Tag Archives: Portuguese Jews

Jew of the Week: Fernando de Noronha

Founder of Brazil

Fernão de Loronha (c. 1470-1540) was born in Lisbon, Portugal to a Sephardic Jewish family that had been forcibly converted to Christianity by the Inquisition. Like many such families, they continued to practice Judaism in secret. Loronha became a wealthy merchant, and also worked for the German Augsburg banking family. He was knighted by King Manuel I of Portugal (and for this reason, was often associated with the Noronha nobility, being incorrectly referred to as “Fernando de Noronha”.) In 1501, he financed a Portuguese expedition to explore the newly-discovered lands of South America, then called Vera Cruz. Scholars believe his primary motivation was finding a new home for persecuted Jews, where they could finally live free of the Inquisition. Some say Loronha captained the expedition himself, and we know for sure that on board was Amerigo Vespucci (after whom “America” is named). At the time, Europeans imported expensive red dyes made from brazilwood from India. Loronha came back to Portugal in 1502 describing the abundant brazilwood in the new lands and the opportunity for great riches. King Manuel gave him an exclusive ten-year charter for all the commercial rights to brazilwood in Vera Cruz. In exchange, Loronha had to send at least six ships per year on behalf of Portugal, build a fort for the Portuguese military, explore new coasts, and pay the crown 4000 ducats per year. His first six-ship fleet set forth the following year, establishing the first brazilwood factories in the New World. Soon, vast amounts of the precious dye were being imported to Europe, making it the continent’s second most valuable commodity (after gold). The fleet also discovered a new group of islands, which Vespucci named São Lourenço, or São João. Shortly after, a grateful King Manuel gave the islands as a gift to Loronha and his descendants, and made him the first official donatario (“administrator”) in South America. Today, the idyllic islands are still referred to as “Fernando de Noronha” in his honour. Unlike many other colonists, Loronha did not employ slaves, and obtained all the brazilwood through trade with local natives. Most interestingly, it was Loronha who was responsible for renaming the new land to “Brazil” instead of its original name, Vera Cruz. Still a Jew at heart (and soul), Loronha did not want to use the Christian term Vera Cruz (meaning “True Cross”), so he would always refer to it in all of his business dealings as “Brazil” instead. The new name stuck. Similarly, he renamed his main ship from São Cristóvão (“Saint Christopher”) to A Judia (“The Jewess”). In 1506, his crew on that ship discovered a set of islands in Mozambique, named Bassas da Judia. Today, the name has been corrupted to “Bassas da India”.

Words of the Week

Given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicates a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than antisemitism.
– Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who passed away two weeks ago

The main island of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago of 21 islands, off the coast of Brazil.

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Moshe Cordovero

The First Systemiser of Kabbalah

The grave of the Ramak in Tzfat, Israel

Moshe ben Yaakov Cordovero (1522-1570) was born in Tzfat, Israel to a Sephardic family from Cordoba, Spain that fled during the Expulsion of 1492. The family first settled in Portugal before Portugal, too, expelled its Jews. They eventually made it to Israel and settled in Tzfat. By the time he was twenty, young Moshe was already recognized as a great sage and rabbi, a leader of Tzfat’s rapidly-growing Jewish community, and the head of its Portuguese Yeshiva. That same year, he heard a Heavenly voice instruct him to begin the study of the Zohar, the central textbook of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah). He began studying with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (famous for composing Lecha Dodi). Within a few short years, he mastered the entire Zohar—and the rest of Kabbalah with it. In 1548 he completed his magnum opus, Pardes Rimonim, “Pomegranate Orchard”, which organized and integrated all of the vast Kabbalistic wisdom into one cohesive system. He then wrote a 16-volume commentary on the Zohar, and was soon recognized as the world’s preeminent Kabbalist. In 1550, he opened his own mystical school, and attracted rabbis from far and wide to come study with him. Among them was Rabbi Chaim Vital, and many years later, the great Arizal. The latter only arrived in Tzfat on the day that Rabbi Moshe Cordovero—immortalized as the “Ramak”, based on his initials—passed away. The Arizal would go on to create his own Kabbalistic system, which later inspired several more branches, including those of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism), and the Ramchal. However, the Ramak will always remain as the first great systemiser of Jewish mysticism. The Ramak wrote several other renowned works, and devised a new system of Jewish meditation, too. He is still ranked among the greatest Jewish mystics of all time. Today is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

The pageant of evolution [consists of] a staggeringly improbable series of events, utterly unpredictable and quite unrepeatable… human beings are an improbable and fragile entity… it fills us with amazement that human beings ever evolved at all.
– Stephen J. Gould, world-renowned evolutionary biologist

Jews of the Week: Mendes Seixas Family

Gershom Mendes Seixas

Antonio Abraham Mendes Seixas (d. 1738) was born in a small village in Portugal to a family of Conversos (or Marranos), Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity but continued to practice their ancestral faith in secret. The Seixas family was made up of physicians, lawyers, and merchants, and were among the most successful in Portugal. Despite this, they were still hounded by the Inquisition, and many were imprisoned or put to death. Abraham Mendes Seixas himself barely escaped the Inquisition, and settled in London with his wife and three kids around 1725. There, the family openly returned to Judaism, and Seixas renewed his marriage vows under a proper chupah in a public ceremony. Seixas quickly rebuilt his wealth and became a prominent member of London’s growing Sephardic community. When he passed away in 1738 he left very little for his only son, Isaac Mendes Seixas (b. 1709) apparently believing he was unfit to run the business. Isaac set forth for a new start in America. The son proved a good businessman, and quickly rose to the highest ranks of the merchant class in the New World. He married Rachel Levy, daughter of the great (former Jew of the WeekMoses Levy, and became an important member of Shearith Israel, one of America’s first synagogues.

Isaac’s son, Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816) was the hazzan of that synagogue, and although not ordained for the role, served as its rabbi. Some say he may have been the first rabbi born in America, while others point out he was the first rabbi to give sermons in English. He was also the first Jew to sit on the board of an American university (Columbia). His good friend of twenty years, and fellow on Columbia’s board, was Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. It is quite likely that Gershom helped Hamilton in drafting and promoting some of the famous Federalist Papers. Meanwhile, Gershom’s older brother Moses Mendes Seixas (1744-1809) moved to Newport and became one of its richest businessmen. He co-founded the Bank of Rhode Island, and served as president of Touro Synagogue, America’s first (and also to whom George Washington wrote one of his most well-known letters). Meanwhile, younger brother Benjamin Mendes Seixas (1748-1817) was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange, and youngest brother Abraham Mendes Seixas (1751-1799) was a decorated officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The entire family was known for their tremendous patriotism and philanthropy.

Did You Know These People Are Jewish, Too?

Words of the Week

For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
– George Washington, in his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue and the Jewish community of Newport.