Wandering Jews

 


A number of individuals from my hometown of Fall River have traveled to Ponta Delgada in the Azores to commemorate the refurbishing of a synagogue that they had financed. They also met with the one Jew still living in the islands.

Jews had once been a major element in Portugal, but no more.

They also were a major element in Fall River, but no more.

Jewish history in Portugal resembled Jewish history in Spain. A sizable population developed in the early Middle Ages, by some reports a larger percentage of the total population than in Spain. In both countries the Jews were mostly eliminated by forced expulsion or conversion. Some remained, passing themselves off as Christians, and some returned when the anti-Jewish policy was relaxed.  

The Portuguese first came to southeastern Massachusetts as crew members on whaling ships. The work was hard and risky enough to dissuade Americans, so the ships would sail from New Bedford and Nantucket with skeleton crews to the Azores, pick up men willing to serve, at least partly for the opportunity to remain in the U.S. when the ships reached home port with the results of several years’ hunting. When the cotton industry began to develop in Fall River, mill owners sent labor recruiters to the Azores.


Jews came to the city from the latter part of the 19th century, and served a growing industrial population as peddlers and small merchants. Their children, more than others, stayed in school and moved up the economic ladder to larger businesses and the professions. As the cotton mills closed in the face of competition from the South, another wave of Jews came, mostly from New York, to produce clothing, taking advantage of empty buildings and unemployed workers.

Then competition from China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere did to their small factories what Southern cotton mills had done earlier. 

At its height, the Jewish community amounted to several thousand individuals, with a number of small Orthodox synagogues and one grand Conservative Temple.

If there is more than one Jew remaining in Fall River, there is not enough for a daily minyan. For some years now, the Conservative Temple has rented space that once served as classrooms to municipal social service agencies. 

My first assignment as a student of political science led me to the city’s problems. According to official statistics, 30 percent of Fall River teenagers did not finish high school, and the average adult had not gone beyond ninth grade.

The city stimulated my interest in ethnicity, and the topic for my senior thesis was “The Portuguese of Fall River.” Demographic and political research was made easier by the few family names among the Portuguese. One of them was Franco. 


There are Francos in our family. The grandparents of the Franco who married a niece came from Turkey, and earlier ones most likely went there from Spain or Portugal.

There are Portuguese in Fall River who say they are Jews, or that their family had been Jewish.

Gentile friends lament the absence of Jews. They say that the public high school has become an “inner city school,” and that few graduates apply to prestigious colleges.

The ambitious Jews of my generation had to apply to several places, insofar as the most desirable limited the number of Jews they would accept. Virtually none of us returned to the city after college.

Fall River’s total population has dropped from more than 115,000 to less than 90,000. Tenements are empty and cheap. Boston relocated some of its homeless to the city. 

The city’s education profile hasn’t changed in 60 years. Still close to 30 percent of teenagers fail to finish high school. Now the average adult has reached 10th grade, but has not finished it.

There are Jews who live outside of Fall River, while continuing to practice their professions in the city.

It’s not only the Azores and Fall River where there are empty synagogues. There are about as many Jews in each of Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Algeria, and Afghanistan, all of which had been home to thousands.. 

Jews remain a significant population in the area of the former Soviet Union, despite about half of them, more than a million, having left since the late 1980s. 

Estimates of Jews in Iran have declined from 100,000-150,000 in 1948 to about 80,000 prior to the revolution, and 17,000-25,000 currently.

Assessments of Jews’ lives in Iran vary as widely as the population estimates.

Jews not only move. They also look for Jews in what for them are exotic places. The support of what had been Fall River’s community for the Azorean synagogue is part of a wider tradition. Israelis do “roots” trips to their own, their parents’, or their grandparents’ former homes in Europe. Varda and I have seen where her parents grew up in Dusseldorf and Berlin, and visited the graves of her grandfather and a young cousin who died prior to the Holocaust. We have passed by the synagogues in a number of other European cities, walked the streets of Judeiria in Spain, and saw indentations in the stone alongside doorways in Gerona that most likely remain from when there was a mezuzah.

After a professional conference in Moscow during 1979 I visited Jews in Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent. When I told one old man that I came from Jerusalem, he began to weep. 

Neither of us has a desire to visit the ashes in Eastern Europe where family members perished.

Jewish movement has something to do with Jews’ historic association with commerce. There are biblical mandates about charging interest, and extensive Talmudic disputes about what constitutes interest, fair dealing, and the financial relations appropriate with Jews and others. Communities have invited Jews on account of their economic skills, and then turned against Jews for the same reason. Concerns for bookkeeping and commercial agreements may have contributed to the early development of literacy throughout the community, or at least among most of its males, and subsequent contributions in every field of science and culture..

Commerce is part of what we are, for the good and the bad associated with it. Including our capacity to move elsewhere when things turn sour.

While the Azores, Fall River, and many other places have empty synagogues, there are four within 100 meters of these fingers. All have daily minyans, even without my attendance.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

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