i've been writing so much about my mother and her family and very little about my father. well, until recently, i thought i knew all there was to know about my father's family. but now there's been yet another major familial wake-up call. my father's family were 'danish jews.' I put scare-marks around those words, because technically they were lutherans, however, not really.
let me try to explain. my father told me, when i was quite young, that 'my family are the ones they call the portugese.' as for most americans, that meant nothing to me. at age 8, i replied to him, 'you mean you like people from portugal?' we just looked at each other for a few minutes, aware that we were not really communicating. but can you imagine that i remember this moment? i think partly because i'd never seen my dad so agitated. we had been in a roomful of men who were shouting and laughing and carrying on, and my dad suddenly took me outside and said, 'karen, there's something i really want you to understand about me. i know you're a little young, but i want you to know that my people are the ones they call the portugese.'
okay, fast forward 50 years, and i'm reading on-line at jewishgenweb that the Danish Jews were called 'the Portugese.'
Various other memories surface: 'our family wore yellow stars even though we didn't 'have' to' during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. My father pointing to a picture of the Rothschilds' mansion in Denmark, saying 'they are one of our best families in Denmark.' My mother insisted on naming me Katherine, and when my Dad pronounced it 'katrin' she changed it to Karen, assuming that it is a Danish name so it would be more suitable, etc. He told me 'Karen is not one of our names. Anna and Lilian, names like that are ours.' There was all of this 'ours' and 'theirs' - not in any kind of passionate way, just quietly, matter-of-fact.
His account of 'going to (the Lutheran) church' was that 'we' only went for things like 'the naming ceremony about a week after the baby is born,' weddings, funerals and at around age 14, 'when the boy becomes a man, we have a ceremony and the boy is given the scripture.' He told me, 'they call it confirmation, but really it's just coming of age.' 'The scripture' was the Psalms only. After that ceremony, my father went to sea, and began the career that would last for the rest of his life.
Well, well. Some of my American Jewish friends are very excited about this story, others tell me that he wasn't in any way, shape or form a Jew. He had chosen to be 'nothing' because he wasn't really a Christian either. But he always made it clear to me that he wasn't 'against' the Christian faith. And, when you think about it, after all, Jesus was a Jew, so perhaps that helped at least a little when Jewish family took up a modified form of being Christian. This kind of 'adopted' Christianity has been going on among the Sephardim since the 1300's at least.
Apparently, from what I can glean, King Christian IV invited Sephardic Jews from Germany and the Netherlands to come to Denmark to help him modernize the country, especially in the shift to a money-based economy. I guess it was probably fish-based before that (lol). Anyway, all of that was okay. They also allowed a smaller number of Ashkenazi Jews to enter, especially in the area of Copenhagen. The Sephardic population was found scattered throughout the rural districts, such as Ribe Amt where my father's families are from. Well, in the early 1800's, social pressure was placed on these Sephardic families to convert to Lutheranism in the interest of a more uniform society (sounds like the wishes of Castilian Spain, but without the blood-purity cant.) Most Danish Jews converted at that time. The rest moved to either Copenhagen, or to Aalborg where there was a synogogue in Jutland.
Well! I have finally come across an article that talks about the high level of tolerance exhibited by the Sephardic Jews, their willingness to blend with their surrounding cultures through intermarriage, adoption of religious tenets, etc, in contra-distinction to Ashkenazi Jews who favored separation and a more highly defined identity. Not only that, but I recognize my dear father in these few pages. He taught me always to respect the religions of others, because whatever I might think of the religion, it was very very important to the people who believed in it. That was one of the most important, personal, private, highly-charged things my father ever said to me on one of our wonderful walks together.
Anyway, here's the link to the article on The Special Character of Sephardi Tolerance.
Just a few more words about my family: My father's brother seemed to be the main carrier of the remnant Jewish feeling, and he expressed his sentiments in different little ways when we visited him in 1968. His lifestyle was cleanly and clearly non-Christian. (So what was he? I assumed at the time, age seventeen, that he was 'an agnostic' like my father was supposed to be. - or perhaps, after he tried to get me to jump into a frigid North Sea to prove I was a Viking, a recidivist pagan! lol) My father's sister married someone who did not wish to think of her as Jewish, so on that branch of the family the pall of silence fell resoundingly. I think my father thought my mother, being a 'Moor,' a kind of white African-American-Indian would be open to his quasi-Jewishness, but when he realized her real feelings about Catholicism, and her irrational fears about 'losing her faith,' I think he decided it would be in everyone's best interests to just keep mum on the subject. Religion was not personally important to him. His attitude was one of tolerance, to each their own. His expressed resonance with Christian faith was the Golden Rule, 'do unto others as you would have others do unto you.' And that was sufficient for him.
God bless him. I loved my father so much. I think if there were more people like him in the world, it would be a far better place.