One of the most fascinating things about Portugal is its Jewish community.
Jews have lived here for 1,500 years. Then forcibly converted 400 years ago during the Inquisition, sometimes burned at the stake. In the late 1800s, the community was revived by the migration of Moroccan Jews. Most of whom had roots in the very communities expelled from the Iberian peninsula. But according to my friend Eduardo, who I’ll tell you more about later, native-born Portuguese of Jewish ancestry were not permitted to return to the faith of our ancestors. This only changed a few decades ago.
Which led to the most fascinating phenomenon I have ever witnessed in a Reform synagogue.
It was Friday night. I spent a long day visiting Tomar, a medieval town two and a half hours outside Lisbon. I went because it is beautiful and has a medieval synagogue- a pre-Inquisition remnant of Israel. With 5th century Hebrew tombstones. And an attendant who complained about me and an Israeli couple asking for one Hebrew brochure each. As if three pieces of printer paper was just a bridge too far.
“Vocês querem três?” she said with a grimace.
“Sim, e é o nosso património religioso, acho que está bem.”
It’s our religious heritage, so I think it’s perfectly normal.
She quietly pursed her lips in the tiniest of frowns as we perused the small, but fascinating museum.
I think it’s fantastic that Portugal and other countries are working to preserve Jewish heritage, it’s a link to our shared past and critical for understanding where we’ve been- and where we’re going. But much as I would suggest a white tour guide for a slavery museum not give black visitors a hard time for asking for leaflets, I think the person working a Jewish museum should show a little compassion. We’re not asking for the building back- we simply want to read what it’s about. You’re lucky we’re here- and given your country’s penchant for persecuting us, so are we.
I headed back to Lisbon, somewhat despairing. I had just written a blog yesterday about how much I loved Portugal. And before I visited the museum, I had a truly magnificent experience hiking in the mountains nearby and strolling the medieval walkways.
On the long train ride, I debated what to do that night. I had given my passport information to Reform synagogue Ohel Jacob to go to services. Because that’s the reality in Europe- and it won’t be long before it’s the reality in America too. Due to anti-Semitism, every synagogue in Europe has extensive security and unlike cathedrals, you can’t simply pop in. You have to fill out a visitor form with your personal info and send a picture of your passport. It’s to prevent us from being butchered- much as we have been on this continent for millennia. To this very day.
Running on 3 hours of sleep, up late thinking about big life decisions, and having traveled 5 hours on a train, I wasn’t sure I was up for it. Maybe I should go back to the hotel and prepare for my flight to America the next morning.
But something in my soul told me to go.
So I grabbed a cab, with a rather wily driver who couldn’t believe I didn’t know where the street was. I told him I hoped he never got lost in New York if he visits sometime 😛 . Try to be the understanding person and realize not everyone knows your country like the back of their hand. Which is why I’ve often found myself directing tourists around Tel Aviv, sometimes sitting down with them for hours helping them plan their visits. Be the kind person who helps someone find their way.
I often visit synagogues around the world. And for Friday night services, although I can’t say I particularly believe in the actual message of the prayers (I’d much rather be singing in the forest of Tomar), I find something magical about the moment. For me spirituality is where I feel free to dance, to sing, to express my innermost fears, hopes, and spontaneous desires. It’s not being told what words to say when and how and singing in unison. It goes against every grain of my being- there’s no way that the human spirit was built to conform. Or that the words of someone 2,000 years ago should or could possibly express my full sentiments.
What I find magical about prayer, then, is the act itself. For me, Jewish history and survival is the most miraculous phenomenon. So the fact that we’re sitting in a room, using the same ancient words, melding with the symbols our ancestors have known for centuries, that is magical. Something we share with Jews everywhere.
This kesem, this enchantment, reaches new heights in Portugal. And this night more than any other.
Because to sit praying with Jews in Portugal 400 years after the genocide of our people is the most spiritually connecting thing I’ve ever done in a synagogue. The fact that it’s the first and only Reform one here is an added bonus that made it particularly salient for me. Familiar, comfortable, known but different.
For most of the melodies I knew by heart. But the accents pronouncing them were Portuguese, not American or Israeli. The resh taking on that particular Lisboan roll. The siddur itself from Brazil, half in the holy tongue, half in the language of Camões. It was beautiful to hear the congregants read out loud prayers I knew- but in a lilting and soothing Portuguese. Next time you get a chance to visit a synagogue abroad, go. Because even hearing the words you know in a different language can really change the way you see them. Only for the better.
Everyone in the room looked like Jewish faces I had seen before. In Maryland, in Argentina, in Barcelona, in Belgium, in Israel. They even invited me to lead some of the prayers, which I found quite fulfilling. Because even if the words themselves aren’t my dogma, the act of sharing them with the people around me was electric. And sometimes I found myself slipping into a spiritual state, where I couldn’t quite separate my past religiosity, my current spirituality, the heightened significant of the current moment, and my desire to separate them all in the name of rationalism. It’s healthy to live in the gray space rather than forcing yourself to conform to an all-or-nothing vision of the world. And so I found myself belting out Adon Olam as my own prayer, even as I questioned why it resonated for me so much. But living and love the hypocrisy. Neat lines are for buying a ticket at the movie theater. At least in America. Not in Israel, where there is no line at all. Or in Portugal, where the line exists but elegantly and gently and without compulsion. It’s the middle ground I’ve been searching for, and I flow into the veins of Portugal in a way I’ve never settled in any other country.
At the end of services, I was invited to make kiddush, the blessing over the fruit of the vine. It’s a prayer with complicated words that sometimes engage my own mixed feelings about Jewish theology. But is one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard.
So to do honor to this tiny and bold community, I grabbed the cup and blessed it. With a gusto and a sense of pride. I loved my own voice. And for someone who grew up being senselessly criticized left and right, it felt whole to enjoy myself. And the congregants loved it- one man gave me a big thumbs up 🙂
Then we sat down to an oneg, as is often the case on Friday night.
As we began to eat, the stories began to flow as much as the wine.
The conversation quickly turned to the Inquisition and how many of the Portuguese were descended from Jews forced to convert. Apparently many of whom took the surnames of trees, which is how you can recognize them today. Such as Oliveira, or olive tree, the last name of one of the congregants, Eduardo.
I looked around the room and asked how many of the people were Bnei Anusim, or descendants of forced converts. And wish an almost embarrassed look, every single one said yes. A bashfulness undeserved- I find it extraordinary that someone would want to dig up their roots and reconnect with the very faith that led to their family being persecuted. And then rejoin it. To those in the Jewish world who are unwilling to engage with this community I have a message. Perhaps if you dedicated one tenth of the time you spend on trying to get apathetic Jews to do Jewish things and put it towards engaging these people who want to be Jewish, things might be going better for us.
Their stories were fascinating. I didn’t get to talk with everyone- there was one really kind older woman who sat with me during services but I didn’t get to chat with her much after. Especially in a group setting it can be hard to make time to talk with the quieter folks, but they often have the most interesting stories to tell. And when I go back, I’d like to sit down with her more.
The stories I did hear were moving. People who had grandparents or parents tell them they were Jewish- on their deathbeds. DNA tests that showed Sephardic ancestry. One man from Brazil- because remember, a lot of forced converts fled to the Americas- told me his father refused a Catholic funeral. No crosses were present when he was buried- and he told his daughter (who then told this man) that they were Jews. And every person in that room wouldn’t make you bat an eye if you saw them on the streets of Tel Aviv or in synagogue in San Francisco.
As the night winded down, it was about 10:30pm and I was tired. But I stayed a bit longer to say goodbye to the congregation, and then Eduardo invited me to see their museum. Museum? This was a one room apartment, where was there a museum?
But sure enough, a tiny room behind where we prayed held something I can barely find words to describe. Eduardo had buried the lede.
In this antique-looking room filled with old wooden bookshelves was the library of Polish and German holocaust survivors.
Because Ohel Jacob was not started as a congregation for Bnei Anusim. It was, in a fashion typically cyclically Jewish, started by Jews fleeing the Holocaust. And so it was actually an Ashkenazi synagogue, now being prayed in by Sephardim. Whose founders, when they eventually fled to America, handed the keys to the first generation of Bnei Anusim in Portugal to “come out of the closet”.
As a deep bibliophile and lover of Jewish history, I couldn’t imagine a more potent or exciting moment. The books lay largely in tatters, but still coherent. I opened some. I found books from Lublin, Poland, from Vienna, from Germany. In Hebrew, in German, in Yiddish. Sometimes with a touch of Polish or Russian. They had all the character of an old, bound book you’d find in the corner of a 19th century library. With all the Jewish spirit you could possibly ask for. Here are some pictures:
Eduardo is learning how to read Hebrew. He can sound out some of the words (and prays quite well- he lead services for the first time this week!). But he couldn’t understand what the books meant.
So I opened them and began to explain. It was this beautiful Jewish moment of transmission- of taking my knowledge, imparting it to someone thirsty to learn. And of living in this precious moment together, with the spirit of the Holocaust survivors hovering over us. And in the thin air that separated our two physical selves, even as our souls drew closer together.
As if the books themselves weren’t enough of a find, it turns out there was more. There was a Torah scroll burnt to a crisp, covered with a tallit to protect it. Eduardo thinks it may have been destroyed in Kristallnacht.
Nearby was a megillah, or the Scroll of Esther, which we read on Purim. Commemorating our survival of an attempt to annihilate us in ancient Persia. I read the words aloud to him, a poignant moment that reminds us that our present circumstances are nothing new. A long view of Jewish history reveals how fragile our existence is- and how our persistence has kept us alive.
Back in the main prayer room were five more Torah scrolls. As Eduardo unveiled the ark that held them, he pointed to one in particular:
“This one is 500 years old. From Iraq. I’m not sure exactly how it got here.”
I stood in absolute awe- and distilled silence.
Here were these treasures of Jewish history, rotting but still alive. And the only thing stopping them from having made it to a trash pit is this dedicated congregation. Descendants of forcibly converted Sephardim preserving the Yiddish books of Holocaust survivors. It’s a higher order humanity that’s hard to find if you scroll the front page of the news these days, but it’s as real as it is crucial.
The congregation has about 50 people these days. Most, but not all, Bnei Anusim. And they have a volunteer librarian who is helping catalogue the books. You can see it online here.
If you find yourself in Lisbon, I can’t think of a better place to spend a Friday night. Visit them and strengthen this beautiful community. At a time when anti-Semitism has pushed some Jews to disaffiliate or dislike their own faith, Ohel Jacob is a reminder of the gifts our tradition has to offer. And the strength of the Bnei Anusim in digging through layers of family history and prejudice to reconnect to it. Bruchim habaim habayta- welcome home to the Jewish people. Here’s a picture of me and some of my new friends from Ohel Jacob:
Sometimes I ask myself (or others ask me) why I wander. Wouldn’t it be easier to just go with a set plan and stick to it? To craft a life itinerary? Some people want to know where I’ll be in a month, in a year. I don’t know. That’s part of what makes exploring magical. If I had stuck to my original plans a year and a half ago, I’d be in rabbinical school in Jerusalem. I probably never would’ve written my blog. I wouldn’t have had time to travel to 10 countries and 120 villages in Israel. My Arabic wouldn’t have become fluent, I wouldn’t have learned Italian and beefed up my Portuguese. I wouldn’t be able to understand as much Romanian. Nor know how to dance dabke. Nor realize some important things about myself. That I like quiet time. That I love exploring different cultures, and sometimes I just want to speak English. That I actually like some things about America that I didn’t have the context to appreciate before.
And many of the experiences that have so enriched me might not have happened. If I had stuck to my original plan, would I have sung in the great synagogue of Satmar? Would I have befriended Roma in rural Romania? Or eaten Hungarian Jewish pastries in Budapest? Or discovered that my great uncle was killed liberating Europe from Nazis? Or that there are people in Andalucía who live in caves? Or learned the Spanish word “invernaderos” while exploring Almería, a city covered in greenhouses?
Probably not. I might had other adventures. But I wouldn’t have had as much time for these. And I probably wouldn’t have ended up everywhere I did if I simply stuck to a plan. I doubt I would’ve made my way to Romania three times if I had sat in Washington, D.C. and crafted a year itinerary. But having been there once, I liked it, and it drew me to go again. Giving myself the flexibility to change plans has opened up doors to me that remain shut for folks who insist on everything going according to schedule.
So as I write this blog, I find myself not in Tel Aviv, not in Portugal, but in New Jersey. A place I wouldn’t have imagined myself sitting even a month ago. It’s perhaps appropriate that I first started writing the post on a plane from Portugal- in the airspace that is neither here nor there. A real wanderer is willing to milk that middle space. And live with the understanding that the borders, or rules, we are taught to respect sometimes need a little massaging. Because to find richness, you’ve got to be willing to throw away some of the expectations. As much as you have to be willing to realize that sometimes they have value.
Today I found myself in the curious position of peering at Google Maps and realizing that directly across the street from where I’m staying is a Jewish cemetery.
After getting a solid American bagel with whitefish salad (please, Israel, learn the value of real bagels!), I strolled into the graveyard.
As you can probably tell from this blog, I’m in America for now. Not sure exactly how long (again, see my wandering comment). Could be three months, could be longer. And maybe less. Who knows. Wherever I find myself, I find myself with a bit of yearning mixed with sorrow. That Portuguese feeling of saudade, where you reach for the best of the past, with the sadness that is it not here now. In my case, I think it means knowing the beauty and the sorrow of each place, of each experience I’ve had. And realizing it’s not entirely possible to separate them. Am I a different, more healed person today because I grew as an individual or because I was in Israel? I might be able to parse some of that out, but I’m not certain they are so easily picked apart. Going to Israel was a wise choice, because as I sit here now, I feel like I have grown as a person. That the hardships are not something I’ll particularly miss while I’m away, and if I had never stepped on that plane, I can’t imagine I would’ve learned nearly as much about myself or the world. About where I’m from, and who I am.
In the end, I’m still an Israeli citizen, I still pay my bituach leumi, I can come and go whenever I want. Israelis do it all the time- to work abroad, to go on long trips after the army, to explore.
The difference in my case is that I’m also from here. So it feels different to come here than someone who didn’t grow up American. It feels eagerly comfortable for me to see muenster cheese, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies worthy of the name, to eat New York style pizza, to eat real cheddar cheese. And not to break the bank doing so. As you can tell, cheese is pretty crucial- and while I love European and some Israeli cheeses, I have to say I gave a “come and get me” look to a stack of American cheese the other day. I missed you America.
So I live in that space of saudade. Because however long I’m here, it’s different. It’s pleasant to be back, it’s hard to reconcile my past with my present, and as much as I love exploring different cultures, it can be difficult to emotionally prepare yourself for the jumping back and forth.
Feeling an emptiness, a fear of losing my passion- for travel, for adventure, for Jewish exploration- I headed across the street to the cemetery.
And the most curious thing happened.
The very first grave I saw said “Adler”. And I have to double check my genealogical research, but this New Jersey town’s name sounded familiar. It was one of those bashert, “meant to be” moments that reminded me I’m from here too. And American Jewry has a story to tell as well. It’s my story. And I’m glad to contribute to it while I’m here. And to the best of my ability, wherever I am.
What my experience in Israel- and my short time here so far- has taught me is that you can always return. The Jews of Portugal, of Ohel Jacob, know this better than anyone. Life, like history, is full of surprises. Who knows when I’ll be hopping on a plane or a train or digging through an archive again. Or finding new ways to explore.
You can always return, but you can never go back. Because as you grow and develop, if you strive for health and wholeness and understanding of self, you won’t feel the same. Which is why when I needed a little dose of the confidence I developed in Israel while ordering pizza today, I talked to some friends on WhatsApp in Hebrew. And I felt my backbone straighten and my warmth grow within.
To be a Jew, to be me, is to wander. Maybe physically, maybe intellectually. To enjoy where you are, but never get too comfortable. To always have a suitcase packed because you don’t know what might happen. Or what might motivate you to go somewhere else.
Life is like a rubber band. There’ll always be different feelings pulling you in different directions, and you evaluate how far you can stretch. Whether you want to stretch in a different direction. Or whether the gap between the ends is too tense and might snap. In Israel, the diverse cultures and languages pull me in, the economy, the pressure to assimilate, and the conflict pull me out. Although my desire to fix things pulls me in sometimes. It might take some time to see how my rubber band stretches here. But I’d say that the ease of life, the consideration, the lack of air raid sirens, the comfort of speaking my native language, and the well-paying jobs pull me in. And the lack of directness, the sometimes suppressed emotions, the healthcare system, the anti-Semitism, and the constant smiling pull me out. As does the fact that unlike in Israel, Jewish customs and our own physical appearance are not the norm, are not celebrated, are not public. As I learned when I mistakenly tried an anti-“frizz” shampoo yesterday that “tamed” and suppressed my wavy Jewish hair which I’ve come to love.
I’ve seen in Israel and other places that every place has different ways of doing things. Sometimes better, sometimes not. I’m a richer and more aware person for knowing that, and not assuming the way I was raised, or the society I grew up in, is necessarily the only or best way to live. Or the worst.
My rubber band will continue to stretch in different directions as the circumstances of my life and the societies around me change. And may propel me, like the rubber bands we used to fling in elementary school, to new places and new situations.
Stick with me. What I’ve realize is my spirit of adventure, of exploration, of intellectual curiosity is with me to stay. So don’t be surprised when you find me speaking Yiddish to Amish people, or reading American Jewish archives from the 1800s, or talking to the Latinos who served me my bagel in Spanish today. I’m happy to say that even if my life changes over the coming period, that part of me is ingrained. And if the manner of exploration may change, the curiosity and desire to do so will not.
And Israeli friends, Romanian friends, Spanish friends, Catalan friends- miss me, but don’t despair. Not only are we blessed with amazing communication tools these days, we’re blessed with amazing transit. And while seeing your faces every day is not the same, stay in touch. We haven’t broken up, we’re in a long distance relationship for now. I don’t know when I’ll be back, but don’t be surprised if I’m messaging you “I’m coming to Kfar Sumea” or “I’m on my way to Valencia” with a few days notice. Or even from your city itself. That’s how I roll. Be prepared for the unexpected- or not. Just flow.
I’m an Israeli citizen. I’m American- but not just. I’m Romanian and Hungarian- and I’ve visited those places. But I’m also Lithuanian, Latvian, Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Polish- and I haven’t stepped foot there- yet. I’m an Arabic speaker and I’ve visited almost every Druze village in the Galilee- but I haven’t been to Julis yet. Or to neighboring Jordan. Or to the tiny Israeli villages that sit on the border with Egypt, facing the Sinai peninsula. Where Moses himself wandered for 40 years.
If that sounds like a lot of exploring done, and a lot yet to do- you’re right. Just don’t ask me for a plan- because for me, to know what you’re going to do the next 15 years is anathema to the way I experience the world.
As the cover image says in Portuguese: “volto já”. I’ll be right back. Or more literally “I’m already returning”. Because perhaps to return is not to go back to where you were. In fact, it’s not a place. It’s to orient yourself in the direction of your soul.
The word “tshuva” in Hebrew means both repentance and return. So that perhaps living in a state of self awareness is to continually strive to point ourselves in the direction of our authentic desires and hope. Being itself.
So I haven’t “gone back” to the U.S. nor have I “left” Israel. It’s a childish dichotomy that doesn’t fit with the modern world, nor our capacity to be more than one thing. Plus I feel the vibe of Portugal more than both- so who knows where life will take me. I simply am where I am. And where I sit right now is only one part of the story, if an important one.
I go where I go and I do what I do not to go back. But to turn and re-turn and turn again until I find myself wandering again in a direction that brings me a sense of wonder, of joy, of fulfillment, of sadness, of challenge, of comfort, of growth, of repose. Of healing. Of life itself.
Keep journeying. The Bnei Anusim of Portugal have been doing it for 400 years- and their story is still unfolding. So is mine.
P.S.- here are some surprisingly beautiful pictures of New Jersey, a reminder to leave stereotypes at the door and explore for yourself. As the picture says: “I never fold”.
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