Although I converted to Judaism at the age of 19, having been inexplicably drawn to the ways of the Torah, I had no inkling that I was descended from Jews myself. After 44 years of living a Jewish life, through tracing the names in my mother’s family tree, I discovered
that they were Judeo-Spanish names from Catalonia, Spain.
My search led me to get in contact with a distant French relative by marriage, Danielle, the widow of a French fourth cousin. She sent me a link to
a document in the French National Library that contains our family’s tree allWhat, if any, possible knowledge of their Jewish heritage or ancestors was transmitted to them? the way back to Portugal of the 1500s—to Portuguese prince Luis de Beja-Avis (the son of King Manuel), who fell in love with, and married, a Jewish lady, Yolanda, daughter of a noble family of converted Jews. Their marriage was performed quietly—secretly, in fact, because he was the son of Manuel, king of Portugal, and she, from a family of converted Jews. Although they were nobility, they were of sangre soucia, suspected or tainted blood. It was evidently considered the right thing to convert the Jews, but not to marry them.
This document Daniella sent me contains not only the family tree of my
great-grandmother’s mother’s side, but also the story of a famous figure:
Antonio Gomez de Beja-Avis.
Prince Luis de Beja, son of King Manuel (his brother Juan became the next king), and his Jewish wife Yolanda Gomez had two sons, Antonio and Juan, who were Jews according to halachah, but—being from a family of converted Jews—were raised Catholic. Interestingly, they both married Jewish women.
When I read this, I wondered: What, if any, possible knowledge of their Jewish heritage or ancestors was transmitted to them? What did they know about being Jews, and did this have anything to do with choosing Jewish wives, or was that simply a “coincidence”?
This is the poignant story of one of their sons, Antonio, my ancestor. It touched my heart, and I’m sure that important lessons can be learned from it.
When he was young, Antonio de Beja Avis was given a higher education, and spent years studying philosophy and religious thought in a Catholic school in Coimbra, Portugal. He inherited his father’s role as a cleric, but didn’t continue a spiritual lifestyle; the physical world was too compelling. He was bent on enjoying the pleasures this world had to offer.
Antonio served his country as a governor in Morocco, which at the time was partially ruled by Portugal. He was very well-liked by the common people of Portugal, and was a beloved and popular public figure. His marriage to a Jewish woman, Ana Barbosa, yielded several children, including the eldest, Prince Manuel.
At age 40, Antonio accompanied his cousin King Sebastian on a mission to subdue a rebellion in Morocco, which ended unsuccessfully. King Sebastian was killed, and Antonio was taken prisoner.
During the time Antonio was held captive in Morocco, his uncle Henrique, a cardinal, took the throne and destroyed all evidence of Antonio’s parents’ private marriage ceremony. Henrique knew the throne rightfully belonged to Antonio, the next successor, but he didn’t want Antonio to be able to claim what was rightfully his.
In the meantime, Henrique, who was elderly, passed away. At this time, Antonio was also freed from captivity in Morocco. He returned to Lisbon, Portugal, and was crowned king, acclaimed by the masses of the common people who loved him.
However, Antonio’s cousin, Philip II of Spain (whose father was Austrian and who had grown up in the Habsburg court), was determined not to let a Jew rule over Portugal, and spent a considerable amount of money bribing the rich landowner class of Portuguese to favor his claim to the throne over Antonio’s. Antonio ruled over Portugal for only a month at most, until Philip sent a large army of troops to defeat Antonio, oust him from the throne in Lisbon and overtake Portugal, annexing it to Spain.
Antonio fled for his life to Terceira Island (Isla Terceira) in the Azores archipelago off the coast of Africa, about 900 miles from Portugal. From Isla Terceira, King Antonio ruled, while Philip ruled mainland Portugal. After two years, Philip was proclaimed successor to the Portuguese throne. Even though Antonio was next in line to inherit the throne, Philip raised the issue of Antonio’s “tainted blood”—the blood of his Jewish ancestors—which Philip claimed should rightfully disqualify him.
Antonio left with his son Manuel to Paris, where his payment in crown jewels persuaded Catherine de Medici to use her connections to obtain a fleet of ships that sailed back to the Azores to battle with Philip and reclaim the throne. But the fleet was defeated. Antonio then went to England and persuaded Queen Elizabeth (who hated the Spaniards) to once again set sail to Terceira (where Antonio was convinced that his loyal followers would rally to his cause and oust Philip’s men).
Antonio was sadly mistaken. Philip had meanwhile won the people to his side, and they didn’t rally to Antonio’s cause. He was defeated again and returned to France, broken and penniless, having spent his entire fortune trying to regain the throne.
Antonio, who is known in history as “The Determined One,” spent his remaining years in Paris, ever fearful of Philip’s assassins, from whom he fled many times.
Ill and exiled from his homeland and his people, Antonio sought solace at last in a vestige of the faith of his mother’s people—in the Psalms of King David. Antonio is considered a hero because of his determinationNo doubt he identified very much with King David’s life saga of persecution, betrayal by those whom he had trusted and constant flight from those who wished to kill him.
Antonio even wrote a book on the theme of the Psalms, titled in English The Royal Penitent. No doubt, in his last days, Antonio had come closer to G‑d and regretted the ways of a youth spent in pursuit of the physical world.
And what of Prince Manuel, who followed his father into exile? He settled in Belgium and married a Belgian Huguenot princess of possible Jewish descent, Emilie Nassau, daughter of William I of Orange. They had eight children. Manuel still maintained ties to Spain, which had promised him government positions.
Since Spain was at war with the Netherlands, including Belgium, at the time, Princess Emilie considered Manuel to be a traitor to her people, and she
left for Switzerland with her six daughters—one of whom, Maria Belgica, is my ancestor. Antonio died alone and broken in Paris, where he is buried.
Even though he was defeated many times, Antonio is considered in history
to be a hero because of his determination in trying to maintain the independence of his homeland, Portugal. His son Cristobão, who had remained
behind in Portugal, continued this cause after his father’s death.
What did I learn from this story?
Obviously, there is a lesson about the vanity of this world and its physical pursuits. In the end, we are left with only the soul. We must spend our time here on earth providing for our spiritual welfare, since this, as Antonio learned, is all that remains at the end of our sojourn here.
But I believe there is more to be gleaned from this story, which shows the strength of the pintele Yid, the spark of Jewishness inside us.
Even though Antonio was raised a Catholic and given an education within the church, in the end it wasn’t the beliefs of his father, but rather the Psalms of David—the king of his mother’s people—that gave him solace and to which
he turned in his time of trouble.
I wonder again: Is it possible that Antonio’s mother, Yolanda Gomez, descendant of a noble Jewish family originally from Spain, was somehow, in spite of her upbringing as a converso, able to transmit something about the holiness and purity of Psalms to her son?
Whoever Antonio’s Jewish ancestors were, I’m sure they are rejoicing now that their spark of Jewishness did find its way down to us, their descendants, in the beautiful Jewish family of Torah-observant children and grandchildren G‑d has given me.
When our family performs mitzvot, which were lost to their descendants for 500 years, I think of these ancestors. When IWhoever Antonio’s ancestors were, I’m sure they are rejoicing now light my Shabbat candles, I light them for all the grandmothers of Spain, Portugal, France and Switzerland who either didn’t know they should light or were unable to do so. And I think of Yolanda, who was forced to hide for the rest of her life in a convent when her secret marriage to the prince was discovered. Whatever she secretly gave to her sons—that tiny spark passed down for 500 years—was finally fanned into a powerful flame of faith that ignited the heart of her descendant (me) and the hearts of my family!