Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
From HaLapid, Fall 2009
Yaakov Gladstone has devoted much effort over many years in support of Crypto Jews. He has been active both in SCJS, where he served on the board, and in Kulanu. Recently Kulanu honored Yaakov for his efforts on their behalf.
He has traveled to Portugal many times and was instrumental in organizing a movement to collect funds to send a young man from Belmonte to a Yeshiva in Israel to study for the rabbinate. He followed this up with another fund to acquire Jewish educational material in Portuguese for the young people of Belmont and Porto .
Here is his story, in his own words:
I first learned about the tragedy which befell the Jews of Spain and Portugal when I was an afternoon student at the Montreal Yiddish Y.L.Peretz Shule. I was in grade five when I read in my Jewish History book about the Marranos who suffered torture and burnings at the hands of the Inquisition. I recall there were drawings of the autos-da-fe in the text book which were frightening. Our teacher told us that the Church and its Inquisition succeeded in wiping out the Marranos of Spain and Portugal .
At age 14 I joined a Zionist Youth Movement and all I could think about was the Holocaust, the plight of the Jew in the displaced persons camps, and Palestine . I completely forgot about the Marranos. Years later when I was a student at the Montreal Yiddish Teachers Seminary our music teacher taught us the song MARRANOS by the great Yiddish classic poet Avrom Reizen. The song, in Yiddish, had a great impact on me. Especially the last verse: The poet asks "Zog MARRAN" Tell me Marran, what will be when at the Seder, the enemy will capture you?" The Marrano replies "If the enemy will capture me, I will die with songs on my lips."
In Oct. 1950 my friend Mischa Chefetz and I volunteered to work as Youth Leaders in one of the transit camps for North African Jews in Marseille. Neither in the Yiddish school, nor at the Yiddish Teachers Seminary, nor in the Youth Movement was I made aware of the "other Jews." In many ways they were different from the two Canadians who came to work with them. But we embraced them as brothers and sisters. I fell in love with them but could not get used to the spicy Moroccan meals
February 1951.The longed for day finally arrived. We were off on an eleven day exciting trip from Marseille to Haifa . Mischa and I were in charge of a large group of Moroccan Jewish Youth. We kept them busy preparing a skit and dances for the Purim celebration on board. It was during this trip that I heard for the first time some of the elderly women speaking Ladino.
Once in Israel I began to read about the Marranos of Spain and Portugal including Cecil Roth's book. In 1954, on the way back to Montreal to enroll for my BA degree, I was in Lisbon . With difficulty I found the Shaarei Tikvah Synagogue, which was hidden behind a wall. The Rabbi was kind and asked a family to host me for Shabbat. Neither he nor the family knew anything about the Marranos. I was disappointed and saddened.
Many years later, in 1990, my friend Bill Fern and I drove from Spain over the Pyrénées to Bragança. At the Tourist Office we told the beautiful Sephardic looking woman that we were looking for the Marranos. She smiled, and from a drawer in her desk, took out a sheet of paper with the name and address of the shoe maker we were about to meet.
It was in Braganca that I met the first Marrano. He was a shoe repair man. He stood at the entrance of his cavelike, windowless repair shop, When my friend Bill Fern and I approached he greeted us with a friendly Shalom, pointed to the Magen David he wore and said in Portuguese :" I am no longer afraid of them."
The shoemaker suggested we visit his brother who owned a shoe store. We were welcomed and offered seats near the entrance of the shop, so that we could stop the discussion when a "stranger" came in. When we inquired about the four young men repairing shoes at the end of the store, we were told "they are ours"
Bragance once had a large community of crypto Jews. They gathered in private homes for prayer. One day a visitor arrived. He said he was from Lisbon and wants to take a photo of the Bragance Jews who have returned to their old religion.to show them co-religionists in Lisbon . In a few days the photo appeared in the Braganca newspaper. It was very harmful for the Braganca Jews. Our host stopped telling the story. At the urging of his friend who sat with us, he continued: When he was 14 years old he was caught by a group of men, dragged into a house and forcibly circumcise. "You are a Jew," they shouted," you should be circumcised." With tears in his eyes he told us he and his family tried hard to keep as much of the religion as possible.
The meeting with the shoe maker and his brother, the store owner made a lasting impact on me.
How is it that the Jewish Community in New York , which I knew so well, is so ignorant of the descendants of the Marranos and their needs?
From Bragance we drove to Belmonte. We had no idea how to meet the Bnei Anousim
In front of a small park we saw five men sitting on a bench. When we told them that we were looking for the secret Jews, we were asked "why?" I told my friend to tell them that I am a Jewish history teacher in New York and that I am interested in the Bnei Anousim.
They wanted proof that we were Jews. Finally we were taken by the nephew of the leader of the Crypto Jewish Community to his uncle's home. His aunt who was standing in the little garden in front of the house was furious with him for bringing strangers.
After some coaxing we were invited in. The community chairman sat in a large couch chair. We sat facing him. I notice the collection of Chanukiot on the wall and many posters of Jerusalem . "My son brought it from Israel ," he told us, "to decorate our Mizrach Wall." His son hoped to remain in Israel but. "Did not feel accepted."
There was no synagogue yet in Belmonte. There was no rabbi and no teacher. There were no religious texts and no educational materials such as Jewish history and Holiday books for children or adults.
It was then that I decided I must return to Belmonte. Not as a researcher. Not as a documentary producer nor as a teacher.
The first thing I did when I returned to New York was to mail educational materials. For Rosh Hashana I mailed some Jewish Wall Calendars. For Chanukah I mailed candles and some crayons for children
In 1964 I was one of the founders of HATSAAD HARISHON (the first step) an organization that helped the Black Jews become part of the Jewish Mainstream. I decided to do the same for the Jewish Community in Belmonte.
In 2003 I was fortunate to meet Kitty Teltsch. She told Dolores Sloan about me.
They asked me to join them in forming the BELMONTE PROJECT. Our first project was to send a Belmonte son to Israel to study for the Rabbinate at the Sephardic Educational Center .
Our dream was for him to become the first Belmonte born Rabbi in 500 years.