to establish the Holy Office in Portugal, which was granted three years later, in 1536. This act was nothing more than a clear strategy of attempting to solve the economic problems of the Kingdom, since the practice of a rite by individual converted to another rite constituted a crime of apostasy punished by death and confiscation of all belongings. The suppression of the fake conversions “proposed” by the previous monarch thus became a potential source of revenue during the reign of King John III. It was made possible by the Holy Office and the establishment of the Inquiries habit, a practice that emphasized the distinction between new-Christians and old-Christians, something unnoticed in previous reigns. Thus, a new era of terror began in Portugal- the era of delation, not as an act of cowardice, but as an act of virtue, of moral obligation. This era has had an immense impact on the Portuguese soul and it became a fracture in the national consciousness.
In the eyes of the dominant clergy, and consequently in the eyes of the people, the so-called-new-Christians continued to be regarded as Jews and were systematically blamed of all the misfortunes of the Kingdom including the black plague. This atmosphere of hysteria amongst the population led to the famous and vile “Spring Massacre” which took place in 1506. This act was perpetrated by the Dominican Friars during which over two thousand Jewish lives were brutally sacrificed in just three days.
It should be noted that the escaped “new-Christians” attempted to return to Judaism in the countries where they fled. However, this wasn’t always possible and, sometimes, it added a great deal of grief to the already deeply emotionally traumatised individuals running for their lives. In Jewish communities long established and therefore indifferent to the dreadful circumstances experienced by these “new-Christians”, these individuals were treated with disdain and rejection.
Many of them ended up not being allowed to return to their faith by the conservative rabbis of these communities resulting many times in tragedy. Such is the case of famous Jews referred to by Rabbi Leo Abrami; Uriel da Costa (who would also put an end to his own life), Baruch Spinoza, Michel de Montaigne and Juan de Prado, among others.
It is also important to stress that in the case of the Sephardis who fled Spain and Portugal, that they kept their traditions and Iberian provenance with particular pride, preserving a specific and zealous rite. According to Leo Abrami, this could be one of the reasons for the subsequent rejection of these Sephardis in relation to the Marranos and their descendants – the so-called “B’nei Anusim” who decided to stay in Spain and Portugal. This rejection translated into a deep contempt by those with the opinion that the Marranos had opted for the easy way out when they decided to stay in Spain and Portugal and submit themselves and their descendants to the Catholic baptism. By acting this way, the Sepharadis who fled showed a tremendous disregard for the painful consequences that came with this alternative. No less than the suffering endured by Sephardis who fled, in particular those of North Africa – where books say that they had to bear such bitterness – a large part of these “converted by force’ lived centuries of horror. Catholics in the outside but faithful to Judaism in their heart and inside their homes, the B’nei Anusim preserved their rites and culture in secret, perfecting strategies of disguise, avoiding the marriage out of Jewish people, and risking permanently their lives to the bonfire by imminent danger of being discovered or reported. And so, these secret Jews ended up developing a particular Crypto-Judaism (already defended by Maimonides in the 12th century – “the moral right to profess closely a belief and appear to be professed another” [José Hermano Saraiva]), a secret Hebrew culture driven by an incredible effort to preserve their Jewish identity. Thanks to these B’nei Anusim who stayed in the Iberian Peninsula, and particularly in Portugal, a ray of Judaism was able to survive over the inquisitorial centuries and bloom later initiating the beginning of a new era in Portugal.