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The Apostle of the Marranos and the Synagogue of Oporto
Artur Carlos de Barros Basto (Jewish name: Abraham Ben-Israel Rosh) belonged to the Portuguese military, but was also an idealist, a reformer and philosopher who published numerous works and became known as the "Apostle of the Marranos", an epithet that he was given by the historian Cecil Roth, alluding to his dedication to his "Work of Redemption", a courageous activity which consisted in showing the "light" to the secretly practising Jews descended from the Portuguese Jews forced to convert centuries earlier, and who now, having freedom of worship, could return without fear to the religion of their ancestors.
The "Kadoorie - Mekor Haim" synagogue of Oporto, the largest active synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula, or the "Jewish Cathedral of Northern Portugal" in the words of its founder, Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, is located at 340 Guerra Junqueiro Street. It is also the home of the Jewish Community of Oporto. In the same building there is a Jewish library. In the 1930s it also housed the Jewish Theological Institute, Yeshibá Rosh Pinah.
EARLY HISTORY - Prior to the forced conversion of the Portuguese Jews decreed by King Manuel I in 1496 there had been at least three synagogues in Oporto. The first was the Monchique synagogue founded by Rabbi Yahuda Ibn Don Maner and located in the Monchique neighbourhood of Miragaia. The only remaining trace is an engraved stone of granite kept in the Carmo Archaeological Museum in Lisbon. In 1386, when the old Jewish quarter of Monchique had become too small to house all the city’s Jews, King John I ordered the Oporto City Council to designate an area within the city walls for the building of a new Jewish quarter. Olival was the site chosen. In 1492, the year of the expulsion of the Jews from Castile and Aragon, the Portuguese king negotiated the settlement of 30 Jewish families in the Jewish quarter of Olival with Rabbi Isaac Aboab, "gaon" of Castile. Rabbi Aboab’s synagogue was located there at the top of the steps then known as the "Esnoga Steps" (footnote: Esnoga being Ladino for synagogue). It was long thought that the Monastery of São Bento da Vitória, built to celebrate the "victory" of Christianity over Judaism, occupied the place of the old synagogue. Recently a "holy ark" (in which the scrolls of the Law are kept) was found behind a double wall of the house at 9 São Miguel Street, which had been adapted for use as a Day Centre for the Elderly.
MODERN HISTORY - In the spring of 1921 a Jewish couple, recently married in the synagogue of Lisbon, came to Oporto. He, Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, was an officer of the Portuguese army, converted to Judaism a year earlier by a rabbinical court of Tangier, who introduced himself as a descendant of Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Christianity four centuries earlier. She, the young woman, Lea Azancot Barros Basto, was the daughter of one of the most distinguished families of Moroccan Jews, who had settled in Lisbon in the nineteenth century. This newly converted Jew immediately went to meet the few foreign Jews living in Oporto at the time to form a community and establish a place of worship. He found only 17 Jews, of German and Polish origin, mostly practitioners, who had not established a community, nor did they have a synagogue. They travelled to Lisbon for the the Jewish religious holidays, and on other occasions as their religion demanded.
In 1923, Barros Basto officially registered the Jewish Community of Oporto with the Civil Government of Oporto. The following Jews were members: Hoshea Roskin, Isaac and Miriam Yanovski, Menasseh and Brahah Kniszinsky, Marcel Goldshmidt, Armando Halpern, Abicin and Ribkah Schumann, Nathan and Ermelinda Beigel, Elias Tobias Stern amongst others. He obtained a "Sefer Torah" (parchment scroll for the reading of the Law) as a gift from the board of the Lisbon Synagogue "Shaaré Tikvah" and rented a house at 84i Elias Garcia Street, to serve as a Synagogue. On November 30 of that year, Kniszinsky Menasseh Ben-Dov (who would become the closest collaborator of Barros Basto) learnt of the death of his father in Lithuania. As an observant (and indeed orthodox) Jew he needed a "minyan" (quorum of 10 men) to recite the "Kaddish" prayer every day for a year. After a hiatus of four centuries there was at long last a new synagogue functioning in Oporto. Barros Basto called it "Mekor Haim" (The Fountain of Life). To Barros Basto’s great surprise people began to appear in the synagogue soon after who claimed to be descendants of Jews forced to convert in the fifteenth century, and who said that they still secretly practised certain rites of the Jewish religion. They asked to be allowed to participate in the religious services, although unfamiliar with the ritual.
This triggered Barros Basto’s next project - the "Redemption of the Marranos" - which would lead him to make frequent visits to the towns and villages of Trás-os-Montes and the Beiras, to help his fellow believers to return openly to the religion of their ancestors. Wherever he went, he established small Jewish communities and places of worship. The news of the "Work of Redemption" of Barros Basto in Oporto began to spread worldwide. Jewish communities all over the world began to take an interest: writing, asking questions and coming to visit. In London, members of the Community of Portuguese Jews created an organization to help the redemption movement - the "Portuguese Marranos Comittee". The British diplomat Lucien Wolf was sent to Portugal to assess the feasibility and the needs of the movement. The Committee approved a modest sum to be sent monthly to Oporto. The number of members of the Jewish Community of Oporto gradually increased and the "ex-Marranos" now formed the majority. Barros Basto conceived the idea of bringing young Jews, who could not afford to attend school, from their villages to Oporto and provide them with free education with classes in Judaism. The synagogue then moved to the second floor of 37 Poço das Patas Street, and the school, somewhat grandly called the "Jewish Theological Institute" and other community services functioned on other floors of the same building.
Barros Basto felt that it was important that his pupils did not feel inferior to their Christian neighbours. He wanted them to have Jewish institutions corresponding to those of the Christians. He then conceived the idea of building the "Jewish cathedral in northern Portugal." The committee from London made him see that it would cost too much money and that they could not possibly provide such an amount. He would have to settle for the rented flat. Barros Basto was not, however, a man to give up, even in the face of considerable obstacles. When the opportunity arose for him to acquire land on Guerra Junqueiro Street, he did not hesitate. He secured the money for the land. For the construction, God would provide. Whenever he received a donation, or managed to save money, he would place the money in his synagogue building fund. He commissioned the architects Malta Augusto dos Santos, António de Almeida Jr. and Rogério de Azevedo to make the plan of the building, with whom he collaborated directly, going so far as to design the Hebrew letters of the Bible verses that he chose to decorate the walls of the building. The interior decoration was in the Sephardic style, with a sumptuous Ehal (Holy Ark) on the eastern wall, and chairs placed parallel to the side walls. The Tebah (pulpit) would be near the entrance, leaving a wide gap between the Tebah and Ehal for processions with the scrolls of the Law. On June 30, 1929, in the presence of large numbers of "Marranos" and with Professor Moses B. Amzalak, president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, as guest of honour, he placed inside the cornerstone of the synagogue "Mekor Haim," a metal tube, containing scroll which read: "In the name of the Holy One, Adonai, God of Israel. on the twenty-second of Sivan in the year 5689, this Kahal Kadosh of the B’nai-Israel in Oporto put the first stone of this building Bait-Haknesset Mekor H'aim. This house of God is the fountain of life for those who seek it, and in it the descendants of those who, for four centuries, were violently forced to hide their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will always find a warm welcome and a good spiritual home. May Sabaoth Adonai bless and strengthen this work and have streams of the light of Truth emanate from this Fountain." 18 coins of the Portuguese Republic dated 1929 were placed in the tube, symbolising the word "Hay"(Life), whose numerical value is 18. In the years that followed Barros Basto continued to seek contributions, and continued to build his synagogue, stone by stone, brick by brick.
Whilst the building was under construction, he transferred the religious services and the Jewish Theological Institute to the new building. For a time he also secured the services of a rabbi, the Rev. Jacob Shababo, born in Safed in Galilee, who had lived many years in Bahia in Brasil. Meanwhile, a Dutch Jewish industrialist Maurits van Son, who had business in Portugal learnt of the work of redemption in Amsterdam and founded another Pro-Marrano comittee. Barros Basto advised him to reach an agreement with the committee of London so that they could work together. But Van Son, an Orthodox fundamentalist, did not accept the suggestion and decided to inform London that his committee would take charge of providing the services of a rabbi and let London take care of the synagogue, which he did not in fact agree with. Van Son considered Barros Basto to be insufficiently orthodox and wanted to send him away from the Community. Shortly after he removed rabbi Shababo from Oporto, and sent him to Braganza, whose synagogue he began to finance. The project failed however, and Shababo sailed to Lisbon, where he served the Zihron Abotenu Crypto-Marrano Community for two years, and then left for Port Said in Egypt, where he was hired to serve the Sephardic community in Singapore. There he was much appreciated, became famous, and there is a commemorative plaque there with his name to this day.
The answer to the Apostle of the Marranos’ prayers came in 1933 when the wife of the multi-millionaire Jew Sir Elly Kadoorie died, and their children wanted to perpetuate the name of their parents. The Kadoories were Jews of Iraqi origin, who had made a fortune in Hong Kong. Laurence Kadoorie descended from Portuguese Jewish family Matos Moncada, from before the Inquisition. The London Commitee suggested to them the idea of contributing to the completion of the synagogue being built in Oporto. The family agreed to contribute the sum of 2000 pounds sterling, on the condition that the synagogue was given the name Kadoorie. Barros Basto did not relinquish the original name of his synagogue. It became the "Kadoorie Synagogue - Mekor Haim".
Meanwhile the political situation had changed in Portugal. Barros Basto was connotated with the opposition to the regime and with the Freemasonry. Soon he became the victim of veiled persecution by the Army, which stationed him in several places far from Oporto, restricting his ability to direct the Jewish Community of Oporto. A number of intrigues created a situation that ended with the lamentable case that brought Barros Basto down. One can read all the details in his biography. But he did not let himself be taken down before finishing his work. On January 6, 1938, still fighting to exonerate his name in ongoing civil and military cases, Barros Basto had his day of glory. The dedication ceremony of the synagogue, attended by representatives of the Committe of London and the Jewish communities of Lisbon, Bragança, Covilhã and Berlin, Britain's consul in Oporto, the chaplain of the Anglican Church and hundreds of Marranos, was of an intimate character, given the circumstances, but it was impressive. Barros Basto devised a solemn ritual which he had printed and distributed, and included prayers for the President of the Portuguese Republic and members of the Government, the Community and the victims of religious fanaticism. It ended with the Portuguese, British and Jewish national anthems. Telegrams of congratulations were received from around the Jewish world. All the Portuguese and Jewish press reported the event with great emphasis.
THE FOUNDER’S FAREWELL - In the late 1950s, a young American Jew, Daniel Friedenberg, who would later become an important figure in Judaism, was very impressed with what he read about Barros Basto and his synagogue. He decided to visit Portugal and see the synagogue with his own eyes. He first went to Lisbon where he tried to obtain details from the local Jews, but found no one who gave him any. In Oporto he consulted the phone book, but found neither "Synagogue" or "Community". He then looked up "Barros Basto" and was surprised to find an address and a phone number still listed. "He was an old man. He wore a dark suit hanging on a frame that seemed shrunk and watched me, a little hesitantly, through the thick lenses of his glasses". Barros Basto accompanied Friedenberg for almost a week. He showed him the remains of Jewish Oporto and on the last day led him to the synagogue. They had to wait about an hour until someone appeared to to open the door of the synagogue that he had built! Inside he showed the visitor everything thoroughly, and explained the idea had been behind every detail. When they were heading for the exit door of the prayer room, Barros Basto asked permission to go back. He climbed the stairs leading to Ehal, pulled the brim of his hat to the eyes, with trembling hands grasped the handrail and proclaimed in Hebrew, as loud as he could: "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Ehad" (Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One). "It must have been the last time the Captain came into his synagogue.