Yosef Pero Philip is professor psychiatry at the University of Porto. Arieh Ben Avraham is a renowned film director. Yosef Eduardo Albas is a soccer player in Portugal’s Second Division. All three men have recently converted to Judaism, observe the mitzvoth, and are distinctly proud of their Jewish heritage.
These three men are also representative of a noticeable recent trend among descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Marranos, that is Sephardic Jews forced to adopt the identity of Christians, who are now rediscovering their Jewish faith and reclaiming their ancient heritage en masse.
Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum of the “Shavei Israel” Foundation, which oversees the conversion process among these Marrano descendants, said that over the years individual Marranos have converted to Judaism , but now, thanks to the foundation’s efforts, entire communities of Marrano offspring are converting to Judaism and reclaiming their ancient heritage.
“If you asked people in Israel, they would probably tell you that Marranos are merely a blurb on the annals of history, but here we see definitive proof that people still view themselves as Marranos and children of Marranos, and that this is a very real, spiritual phenomenon,” said Rabbi Birnbaum.
Indeed, many Portuguese are now becoming reacquainted with their Jewish lineage. Aaron Ram, Israel’s Ambassador to Portugal, told Ynet that “when people find out that I’m the Israeli ambassador, many end up telling me that they are Jewish, or rather that they are of Jewish descent. Many of these Marranos are not Jewish anymore, nor do they intend to convert, but they nevertheless mention their heritage with great pride. I would say that 10% of all Portuguese are offspring of Marranos of Jewish descent.”
What led to this spiritual reawakening among these former Jews? The waning power of the church in both Spain and Portugal is a definite factor leading to this trend, as is the quest for belonging and identity so prevalent around the world today.
The Marano descendants in question tend to come from a high socio-economic background, and are typically well integrated into the Christian society that they live in. They claim that their return to their Jewish heritage does not invoke scorn or hatred in their peers, and that they are typically applauded for their resolve and bravery.