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THE AZORES: A FASCINATING PIECE OF THE DIASPORA

By Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Summer 1999

           We thought this afternoon to take you back with us to the Iberian world although not the Iberian peninsula.  Instead let us share with you a double story with Jewish themes in one of the most unique places we have ever visited -- a volcanic archipelago known in mythology as the remnants of the lost continent Atlantis, the Azores.

          Living in Massachusetts, you have undoubtedly come across Azoreans -- most of the Portuguese who immigrated to the United States came to the New Bedford area from these islands and spread out to other parts of New England.  Their connection with New Bedford goes back to the days of the whaling industry. Azoreans worked on American boats that hunted whales in the Atlantic.  Whales are still populous in the waters surrounding the islands, and whale-sighting is a major activity.

          The Azores were discovered by Portuguese navigators in the 15th century, and since then they have been a stopping point for traders heading both east and west, and all have left their mark on the islands.  In the early days of transatlantic flight, the Azores were a refueling station. The English had an airbase there during the Second World War, we have one there today.

          These days, Azorean-Americans keep going back and forth from New England to the Azores, one generation lives here, another there.  It’s kind of analogous to the Jews in the northeast going back and forth to Florida.  Although the Azores are nothing like Florida.  They are like no place else on earth. 

          When they were first discovered around 1427, there were no people, no animals on the islands, only birds and vegetation.  There had however been many volcanic eruptions.  Because these sparkling green  islands are actually the tips of underwater mountains with volcanoes at their peaks.

          There is a profusion of vegetation, flowers, many, many birds, great mountain peaks, volcanic craters, lakes, terraced vineyards, rolling pastures.  The feel is European and at the same time Caribbean -- although the Azores are not tropical. There is a paradoxical, conflicting quality to the islands.

          The Azoreans are indebted to the volcanoes for their lush landscape and fertile earth. Azaleas, hydrangeas, even hot-house flowers like calla lilies, white irises, and roses grow wild like weeds in the fields. Vegetable and grain crops are plentiful.  There are thermal baths, hot springs, yellow pools with curative properties on the islands.

          But when these same volcanoes erupt, there is great devastation. They have erupted before, and undoubtedly they will erupt again.  Azoreans live with this uncertainty. 

          They also live on nine islands, stranded in the middle of the Atlantic.  The sea is a major source of food and also a maritime industry.  But it is a fickle friend who has many times turned treacherous and wrought its own kind of destruction. Imagine what it’s like to live on an island far from any continent, during a major hurricane or tornado - and you’ll get the idea.

          So the mood in the Azores is a strange mixture of optimism and fatalism.  And you see it.  There are the dramatic vistas, the beautiful scenery, the lush vegetation on the one hand.  And the 17th century Baroque architecture on the other -- which is heavy and brooding.

          We were there in April 1997, right after Passover. We went to three of the nine islands in search of a Jewish story. From what we were able to learn beforehand, Jews had been among the original Portuguese settlers of the islands in the 15th century, and like those on the mainland, they had been forced to convert. But unlike the situation in Spain, no trace of their existence remains, not a former synagogue, or cemetery, or neighborhood.

          But there was another Jewish story that began in the 19th century, we were told. And that was what we were after. Let Harvey  tell you what happened.

          We began our journey on San Miguel, largest of the islands.  There are about a quarter of a million people in all the Azores and nearly half of them live here. And of those, 63,000 live in its capital city Ponta Delgado.  It is a bustling place with a beautiful harbor front promenade and colorful gardens. 

          Most of the buildings are 17th century Baroque, and nearly all are restored.  There are many plazas with statues, but the most dominant is that of  St. Michael, San Miguel’s patron saint, which overlooks a fountain-filled pool. 

          We were headed just across the way from St. Michael’s statue to the offices of a small import/export company where we had an appointment to meet its owner, a man with an unusual distinction: he is the last Jew in the Azores.

          Jorge Delmar is a stocky, good-looking man in his early 50s.  He is warm and friendly, but he has an air of sadness about him.

          Thirty years ago, he told us, there were sixteen Jewish families on the island of San Miguel. They were a community. They held services in a synagogue. They celebrated the festivals in each other’s home.  But little by little, all of them have died or converted or moved away.  Jorge Delmar is the only one left.

          “I try to observe Jewish laws,?he says.  “On Saturdays, I close my store. But it is sad to be the only one. 

          “My wife and children are Catholic. We have no problems over religion, although my wife is curious.  She’ll ask, ‘Why do you say you are a Jew?  What happened to the Jews??

           I say,  ‘As my mother is a Jew, I am always a Jew. That’s all.’”   

          Jorge Delmar’s connection to the Azores goes back 180 years to the time a Moroccan family named Bensaude took a look at the islands and saw possibilities with the orange trees that grew so profusely there.  The Bensaudes came to this isolated and sparsely populated area and began growing oranges, harvesting them,  and exporting them to England.  Sometimes they were paid with cash, sometimes with bills of exchange.  They took these bills of exchange on trading journeys to Brazil , sold them there or traded them for sugar and rum.

           They became very, very rich and in the process, they transformed the Azorean economy.  By getting into the bill of exchange business, they effectively began banking in the Azores. They went on to establish a chain of retailers throughout the archipelago who sold imported goods on easy terms.  They developed a maritime transport industry.

          Today the Bensaudes are an international financial empire -- a mini Rothschilds -- and they remain the chief economic entity in the Azores -- in banking, insurance, travel agencies, retail stores. Only they are no longer Jewish. Most converted during the Second World War fearing the Nazis would invade Portugal. The last Jew of the dynasty died some twenty years ago.   But interestingly enough, the current president of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio, is the grandson of a Jewish woman from this Bensaude family.

          What happened in the Azores was typical of Jewish emigration patterns -- someone led the way, others followed.  Starting in the 1820s, the Bensaudes became a beacon for other North African Jews who followed them to the Azores and established Jewish communities in all the islands. One of them was Jorge Delmar’s great-grandfather.  He emigrated from Tangiers to work in one of the Bensaude’s tobacco factories.

          At one time, there were synagogues throughout the Azores. Today, only one remains, Sahak Hassamain, and it is falling apart. It is the synagogue in Ponta Delgado that Jorge Delmar attended as a boy.  And it has become his life’s mission to rescue and restore it.

          “Let me show the synagogue to you,?he said to us and so we followed him down a busy street to a rundown sixteenth century building. We climbed up a rickety staircase and walked through an arched wooden door, and suddenly we found ourselves in a high-ceilinged sanctuary with a bima of beautiful old wood, and an ark draped with a green curtain on which the Ten Commandments were embroidered in gold.  Standing on the bima, Delmar  pointed out the second row where as a child he would sit beside his uncle. His grandfather sat next to the reader’s desk.

          “We never had a permanent rabbi,?he told us.  “The oldest Jew was in charge, and that for many years was my grandfather.

But there was a  rabbi on the American Naval base in Terceira  and sometimes he came here by plane.

          “I spent many hours of my life here with all my family,?he added.  “I was educated here. This is where I learned to read Hebrew and daven.? Delmar led us up a second unstable stairway to the women’s balcony.  Its walls were decorated with plaques dedicated to the synagogue’s founders; three were members of the Bensaude family.  But the entire place was in a terrible state of disorder and disrepair.  Books were mildewed from the humidity.  Plaster was falling off the walls. 

          We looked out a window and saw a restored building across the way whose cornerstone read 1719.  It seemed every building in the area, except for this one,  had been restored. Walls were whitewashed.  Pretty gardens were dotted with little orange trees and enclosed by neat stone walls; narrow cobblestone lanes were swept clean.  Only in this aging house of worship did we see such desolation.

          This synagogue was consecrated in 1893. It was in use until the mid 1960s, and afterwards it was maintained by two Jewish sisters who lived in the building. But since their death, it has fallen into disrepair.  Only Jorge Delmar stands between the synagogue’s existence and extinction.

          “I pay the taxes and for the electricity and water.?he says.  “As I am the last, I keep everything in my home, the Torah, six silver candelabras, and the other heirlooms. What will happen to them after I am gone?  Maybe my oldest girl will take care of these things. She is Catholic, and she lives in Lisbon, but she knows that my big dream is that one day the synagogue will be rebuilt and all these things can be put back in their rightful place.

          “It is easy to be a Jew anyplace now,?he says. “But here we are soon to be no more.  This synagogue should remain as a reminder that once we were here. Many good things happened here. People who played an important part in the local history worshipped there.

          “We did a study and found restoration would cost about $200,000.  I keep trying to get it done.  I write letters, I meet with government officials and potential donors. I don’t give up. The government spends lots of money rebuilding churches, why not this synagogue? We have a new government now so I am more hopeful.

          “Why do I do this??he asks. “Because I feel I have to do something. It all ends with me.?/span>

          From the synagogue, we accompanied Jorge Delmar on a ten minute drive from downtown Ponta Delgado to a suburban area. There, unidentified, behind a basalt wall, was the Jewish cemetery. A number of the Bensaudes are buried here.  All the Delmars are.  Jorge pointed out his grandfathers, mother’s and uncle’s graves and the one last place reserved for him.  He regularly recites Kaddish for his relatives at the appointed times, but he knows there will be no one to say Kaddish for him.

          From San Miguel, we headed out to the second island on our itinerary: Faial.  Some of you may remember hearing of it in 1958 when one of its volcanoes erupted. Before the eruption, the island had a population of 28,000 people. After, the population dropped to 16,000.  There was a special allowance for emigration to the United States, and many people from Faial came here to Mass and to California.         

           Horta, the capital city of Faial, is a famed seaport.  To this day, it  draws clippers and yachts from all over the world, and sailors gather and swap tales in the world renowned Peter’s Sports Bar.   When the first submarine telegraph cables were laid across the Atlantic, Horta was a relay station and interchange point for telegraph companies from the United States, England, Germany, and Italy.  So there is sophisticated, international flavor to the island. 

          There was once a thriving Jewish community here too.

But when the orange growing industry declined towards the end of the 19th century , it declined as well.  The synagogue closed in 1886, and its rabbi took the Torah and religious objects to Lisbon.

          The last Jew in Faial died some years ago, but his daughter still lives on the island and we met her. Oddly enough, her name is Luna Benarus -- the same name as the wife of the head of the Spanish Jewish Federation we spoke of this morning.  It is Benarroch in Spanish, Benarus in Portuguese.  She is an amiable middle aged woman who, together with her husband, operates Quinta Das Buganvilias, a luxurious seaside inn on the renovated property of her mother’s family’s farmstead. 

          In the guest house, one experiences a mini- history of Faial.  One of the bedrooms has a dresser made in Boston that came over on one of the old whaling ships.  The dining room is filled with Chippendale furniture purchased from some Germans who were working on the submarine cable lines.  The bar is an old grist mill filled with domestic items from times gone by like butter churns, tankards, and mortars and pestles.

          Luna is a practicing Catholic.  But she is also the final link to a Jewish presence on this island  and she told us she feels a need to hold on to a heritage she dimly remembers from her childhood.  “My father used to talk to me about his family’s history all the time,?she says. “He would tell me about his grandfather, Joseph, who came to the Azores in 1860 and his father, Moses, who became a diplomat and hosted visiting dignitaries from the United States.  In 1907, his guest was President Theodore Roosevelt.

          “Moses was a practicing Jew,?Luna adds. “He would go to the synagogue in Lisbon and observed all the Jewish customs. My father identified himself as a Jew, but he could have no Jewish life here because by the time he was grown, there was not one other Jew left on the island.?/span>

          Luna maintains the townhouse in Horta that belonged to her father and grandfather, and it is here that she stores the treasured mementos of  a Jewish past.  There are fading photographs of family members including her grandfather’s sister Luna for whom she is named.  This Luna married a Jewish man but moved to Lisbon with him.  There is an old oak bookcase fronted by glass doors that holds siddurs,  worn copies of the Old Testament, a book of Psalms, a Haggadah, all of which are succumbing to the island’s humidity. There is great carved desk with a framed photograph of Luna as a little girl that is draped with a golden ornament on which, in Hebrew, the word “Shalom? is inscribed. And in her mind are the memories of a former Jewish life.  She remembers there were mezzuzahs on the door.  She remembers the trips to Lisbon when they would attend services in the big synagogue.  But there is not much else.  

          Late in his life, Luna’s father converted to Catholicism so that he would be buried beside his wife.  But before he died, he arranged for someone to take care of the Jewish cemetery where his father, grandfather, and brother who died in infancy are buried.

          We wanted to visit this cemetery.  The man hired to attend to the graves had promised to leave the key for us, but mysteriously he was not at home when we called.  Then, hours before we were to leave, we received word that if we went down to the cemetery, the workmen there would let us in. 

          We were taken to a Catholic cemetery on a hillside overlooking the sea.  The setting was calming and peaceful. Tombstones were arranged in neat rows and heaped with calla lilies and white irises. Not a blade of grass was out of place.

          But this was not our destination.  The workmen directed us to a low wall beyond a flower-dotted field at the bottom of the hill.

Here the Catholic cemetery ended; on the other side was the old Jewish cemetery established by royal decree in 1851.  It was a steep descent to the other side, and we had to climb down a ladder to reach the ground.

          What a difference a wall made.  This cemetery was unkempt and overgrown.  Clearly, the man Luna’s father had hired was not doing his job. Still we were able to see seventeen Jewish gravestones, all marked with names and dates.

          The most recent grave is that of Luna’s grandfather, Moses Benarus, who died in 1942.  Beside him is a very small grave marked Samuel Benarus.  That was Luna’s uncle who was born in July 1920 and died the next month.

          We wanted to leave our presence in this forsaken spot and so we looked about for little stones to put on the graves.  But we could not find a single one.  Then we noticed some broken glass lying about.  And so we picked up several shards and placed them on the graves.

          The moment gave us pause. We looked up and saw the sea in the distance and thought to ourselves, “When will another Jewish person set foot in this lonely resting place??/span>

          Later that day, we headed to our third island, Terceira, the final stop on our itinerary.  We had already learned that all that remains of the 19th century Jewish presence on this island is a cemetery.  There are no known descendents of Jews so it seemed there would be no story for us to go after.  Well, we thought, we’ll just enjoy the pleasures of this beautiful island like ordinary tourists. 

          We stayed in a renovated manor house just outside of the capital city Angra -- a place worth visiting on its own.  It is  a UNESCO world heritage site by virtue of the way the streets are laid out in geometric precision according to Renaissance ideals.  Angra had became a port of call during the sixteenth century for ships going to and from the Americas, Africa, and India, and it developed a rich economic life which is still reflected in the splendid palaces and churches that overlook the sea.

          But our plan to be just ordinary tourists did not work out because by chance we met a man who directed us to yet another story of the Jews of  the Azores, perhaps the most fascinating of all.

          Francisco dos Reis Maduro Dias is the Director of the Department of Culture and History in Terceira.  He is a formal, intellectual, very well spoken man with a great passion for his island, the Azores and Portuguese history.

          And he is intrigued with Jewish history.  Maybe that is because he  believes the name Maduro is the key to his own Jewish heritage. 

          We had come across the name Maduro before, in Curacao. The Maduros are one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish families on that Caribbean island.  Maduro Dias was not surprised to hear this.

          “Today I must tell you I am a Christian,?he said. “I was baptized, as was my father, grandfather, and so forth.  What I know of my ancestors is that they came here in the 17th century.  They were running away from something, but, as my great grandmother used to tell my grandfather, they were not bad people.

          “One of my ancestors decided to stay here, the others decided to go to the Indies.  At the time it was not easy to understand where that was because when they said Indies, it could be the West Indies or the East Indies.   But I must tell you I was at a conference in Boston several years ago, and I met a Jewish woman who represented the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and her name is Sarah Maduro.  She told me there is a branch of the Maduros in Boston. We spent some interesting time speculating about the possibility of our being related.?/span>

          Then he turned to the subject of the Azores. “The Jewish presence in the Azores had two moments,?he said. “The second, moment you already know about.  It began at the start of the 19th century with the Bensaude family and continued through the 20th century.  This is well documented. 

          “The first moment you know nothing about.  It coincided with the discovery and settlement of the Azores in the 15th-16th centuries, and it is not documented at all.?/span>

          Well that was what we had heard before we came here, we told him.   

         He interrupted us.  “But we are just beginning to recognize there is something of that earlier presence here in the Azores. There are attitudes, habits that have persisted. We believe today that there was some connection between the Jews of that long ago time and the evolvement of the Cult of the Holy Spirit.?He asked if we had noticed little chapels as we drove around the islands.  Indeed we had, and we wondered what they were.  There are scores of them in the countryside, on the sides of roads in little towns, structures that look something like a cross between a one-room schoolhouse and an elaborate wedding cake decoration.  Each was different, some were fancier than others.  Generally they were white-washed stone and trimmed with bright vivid colors: yellow, green, pink, bright blue and decorated with all kinds of geometric and floral designs.  We had seen people working around these little houses, painting, cleaning, landscaping. What could they have to do with a Jewish presence from 500 years ago?

        Maduro Dias filled us in.  These structures are known as chapels or emporiums.  And they are used to house a uniquely Azorean festival that is held each year on the seven Sundays following Easter, roughly corresponding to the period between Passover and Shavout -- or the counting of the omer.

          Throughout the rest of the year, they are closed up and unused. But for the seven Sundays after Easter, they come to life. Re-painted, re-decorated and profusely adorned with flowers, they become the place where people gather to worship the Holy Spirit.  Children go through confirmation-type ceremonies in these chapels and pledges made earlier in the year are fulfilled usually with elaborate feasts to which the entire community and even strangers are invited.

           Sometimes they use a peculiar kind of bread in these feasts, a flat bread made without yeast and stamped with the seal of the crown of the Holy Spirit.

          “No one will tell you the cult of the Holy Spirit is a Jewish custom,?Maduro Dias says. “It was born within Christianity during the 11th and 12th centuries through brotherhoods who contested the divinity of Christ.   But we are now beginning to think that it was used and perhaps developed by the Jews at a certain moment as a means of coexisting with the larger culture.?/span>

          Maduro Dias is speculating that Jews used the festivals of the Holy Spirit to be, as he put it, “together in a separate moment where they could keep some of their original attitudes and perform some acts meaningful to them while, at the same time, appearing to be within the frame of Christianity and accepted as normal by the Christian community.?/span>

          How obvious!  It is easy to see why New Christians, still Jewish in their hearts, would be attracted to the cult.  The entire procedure has nothing to do with the church.  The emporiums have no crosses, and no representations of Jesus, Mary or any of the saints.  Those in charge of the chapels have no position of authority in the church.

          And most important of all, the Holy Spirit is the most abstract part of the Catholic trinity.  It is God with no Christ, an abstract God.

          Maduro Dias told us that feasts and brotherhoods connected with the cult of the Holy Spirit were widespread in Medieval Europe and lingered in Portugal into the 19th century.  But while the cult died out everywhere else, inexplicably it developed a powerful following in the Azores, and to this day it continues to be a defining aspect of the islands?culture.

          Azoreans focus their prayers to the third aspect of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit to spare them from the destruction of the volcanoes. They are always an unpredictable presence.  You never know when they will erupt.  Why the Holy Spirit?

          “I can’t explain it,?Maduro Dias said. “Maybe because it seems more accessible.?/span>

          The cult of the Holy Spirit has even been brought over to the United States where confirmation ceremonies take on the proportions of lavish bar and bat mitzvahs.  Perhaps you have heard about them.

          And there is a group of Azorean-American that still maintains its emporium on the island of Flores.  Every year, a number of people return to Flores, paint and decorate the chapel they left behind, perform the rituals and partake of the festival.  Afterwards, they clean up, close the doors to their little temple, and return to America.

          What an amazing and unexpected twist of Jewish history.  Who would believe that a totally Catholic institution had once served as a spiritual sanctuary for Azorean Jews.  Forced to convert, they found in the festival of the Holy Spirit an opportunity to use a  time of the year that resonated with sacred overtones, to relate to their vision of God in an environment absent of Christian symbolism.    

          After we left Maduro Dias, we drove around the island and stopped off at some of these little emporiums.  Young girls were attending to them, cleaning and decorating them in anticipation of the festival to be held that Sunday.  Were any of them descendents of New Christians?  Did any of them know how Jews had used these festivals hundreds of years before?  Not yet.

           The historical theories Maduro Dias shared with us are brand new.  There are books that have yet to be written,  There is a message that has yet to be spread.

          But our visit to the Azores had ended with a happy surprise.

We left the islands feeling we had come away with some really unique knowledge, a particular bit of Jewish history not publicized, not earth-shattering, yet a revealing and fascinating piece of the enormous jig-saw puzzle that is the Diaspora.

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