Behind the Headlines the Jews of Portugal
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Portugal

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“Each one of our Jews represents a minyan,” Dr. Joshua Ruah, head of the Portuguese Jewish community, said with pride as he and this reporter entered the imposing 82-year-old synagogue here for Yom Kippur services. He was referring to the striking fact that there are only 300 Jews in the entire country, but that every non-Jew believes the figure to be at least 10 times higher.

Indeed, at least 75 to 85 percent of the actual number of Jews was present in this graceful edifice for observances conducted by the vigorous Moroccan-born Rabbi Assor for the past 35 years. The service is Sephardic, but perhaps half the congregation is Ashkenazic, representing families who found asylum here from Eastern European oppression during World War II.

An extraordinary aspect of the rites was the presence of several Marranos from the village of Belmonte in central Portugal, where they and their ancestors have lived for the past five centuries, ever since the Inquisition had compelled them to profess Christianity, while they practiced their Judaic faith in secret.

The opprobrious term Marrano (swine) applied to them by the religious bigots has followed them through the corridors of time. It was a touching sight to see these upstanding fathers and sons, who still till the soil as their forefathers did, coming a long way to the big city to worship openly alongside their compatriots.


Ruah is proud of the community he heads. “We may be the smallest in Europe,” he said, “but somehow we have managed to convince the Portuguese people that we are a far, far larger group than we actually are, and that we are a strong force for the good.” He noted that “none of us are millionaires, but perhaps upper middle class. Many of us are in business, but we include several doctors like myself, engineers, economists, and professors, but only one lawyer.”

Ruah has been the head of the community here since 1978, succeeding Prof. Moses Amzalak who led it for more than a half-century. His congregation is highly organized and provided with many amenities, including a cultural center, an additional small Ashkenazic synagogue, medical care for the aged, and a kosher kitchen. The Jewish cemetery is being reconstructed with some financial aid from the Lisbon municipality.


An anomaly is the fact that there is an Israel Embassy in Lisbon, but no Portuguese Embassy in Tel Aviv. Security at the Embassy is especially tight ever since Ephraim Eldar, the then Ambassador, was shot in an assassination attempt by Arab terrorists some years ago.

Relations between the Arab world and Portugal are most cordial, and Lisbon Jews point with some apprehension to the existence of a Palestine Liberation Organization office in their midst. There is a weekly El Al flight to Israel and constant visiting of relatives between the two countries.

Ruah pointed out that after the Six-Day War, this was either the first or second (per capita) in the amount of contributions rushed to Israel. He vigorously maintains that standard of dedication to Israel in the exercise of his office. An observer can only agree with him that, indeed, every Portuguese Jew counts for ten.

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