At first glance, it appears that the future of the Portuguese Jewish community is bleak.
Of the few hundred people who were born Jewish and live in Portugal, most are in the capital city of Lisbon. But they are in a country whose Jewish presence, which was strong at times, goes back to at least the year 300.
Lisbon has its “Judiaria” Street. However, nothing else shows that once, a large synagogue and a thriving Jewish community in Portugal’s capital existed.
Most Jews here show little interest in Jewish community affairs. Synagogue attendance is at an all-time low and only a handful of families keep kosher. Three years ago, the Lisbon community welcomed a new rabbi, but he is leaving this fall.
However, some hope for the Portuguese Jewish community flickers in the distance.
In increasing numbers, members of the Converso population are making formal conversions to Judaism.
This group – also known as crypto-Jews, New Christians or Marranos, which is considered a derogatory term – stems from the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions of the Middle Ages, when thousands of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism secretly continued to practice Judaism.
The private practicing of Jewish customs while outwardly practicing Christianity has been passed down from generation to generation.
According to one estimate, thousands of Conversos live in Portugal. The number is difficult to pin down because of the secretive nature of crypto-Judaism.
In Portugal today, families with crypto-Judaism in their background carry out a few Jewish customs, often with a twist, in a clandestine manner. For instance, Shabbat candles might be lit, but the windows are shut while the candles burn inside a closet.
In villages such as Belmonte and Braganca in Portugal’s rural northeast, conversions back to Judaism already have occurred.
As these conversions continue, these people may become the new Jewish community of Portugal.
In the mountain village of Belmonte, where about 10 percent of the 3,500 inhabitants used to fall under the category of crypto-Jews, a man in traditional Jewish garb sat on his porch, reading from a Jewish book.
This out-of-place man was Rabbi Samuel Sebag, who took responsibility four years ago for the Belmonte conversions under the auspices of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
One by one, the crypto-Jews were converted to Judaism in Belmonte, whose crypto-Judaism was discovered in 1917, a time when other historians supposed that the last of the New Christians had disappeared. Apparently, the community continued because it existed in a remote area, away from the courts of the Inquisition, and because marriages took place within the community.
In the Belmonte of 1995, Sebag has taught the Jews how observe Shabbat, hold a Passover seder and have a kosher household.
For centuries, the Jews of Belmonte never saw Hebrew, much less read it. The text of the prayer books used by Belmonte’s Jews are in Hebrew and Portuguese as well as phonetic Portuguese.
They do not show much interest in Jewish history. Most interesting to them is the story of Esther, who kept her Jewish faith in a non-Jewish society. The Holocaust and the State of Israel elicit little concern.
Roots of Judaism exist in other villages as well. In Tomar, a synagogue recently reopened as a museum, which is run by one of the few Jews who inhabit the town.
In the village of Castel de Vide, the local tourist office offers a full color brochure depicting how the old quarter contains a Jewish section. The owner of the Hotel Garcia d’Orta here says he traces his roots back to Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert by the Inquisition.
At the outbreak of World War II, Portugal had an organized Jewish community of about 380 in addition to another 650 Jews, many of whom were refugees. After the fall of France, thousands of refugees, including a large proportion of Jews, entered as immigrants.
Portugal saved many Jews during the war by granting consular protection.
But in the 1970s, a large part of the Jewish community left the country because of political unrest.
In recent years, increasing numbers of dignitaries, even the former cardinal of Lisbon, have proudly made their crypto-Jewish histories public. Politicians have specifically made their backgrounds known in their election campaigns.