TRIPS WITH NOTABLE JEWISH EXPERIENCES
Emanuel Baker, vice-president, Congregation Kehilat Ma'arav, Santa Monica California
My wife, Judy, and I, when we travel, often will visit Jewish sites of interest, particularly in foreign countries. I sometimes get to do the same thing when I travel on business. My visit to Dachau and attendance at a bar mitzvah at the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, occurred while I was out of the country on business. Many of the places we’ve visited are ones that just about every Jew who goes abroad has visited, such as the synagogues in Prague. However, we have had the good fortune in some places to see things or participate in events that often aren’t available to the casual tourist. For example, we attended a wedding at the Dohanyi Street Synagogue in Budapest, an event that had an unreal feeling to it. The sound of the hazzan’s and rabbi’s voices filling the cavernous interior of the shul as they conducted the ceremony was for me an emotional event. Here was a wedding ceremony taking place in a shul that the Nazis surely would have destroyed, and the ceremony was being conducted by people whose forebears were marked for annihilation. What a stark reminder of the ability of the Jewish people to survive as a people.
Another memorable occasion was attending Rosh Hashanah services at the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, followed by attending Yom Kippur services in Tokyo ten days later. Services in the Portuguese Synagogue were memorable. The synagogue was built in the mid 1600s and to this day remains candlelit. Reading a machzur by candlelight on Erev Rosh Hashanah while listening to an excellent hazzan leading the service with Sephardic intonation was quite an experience. It was almost mystic. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after services, we were invited by a member of the congregation to attend a brit milah at the Synagogue for his new-born son.
Perhaps the most memorable Jewish experience was during our trip to Portugal. Several years back, we had committed to going to Portugal on vacation, and coincidentally, Vanessa Paloma, who was one of our Religious School teachers at the time, had presented a video about a study she was doing about the Marrano Jews in Portugal. Through her, she put us in touch with Manny Azevedo, a Portuguese-Canadian Jew living in Lisbon, who is very active in helping the Portuguese Marrano Jewish community return to their Jewish roots. He agreed to be our “tour guide”, taking us on a tour of Jewish Lisbon. Among the places we went that day was to a university library where research was being done into the records of Jews convicted of heresy during the Portuguese Inquisition. He showed us an original file comprised of parchment documents written with a quill pen and compiled by the Inquisition authorities back in the 1600s for a woman whose last name was Coelho. It was a complete record of her investigation, trial, and judgment. Can you imagine holding a 450 year-old record like that in your hands?
We also went to Porto on that trip, and Manny Azevedo arranged for us to have a private tour of the shul in Porto, which included a museum that featured the life story of one of its founders, Captain Arthur Barros Basto. He was born in 1887 into a Christian family that had descended from Jews forcibly baptized in 1497 during the Inquisition. In the 1920s, Captain Basto, a decorated Portuguese WW1 veteran who survived gas attacks in Flanders, began a quasi-messianic movement in northern Portugal to “out” Marranos and bring them back into the Jewish fold. Captain Basto was wrongly and unjustly drummed out of the Portuguese military. In 1937, the Portuguese military summarily expelled him from its ranks, unjustly humiliating him all because he launched a public campaign to reawaken Portugal's Bnei Anousim to return to their Jewish roots. He became known as the “Portuguese Dreyfus”. Within the last two years, a petition to the Portuguese government was successfully circulated worlwide, beginning the rehabilitation of Captain Basto.
An incidental piece of information is that the great great niece of Captain Basto is the actress Daniela Ruah, one of the stars of TV’s “NCIS: Los Angeles”.
The Spanish Inquisition is better known by many Jews, but probably more from an academic perspective. What made this trip especially memorable was getting deeply immersed in the Portuguese Inquisition, something I knew little about before this trip. What better evidence exists of the ability of the Jewish people to survive than the existence and growth of the Jewish people in Portugal, many of whom have descended, like Captain Basto, from Jews forcibly baptized during the Inquisition?