An Unexpected View

A new installment in a thought-provoking series of Jewish travel essays contributed by Dr. David Feinstein.

I’m now heading home on an American Airlines flight from London to Dallas, however my journey actually began much earlier this morning in Lisbon, Portugal. At this moment I am relieved because I have been reunited with my All-Cork (except for the inside liner), wide brimmed, fedora, like the hat worn by Harrison Ford in the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Most of the world’s best cork is grown in Portugal. Incidentally, cork can only be harvested from the lower trunk of the Cork Tree every nine years. It is used primarily as a stopper in wine bottles; however, cork is losing its favor and is being replaced by screw on, plastic, bottle caps.

Portugal therefore is trying to find other uses for cork. My wife did what she could to help the economy by filling an extra suitcase with cork products she bought…shoes, back packs, bags, and a wallet. I showed my support by buying a cork fedora.

The problem is I have trouble with airports. Somehow, I arrive completely organized but by the time I’ve run the security gauntlet, I’m completely discombobulated. This is where I usually lose something.

We had a four hour lay-over until the next limb of our travels from London to Dallas so we went to the American Airlines Lounge to wait. When we got up to leave the Lounge, I realized my hat which I thought I had strategically placed on the floor beside me, was missing. No one could find it in the Lounge so we went all the way back to the Security Check Point, but alas the hat was not there either.

As I was waiting to board the plane at Gate 40, my wife noticed what looked like my missing hat. It was perched on a sign post where the flight attendants do their final check before boarding. The hat was indeed mine! Quite relieved I placed it on my head, and happily boarded the plane. Now that’s what you call a hat trick. There is nothing better than to find what you have lost, and perhaps this is a theme behind my extensive travels; to try to find or at least get a glimpse of what we as Jews have lost.

In our six days in London, my wife Reesa and I did all the usual things. We ate Fish ‘n Chips at least three times. We walked 8 to 10 miles per day. We visited three parks (Regent’s, Hyde, and Green). We saw four plays, From Far Away, Aladdin, Les Misérables and The Man of La Mancha, starring Kelsey Grammar (aka, Frasier). We visited five museums, The Tate, The Tate Modern, The National Gallery, The British Museum, and finally, The Imperial War Museum.

We were initially deeply disconcerted in The Imperial War Museum, that what happened to the Jews during WW II was only indirectly mentioned, but then we found the fourth floor. It was dedicated entirely to The Holocaust. This included a very large, detailed and chilling model of Auschwitz.

After leaving the Museum I checked my phone looking for any news. This is when I learned of the murder of a Jewish woman, (Lori Gilbert Kaye) and the injury of her Rabbi, (Yisroel Goldstein) shot in a Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego. It was a chilling reminder on this, the last day of Passover, that what was true two thousand years ago, is true today; “that in every generation there will be those who will rise up and try to destroy us.”

Jews have lived in England since The Norman Conquest. They were invited there in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror. After establishing themselves they soon played an important part in the English economy. Many became involved in finance and money lending, a profession shunned by Christians. Kings often needed the help of Jews in finding and acquiring money to pay for their lifestyle and debts which included the high cost of battles.

By the late twelfth century there was rising anti-Semitism spurred on by two malicious lies. The first was the blood libel (that is Jews were accused of using the blood of Christian children in their sacred rituals). The second lie was that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus Christ. These lies gained momentum during the Crusades where I suppose the Christian army needed excuses to kill and steal from so many Jews that stood in their way of reaching Jerusalem.

King Edward 1, who was in great need of funds made a deal to borrow 116,000 pounds from the government in exchange for an Edict to expel all the Jews from England. Before the final day of the expulsion on All Saints Day, November 1, 1290, all Jews had to wear the insignia of two stone tablets on their clothing. Jews were attacked in London and there was a huge massacre of Jews at Clifford Tower in York, which still stands ignominiously today.

That was the end of a Jewish presence in England for about 350 years. There were a few Spanish Jews who somehow made their way to England working as Traders, but they hid their religion and their practices until the arrival of Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell served as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. He rose to prominence during the English Civil War in the 1640’s between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. The Royalists supported King Charles 1, and they believed that the King must have absolute power because it was divinely granted to him. Cromwell and the other Parliamentarians believed that that Monarchy had outlived its use. With the defeat of the Royalists at The Battle of Worcester, 1651, Cromwell had Charles 1 executed and he himself became Lord and Protector of England.

Relevant to the Jewish story, Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel moves into the Jewish vacuum. He was born in Lisbon (which I left this morning) in 1609. He was the son of Marranos, Jews who secretly practiced Judaism after their forced public conversion to Christianity. His father was persecuted by the Inquisition but was able to escape with his family to Amsterdam which had a welcoming attitude to Jews.

The Portuguese Synagogue built in 1675 is still one of the largest in Europe. In Amsterdam, Menasseh became a Rabbi, a Talmudic scholar, a writer, and a printer. He wrote a book called The Vindication of the Jews, which was an attempt to reconcile discordant passages in The Bible. He found favor even outside the Jewish community particularly with Dutch Christians who thought of his book as “food for reflection”. Even Rembrandt recognized his greatness by making an etching of him. Menasseh believed that the Messiah would only arrive when Jews were scattered all over the earth. He believed that a good place to start was to have Jews return to England.

In 1651 he wrote an open letter to Cromwell asking him to consider allowing Jews to return to England. Cromwell thought kindly about this proposal but for different reasons. He believed that Jews with their interconnections, financial contacts and their skills in business would be a great help to the English economy. He also thought that the return of Jews to England might hasten the resurrection of Christ.

Although Cromwell was never successful in getting a proclamation made to officially allow back the Jews, it slowly started to happen anyways. Cromwell said Jews could pray in private but soon there was a Jewish synagogue, and today there are about 280,000 Jews living in England. My wife and I had the honor of having Shabbat dinner with friends, Jonathan and Marla Sacher at their home in Hampstead.

The Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492. Many escaped (at great cost) to Portugal, but their reprieve was short lived. This is because King Manuel 1 chose to accept the Inquisition as part of his marriage contract to marry the Spanish Princess, Maria of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. The inquisition was later extended to include all parts of the Spanish Empire including Brazil, Cape Verde, and Goa India. For 3000 years Jews in India have not faced any sort of anti-Semitism except in Portuguese controlled territories.

In Portugal the courts of the Inquisition were in Lisbon and Evora. We had the opportunity to go to Evora and stand in the town square where thousands of Jews were forced to convert and be baptized, and even worse, many were burned at the stake (auto-de-fe) for secretly still trying to practice their traditions. The Portuguese Inquisition did not end until 1821 and Portugal will never unfortunately, to borrow a term from Don Quixote, be able “to right the unrightable wrong.”

In 1755, there was a 9.0 earthquake off the southern coast of Portugal, called the Algarve, (which we left a day ago). The greatest damage however took place in Lisbon. The earthquake took place at 11 am on All Saints Day when most Christians were in Church. Lisbon’s cathedral and all of its churches were destroyed. Between the earthquake, the fires, and the ensuing tsunami that rushed up the Tagus River, about 75,000 people lost their lives.

Some rationalized this catastrophe had happened because they had not been living as good enough Christians, or perhaps this was the punishment for allowing the Inquisition to go on for so long. In any case it marked a turning point in Portuguese history. Lisbon had to be rebuilt, relying not so much on faith, but on science, to prevent such widespread destruction again. According to my Free Lisbon Chill Out Walking Tour guide, this began the departure of many from the Catholic Church.

The Portuguese Empire was helped in part by the navigational techniques and skills developed by Portuguese Jewish citizens who later were expelled or were killed. History has shown that countries that are welcoming to Jews reap the benefits of their many and varied contributions. When Jews leave, the economy suffers. Portugal is now the poorest country in Europe.

Portugal is a fertile and beautiful country. Lisbon is a magnificent city and with every turn there is an unexpected view. However, its economy cannot find jobs for its most educated citizens. Several of our tour guides and taxi drivers had advanced degrees but could only find work in the tourism industry. People from their former empire like Brazil, and Cape Verde come to Portugal only to gain access to other parts of Europe. Portugal does not rely on high tech, but rather on low tech, like trying to find new uses for cork, and to that at least, I can now tip my hat.