Paths – Portuguese Sephardi Jews

Documentary on the new Portuguese law which restores Portuguese nationality to descendents of Portuguese Sephardi Jews, expelled from Portugal in the end of the 15th century and 16th century.
Intervene, among others, deputies José Ribeiro e Castro and Maria de Belém; leaders of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, José Oulman Carp and Esther Mucznik and others, and Sephardi descendants, like Tatiana Salem Levy.
Production to RTP – Portugal Radio and Television.
RTP2: July 12th, 2015.


500 years after the expulsions, forced conversions and the Inquisition, which led many Jews to flee Portugal, their descendants, if they wish, may acquire their Portuguese citizenship. The Portuguese government recognizes this right in the form of a decree law, effective in March. The Portuguese origins may be proven, among others, by the surname, language or family tree.
It aims to correct, in the first place, a historical error, which was the fact of the persecution and exclusion of the Jews in Portugal. Therefore, in a way, this law is the acknowledgment of this error, and the attempt to repair it, in a way, through the recognition of people who can, somehow, prove their ascendance. The reestablishment, actually, of a nationality of which they were violently taken away.
These descendants come from countries like Israel, Brazil, Turkey, Morocco and USA.
People whose ancestors left Portugal over 400, 500 years ago, but maintained their traditions through surname, language, Ladino or rites, a relationship with this country, and therefore, that proves to me that they are as Portuguese as myself, and this is a mere act of justice, to offer them the Portuguese citizenship.
I wonder if they had done this to us, we would be able to forgive and forget and want to resume relations with whom have wronged us? And I think the answer is yes, because people feel that the population was not responsible for what happened, for their government at the time.
The Inquisition forced thousands of Portuguese Jews to flee in the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th century, and many others to be converted.
If this person succeeds to prove its Jewish-Portuguese ascendance, has the same rights as someone who got their Jewish religion back, as it was the case for many of the New Christians, who left here to Amsterdam or the Ottoman Empire, and in fact got their Jewish religion back. The fundamental question is not what they are today. What is fundamental is their ascendance. If whether or not they descend from late Jewish-Portuguese.
Since I was a child I have known that my family was of Sephardi Jews expelled from Portugal, went to Turkey, and many centuries later, to Brazil. The funny thing is I am Portuguese because I was born here, my parents were exiled in Lisbon during the Brazilian military dictatorship. That is why I am Portuguese, and my sister used to argue with my parents to why she was not Portuguese, why she was not born here as well. So as soon as the law was approved, I told her she could get her citizenship. Our relatives were also interested, so we put together a joint dossier, of course the final part is different, it is particular to each person, so that each one can talk about their relationship with Judaism, which is very important.
From my paternal grandfather’s side, my great-grandparents stayed in Smyrna, and two of my great-uncles also stayed. My grandfather Jacques Levy left Smyrna and went to France, and his brother, Sam Levy, also went to France, and in different moments, Jacques stayed in Brazil, because he worked with saw exports to Brazil, so he stayed there. And Sam, if I remember correctly, went to Spain, and then to Portugal, where he stayed and ended up becoming an important figure in the Jewish community in Lisbon.
What I know about my paternal family is that they left in the beginning of the Inquisition, in the beginning of the 16th century, as well as the maternal family, because both families maintained the Jewish surname, Salem and Levy, and the families who left a few generations after the Inquisition, ended up using Portuguese surnames, which was not our case, and left to Smyrna, Turkey, where they were established, and attended the Kahal Kadosh community, from Portugal. So they always maintained this relationship to Portugal.
The Levy family is from Castelo de Vide, the Salem family I am not sure. What I know about the Salem family is that they also went to Smyrna, went to the same synagogue from Portugal, and there was a Rabbi from the 18h century, Rabbi Shlomo Salem, which was a Chief Rabbi of the Portuguese community, he was from Adrianopolis, actually, in Turkey, and he went to Amsterdam, which was the greatest center of the Jewish-Portuguese community at the time, to publish a book, his book, which we could not find, even though we did researches in the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, but it was impossible to find that book.
And also where he did a lithography of himself, which we later found out in a study about the Sephardi community, which was very particular to this community, to make engravings of their rabbis, as a sort of veneration. This Rabbi was my ancestor, and this engraving was passed through generations, from firstborn to firstborn, until it got to my mother’s father, Mauricio Salem.
It is the Jewish-Portuguese community’s duty to certify these people’s link to the traditional Jewish-Portuguese communities.
Historically, for communities around the world, it is an unusual situation, a responsibility with no precedents, in the communities’ history. We are talking about a citizenship requirement divided in three parts. The first part is identification, birth certificate, which is standard, then the criminal records, which investigates all the places that this person has lived in, which he has to demonstrate. And finally, the certificate which states that he belongs to a Jewish-Portuguese community.
At the present moment, the Jewish Community of Lisbon has already issued 71 certificates.
The communities gives us the guarantee that the process is going to be totally fair, strict, and the communities have a great concern in that sense, from what I have been told, be that the Jewish Community of Lisbon, or the Jewish Community of Porto, they want the process to go well, and they are very committed to use this opportunity in an exemplary way.
Whoever wants to submit the application for the certificate, has to enter our site,, and they will find our procedures guide, with all the information they need, which they need to read carefully. They should gather all the documents that they judge to be important, and then the process can be opened. The documents need to be researched by the applicant. We do not make family trees nor research documents. The person has to come here already with the documents. There are many different documents, and the analysis will be done with all the documents that the applicant presents.
There are other elements as well. There is an affection element, which is also on the law, the language, for instance, people who maintained through the centuries, in their family traditions, the Ladino language, which is a mixture of ancient Portuguese and Spanish, and other countries’ languages, to which people fled.
My grandparents spoke Ladino, my father still remembers some things, mostly curse words, because when my grandfather argued, it was in Ladino. And when I met some of the relatives who stayed in Smyrna, I realized that my generation still spoke Ladino, but it was on the brink of being forgotten because it was not spoken to their kids. It was spoken to their parents and grandparents.
For a family tree to be accepted, it has to have names, dates of birth, places of birth, and in many cases, people bring family trees with only names. And often times that is not enough.
In Spain, in the 20th century, this law already existed, around 1925. It was intended for the Spanish people to go back to Spain, who were scattered through many countries, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and this same law, for a long time, several decades, along the 20th century, was archived and forgotten.
Portugal was inspired by the Spanish law, but created a less restrictive certificate and more comprehensive.
My brother António Caria Mendes, also played a role in this, and later, Dr. Maria de Belém takes this law to parliament, seconded by Dr. Ribeiro e Castro, by CDS, and this law was approved unanimously by the parliament, which was extraordinary for us, Jews.
Our interpretation of the citizenship law would already allow to resolve some cases. What I have considered is that our civilization’s editorial, our way of life was absolutely incompatible with the Inquisition in Portugal. It is time we had a legislation which recognized the Jews’ expulsion as something which is not acceptable and should be resolved specifically, and not by analogy.
I was, at the time, president of International Affairs, and was contacted by Facebook by a Sephardi Jew which addressed the matter. I had never thought about it, so I studied the matter, and came to the conclusion that a legislative amendment was not necessary. Our citizenship law nº 6 already allowed the government to recognize descendants from Portuguese communities, which was the case, therefore it should be addressed, and I posed a series of questions and challenges to the government. The law is in force, the first cases are in analysis, and that will allow us, once we are all set, to clarify some issues in the regulation, and maybe even in the law, to include minors and spouses, because of some interpretation issues, which did not come up in the law’s conception.
This law does not require knowledge of the Portuguese language, nor does it require residence in Portugal. That is also proof that the law does not perceive financial gains, by not requiring residence. Financial elements are not this law’s intent. If so, it would be necessary to live in Portugal.
I partake in Antero de Quental’s thesis, that the peninsular impoverishment has to do with the Jews’ expulsion. We had in the Jews the most expressive elements of society, in the areas of science, of philosophy, culture and finances.
We received an applicant’s form whose surname was Beja, from Salónica. We know that many of the New Christians, which fled Portugal to the Ottoman Empire, were established in Salónica, or Smyrna, or even Istambul. And we know that particularly in the Ottoman Empire, many of these Jews, these New Christians, who came back to Judaism, created communities with the names of their lands of origin. Therefore, there were communities of Beja, Évora, Lisbon.
The siblings Celícia Caria Mendes and António Aguiló Fuster are Jewish-Portuguese, but their origins are in the Xueta community of Majorca. Present in the island since the Múrias times, the Xuetas are the equivalent of the Portuguese Marranos, Jews that, apparently were converted, secretly kept their Jewish identity.
At this moment, it is thought to exist around 20.000 Xuetas, but not all identify as or want to be identified as such. In fact, very few accept their condition of Xuetas, because many of them still fear persecution.
The Xuetas were a Jewish community harshly persecuted since 1391.
In 1435 there were no Jews. Everyone said they were Christians. The fear was such that there were no Jews. And from there until the 1600s, there were no Jews.
Until the 1920s, these discreet Jews could not join the military, nor have public education, nor religious schools.
We are an example of this. We lived in clandestinity.
Each and every Xueta from Majorca knew that they were Jewish. In our family, it was openly talked about since we were kids. But nevertheless, every Xueta from Majorca knows that they are Jewish.
The Xueta community of Majorca have been of great interest to Jerusalem’s rabbis. They were, in fact, invited to go back to Orthodox Judaism after centuries of being distant from religious and cultural practices. The two siblings, in order to go back to Judaism, put together a complete dossier about their origins, which was presented to obtain the Spanish citizenship, through a law similar to the Portuguese law. With many ascendants in the Inquisition’s victims lists, Cecília contacted a renowned genealogist in Majorca, and quickly got results.
Three days later I got an email which said “I have found your family, here is your family tree, and I want to tell you that your great-great-grandparents, Gabriel Pinya and Magdalena Fortesa, who were very well known in Majorca, documented in any book on the Inquisition, and the Xueta victims in Majorca, are also my great-great-grandparents.” And I think it was this brutality which gave me and my brother strength to assume Judaism with so much passion, love, and that is why we are here: to pay respect to our family.
There is always an emotional element, in practically anything. But especially in the acquisition of a citizenship, because it is an identity’s acquisition, and any identity corresponds to an emotional element, which is family, country of origin, journeys, environment, music, food, leisure, it is all part of an emotional element, particular to each one.
We have textual evidence, because the family’s history was told in books, so that was all used as evidence, because these books were written long before the Portuguese law, so it would not be forged.
Written by historians.
Exactly, Boris Fausto, historian, my mother, who was a journalist, so she had these two books. And then books on Sephardi communities, about engravings and the traditions, and we also found the Rabbi’s engraving in Jerusalem’s University’s library. We found it in an american’s book as well.
With a Spanish mother and grandmother, it would have been pretty easy for them to obtain the Spanish citizenship in another way.
We want to go through this way, because it relates to us, it is the right way and it is fair. We decided to go this way. We want to get back what was taken from us.
Sam Levy, in the 80s, fought for this return to Portuguese citizenship. Sam was very important. He did not live to see what Portugal is doing today, but he fought a lot for it. When he got his Portuguese citizenship, he said he did not simply want the citizenship, he wanted a repatriation. He felt like he was Portuguese. In fact, his mother called him “my little Portugal”. So the affective relationship to Portugal was never broken.
Here in Portugal, these matters are a bit more difficult than in Spain. The Marquis of Pombal, in an honorable manner, wanted to end the segregation between New Christians and Old Christians. Therefore, he ordered to burn all the evidence that could link the New Christians to Judaism. So this destroyed all the footprints. Nevertheless, the Torre do Tombo has a very competent service with friendly personnel, who support every person that goes there to ask for information on these matters.
No community will award a certificate without being sure that all the evidence is truly real. Therefore, one has to have all the documentation needed, and if it is not very well documented, it is not worth it.
Evidently you cannot award it to the dead. But at least it is an apology, when they recognize the descendants of Jewish people who were forced to fled, which were many.
I arrived from Israel about a week ago. I was approached in Israel by Israelis who wanted to know who had the right or not, how did we get there. I was surprised by the knowledge that the people in Israel have nowadays, relative to this new law in Portugal, and now in Spain. I was very moved by everyone’s interest, and I was grateful for it.
All eight people from my family who applied already got the certificate from the Jewish Community of Lisbon, and what is left now is bureaucratic paperwork before the Conservatory of Lisbon, until we get the citizenship. We are already arranging family reunions, once everyone gets their citizenship, and then we will visit Castelo de Vide, Marvão.
I wanted to recall the family which kept the keys to their house for over 500 years. I think that is a statement that our home is where our house is, and that we need to go back to it.
The house keys’, which was brought with the expulsion of the Jewish people, when they went to Turkey, and was then passed from generations, and I heard that this key was passed until my grandfather’s generation, Sam Levy.
“The pain of expulsion also persecuted us, and the recognition of nationality of the Sephardi Jews, for me, is more than just a document. It represents the joy of coming back, and feeling of a great injustice being repaired”. Moroccan applicant.
“I believe that this is a way of diminishing the damages caused by the Inquisition’s brutality”. Brazilian applicant.
“To finally get back in touch with our land of origin”. Brazilian applicant.
“A way of keeping alive the memory of those who were forced to leave their land”. American applicant.
“To continue passing on to my children this rich family and historical memory of which I take so much pride in”. Israeli applicant.
“The purpose of strengthening my family’s Portuguese roots and reconnect to Sephardi culture, to which they feel so connected to”. Turkish applicant.

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