Arts & Culture


We’re hosting a musical soiree in our home on Sunday. In addition to our 14 year old son, Daniel, there will be other performers, all of whom participate in the same summer music festival in Portugal. In those few hours, … Read More

By / January 9, 2009

We’re hosting a musical soiree in our home on Sunday. In addition to our 14 year old son, Daniel, there will be other performers, all of whom participate in the same summer music festival in Portugal. In those few hours, I’m trying to re-create here on the Upper West Side our two weeks in August in the little charming sailing town of Viana do Castelo. One of the father’s is making a sardine mash surprise, we’ll serve port wine, we’ll flip through photos that Daniel took of the city’s main street festooned with bright, red and yellow garlands wrapped around lamp posts in honor of the "Festival of Our Lady of Sorrow", and the kids will perform their chamber music pieces. Another mom, Carole, is printing a program like the one at the Café Teatro where they played their Mozart and Chopin and Haydn solos and trios. But some things are impossible to re-create, they remain where they were until you return and reclaim them. For five summers, I’ve accompanied Daniel, a pianist, to this international festival which draws young people from the ages of 12 to 25 to study and practice and perform. In between stalking the available practice rooms and organizing times with his non-English speaking cellist and violinist to work on their Haydn, and auditioning for concerts, we do fun things like feed French fries to the pigeons flitting around the Renaissance fountain in the Town Square, and we madly pedal a two-seated carriage through town laughing hysterically when we have to push it up a hill, or we watch the Discovery Channel’s programs on the mating rituals of ibexes (Seriously. And it was graphic mating!)  Some days, while Daniel practices (God willing), I hang out with other parents, several of whom are Jewish. This past summer, Carole and I were walking along the uneven, cobblestoned alleyways and, with the smell of the Lima River and the caw of seagulls as the backdrop, she told me that one of her husband’s ancestors had been burned at the stake in Portugal. This was the closest I’d ever come either to the Inquisition or the mass extermination and/or conversion of Jews in Spain and Portugal. Because it was so long ago in time, it almost felt like something I could vicariously brag about – guess what, a friend of mine’s ancestor was burned at the stake!  How cool is that? Carole became obsessed with Portugal’s Jewish history, and took it upon herself to research Viana’s Jewish roots. Way back in Roman times, in the 5th century, Jews are recorded as living in Portugal. At one point, there were 200,000 Jews in Portugal, comprising 20% of the total population. (In comparison, Jews are 2.1% of the population in America today.) Today, about 900 Jews live in Portugal.

She discovered that Viana had had a Jewish population well before the 15th century, and a Jewish quarter was established in 14442 in the center of town, yards away from where we ate lunch almost every day. Carole felt that while "Rubins Street" was a small remnant of the town’s former Jewish presence, there was much more under the surface, but it was impossible to access. How could so much of Portugal’s history simply have disappeared with no sign whatsoever of the thriving Jewish community that once lived there? Carole sent me an article this past month about a recent DNA test which revealed that 20% of today’s Portuguese and Spanish men have Sephardic Jewish ancestry. (Funny, that the percentage corresponds to the percentage of Jews in Portugal’s population historically.) "It’s like the ghost of Jews," Carole said, "lingers in them." In Portugal, the Inquisition was implemented in 1531 and continued through the late 1700s. Over two hundred years of persecution might wear down even the most committed Jews. The DNA test is interesting but honestly, probably irrelevant – the Inquisition was never a secret, though the large number of conversions is surprising, and it’s unlikely that these men will be returning to reclaim their Jewish heritage, precipitating a run on yarmulkahs in Portugal.  The relevance, for me, lies in the connection between the Inquisition and the current warfare in Gaza. There was no Israel back then, no place where Jews were free to be Jews. Their choices were quite limited – convert, be killed or escape to another country which might turn out to be anti-Semitic, too, down the road.  The fact that Israel now exists is important in many, many ways, but more than anything, it is comforting to me. When I read about the fighting in Gaza, I’m shocked that nobody says, "This isn’t just about Gaza! This is about Portugal/Spain/Russia/Poland/Germany/France and every other place that, like Hamas, didn’t want Jews to exist!"   I’m shocked (though I know I shouldn’t be) that the media reinforces the image of Israel as an unprovoked aggressor, and that Israel is condemned by much of the world for its actions, even though it’s Hamas who has fired over 10,000 rockets, missiles and mortars into Israel in the past 8 years, 3,000 in the last year; even though it’s Hamas who overthrew Fatah in a bloody coup in Gaza in 2007, killing 400 Fatah supporters, which no one in the world blinked at; even though it’s Hamas who refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and baldly states that it will never accept a Jewish state; even though it’s Hamas who uses its own children as human shields, and Hamas who broke the cease-fire accord. Same old song, just a different singer. With Portuguese history on my mind, I join thousands of other Jews in New York City for an Israel solidarity rally. Amongst the crowd: a woman is bent over a book of Tehillim, Psalms, silently praying; a teenage girl holds up a T-shirt with a photograph of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas 2 ½ years ago and imprisoned in Gaza. Other signs: "Hindus for Israel" "We don’t have any spare children." "What would you do, New York City, if thousands of rockets fell on you?" On the small stage in front of the Israeli consulate, a band plays music, then both Christian and Jewish speakers talk about the need to cherish all life. The rally ends with music. The last note is sung on the word "Salaam," Arabic for peace, which is repeated over and over. It is music, not Jewish Portuguese history, that Michelle, another mother who usually views the world through a Jewish/non-Jewish lens, was more concerned with this past summer. She was captivated by what she was hearing, not who was playing it.  "We were working in a universal language, a common denominator, music. With music, especially classical music with its lack of hatred, or faith or evil ownership, we were all of the same origin."   Those 20% of Portuguese men have everything to do with Gaza, but maybe nothing to do with my musical soiree – they won’t be reprising a Jewish presence on Rubin Street in Viana any time soon. I can’t replicate the stray dogs or the skinny, dark-haired waiter who sees us and knows immediately that we’ll order the pizza and French fries and the salate mista and the coffee for lunch; I can’t reproduce the blue-skied, sun-splattered afternoons or the glint of lights on the Eiffel bridge in the evening which we can see from the roof of our hotel and which we spend a half hour trying to capture on film; for that, we’ll have to wait until we return, which we can and will do. For now, we can reprise the music.