Around the Jewish World: Portugal Jewish Life Reviving As Expulsion Anniversary Nears

While much of the Jewish and Hispanic world marked the quincentennial of the 1492 edict expelling the Jews from Spain, a similar death knell to Jewish life in Portugal, only four years later, has barely been noted.

For Portugal’s tiny Jewish community, the Dec. 4-5 commemoration of the 500th anniversary of their ancestors’ expulsion or forced conversion represents a kind of coming out of the closet.

On the first day, in the scheduled presence of President Ezer Weizman of Israel and President Jorge Sampaio of Portugal, the first new Portuguese synagogue to be built in almost 70 years will be dedicated in the town of Belmonte in the northeastern part of the country.

That evening, the play “From the Expulsion to the Inquisition,” by Carlos Avilez, will premiere in Lisbon.

The next day, the National Assembly will meet in special session and dignitaries will gather at the site of a planned memorial, the first of its kind, marking the expulsion and the routes taken by Portuguese Jews in their new diaspora.

One of the routes led to Amsterdam, where the exiles established a flourishing colony. Their later descendants became the first Jews to set foot in New Amsterdam, now known as New York, in 1654.

The Jewish population of Portugal peaked in 1492, when some 150,000 Spanish Jews fled to the neighboring country, hoping for a permanent refuge. They resumed their wanderings four years later or, like the native Jews, underwent forcible conversions.

Today in Lisbon, traces of past Jewish life and suffering remain in the narrow, winding alleys of the medieval Jewish quarter, in the Madelena and Alfama districts, and in Rossio Square, site of the Palace of the Inquisition, whose minions burned 1,300 Jews at the stake.

Some 300 families now are officially registered with the Lisbon Jewish community. There is no permanent rabbi, kosher food is imported and, except for holidays, it is difficult to muster a minyan.

Yet, there are two synagogues, the Sephardi Shaare Tikvah and the smaller Ashkenazi Ohel Yaacov.

On Sukkot, when a small group of visiting American Jewish journalists visited the small congregation, services were led by Samuel Levy, a retired economist, aided by the economic attache of the Israeli Embassy in Lisbon.

Aside from some skinhead graffiti, there are few signs of overt anti-Semitism in Portugal, said Levy, “but one doesn’t talk about being Jewish.”

Among the country’s 10 million inhabitants, nearly all Catholic, “there is a profound ignorance about Judaism,” Levy added.

Some of this ignorance in Portugal is slowly being dispelled as democracy is taking firm roots and there are closer media and political links with the rest of Europe.

There is even a boom in studies of Portuguese Jewish history, encouraged by the recently elected Sampaio, who makes no secret of his descent from a Jewish grandmother.

Indeed, the remarkable aspect of Jewish life in Portugal is how a few energetic individuals have taken it upon themselves to reinvigorate their communities or dig, quite literally, into their remote past.

One such person is Helena Elias da Costa of Belmonte, where the new 3-story synagogue and its mikvah will be dedicated in December.

This town of 35,000 is a historical curiosity; it is the home of about 100 Marrano families, who, though their ancestors were formally converted 500 years ago, have retained forms of Jewish ritual and consciousness.

Herself raised in a Marrano family, da Costa formally converted to Judaism when she married her physician husband, Carlos, in 1979.

Her example has been followed by 70 of the 100 families, with the rest, including da Costa’s parents, opting to retain their Marrano ways.

A 22-year-old rabbi from Brazil, Shlomo Haber, is staying in town for six months and ministers to the Jews and Marranos equally. He doubles as the community’s ritual slaughterer and proudly showed visitors the sukkahs erected by his congregants.

As for da Costa, a high school arts teacher, she has turned her spacious home into a Judaica museum, wears a Magen David around her neck and takes care of three cats, named Golda Meir, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Oskar Schindler.

Her most lasting monument may be a 12-foot-high menorah, made of welded steel, which she designed herself. The menorah stands permanently on one of Belmonte’s main streets.

Equally remarkable is Carmen Dolores Pirra Balesteros, a historian at the University of Evora, 90 miles east of Lisbon, and a self-made archaeologist.

The 35-year-old Catholic woman decided as a graduate student to focus on the history of Zionism and messianism. She now spends most of her energy and slender personal resources excavating 15th-century synagogues, or possible synagogue sites, in Evora, in the hilly mountain village of Castelo de Vide, and in Valencia de Alcantara, on the Spanish side of the border.

In Evora’s old Jewish quarter, along the Rua Da Moeda (Street of Coins), Balesteros pointed to odd indentations at the front entrances of houses. She believes that mezuzot were affixed at these spots, but hastily removed and replaced by crucifixes when their owners were forcibly converted.

Balesteros’ next ambition is to establish a Jewish studies department at the University of Evora.

For the medieval history buff, there are other interesting Jewish sites in Portugal.

In the town of Tomar in central Portugal, for instance, a well-preserved 15th- century synagogue and mikvah have been transformed into an eclectic Jewish museum. Caretaker Luis Vasco, an old navy man, proudly said that even though only two Jewish families live in Tomar, a Yom Kippur service was held four years ago, thanks to an influx of Jewish tourists.

The occasion was marked by a procession through town with a Torah scroll, donated by the Bevis Marks synagogue in London.

A more recent edifice is a synagogue, built in 1928, which serves the small Jewish community in the northern port city of Oporto.

Long isolated, Portugal’s tiny Jewish community is now reaching out to its brethren in Israel and the Diaspora, with the encouragement of the Portuguese government.

“Though few in number, the Jews of Portugal have deep historical roots,” said Eyal Propper, first secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Lisbon. “It is important that Jews from other countries, especially the United States, come here and visit them.”

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