Jewish Culture

Having lived in and embraced both Portugal and the United States, it is interesting for me to reflect on the contributions of Jewish Culture in both places. Jewish Culture in Portugal and the U.S. have evolved very differently because they have such different origins. Before the Inquisition, Portugal was the center of civilization, exploring and commercializing across the 7 seas. Mapmaking, ship designing, mastery of languages, commerce and other literate pursuits were common among Jews in this new center of commerce. Although Christianity dominated, Jews and their religious practices were initially accepted, then tolerated, then a bought privilege, until finally, the Inquisition forced Jews to convert, hide or flee, and Jewish culture was exiled.

Like losing a limb, Portugal lost a part of its anatomy by expelling its Jews, eventually leading to the loss of is global dominance in seafaring exploration and commerce. The Dutch East India Trading Company and others became the new centers with bigger markets and promise of religious tolerance.

Centuries later, Portugal’s recent laws for the right of return allowed the restoration of proud Portuguese Jewish heritage, contributing to the cultural and  financial enrichment of the country. World class museums, concerts, exhibitions, lectures, Kosher hotel and restaurants, and cinema productions by and about the Jewish Community of Oporto have been created within the last ten years. The Jewish Community has a greater presence and is making the biggest cultural contributions to Portugal seen in 500 years. This is a phenomenal cultural transformation.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, because everyone emigrated there from other countries. People were either escaping bad circumstances or just seeking opportunity. Many were seeking religious freedom, while others were willing to abandon their origins to assimilate into a great “melting pot.” 

Today in the U.S., there are approximately 4.2 million Jews of whom perhaps only 2.7 million self-identify as Jewish, across a broad spectrum of observance from reformed to orthodox; less than 1 in 130 adult citizens.

Yet, Jewish Culture is woven into the fabric of American history and culture. From the very beginning, George Washington, founding father of  the American Revolution, had Haym Salomon (himself a Jew of Sephardic descent), at his side translating vital French communications, raising funding, providing intelligence and convincing 500 Hessian soldiers to abandon the enemy and join Washington’s Continental Army.

The international expansion into the “New World” became a Christian/Judeo bond timed perfectly with the Age of Enlightenment, when the Colonies chose to form a new nation, free from taxes, royalty and religious intolerance.

Judaism, and particularly the Ten Commandments, are literally built into the laws and even stone in the frieze of one of the most important federal buildings, the Supreme Court of the United States. Moses with the Ten Commandments is at the center, as Guardian of truth and liberty. He is surrounded by the inventors of democracy and other ancient philosophers.

The first Pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution in the early 17th  century. Their story, as celebrated in the American holiday of Thanksgiving, established the U.S. as a haven. Some Jews arrived in the New World around this time too, but most came later in several waves of immigration during the 19th and early 20th Century, escaping from Polish and Russian Pogroms, and later from Nazism during World War II.    

What did immigrant Jews contribute culturally to this gigantic melting pot where Jews were so few… a small minority in a sea of mostly Christians? The first-generation American Jews were grateful to be in a new land with freedom of religion but kept culture and religion quietly at home and in the intimacy of local communities. Although, some communities in major cities built impressive Synagogues, such as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, established in 1654 by Jews who arrived from Dutch held territories in South America, and Congregation Rodeph Shalom of Philadelphia, founded in 1795.  

In this new life, the Jewish immigrants pursued the American dream, founding businesses and forming great venues of cultural expression through universities, orchestras, film, and theater.  And at one time, major orchestras in New York and other cities were as much as 85% Jewish. Jews so dominated orchestras in major U.S. cities that in the 1950’s a former conductor of Hitler’s orchestra was boycotted by all the orchestras unanimously when he tried to arrange a tour in the U.S.  

There were several popular Yiddish theaters in New York. (In fact, a current Vice-President of the Oporto Jewish Community, Dara Jeffries, is the  granddaughter of the creator of one such Yiddish theater, and daughter of a cofounder of the “Circle in the Square” theater.) Eventually, Yiddish Theaters died out as Jewish Americans assimilated into the broader American culture, extinguishing ethnic venues and even the Yiddish language itself from the streets of New York.  Gershwin and many Jewish Broadway composers took their musical and theatrical knowledge and talents to unprecedented levels of innovation and abandoned religious reverence. 

One of the first movies with sound called “The Jazz Singer” was the story of Al Jolson, the son of a cantor, and his transition to Broadway entertainer, who had to choose between his heritage as a cantor in a synagogue in Brooklyn or a performer in nightclubs and shows on weekends.

Leonard Bernstein composed Jewish themes like “The Dybbuk,” but “West Side Story” and most of his compositions embraced multicultural expression for a wider audience, as did most Jewish writers, composers and entertainers.

Rarely does the ever-changing American society single out the contributions of its less than 1% Jewish population or figures such as Haym Salomon, and the fight against discrimination, intolerance and growing attacks on Jews continues in the U.S. so that religious anonymity is often preferred by many Jews.

Portugal’s laws to allow restoration of the Jewish part of their population, and some of its cultural heritage is a shining light in a world of increasing xenophobia.   To commemorate this, in November 2017, a Concert of Sephardic Memory was held at the Casa da Música, which shared with the audience musical compositions, style, and language that had been preserved for centuries and brought to life by renowned performers from Turkey.

Some of the original songs were from an expelled Portuguese Jewish Community that had re-established itself in Turkey during the Inquisition yet maintained its identity; even building a replica of the Portuguese synagogue the community was forced to abandon 500 years ago. Ladino is so similar to Portuguese, that the audience could easily follow the words of the songs and hear the original sounds of a lost era, maintained through discipline and dedication -  a rare gem. 

In the rush of modern times, Portugal has the unique ability to modernize while keeping a great deal of its architecture, countryside, traditions, and cultural aspects intact. For centuries most of Portugal has maintained the same landscape, wine businesses, restaurants, cobblestone streets and now its old soul is complete.