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.

More after the jump.
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 café. 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.

First Jewish Cultural Center In Portugal In More Than 500 Years


— by Brian Blum

Isaac Cardoso was a Jewish physician and philosopher born in the small village of Trancoso, Portugal, in 1603 to a family of Bnei Anousim (people whose Jewish ancestors were compelled to convert to Catholicism more than five centuries ago and whom historians refer to by the derogatory term Marranos). Cardoso and his family fled Portugal to escape the Inquisition, eventually resettling in Venice. They weren’t alone: the town of Trancoso, once home to a flourishing Jewish community was, by the time the Cardoso family left, nearly emptied of its Jewish population. It has been that way for 500 years.

The full story after the jump.
Now Cardoso is back — in name, at least — with the establishment of the Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation: the first Jewish cultural and religious center in Portugal in half a millennium. Last week, the Mayor of Transcoso, Júlio José Saraiva Sarmento, and Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund signed an historic agreement regarding the opening of the center, which will include an exhibition about the Jewish history of Portugal and the renewal of Jewish life in the region in recent years, as well as a new synagogue called Beit Mayim Hayim — literally, “the House of Living Waters.”

This past June, Shavei Israel’s emissary to Portugal, Rabbi Elisha Salas, visited Trancoso to affix a mezuza — the first in the village for hundreds of years — to the entrance of the synagogue during the Center’s dedication.

Under the agreement announced last week, the Trancoso municipality granted Shavei Israel the right to administer the Center and organize Jewish cultural, educational and religious activities on its premises. These activities will be overseen by Rabbi Salas. Jose Levy Domingos, a Trancosco resident who serves as an advisor to the mayor, will be the municipality’s liaison and will work closely with Rabbi Salas.

The main work of the Center will be outreach to the many Bnei Anousim who reside in the area. “I believe the new cultural center will play an integral role in assisting those Bnei Anousim who wish to return to the Jewish people,” said Michael Freund at the ceremony.

For centuries, Transcoso was home to a large number of Bnei Anousim and it has a riveting history. We are now making great strides in providing the opportunity for a renewal of Jewish life in the region for those who seek it.

For his part, Mayor Saraiva Sarmento emphasized the Center’s importance, saying:

This center is very important to the people of Transcoso and all of Portugal. I am sure that it will leave its mark on the region, and it signifies our commitment to recalling the past and rebuilding Jewish life.

Domingos added a personal note, saying that:

Thank G-d, we have the strength to continue. We start today with hope and faith, and we shall arrive in the end to join all the sons of Israel in Zion.

The Center’s construction is estimated to cost about $1.5 million and it is likely to attract increased tourism to the area. But perhaps even more important, it will “commemorate the countless Portuguese Jews who were persecuted, displaced or forcibly converted more than five centuries ago,” said Freund. The Center will include two exhibition halls, public assembly rooms, a small garden and video projection systems.


Transcoso

Transcoso, situated in northeastern Portugal, had a large Jewish community in the 14th and 15th centuries. By some estimates, nearly half of Trancoso’s population was Jewish; none of its 5,000 residents are today. Jewish merchants first arrived as early as the 12th century. They were bolstered in the following centuries by Jews who migrated from the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, located in what is now modern Spain.

Trancoso today is a well-preserved medieval town dominated by a castle with a walled enclosure.  One of the best-known Jewish historical buildings in the village is the Casa do Gato Negro (“The House of the Black Cat”), so named for a sculpture of the Lion of Judah situated high on an exterior wall facing one of Trancoso’s ancient streets; it used to serve as a synagogue and rabbi’s residence. One of Transcoso’s most famous Jews was the mysterious Banbarra (1500-1545), a shoemaker and poet, who prophesized the future of Portugal and was a source of inspiration for many writers.

As for Isaac Cardoso, after whom the Center is named, after arriving in Venice, he and his brother Miguel publicly embraced their formerly hidden Judaism. Isaac Cardoso went on to publish a number of important works on philosophy, medicine and theology, including an important treatise defending Judaism and the Jewish people from various medieval stereotypes, such as ritual murder accusations and the blood libel.

A Sampling of Philadelphia’s Colonial Foods

Sally Lunn Bread – A large sponge cake-like bread, more like a bread than a cake that is either yeast or baking powder based. .

— Ronit Treatman 

Philadelphia, the city of almonds, pomegranates, olive oil, chick peas, lentils, dates, grapes, and fava beans? Thanks to the Jews who first settled the North American colonies, Philadelphia was blessed with the introduction of these Mediterranean foods. It is fun to recreate colonial recipes today in order to experience the flavors and aromas of those times and connect with an often overlooked period of the Philadelphia Jewish experience.

More after the jump.

The first Jews arrived in this area before the land was deeded to William Penn in 1682. These were Portuguese Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition. The first place they settled was Recife, Brazil, while it was a Dutch colony. When the Portuguese conquered Brazil from the Dutch, bringing the Inquisition with them, the Jews moved to North America. First they went to Dutch New Amsterdam (New York). Subsequently Jews migrated from New Amsterdam and settled in Philadelphia to trade furs with the Native Americans. When King George deeded the land to William Penn, the latter embarked on his “holy experiment,” creating a colony where anyone who lived peacefully was welcome. The Jews stayed.

Colonial American food was a combination of English, French, and West Indian food. Local ingredients were incorporated into the diet. Benjamin Franklin encouraged people to eat corn, turkey, and other Native American foods in order to cease their dependence on British exports. Confectionery was very well developed in Philadelphia. It had the best ice cream in America!

Pepper Pot Soup. .

One of the most accessible and popular dishes of the time was pepper pot soup from the Caribbean. This was a one-pot meal made with inexpensive meat, seasonal vegetables, and hot peppers. George Washington served it to his troops after crossing the Delaware River to attack Trenton in 1776. For those who wish to try this at home, Mrs. Esther Levy gives a recipe for pepper pot soup in her Jewish Cookery Book, the first Jewish cookbook published in the United States, in Philadelphia in 1871. Below is an adaptation for the modern kitchen.

Visiting Historic Philadelphia is fun and interesting. Recreating the meals of the colonists is a hands-on way to connect with the past. As they say in Ladino, buen provecho–with good enjoyment!

Pepper Pot Soup

From Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book and Historic Cold Spring Villagerecipe collection

Meat

  • 3 quarts water
  • 2 onions diced
  • 2 green peppers diced
  • 4 potatoes peeled and diced
  • 3 teaspoons black pepper
  • 1 dried hot pepper or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 quart beef stock
  • 1 1/2 pounds beef
  • 1 1/2 pounds lamb
  • 1/2 cup rice
  • Parsley, thyme, bay leaf

Place all the ingredients in a pot and stew over a low flame for about two hours until very tender.

Sally Lunn Bread

From Mrs. Esther Levy's Jewish Cookery Book and www.cooksrecipes.com. Dairy or Pareve

A favorite yeast bread that arrived in Philadelphia from England was Sally Lunn bread. It is still served at the City Tavern, where Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams congregated. It was traditionally served with clotted cream.

  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 4 cups flour
  1. Dissolve the yeast in warmed milk. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  2. Mix butter, sugar, salt, eggs, flour, and milk/yeast mixture.
  3. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
  4. Beat down and let rise again for 45 minutes.
  5. Spoon batter into a lightly greased and floured 9-inch pan.
  6. Bake at 350*F for 35 to 40 minutes.
Chamin – an early Sephardic dish. .

Chamin

Meat

From www.myjewishlearning.com and Sephardic Israeli Cuisine: A Mediterranean Mosaic.

The earliest Jewish food in Philadelphia was Sephardic. The Jews brought olive oil and almonds from the Mediterranean to Spain and Portugal. They introduced these ingredients to the cuisine of the New World. In Philadelphia, local fish was fried in olive oil, not lard. This became known as “Jew fish,” and was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Almonds were baked into a pudding. The Jewish Sabbath stew, Chamin, made with beef, beans, and onions was also introduced. To replicate a Colonial Sephardic Shabbat meal, one should cook Chamin.

  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 4 to 6 garlic cloves
  • 2 cans (15 ounces each) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 2 beef bones with marrow
  • 3 pounds brisket or chuck roast, cut into 4 pieces
  • 3 pounds small potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 4 to 6 large eggs
  1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees F
  2. In a large pot, heat the oil and sauté the onions and garlic until soft and translucent. Add the chickpeas, bones, meat, potatoes, honey, paprika, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Add enough water to cover, place the unshelled eggs in the center, and bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer for 1 hour. Skim off the foam occasionally.
  4. Cover the pot tightly, place in the oven, and cook overnight, or cook on low on the stove for 5 to 6 hours, or until meat is tender and done.
  5. In the morning, after cooking all night, check the water level. If there is too much water, turn the oven up to 250°F or 300°F, cover, and continue cooking. [If cooking over Shabbat, traditionally observant Jews would refrain from changing the heat level, for doing so would run counter to Sabbath laws against manipulating flame and cooking.] If there is no water, add another cup, cover, and continue cooking.
  6. To serve, place the chickpeas and cooking liquid in one bowl, and the eggs, potatoes, and meat in separate bowls.
Almond pudding.

Almond Pudding

Pareve

From the New York Times, “Food, Passover Hand-Me-Downs,” by Joan Nathan

One of the most authentic Portuguese Jewish foods is almond pudding. It is the perfect dessert to serve at the Shabbat dinner.

  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3/4 cup ground blanched almonds
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • Oil for the pan
  • matza meal for the pan
  • 1 pint strawberries or 1 cup strawberry puree
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Beat the egg yolks until foamy. Add the sugar, almonds, and almond extract.
  3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff.
  4. Fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture.
  5. Pour into an 8-inch oven safe dish, which has been oiled and dusted with matza meal.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes.
  7. Allow to cool slightly.
  8. Top with strawberries or strawberry puree and serve.

Ronit Treatman was born in Israel and grew up in Ethiopia and Venezuela. She is fluent in five languages, and volunteered for the IDF where she served in the Liaison Unit to Foreign Forces. She currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

How Chamin (Ancient Sabbath Stew) Came To Philadelphia

— by Ronit Treatman

Please enjoy this clip I filmed about how chamin (Portuguese cholent) came to Philadelphia.  It was filmed at Stenton Mansion, one of the best-preserved colonial homes in Philadelphia.  I would like to extend my special thanks to Marlene Samoun for permitting me to use her soulful rendition of the ladino folk song Morenika in this clip.

Jewish contact with Spain may go as far back as the Kingdom of Solomon.  It is thought that Southern Spain was the country of Tarshish.  Tarshish was the furthest place west that people could sail to from Ancient Israel in Biblical times.  There was a continuous Jewish presence in Spain until March 31, 1492.  

Recipes and more after the jump.

This was when the Alhambra Decree was issued, ordering the expulsion of the Jews from the Kingdom of Spain.  The majority of these exiles moved to Portugal, but they were expelled from Portugal in 1498.  As a result, the Spanish Jewish community was dispersed.  A large number of these Jews navigated the 8.9 miles across the Straits of Gibraltar and resettled in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya).  A much smaller number ventured to America.  


They brought a very ancient dish with them.  Its oldest name is chamin, which comes from the Hebrew word “cham” which means “hot.”  Chamin is a dish that evolved so that Jews could comply with the rule of not kindling a flame on the Sabbath.  In the Mishnah it says “tomnim et ha’chamim.”  This oral tradition instructed Jewish people to “bury the hot.”  In the countries of the Maghreb, the Arabic word for “buried” or “dafina” was adopted for this dish.  No matter where they resettled, these Spanish and Portuguese exiles continued to cook the same special festive Sabbath dish.  The Jews who settled in Eastern Europe continued this tradition under a different name.  Their special Sabbath dish is called cholent.  This name is believed to derive from the Hebrew word “she’lan” which means “rested overnight.”  Several famous European dishes derive from chamin such as the French cassoulet, and the Spanish cocido madrileño.

As the days grow colder, chamin is the perfect comfort food to prepare for Shabbat.  I have a very special recipe to share with you.  My daughter, who is spending a trimester in Israel, enjoyed home hospitality with the Ben Moshe family.  Mrs. Yasmin Ben Moshe welcomed her Shabbat guests with her special Tunisian chamin.  She has generously agreed to share her recipe with us. This recipe has been passed down orally in the Ben Moshe family for generations.  Enjoy!


Mrs. Yasmin Ben Moshe’s Tunisian Chamin

  • 2 1/2 cups wheat berries
  • 2 pounds of cubed lamb
  • 6 potatoes
  • 6 hard-boiled eggs, in their shells
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste

Soak the wheat berries in water for one hour.  In a large pot, mix 2 tablespoons of olive oil with ¼ tablespoon of sugar.  Cook over high heat until the sugar caramelizes.  Add 2 1/2 cups of water, 2 teaspoons of paprika, and 2 teaspoons of cumin.  Bring to a boil, then add the wheat berries, and salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer until all of the liquid has been absorbed.  Add the cubed lamb and cover with water.  Add the eggs and potatoes.  Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 1/2 hour.  Set aside and prepare the dumplings and sausage.

Kouclas (Dumplings)

  • 1 cup cubed lamb fat
  • 1 cup ground bulgur wheat
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • 1 egg

In a pan, heat the olive oil, and then add the lamb fat.  When it is hot, add the garlic, paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper, stirring well.  Stir in the cup of ground bulgur wheat.  Remove from heat.  Mix in the minced parsley and egg.  Blend everything together until it becomes a dough.  Form the dough into little round dumplings and place in the Chamin pot.


Machshi  (Sausage)

  • 1 lb. ground lamb
  • 1 cup uncooked rice
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • 1/4 cup minced cilantro
  • 1/4 cup minced dill
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • Vegetable casing or cotton straining cloth (cheesecloth)
  • Cotton twine

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl.  Form a loaf with the mixture, and stuff it into the vegetable casing, or wrap it in the cheesecloth.  Tie both ends with twine.  Place in the chamin pot.  Make sure that all the ingredients are covered with water.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cover the chamin pot tightly and place in the oven overnight.  It should cook for 24 hours.

Serve the eggs and potatoes first.  Spoon plenty of gravy over them.  Offer salt, cumin, and cayenne pepper so each diner can spice it to taste.

Then serve the wheat berries, lamb, dumplings (kouclas), and sliced sausage (machshi).

As you experience your first taste of this chamin you will understand the wisdom of the old Ladino proverb:

Cuanto mas tienes, mas quieres.

The more you have, the more you want.