Porto Synagogue, Built for Barros Basto’s Congregation,
Comes Alive for Anusim Both Religious and Secular
by Manuel A. Lopes Azevedo
from HaLapid, Winter 2005
On September 8 of this year, the impressive Kadoorie synagogue (Mekor H’aim-fountain of life) in Porto, Portugal came alive with singing and dancing on the occasion of the dedication of a sefer torah donated by a rabbi whose grandfather was saved from the nazis by the then fledging anusim community founded by Captain Barros Basto in 1923. The “Catedral Judaica do norte de Portugal,” as it has been called, is a majestic art deco three-story building in a leafy, upscale Porto neighborhood, which took nine years to build (1929 –1938). It was the vision of a romantic hero, Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto (aka Abraham Israel Ben-Rosh), often referred to as the “Apostle of the Marranos” or the Marrano Moses but also the “Portuguese Dreyfus.” He died a broken man in 1961.
Barros Basto dreamed of gathering the anusim of Northern Portugal and creating a large active community in Porto. At its peak, he may have had 10,000 adherents. He founded a publication called Halapid to rally anusim and help them learn about the religion of their ancestors. Barros Basto endured arduous trips to the countryside to meet and organize anusim, he begged for money and support from co-religionists in London, Amsterdam, New York, Paris and elsewhere, he established a yeshiva, he tried to recruit a rabbi, he founded and published a newsletter Halapid, he conducted historical research, he organized conferences, and he resisted attacks by the Catholic Church and a fascist state and their accomplices. He suffered many indignities and injustices. Following his death in 1961, he was buried, not in a Jewish cemetery (there is none in Porto and he did not want to be buried in Lisbon), but in Amarante, his place of birth, near Porto. The magnificent temple that he had built, with the help of the Jewish Community of London, fell into disrepair, its imposing doors closed to the curious. He seemed to have failed.
On September 8 of this year, everything appeared to be changed. The presence of grand Sephardic rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Moshe Amar, signaled a new phase of Barros Basto’s work. The doors of the “cathedral” of the north were once again thrown open, welcoming a new wave of anousim who had dreamed of entering those doors for years; and come they did, philosophers, doctors, poets, professors, professionals, artists and youth. Some are religious, others are secular, but all are curious and excited about their new journey of discovery and learning. Together, with the understanding of a sympathetic orthodox rabbi, Elisha Salas, provided by Amishav, an Israeli organization, they are embarking on the experience of a lifetime; Hebrew, Torah and Talmudic studies, as well as services at the synagogue. Soon, I expect to see tours of historical Jewish Porto, academic conferences on such great philosophers as Uriel Acosta (born in Porto, often cited as the forefather of Baruch Spinoza), cultural events, theatre and film programs and an ever-expanding community of diverse anusim discovering their roots through all the variations of Judaism.
Although Barros Basto’s tireless work to form a normative Jewish community from the remnants of 500 years of oppression and the fires of the inquisition failed, his efforts are not forgotten by today’s anusim. Perhaps his daughter’s dream of justice for her father will someday be realized.
Also in early September, Hanamel and Hahaber, anusim cultural organizations from Porto and Lisbon, respectively, called a conference for anusim in Tomar. A report on that conference and events since then will appear in the Sprng issue of HaLapid.
Manuel A. Lopes Azevedo, who refers to himself as “a lapsed lawyer,” was born in the Azores, lives in Vancouver and sojourns in Porto. He is the founding president of the Portuguese Benevolent Society which publishes Lusitania.ca, a trilingual zine. He is a student of Sefardic history and a member of SCJS.
Society For Crypto Judaic Studies