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My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

A Jewish moment in Portugal – October 2007

A Street in Castelo RodrigoMonica Figueiredo - My Marano Guide to Castelo Rodrigo, PortugalSometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes truth can send a chill through your body.  Travelling through Portugal recently, I took a coach trip to a remote mountain village called Castelo Rodrigo.  My guide, a young lady by the name of Monica Figueiredo, told me that in this tiny hamlet of cobbled streets and mule tracks Jews, Christians and Arabs had once lived in harmony. 

(double click on photos to enlarge)

She spoke of its Rua Sinagoga, Castelo RodrigoView inside the Mikvah, now used for water storage, Castelo RodrigoRua Sinagoga, its ancient mikvah (converted now into a water storage cistern), its rabbi’s house and the house of the ‘Conversos’ – new Christians – Jews forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism by threat of the inquisition.  I walked round this tiny place for an hour or more, and while I found most of the sites, I could not find the rabbi’s house – supposedly identifiable by a Star of David engraved into an outside wall.  I went back to the guide intending to ask her where the rabbi’s house was, but first I asked if there were Maranos (secret Jews) still living in the village.  She looked strangely at me and then asked if I had any Jewish connections.  In return I asked her if she knew what Maranos were.  Her reply stunned me. She told me she was of Marano descent.   I wanted to ask her so many questions, but in the fleeting moments available I could only ask a few.  She told me her family lit candles on Friday night and at Christmas lit a Chanukiah.  She didn’t know what Chanukah was, and didn’t know why she lit candles on Friday night.  All she knew was that she was of Jewish descent and that the ritual candle sticks had been in her family for hundreds of years. She came from a Marano village where descendants of secret Entrance to Castelo RodrigoEntrance to the Mikvah, Castelo RodrigoJews had married only within their own community for the 500 years since the inquisition had crossed the border from Spain into Portugal.  She told me that when her ancestors were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism they were given new names, names which humiliated their bearers.  And so her mother’s maiden name was Barata, Portuguese for cockroach. She described the curious houses her family lived in, houses without windows facing the street.  I suggested this was so that Friday night candles could be lit and other rituals performed without hostile passers by seeing what was going on.  All too soon my encounter with a lost member of Kehillas Israel (the Community of Israel) was over, but the sadness I felt at hearing her story will remain with me forever. 

Philip Walker

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