Esther's true identity

Just as Esther, Spanish and Portugese Jews concealed their identity during the Inquisition. No one knows how many Jews have not been identified.

Larry Domnitch

OpEds Old Synagogue in Tomar, Portugal
Old Synagogue in Tomar, Portugal

“And Esther did not reveal her nationality nor her lineage, for Mordechai commanded her not to tell” (Book of Esther 2:10) 

The Anusim (forcibly converted Jews of Spain and Portugal) hid their Jewish faith for hundreds of years from their tormentors -- the enforcers of the inquisitions. If they were discovered observing Jewish traditions, they would have faced the horrors of the inquisition.

The Anusim often identified their plight with that of the Biblical Queen Esther who concealed her Jewish identity in the king’s palace in the Persian capital of Shushan. It is no wonder that the fast day of Taanit Esther (the Fast of Esther) that precedes Purim had special meaning to them. 

After King Manuel of Portugal, was to marry the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, in order to solidify his throne. Spain’s monarch pressured Manuel to follow its example in 1492 and expel the Jews. The marriage contact was signed on November 30, 1496, and within the week, he decreed that all Jews should leave Portugal by October 1497.

Among those who left were Rabbi Yitzchak Karo, the uncle of Rabbi Yosef Karo who authored the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), and books of Kaballah, Rabbi Levi Ben Habib, who subsequently served as rabbi in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Abraham Zacuto -- the famous astronomer. 

Manuel ordered the expulsion, but with some reluctance for he was well aware of the vital roles which Jews played in Portugal’s economy. The king did not want to lose the Jews and sought a way to keep them in Portugal despite the decreed expulsion.

On the first day of Passover, on March 19, 1497, King Manuel ordered Jewish children between four and fourteen years of age, to be brought to Lisbon where they were taken from their parents to be raised as Catholics. Thousands of children were torn from their parent’s arms as both parents and children wept and cried out in anguish. In order that their children would not be baptized, some parents suffocated their children in their final embrace or threw them to drown in the rivers. Parents underwent baptism in order to remain with their children. 

In October 1497, about 20,000 Jews converged upon Lisbon preparing to depart to other lands as per the expulsion decree. They were herded into the courtyard of the Osestaos Palace as they faced pressure to accept baptism. After most still refused, they were sprinkled with baptismal waters and declared New Christians. Although subsequently denied emigration at that time, when many of these families eventually began to leave, the king responded on April 21, 1499, by prohibiting their departure. The king found a way to keep the Jews in his country, while enacting their expulsion. 

Thousands of Jews remained virtually locked into Catholicism by official conversion yet they remained devoted to the maintenance and continuity of their Jewish traditions. Unlike the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 in which all professed Jews were ordered out, in Portugal thousands were forced to remain in the country, thereby creating a very large post expulsion Crypto/Jewish (secret Jewish) community.

For the following twenty years, the king adhered to Pope Alexander IV’s request that he should show leniency toward the Jews. But during that time, a riot broke out in Lisbon on April 1506 and three thousand secret Jews were killed. This prompted the king who severely punished the instigators, to allow Jewish emigration. But in 1521 the king again banned them the right to leave.

On May 23, 1536, Pope Paul III issued a bull announcing an inquisition in Portugal. The first execution – the auto-da-fe (trial of faith of suspected ‘heretic’) -- was held in 1540 and several secret Jews were executed. Although officials of the Church sought out the Anusim, they maintained a well-organized underground network, but some did not succeed in eluding authorities.

Over the next two centuries, thousands of ‘New Christians’ became the victims of the auto-da-fe. A single anonymous accusation brought to the authorities could put a suspected secret Jew in grave danger. Before their inquisitors, those who denied their ‘guilt’ were often tortured until they confessed. The ‘guilty’ were handed over to secular authorities faced severe punishments, which often included execution by fire.

The fires of the inquisition did not break the will of the Anusim. One such example is captured in an account of an inquisitor, who witnessed an execution of twenty Anusim and was astonished by their bravery. “Children attended the burnings of their parents and wives of those of their husbands and no one heard then cry or weep. They said farewell as if they were parting to meet the next day.”  

Over time, as generations passed, the dual lives of Anusim took its toll on their level of Jewish observance. They managed to maintain some basic beliefs and practices while many traditions were lost. The Sabbath and some festivals were still observed to a degree. They also maintained a few prayers which were chanted in Portuguese and had some of their own liturgy. 

By the middle of the Eighteenth century, with the onset of the enlightenment throughout Europe, there was mounting opposition to the inquisitions of Portugal and Spain. The Protestant areas of Northern Europe and France harshly condemned the inquisitions, where Protestants were also victims. Jews around the world also voiced their condemnations. Following years of opposition, members of Portugal’s hierarchy also began to voice their protests against these policies.

Change in Portugal was inevitable. On May 2, 1768, Sebastian Joseph de Carvalhoe Mello, of Pombal, Portugal, who acted in a role similar to that of Prime Minister, ordered the destruction of all registers containing the names of the New Christian families. The forces behind the inquisitions were collapsing. The last auto-da-fe- took place in 1761. 

On March 21, 1821, the inquisition was formally abolished. 

After the passage of hundreds of years, it was assumed that only a few, if any Jews remained in Portugal. Aside from the difficulty of maintaining Jewish observances over the centuries, those with the financial means had managed to flee. Many also assimilated, especially after the inquisitions ended and Portugal became a more open society.

It was generally assumed that the phenomenon of crypto-Judasim was eliminated with the end of the inquisition. However, Anusim remained throughout Portugal, conditioned to maintain their secrecy as if it was a part of their tradition and something habitual. 

In post inquisition Portugal, the Jewish community of Lisbon numbered several hundred families, which possessed a synagogue, Jewish school, mikveh (ritual bath) and a kosher restaurant. Most members of the community were from neighboring countries or foreigners engaged in business. The community also possessed a few former Anusim. 

In 1917, Samuel Schwartz, a Polish Jewish mining engineer living in Portugal, was the first to discover a community of Anusim while on a business trip to Belmonte, a remote town near the Spanish border. The encounter was purely by chance. Schwartz was unaware of the continued existence of Anusim in Portugal, as they had no knowledge of confines. It is understandable that they were initially suspicious of his claim to be a Jew. When they asked Schwartz to recite a prayer in order to ascertain the truth of his claim, he recited the Shema. The leaders of the Jews of Belmonte, who were women, perhaps in order to thwart the suspicion of the authorities, were not familiar with Hebrew, did not recognize the prayer. What they did recognize was the name of G-D contained in the prayer. That sufficiently won their trust. On that day, Schwartz discovered an unknown world, as did the Jews of Belmonte.

Around that time, a Portuguese citizen attempted to revive the Jewish community of Portugal. Barros Bastro served with distinction in the Portuguese army and reached the rank of captain. Following WWI, Bastro -- born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother -- officially converted to Judaism and opened a synagogue in the port city of Porto. He also organized groups of Anusim, published a Jewish newspaper, HaLapid, (The Flame) and in 1929 even opened up a yeshiva, the Rosh Pinah Jewish Theological Seminary.

But with the sudden revival, old prejudices resurfaced. Catholics began to boycott the businesses of Jews active in their Jewish communities and a synagogue in the town of Pinhel was attacked during an Easter procession. The Portuguese press attacked Bastro himself. To make matters even worse, Nazi propaganda of that era began to seep into Portugal. The backlash, along with internal conflicts within the Jewish community of Porto, damaged the Jewish revival. Out of fear, some left Portugal; many returned to or maintained their private existence as Anusim, while others simply vanished, assimilating into the outside world. Little remained of Bastro’s revival efforts.

In Belmonte, hundreds continued to maintain Jewish lives in secrecy. They married among members of their community and celebrated the Sabbath, Passover, and Yom Kippur. They also observed the fast day of Taanit
"Here the Jewish soul was not lost. Here the Jewish soul remains forever. From the past, the future is born; from the ashes of yesteryear to the light of this Beit Knesset and this Jewish center."
Esther. However, they observed that fast on Purim day itself, partly out of confusion, or perhaps to thwart the suspicion of the authorities, which were common practices, and also as identification with Queen Esther, who concealed her Jewish identity from those around her in the King’s palace in ancient Persia. 

In recent decades, the Jewish community of Belmonte has ended its traditional secrecy. On a narrow street, is the recently constructed local synagogue, Bet Eliyahu. In 1992, a rabbi from Israel arrived and taught the community Jewish laws and Hebrew, and arranged for their official conversions. 

Inside the synagogue, a plaque recalls the history of Belmonte. In Hebrew, it states:

“Here in this place the chain was not broken... They transferred the tradition from generation to generation secretly. Observing Shabbat in their hearts and outwardly keeping Sunday in front of surrounding neighbors. They were forced to live double lives. They were careful not to mix Jewish and Christian customs, out of fear that they could fall into the hands of the inquisition. They blessed the challah and the wine by secretly adding words to the prayers and they preserved Judaism in their inner souls.

Here the Jewish soul was not lost. Here the Jewish soul remains forever. From the past, the future is born; from the ashes of yesteryear to the light of this Beit Knesset and this Jewish center.”

As Purim arrives, the Jews of Belmonte observe the holiday but now they can do so in the open, without fear. Just as Esther, they concealed their identity but no longer need to do so. 

Ephraim Ben-Israel, a Brazilian-born town planner was quoted as saying of the other Portuguese towns, “Nobody knows how many Jews there are in these places.” Who knows how many Esthers in Portugal have yet to reveal their true identities.

Larry Domnitch is the author of “The Impact of World War One on the Jewish People” recently released by Urim Publications.

Editor's note:

The recently published Goodread-categorized book Loaded Blessings by Faith Quintero (which we have received for review) tells the gripping and historically accurate (in its description of the period) tale of a Jewish  family during the Spanish and Portugese Inquisition and of an heirloom that makes its way to their descendants