Peering into the hidden world of Crypto-Jews

Hundreds of Jewish women waved their Magen David necklaces at Yaacov Gladstone and shouted in a joyous, unified chorus: “We are no longer afraid!”

Gladstone was visiting Belmonte, Portugal, where, after centuries of practicing their Judaism in secret, the locals came out of the Jewish closet six years ago. The border town currently sports a synagogue and at least 200 Jews.

“They no longer have to hide the light from the Sabbath candles. The women showed us the clay jugs they used. Inside there was a little vessel with olive oil they lit for Shabbat, and the neighbors couldn’t see it,” said Gladstone, a retired Yiddish and Hebrew teacher and social activist who is a member of the Society for Crypto-Jewish Studies.

“They showed me where they secretly baked the matzah. After 500 years of no teachers or rabbis, they had forgotten the prayers of the seder and forgotten everything. The women created their own prayers. The only Hebrew word they remembered was ‘Adonai.'”

Contrary to popular (and intuitive) belief, the Spanish Inquisition may have been at its most destructive in the neighboring Iberian nation of Portugal. Given the option to flee or convert, thousands of Jews left Spain for its western neighbor in 1492. But in 1496, Portugal’s King Emmanuel did not want to let his Jews go, and thousands were forcibly converted, killed or committed suicide.

As a result, many Iberian Jews adopted elaborate secret rituals, which they mixed with Catholic practices. Over the course of time, some completely forgot their Jewish identity, yet continued practicing the rituals.

Gladstone, who lives in New York City and Israel, believes that quite a few of the Bay Area’s Latino residents may be Crypto-Jews, whether they know it or not. He urges those with questions about their backgrounds to check out the SCJS Web site,

“The children ask, ‘Why can’t we eat milk and meat together? Why do we light the candles on Friday? Why do we cover the mirrors when someone dies?'” said Gladstone, who works as a therapist with Ethiopian Israeli children and other young Israeli immigrants. He traveled through the Bay Area last week en route to attending the 14th annual SCJS conference in Portland, Ore.

“The answer is always, ‘That’s our family tradition.’ They never say, ‘Because we’re Jewish.'”

Gladstone, a blond-haired Montrealer with blue eyes and the lingering hint of a French Canadian accent, does not have a Crypto-Jewish background himself — he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking Canadian Jewish communist household.

At a young age, he became an ardent Zionist, and at one point the native French-speaker helped to lead a refugee boat of North African Jews to Israel. The North Africans told of their familial ties to the expelled Spanish and Portuguese Jews, and Gladstone’s life changed forever.

Much of Gladstone’s life has been spent working with Jewish minorities, such as black American Jews, Crypto-Jews and Ethiopian Israelis. In his work for the SCJS, he has helped introduce Crypto-Jews to the world of Jewish tradition and liturgy. Even centuries after the Inquisition, some Crypto-Jews keep their religion hidden, fearing rejection by the Jewish community. The SCJS, Gladstone assures, is not a proselytizing organization, but it is welcoming — even if many Crypto-Jews are wary of it.

“Instead of encouraging and embracing and … using them as an example, we tend to push them away with all our questions. Where did your grandmother get married? How do we know you’re telling the truth? These are such painful questions for many of them,” he said.

As one Portuguese Crypto-Jew who formally converted at a New York City Reform temple told Gladstone, “How do they expect our grandparents or great-grandparents to save any documents? They were afraid to have anything in the house that showed we are of Jewish descent.”

So far, the SCJS has fielded a pair of calls from possible Crypto-Jews in the Bay Area, but neither is ready to seriously talk about Judaism, at least for now.

And, noted Gladstone, every Crypto-Jew he’s met has passed down his or her tradition in a different way.

Perhaps the most unique was a woman who finally found out why her ostensibly Catholic grandmother never quite knelt down and prayed in “gibberish” during holidays.

“She would make the cross and say, ‘I don’t believe in idols, I don’t believe in idols, please forgive me Adonai, please forgive me Adonai,” he recalled.

Now “they can announce openly ‘We are not what you think we are. We are not Catholic. We are Jews.'”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.