My 50-year Search for My Portuguese-Jewish Self, Identity and Heritage
Querida Bnei Anusim, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews, Shalom and L Shana Tova!
Today marks the celebration of my first Rosh Hashanah as a Jew! I am very honored to be asked on this occasion to share the story of my Return with the readership of HaLapid. When I entered the Mikveh at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, it was the single defining moment of my life. It is difficult to describe in words what happened to me. It was a completion — a sense of coming full-circle, of finding and reclaiming my elusive long-lost Jewish soul, my neshama, for now and always — never to be lost again. All of the pain, challenges and uncertainties I experienced over the years in this search, pale by comparison with the magnificent emotional splendor of that defining moment. When Rabbi Steven Tucker of Temple Ramat Zion of Granada Hills, Rabbi Mark Diamond and others, including my 81-year old Catholic mother and members of my Jewish community, witnessed my Return to my people, I knew I was home at last.
One of my continuing frustrations is my discovery that it is exceedingly difficult to adequately capture in words, the full emotional texture, heart-wrenching dark nights of the soul and intensely personal nature of the journey that preceded my conversion. Despite the limitations of language, I am very grateful to have this opportunity to tell you about the depth and character of my journey to reclaim my Jewish heritage after 500 years of forced silence and repression.
If I were a journalist, I could tell you my story in one sentence. On Monday, March 25, 2002, (12 Nisan 5762) at the Mikveh before a Beit Din of three rabbis from the Los Angeles Rabbinate at the University of Judaism, Stephen Gomes, a Portuguese-American Catholic, completed his conversion to Judaism. But, facts do little to convey my 50-year journey to recover the Jewish heritage of my ancestors. Nor can they communicate the challenges and uncertainties that accompanied each and every decision as I delved deeply into the mystery of self, of heritage, of Jewish identity and of soul.
My tale could begin with the discovery in 1996 that my fathers 16th century ancestor was buried in the Field of the Jews in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal. Or it could begin with tracking relatives with my maternal great grandmother's name, De Quintal who whispered on the phone in carefully shaded tones, “you know, they say we are Jews”.
Instead I want to tell the story of my conversion from the highly personal perspective of self-discovery. Starting from about seven or eight years old, I began to realize that, in some important but seemingly unknowable way, I did not fit in with the rest of the kids at the Catholic schools I was sent to. By the time I was in college, the feelings began to change, becoming more insistent and more impossible to ignore. I experienced a growing realization that something nameless, ineffable undefined was calling me. But what was it? One day, in graduate school, my best friend, Stephen Wiel, with no preamble — no warning, popped a totally startling and mind altering question to me, “Why were all my friends Jewish?” Not only did I have no answers for what I thought at the time was a completely crazy question; I couldn't begin to fathom why he asked it in the first place. But ultimately it was the first clue that put me on the track to my Return. His question stayed with me, resonated, stewed, percolated. Until one brisk Pittsburgh winter day, I woke up with the question, Could I possibly be Jewish?
For those of you who have been Jewish from birth I am not sure you could put yourself in the mindset of the unsettling road of inquiry this question posed for me. It is an identity shattering kind of question which at that time had no basis in fact. It was relentless. I could not shake this feeling that I was, in fact, seemingly Jewish somehow — someway. It is very hard to describe this feeling. One author who had a similar experience described it as a journey Through the Unknown Remembered Gate. My drive to unravel the mystery of this illusive Jewish identity became like a mysterious unexplainable compulsion. At the time the best way I could find to describe it was to compare it to how the main character of the movie Close Encounters of a Third Kind was portrayed.
After I received my Ph.D. I moved to Reno, Nevada. One cold snowy Reno night, I found myself sitting in my hot tub with another good friend, a psychiatrist named, Ed Lynn (Jewish, naturally) discussing this feeling I had. I said Ed, is there something wrong with me? At first he laughed about it. But then he said you know that there is something called the Jewish soul or neshama. You might be having an experience with that phenomenon. For some reason, that really rang a chord with me.
But at the time I knew nothing about the concept of a Jewish soul nor did I have any knowledge of the anusim, the Hebrew term for Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. In 1980 I moved to San Francisco. The calling was continuous and unrelenting. I spoke to many rabbis. They all uniformly discouraged me. Then one day I was introduced to Rabbi David Zeller. He accepted me as a student. Unfortunately, before I could make much progress toward conversion, the Rabbis wife suddenly died and left him with three very young children to raise. He moved to Israel and my study took a detour.
For the next ten years, I filled much of my spare time studying my family history. I engaged in a lot of genealogical and historical research. It began to become increasingly evident that I could actually be a direct descendant of Jewish ancestors from the Portuguese Inquisition in 1497. I studied the history of the Inquisition in Portugal which convinced me to redouble my effort to convert.
I have since learned that on my mother's side of the family — her grandfather who, it is speculated, knew that he was Jewish — changed his name when he entered the U.S. in Hawaii in 1868. He changed his name from João Baptista de Quintal to John Q.Baptist.
Right now I am trying to learn all I can about the Quintal family name and history. Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a Portuguese Jewish Heritage Tour. While I was in Portugal, with the help of members of the Saudade-Sefarad Group, I was able to locate the medieval Portuguese village of Quintal in north central Portugal; this was the source of our family name. Some of the buildings are still in use. I was amazed to find a Hebrew inscription carved into one of the solid rock Lintel stones in the interior of one of the doorways.
So far, I have learned that during the Portuguese Inquisition while many Portuguese Jews fled to other countries to avoid forced conversion, most were forced to remain and then forced to convert as opposed to Spain where most Jews fled the country. I have also learned that according to Flavio Mendes Carvalho, author of the book, Raizes Judaicas no Brasil (Jewish Roots in Brazil) O Arquivo Secreto Da Inquisição:(from the secret archives of the Inquisition) — (available in Portuguese only) included in the list of family names of cases tried during the Lisbon Autos Da Fe (Covenants of Faith as the Inquisition show trials and torturing of the Jews were euphemistically named by the Church) as found in the official Portuguese Government Torre do Tombe Archives were 177 cases of Judaizing (accusation that new Christians had reverted back to their previous Jewish practices) prosecuted against persons with the last name of Gomes and 5 with the surname of de Quintal (the name means from the village of Quintal which had a population of 200 men, women and children at the time).
While this history is and continues to be under researched in Portugal, there is mounting evidence (see Netanyahu's book on the Sources of the Inquisition) that this massive crime that was committed against the Jews of Portugal by the dominant Church and Royal establishment at that time was actually motivated primarily for greed and economic confiscation purposes. The religious accusations were primarily a diversion designed to enlist the support of the uneducated illiterate masses and incite their anger. Remember, at that time the Church did not allow peasants to learn to read — even to read the Bible. Only the Jews could read, write and do math and accounting because of their emphasis on reading the Torah and on education in general.
For me, stepping into the Mikveh brought me full circle — I was home at last. The feeling is still very new and very vivid for me; I am fully certain for the first time, I truly know who I really am at the core of my soul — without a trace of doubt or lingering hesitancy. This sense of certainty is a great gift, both as concrete as the presence of my limbs, yet as ineffable and ephemeral as vapors arising from San Francisco Bay on a misty Winter morning.
Others have also written about their feelings when the moment they discovered their Jewish identity. The descriptions are almost always in the same general tone. For example, Rufina Bernadetti Silva Mausenbaum, founder of www.saudades.org, described her feelings upon discovering the truth of her Jewish ancestry this way:
After I found out the true facts, I remember clearly the way I felt. It was the most intense emotion — the enormity of this "discovery" consumed me and although I have experienced it since with some of you when you get to the point of "knowing"… I cannot explain it in words. I remember one of our members sharing his moment of discovery with me and as I read his mail, of his moment of truth, I started crying and shivering with emotion as I relived my own discovery again through his. (I hope he shares it again with us on this forum)
I know many Bnei Anusim have spoken of feeling betrayed in some way on finding out about their Jewish heritage. But, somehow, I must have known on some level — having always felt something special or different. I did not feel betrayed at all. I felt just "right". As if I had confirmation of what I had always known, without consciously being aware… (I hope this makes sense) I felt as if I had come home to where I belonged. It was my journey back to where I belonged.
Besides great joy, the certainty of this "knowing" also brought with it a great sadness. I felt the pain of our forefathers and ancient grandmothers, having their children, their traditions, their very heritage forcefully ripped away — seemingly forever until now. Somehow these events of 500 years ago became as fresh and vivid inside of me as if it happened yesterday. And now I feel such a great responsibility to rectify this loss in some way — to make it somehow worthwhile. Even if I only could have a small role in helping a few Portuguese descendants find their way back to their heritage, their true identify, their real roots, then I will be at peace.
Until then, I cannot seem to rest. I feel such a commitment and dedication to helping my fellow Portuguese understand the overwhelming evidence and artifacts of their former connection to their Jewish roots. Once my own "discovery" sank in — never to be lost again — I could look at my fellow Portuguese with wonder and amazement. Now I can't be in Portugal or with Portuguese and not see the evidence of their Jewish heritage everywhere — in their mannerisms, their superstitions, their body language, their words, their culture, their family practices, their way of being in the world, their personal philosophies, their customs, and their stubborn propensity to debate. All of these practices and cultural effects and many more have a root in their common Jewish ancestry.
For me, Judaism is a proud common history that influenced a culture, and, through adversity, forged a unique people who made tremendous contributions to the world and to Tikkun Olam. The Portuguese, my people, are as yet almost totally unaware of just how deeply linked they are to their Portuguese-Jewish roots and how their culture derives so directly from their Jewish heritage. Their continuing inability to embrace their inheritance is such a shame. But there are signs of hope — that seem to be gaining some momentum — including our ground breaking trip to Portugal. Since participating in that Portuguese-Jewish reunion tour, I have spoken many times at synagogues about my discovery of my Portuguese-Jewish roots and what it has meant to me.
I speak about how even in my own immediate family, these vestiges of Jewish family practices persist. They are small clues into the past but for most of us that is all we have. Just last week I discovered that my great grandfather on my mother's side: João Baptista de Quintal (whose village I had the privilege of rediscovering and visiting in Portugal this year thanks to support from members of Saudade-Sefarad),actually had two sons named Jacob and two sons named Benjamin (of twelve sons and one daughter, Ludvina — very Dutch). I asked my mother why that be since I only knew about one great-great uncle Benjamin and one great-great uncle Jacob? She said it was because in her family for generations — they had a peculiar tradition — as long as she could remember, they named their children after relatives who had died. So when their first son Jacob died in his first year of life, they named another son after him and the same with Benjamin. Even my middle name, Laurence, is named after my mother's brother who was a pilot in WWII who died trying to making sure that a German tank did not succeed in overtaking an American GI position.
Another touching remnant of our tradition is the fact that my grandmother on my father's side always baked braided Portuguese sweet bread on Friday mornings (it looked and tasted exactly like challah — because of that the first time I saw challah I thought it was Portuguese sweet bread). As I kid I could hardly wait for Fridays because we would stop at my grandmother's house after school and have toasted fresh Portuguese sweet bread with butter and dip it in hot chocolate. My brothers and I thought it was such a great treat. When I asked her why she did that she said she did not know, but it made her feel good because that is what her mother and her mother's mother and all the women in her family did as far back as she could remember from the time she was a small girl.
Another vestige is the tremendous focus in my family on the value of education. My brothers are all either very highly educated or own their own businesses. I have a brother who graduated from Harvard, has a law degree, an MBA, and a degree in Architecture. Another brother graduated first in his class in accounting, is a CPA and an MBA in Finance and is the leading turn-around specialist in Casino Management in the world. The book and the movie Casino is in part a fictionalized version about his experiences early in his career as chief auditor of the State of Nevada Gaming Control Board. My third brother is a brilliant electronics and electrical installation and design expert who has built a thriving business in installing smart fiber optic and computer/telecom wiring and control systems. I am a college professor, former CEO, businessman and consultant and am blessed (or cursed — depending on ones perspective) with an intense curiosity about everything. The Jews in Portugal were instrumental in establishing one of the earliest known universities in Europe. They stressed education even at the smallest village levels. On our tours we could see the symbol of a candle flame on the doorpost at the entry to their one room schools, indicating that education and the study of Torah brought light into the world.
It saddens me to see that most modern Portuguese cannot see this link to their Jewish heritage much less honor it and cherish it for what it gave them — much of their cultural soul — the very essence of what it means to be Portuguese. My hope is that in some small way by participating in and supporting activities such as Rufina's www.saudade.org, I can play a small role in helping modern Portuguese at least catch a glimpse of the magnificent tradition and heritage that was taken from them and how it has so influenced who they are to this very day. Since I have discovered my Jewish Portuguese roots, I feel so proud to be Jewish and to know that once — before the inquisition — we were major contributors, to the art, the culture, the business expansion, trading life, and the very heart of Portuguese society.
L Shana Tova and Va Com Hashem,
Stephen L. Gomes, Ph.D.