Carlos Luis MC da Cruz
I am the last Jew in all of the Azores,” Jorge Delmar tells us. He is a stocky man in his early 50s who runs an import/export business in Ponta Delgada, the capital city of São Miguel, largest of the nine islands that comprise the Portuguese archipelago. “Thirty years ago, there were 16 Jewish families on this island,” he adds. “We were a community. We had services in the old synagogue and made all the festivities in my grandfather’s house. But all the others have died or converted or moved away. I am the only one left.
"My wife and children are Catholic. We have no problems over religion, although my wife is curious. She’ll ask, ‘Why do you say you are a Jew? What happened to the Jews?’ I say, ‘As my mother is a Jew, I am always a Jew. That’s all.’”
Delmar’s connection to the Azores had its beginning in 1818, when the Bensaude family of Morocco came to this volcanic archipelago, mythologized as the remnants of the lost continent Atlantis, seeing opportunity in its developing orange-growing industry. They made their fortune trading agricultural products for manufactured goods with England and trading bills of exchange while transporting emigrants to Brazil. In the process, according to Fatima Sequeira Dias, professor of economic history at the University of the Azores, they changed the nature of the Azorean economy.
Back in the 19th century, however, the example of this family coupled with growing prosperity in the Azores served as a beacon for North African Jews, among them Jorge Delmar’s great-grandfather who immigrated from Tangiers and found work in the Bensaude tobacco factory. Jewish communities emerged throughout the islands. At one time, there were five synagogues on São Miguel alone, several more on the islands of Terceira and Faial.
Only one remains: Sahak Hassamain, consecrated in 1893 in a 16th-century building on a busy downtown street in Ponta Delgada. Through the mid 1960s, it held services continuously; afterwards the premises were maintained by two Jewish sisters who lived in the building. But since their death, it has fallen into disrepair. Only Jorge Delmar stands between the synagogue’s existence and extinction. “I pay the taxes and for the electricity and water. I keep the Torah, six silver candelabras, and the other heirlooms in my home. Maybe one day the synagogue will be rebuilt and they can be put back in their rightful place,” he says. “It seems impossible, but I have a hope.”
Delmar escorts us up the rickety staircase and through an arched wooden door. We enter the high-ceilinged sanctuary with its bimah of beautiful old wood, its ark draped with a green curtain on which the Ten Commandments are embroidered in gold. He points to the second row where as a child he would sit beside his uncle. His grandfather sat next to the reader’s desk. “We never had a rabbi. The oldest Jew was in charge, and that for many years was my grandfather.”
We go up a second unstable stairway to the women’s balcony whose walls are decorated with plaques attesting to the synagogue’s founders; three are members of the Bensaude family: Abraham, Solomon, and Elias. But everywhere there is disorder and disrepair as furnishings, prayer books, phylacteries and tallit succumb to the island’s humidity.
From a window in the women’s section, we can see a restored building across the way whose cornerstone reads 1719. It seems every building in this downtown section of Ponta Delgada has been restored. Walls are whitewashed and attractively trimmed with gray basalt, the Azores’ ubiquitous volcanic rock. Pretty gardens are dotted with little orange trees and enclosed by neat stone walls; narrow cobblestone lanes are swept clean. Only in this aging house of worship, it would seem, is there such desolation.
It is a ten-minute ride from the synagogue to Ponta Delgada’s unmarked Jewish cemetery, a small field behind a basalt wall on a non-descript suburban street. A number of the Bensaudes are buried here as are all of the Delmars. There is one last place reserved for Jorge. He regularly recites Kaddish for his uncle, mother and grandfather at the appointed times, but he knows there will be no one to say Kaddish for him.
A second Jewish cemetery exists on the island of Faial. It is famous for its 1958 volcanic eruption and the marina in its capital city Horta which draws clippers and yachts from all over the world. But few know about the little burial ground on the bottom of a hill overlooking the sea. A Catholic cemetery takes up the greater part of the hillside; its orderly tombstones are heaped with flowers, there for the picking on an island where uncultivated calla lilies, hydrangeas, and white irises line the roads and fill the fields. At a certain point, the cemetery gives way to a flower-dotted expanse that ends at a low wall. On the other side are 17 Jewish graves.
No flowers grace these tombstones, but names and dates of the deceased can be easily read. The most recent grave is that of Moses Benarus who died in 1942. His son, Joseph, was the last Jew in Faial before he converted to Catholicism shortly before his death, and Joseph’s daughter Luna remains the final link to a Jewish presence on this island. A practicing Catholic, the affable middle aged woman feels some need to hold on to a heritage she but dimly remembers from her childhood. “My father used to talk to me about his family’s history all the time,” she says. “He would tell me about his grandfather, Joseph, who came to the Azores in 1860 and his father, Moses, who became a diplomat and hosted visiting dignitaries from the United States. In March 1907, his guest was President Theodore Roosevelt.
“Moses was a practicing Jew,” Luna adds. “He would go to the synagogue in Lisbon and observed all the Jewish customs. My father identified himself as a Jew, but he had no Jewish life because by the time he was grown, there were no other Jews on the island. I think that is why he finally converted. But before he died, he arranged for someone to take care of the Jewish cemetery where his father, his infant brother, and his grandfather are buried.”
Together with her husband, Luna operates Quinta Das Buganvilias, a luxurious seaside inn on the renovated property of her mother’s family’s farmstead. But she also maintains the townhouse in Horta that belonged to her father and grandfather, and it is here that she stores the treasured mementos of a Jewish past. In the old oak bookcase are siddurs, worn copies of the Old Testament, a book of Psalms, a Haggadah. And on a great carved desk is a framed photograph of Luna as a little girl draped with a golden ornament on which, in Hebrew, the word “Shalom” is inscribed.
It would appear that Jorge Delmar and Luna Benarus will close the book on the story of the Jews of the Azores. But some researchers believe there is another Jewish story on this archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, one that pre-dates the Bensaudes’ arrival by some 300 years, which continues to live on in mysterious ways.
“The Jewish presence in the Azores had two moments,” says Francisco dos Reis Maduro Dias, director of the Department of Culture and History on the island Terceira.. “The second, which began at the start of the 19th century and continued through the 20th century, is well documented. The first, which coincided with the discovery and settlement of the Azores in the 15th and 16th centuries, is not documented at all. All we know is that Jews were here and, like those on the mainland, were pressured to convert. But Portugal is different from Spain where they keep things separate. In Portugal, the people melded together. It is not as easy to find marks.
“Nevertheless, some attitudes, some habits of this earlier Jewish presence persisted that we are just now beginning to recognize. We believe today that perhaps there was some connection between the Jews of that time and the evolution of the Cult of the Holy Spirit.”
Maduro Dias is referring to a uniquely Azorean ceremony/festival held at the fanciful little chapels, which look like a cross between a one-room schoolhouse and a wedding cake decoration, that one sees all over the islands. Each year, on the seven Sundays following Easter, roughly corresponding to the period between Passover and Shavout or the counting of the omer, these otherwise unused emporiums, as they are called, come to life. Re-painted, re-decorated and profusely adorned with flowers, they become the site of worship of the Holy Spirit, confirmation-type ceremonies for pre-pubescent children, and the fulfillment of pledges made earlier in the year, typically feasts to which the entire community and even strangers are invited. Sometimes a type of flat bread made without yeast and stamped with the seal of the crown of the Holy Spirit is used.
“No one will tell you the cult of the Holy Spirit is a Jewish custom,” Maduro Dias says. “It was born within Christianity during the 11th and 12th centuries through brotherhoods who contested the divinity of Christ. But we believe it was used and perhaps developed by the Jews at a certain moment as a means of coexisting with the larger culture.”
It is easy to see why new Christians, still Jewish in their hearts, would be attracted to the cult. “The entire procedure has nothing to do with the church,” according to Maduro Dias. “The emporiums have no crosses, no representations of holy figures. Those who hold their keys are not the same as those who hold the keys to the churches. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is God with no Christ. It is the presence of an abstract God.
“Therefore, these festivals allowed the conversos an opportunity to be together in a separate moment, to keep some of their original attitudes within the frame of Christianity, to perform some acts meaningful to them and at the same time accepted as normal by the Christian community.”
Feasts and brotherhoods connected with the cult of the Holy Spirit were widespread in medieval Europe and lingered in Portugal into the 19th century. But while the cult died out everywhere else, inexplicably it developed a powerful following in the Azores, and to this day continues to be a defining aspect of the islands’ culture, extending even to émigré communities in the United States. One group of Azorean-Americans still maintains its emporium on the island of Flores. Every year, a number of people return to Flores, perform the rituals and partake of the festival. Afterwards, they clean up, close the doors to their little temple, and return to America.
It is yet another irony of Jewish history that this totally Catholic institution once served as a sanctuary for Azorean Jews forced to convert, allowing them, at a time of the year that resonated with sacred overtones, to relate to their vision of God in an environment absent of Christian symbolism. But whatever Jewish yearnings and customs are embedded in this cult, whether its embrace by new Christians centuries ago had anything to do with the unique hold it has on Azorean culture is shrouded in the mist of undocumented history.
Today the only concrete evidence of a Jewish presence in the Azores belongs to its second community: a couple of cemeteries and a deteriorating synagogue which Jorge Delmar, for the past twenty years, has struggled to preserve.
“It is easy to be a Jew anyplace now,” says the last Jew in the Azores. “But here we are soon to be no more. This synagogue should remain as a reminder that once we were here. The government spend lots of money rebuilding churches, why not this synagogue? Many good things happened there. People who played an important part in the local history worshipped there.
“We did a study and found restoration would cost about $200,000. I keep trying to get it done. I write letters, I meet with government officials and potential donors. I don’t give up. We have a new government now so I am more hopeful.
Why do I do this?” he asks. “Because I feel I have to do something. It all ends with me.”
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, and It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean.