In Portugal, remnants of old, and reawakening to new, Jewish heritage

In Portugal, remnants of old, and reawakening to new, Jewish heritage

Shaare Tikva, Lisbon’s main synagogue Photos by Lori Silberman Brauner
Shaare Tikva, Lisbon’s main synagogue Photos by Lori Silberman Brauner

An enchanting land of castles, churches, and intricate blue Azulejo tiles, Portugal is perhaps most famous for its explorers’ legacy.

The country, on the western side of the Iberian Peninsula, also is a nation with a deeply rooted Catholic religious heritage, and, increasingly, a growing — and re-emerging — Jewish community, centuries after the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions wreaked havoc on the Jews of Iberia and beyond. With roots dating as far back as the end of the Roman empire, Portuguese Jews once played a tremendous role in their homeland and in launching their own discoveries in places like the New World.

A tiny percentage of a country that numbers some 10 million people, the three main centers of Jewish life in Portugal are Lisbon, the capital, with some 1,000 Jews; the northern coastal city of Porto, with 300 Jews; and Belmonte, a village with a tiny (35-40 Jewish residents) but re-emerging community that secretly preserved its identity for centuries following the Inquisition.

“Our history is completely bonded to the Jewish history,” Ana Mendes Godinho, Portugal’s secretary of state for tourism, told a group of journalists and travel agents assembled in Lisbon at an Oct. 17 event sponsored by Turismo de Portugal, the country’s tourism authority. “This is part of us.”

With the Jewish population once estimated to be approximately one-fifth of the Portuguese population, “there is no one in Portugal here that can be 100 percent sure that he is not a descendant of Jews — no one,” said Gabriel Steinhardt, president of Lisbon’s Jewish community.

Gabriel Steinhardt, president of Lisbon’s Jewish community

The Portuguese Inquisition officially began in 1536 and lasted until 1821, but the writing on the wall was evident by 1496, when King Manuel I issued the Edict of Expulsion following his marriage to the daughter of the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, who established the Spanish Inquisition. The Jews of Portugal — many of whom were welcomed only a few years earlier following the 1492 Inquisition — were forced to choose between conversion to Catholicism or leaving the country. “Manuel loved the Jews,” Steinhardt said, and this solution was a way for him to stay in power and still benefit from the Jewish presence. Those who stayed became “New Christians,” outwardly practicing Christianity while often secretly maintaining Jewish rituals. Those who left had more power, education, and resources, ending up in such cities as Amsterdam and Istanbul.

To understand the Jewish legacy in Portugal, a good place to start is the Alentejo region, a countryside dotted with castles and cork trees and bordered by Spain on the east. With Ruben Obadia, communication manager for the Alentejo regional tourism promotional bureau, we first visited Castelo de Vide, a picturesque village 17 kilometers from Spain with its own multi-layered history.

Our guide in the hilltop town was Patricia Martins, who told us that Jews began settling there in the 14th century. After 1492, the community enlarged to 5,000 as a result of the influx of Spanish Jews. Once the Inquisition reached Portugal, they remained as New Christians, while “inside they are still Jews,” she said. Our group toured what was believed to be the town’s synagogue, now a Jewish museum housing a former aron hakodesh (ark), other ritual items, and a haunting memorial listing individual names of residents who were murdered during the Inquisition. There is also a tribute to Garcia d’Orta, a Jewish botanist born in Castelo de Vide known for his pioneering experiments with herbal medicines, who worked in the former Portuguese overseas territory of Goa (India). While he escaped the ravages of the Inquisition during his lifetime, the overseas arm of the Inquisition targeted him after his death in Goa — reportedly digging up his bones and burning his remains. 

The Old Bridge of Portagem, where Jews fleeing Spain paid a toll to ruling authorities.

The town has grand plans to promote its Jewish history and attract tourists. Mayor Antonio Pita told our group that the town plans to open an “Inquisition House” in March 2019 that will describe in-depth the stories of 300 local families targeted by the Inquisition. They will also issue a two-volume book providing a genealogical study of the village’s New Christians and where they later settled around the world; and a museum dedicated to d’Orta’s work and legacy.

Perhaps a classic symbol of the Jewish experience of flight and persecution is the 15th-century Old Bridge of Portagem in Marvão, in which Jews fleeing Spain had to pay a tax to the authorities upon entrance to Portugal. “Tens of thousands of Jews came from that bridge to save themselves from the Spanish kingdom,” Obadia said. A memorial plaque was dedicated in 1996 to mark the 500 years since the Edict of Expulsion. Its existence, in a leafy, bucolic countryside and spanning the Sever River, lies in stark contrast to one’s imagined scene of hordes of desperate refugees streaming through. 

From Castelo de Vide and Marvão, our group traveled south to Elvas, a Roman and later Islamic walled town on the Spanish border. A UNESCO world heritage site, Elvas was the most fortified medieval city in the world,  according to Obadia. A shortcut between Madrid and Lisbon, Elvas had two Jewish quarters, one that, after its demise, eventually became the town’s main open square. “They lived here for generations,” beginning in the 13th century, said archaeologist Margarida Ribeiro, who served as our guide.

Castelo de Vide’s former Jewish quarter

Visitors have to use their imagination to conjure up the town’s Jewish past. It is only over the last 10 years that Elvas and other villages’ Jewish sites have been under development, and “most of the story of the Jewish heritage is still to be written in this area; it’s underground, most of it,” Obadia said. We viewed a former butcher/slaughterhouse now under renovation in one of the former Jewish quarters whose history is being studied. “Maybe it was a synagogue. Maybe,” said Ribeiro. In that space now is the Casa da História Judaica de Elvas, which was inaugurated in 2017 and was scheduled to open to the public shortly. In an alleyway, Ribeiro pointed out etchings of a cross on a doorpost, ostensibly by a secret Jew, or New Christian. “They were outside of the house Christians, but inside, they kept the same, all practices of the past.” 

Being a crypto-Jew, or anusim in Hebrew, “is the art of simulation,” said Obadia, explaining that crypto-Jews would take surnames of various fruit trees to appear neutral, or conversely, very Christian names like “Jesus.” Obadia, who grew up in Lisbon and whose family left Portugal for Morocco in the 15th century before returning in the 19th century to Portugal’s southern Algarve region, would hear stories of local residents telling him that they had a grandmother who lit candles on Friday nights or would clean the house on Fridays — others would clean the house and hang out carpets on balconies on Saturdays to pretend they were working. “It’s a game of mirrors,” he said, to recreate these experiences.

From Elvas we traveled to our final stop in Alentejo, Évora, home of a magnificent Roman Temple, Cathedral of Évora, and Public Library. Jews maintained a presence there since the Roman occupation, and its main square, now a place to gather among cafes and shops, was a former marketplace for Jews, Christians, and the Moors, according to our guide Melanie Wolfram. We walked through a former Jewish quarter that once housed two synagogues as well as a mikva, school, hospital, and even leprosarium (a hospital to treat patients suffering from leprosy), and observed insets on doorposts that easily could have held mezuzot.

Jewish astronomist Abraham Zacuto’s Almanach Perpetuum

Évora’s Public Library houses the famous Almanach Perpetuum and Nautical Guide by Jewish astronomist Abraham Zacuto, which our group had the rare privilege of viewing. Zacuto was born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1450 and left the country following the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, residing in Lisbon for about 15 years and serving King Joao (John) II. The royal historian was responsible for most of the sailing charts leading to the discovery of the New World. But his intelligence and fame couldn’t quite save him from the Inquisition; he eventually fled east to the Ottoman Empire, and is believed to have died either in Damascus or Jerusalem early in the 16th century.

The saga of Portuguese Jewry played out not only in small towns and villages, but in big cities like Lisbon and Porto. Our group spent about half our time in Lisbon, hearing its story not only from a local tour guide but from present-day community leaders. By the Middle Ages, there were three Jewish quarters, including in the Alfama neighborhood, which was one of the few areas to survive the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Visitors can still see signs for “Judiaria” Street and other vestiges of the Jewish presence that continue to be developed. But following a serious drought and plague in 1506, Dominican friars staged riots against Lisbon’s New Christians on April 19, 1506, in which between 2,000 and 4,000 were murdered within a week. The Memorial to the Victims of the 1506 Massacre commemorates the brutal attacks in the downtown square opposite St. Dominic Church.

It was only in the 19th century when the Jewish community began returning to the country where they had once played such a prominent role. The Inquisition formally ended in 1821, although it was only active until the middle of the 18th century, Steinhardt said. Many of the returnees, some original descendants of Jews who had fled Portugal, came from Morocco and Gibraltar and initially resided in the Algarve region in the south as well as the Azores Islands in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.

The modern-day Jewish community of Lisbon, known as the Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa (Israelite Community of Lisbon), was officially founded in 1912, creating charities such as Somej Nophlim (from the Hebrew, which means “lifting up the fallen”). In between the two world wars, Jews from central Europe came to the country, and during World War II itself, thousands of Jews were saved from the Nazis, with Portugal officially staying neutral; in 1940, Aristide de Sousa Mendes, the consul general in Bordeaux, issued thousands of visas to fleeing Jews, disobeying the Portuguese government’s orders; he was later named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in 1966.

In Lisbon, the community is centered around Shaare Tikva, a synagogue inaugurated in 1904, the first edifice built as a synagogue since the Inquisition, and which received 12,000 visitors last year, according to Steinhardt. While following Sephardic Orthodox rituals, the community is now half Ashkenazi; Steinhardt himself is an Ashkenazi Jew whose grandparents emigrated to Portugal from central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s. There is a second synagogue in Lisbon, Ohel Jacob, affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

A panoramic view of Lisbon

While the Jewish community is “one of the smallest in Europe” today, “we try to provide our members with all of the services,” Steinhardt said. The community maintains a mikvah, cemetery/chevrah kadisha, and a youth movement, Dor Chadash. It also offers Hebrew courses for adults and children, and a country club in Lisbon’s suburbs. The community is also responsible for working with the Portuguese government to vet applications of descendants of Jews seeking Portuguese citizenship (see related articles).

But on the flip side, attitudes toward Jews in Portugal today appear to have made a complete turnaround. “Most of the population is not only not anti-Semitic,” Steinhardt said, but, to the contrary, “philo-Semitic,” because regardless of the religion they currently practice, “they know about their history, they know that they may be … descendants of Jews.”

Steinhardt said visitors can feel safe wearing a kipa or a magen David in Lisbon, and it is not uncommon to be approached on the street by a Portuguese citizen who says, for example, that his grandmother still lights candles on Friday nights. Unlike other European capitals, in Portugal, “you can walk in the street as a proud Jew.”

Lori Silberman Brauner visited Portugal in October on a trip sponsored by Turismo de Portugal, the national tourist board ( This is the first in a series of stories on Portugal’s Jewish heritage. She can be reached at

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