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A Messenger For Portugal’s Hidden Jews

A Messenger For Portugal’s Hidden Jews

Fernando Manuel da Costa will speak for a few minutes tonight at the Ashkenazic synagogue in Lisbon.
That’s not unusual for the 32-year-old native of the Portuguese capital; he’s been attending Shabbat services there for nearly two decades. Now da Costa wants to tell other Portuguese with suspect Jewish roots how they can return to the fold.
But older members of the congregation sometimes would tell him to take off his tallit and would call him (a member of a crypto-Jewish family that hid its Jewish roots since the 16th century Inquisition) "a guy playing to be Jewish."
On July 25, da Costa, who returned to Lisbon this week after several months working and studying with rabbis in Hoboken, N.J., and New York City, will talk about his time in the United States. He will appear as Emanuel ben Avraham, his new Hebrew name, and describe the route that led to his recent conversion to Judaism.
"I consider myself 100 percent Jewish," said da Costa, who numbers himself among some 5,000 crypto Jews in Portugal who were raised Catholic and are reclaiming their Jewish heritage. "There are more and more people like me."
The best-known crypto Jews live in Belmonte. Questions about their Jewish status, because of the centuries of assimilation into the dominant Portuguese culture, are often raised.
Like other crypto Jews, da Costa observed signs that suggested a Jewish background: his grandmother lighting candles sometimes "somewhere private: she would mumble something"; his grandfather leaving the room when the priest stopped by; his family eschewing Catholic names.
Baptized as an infant, da Costa, a religious Catholic as a youth, started having doubts about Catholicism by his late teens.
"Slowly I started to step away from the church," he said. His grandmother asked why. "I don’t believe it anymore," he answered. That’s not surprising, his grandmother said. "You’re mother’s Jewish and I’m Jewish," she told him.
"What do you mean?" da Costa asked.
"We don’t talk about it," his grandfather said. With a historical memory of anti-Semitic persecution, his grandfather refused to admit his identity or discuss the subject.
Da Costa began researching Judaism. An artist specializing in Jewish subjects (to see his work, go to, da Costa made contacts with Jews while working in Germany and England. He spent a year in Israel. He arranged for a brit milah in a hospital. Everywhere he asked questions. "What I understood, I kept": Shabbat, kashrut.
In the U.S., with the help of Saudade Sepharad (, a New York-based organization that aids people like him, da Costa sought out rabbis for a conversion.
"I approached the Orthodox [first] because of aliyah," he said. Interested in possibly moving to Israel one day, da Costa reasoned that an Orthodox conversion is recognized universally. Several Orthodox and Conservative rabbis did not seem responsive, he said. Finally, Yaakov Gladstone, program director of Saudades Sepharad, arranged for Rabbi David Posner of Temple Emanu-El to officiate last week at the conversion.
Da Costa also had a brit milah done by an Orthodox mohel and submerged himself in a mikveh.
"Now I can count in a minyan," said da Costa, who wears a black leather kipa and a gold-plated Magen David on a chain around his neck.
While in Hoboken, he sent e-mail messages about his experiences to his fellow crypto Jews who are looking forward to his return. About 20 are active members of the Ashkenazic synagogue. "They’re waiting for someone to teach them. They want to learn from me," he said.
He is going back with introductory books about Judaism and the knowledge he accumulated here. Da Costa will teach in Lisbon, Belmonte and other communities. His message: "If someone closes the door, you knock again."
In the Lisbon shul again, "I’ll put my tallis on," he said, "and no one will tell me to take it off."

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