First Public Seder in Five Centuries on Portuguese Island Madeira

— by Jake Sharfman

Tomorrow, on an isolated island tucked away deep in the Atlantic Ocean, some 600 miles from the European continent and 300 miles away from Africa, a most unusual Passover Seder, sponsored by Shavei Israel, will be taking place. Thirteen Jews, many of them Bnei Anousim — descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism more than 500 years ago — will gather in Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. It will be the first public Seder held in centuries in a region that once had a thriving Jewish population until the Inquisition arrived, even in this remote location, so far from the mainland.

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The Madeira Seder will be led by Marvin and Danby Meital, an American-Israeli couple with a keen interest in crypto-Jewish history. Shavei Israel is sponsoring the Seder, providing funding to make it possible and also supplying the participants with specially designed Portuguese-Hebrew Haggadot. The Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization aims to help descendants of Jews across the world reconnect with the people and State of Israel.

“The holding of a Seder in Madeira is truly historic,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund.

More than 500 years after the expulsion of Portugal’s Jews in 1497, the Bnei Anousim are returning to our people. Since Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from bondage, we feel it is especially symbolic to be holding a Seder for the Bnei Anousim in Madeira, for they too are now emerging from the spiritual captivity of the Inquisition.

Freund added that, “It is incumbent upon Israel and the Jewish people to reach out to the Bnei Anousim and facilitate their return. Through no fault of their own, their ancestors were torn away from the Jewish people. Our task now must be to bring them back.”

Marvin Meital, who will be leading the Seder together with his wife Danby, is originally from Boston and has had a passion for Portuguese ever since he came on a junior year abroad program in Israel in 1958. He had the choice to room with the other Americans on the course or with a separate group from South America. He figured he’d learn more Hebrew by hooking up with the non-English speakers. Instead, he fell in love with their language. He went on to teach Portuguese literature and language at the University of Wisconsin and, after making aliyah in 1974, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as well. The Meitals were sent several times to Portuguese-speaking Brazil as representatives of the Jewish Agency.

Marvin and Danby made a connection with the Bnei Anousim community several years ago when the couple was invited to Palma de Mallorca in Spain to help lead a group Seder for Spanish Chuetas, as descendants of Mallorcan Jews are known. (Marvin is also a trained Cantor.) This year, the Meitals wanted to do it again and they set their eyes on Madeira, a popular resort which sees about a million tourists a year and is an important stopover for commercial and trans-Atlantic passenger cruises.

But they had no guests. So they contacted Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in Portugal, Rabbi Elisha Salas. “We asked him if he knew of any Jews in Madeira,” Marvin explains. Rabbi Salas replied that he knew exactly the dinner guest who’d be perfect for the Meitals Seder table: a Bnei Anousim woman who has been studying with him in Belmonte. She jumped at the chance to join in and signed up, along with her three children. She then recommended another family. And another. “It kind of snowballed from there,” Marvin says.

The Meitals rented a hotel room with its own kitchen. The facility’s management has proved particularly hospitable. “They stocked our room with all new utensils; with pots and pans, and extra chairs for the guests,” Marvin says. “We’re bringing in the matza and wine from Israel, and all the plastic goods. We’ll go shopping for fruits and vegetables when we arrive.” (There’s no kosher food available on the island).

While Madeira has no real Jewish community to speak of today, there are traces of a more recent Jewish past. Attracted by the city’s wealth and natural advantages, Jews from Morocco arrived in 1819 and set themselves up in the cloth trade. More arrived as refugees from the First and Second World Wars. A synagogue was built in 1836, but it has long been closed and today houses a laundry and a cafĂ©. A Jewish cemetery dating back to 1861 remains, perched on the edge of a cliff; it has fallen into disrepair and some graves have actually fallen into the sea.

True to Madeira’s prosperous past, the expected guests at the Meital’s Seder table come from their own impressive backgrounds. Danby Meital relates that in attendance will be a shipping magnate, a cartographer, a food and beverage industry executive, and one man who is actively studying Kabbalah “but doesn’t admit to being Jewish himself.”

With such a diverse group flying in from the mainland — Madeira is an hour and a half flight from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon — Marvin expects discussion around the Seder table to be lively. The narrative of the Exodus — which aims to bring alive “in every generation” the physical and spiritual transformation from constriction and slavery to joyous freedom — is one that is highly relevant for Bnei Anousim rediscovering their roots today.

“Pesach is a night of questioning,” Marvin says. “A time to ask. When anything goes and everything is new. We ask, why is this night different from all others? There’s a sense of wonderment here.”

And that is a fitting description for the 13 participants in Madeira’s first Seder in half a millennia.

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