Keeping The Jewish Past Alive


The night clerk at my hotel in Lisbon’s port district was complaining. Too many immigrants, he groused. Brazilians, Cape Verdeans, Angolans — the breadth of Portugal’s erstwhile empire is visible on every street in downtown Lisbon. The clerk darkly suggested a link to increased prostitution.

Outside on the street, protesters marched and chanted, waving anti-austerity signs. Lisbon has always been one of the poorer capitals of Europe, charming in a shabby, mournful way.

Now the ever-present graffiti that scars the narrow, damp walls of Lisbon’s oldest districts reveals contemporary distress in the form of virulently anti-capitalist rhetoric. The mood is sour, which is to be expected when your average Portuguese family struggles to pay the bills.

Down in Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest quarter — and one of the few areas to survive the 1755 earthquake that destroyed most of the city — the wail of fado wafts from cafés and bars. Fado is the essential music of Portugal; its resigned, minor-key harmonies reflect a bittersweet worldview that reflects the national character. Migration and austerity, challenging as they may be in 21st-century Lisbon, are hardly novel here, given the grand, tragic sweep of Portuguese history.

I pondered all this as I wandered what was once a Jewish neighborhood. Along the Rua da Judiaria, synagogues flourished and kosher merchants plied their trades for a Sephardic community until its expulsion six centuries ago during the Iberian inquisition.

Today there are few visible remains of that heritage. But a growing number of Lisbon Jews and tourism officials are working to uncover Hebrew inscriptions, remnants of Jewish buildings and other vestiges of Alfama’s Jewish past.

Alfama is vintage Old Europe — a tangle of narrow, winding lanes, many impossibly steep. Laundry lines flutter from wrought-iron balconies; old women hobble up and down the hills, popping into dusty apothecaries and squeezing fruit on their daily shopping rounds. As you climb, dark alleys here and there give way to a stunning, sunlit view over the blue Tagus River. I took it in over vinho verde at a café with a waterfront balcony, contemplating the vastness of this river that looks like an ocean at Europe’s westernmost point.

Many people take the popular No. 28 tram up Alfama’s steep hills, the better to explore St. George’s Castle at the top. But this is a district best explored on foot; its charm unfolds in the details of its sepia-hued fountains, its startling blue-and-white tile facades, and in the way the shadows fall as its street lanterns come on at dusk.

As throughout Lisbon’s historic districts, Alfama is peppered with Roman Catholic churches. Elegant if somewhat down-at-the-heel, they are an enduring testament to the faith that has dominated Portuguese society for centuries.

A few blocks west of Alfama, some of Portuguese Catholicism’s darkest moments played out in Rossio Square, where executions are said to have taken place during the Inquisition. Vestiges of that time remain in a handful of ancient landmarks around the square, though it was largely rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake. The Rossios’ 18th-century grandeur — modeled very deliberately on Paris, like much of Lisbon — is evident in the “new” buildings’ neoclassical facades.

A century later, in the late 1800s, Jews were allowed to re-establish themselves in Lisbon, and the foundations were laid for a modern community. Today, Jewish life is centered far from the riverfront warrens of the Alfama; its hub is the Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa, a community center based at Lisbon’s landmark synagogue, Shaaré Tikvá.

Built in 1904 in the lavish neo-Byzantine style favored at the time, the temple is worth a visit (note that advance reservation is required, as is common throughout Europe). The synagogue can also arrange visits to the Principal Cemetery, where Jewish tombs date to the late 1800s.

You can find kosher food — including a private kosher meal service and bed-and-breakfast — in contemporary Lisbon, along with cuisine from virtually every corner of the globe. As it was before the ethnic cleansing of the Inquisition, Lisbon is again a city where cultural influences mingle. During my visit, a local music school was staging a concert of Hebrew and Israeli music, while Brazilian lilts are the latest twist to the “new fado” movement that emphasizes the genre’s syncretic — and even, partly, Semitic — roots.

On my way out of town, I stopped for a pastel de Belém, the custard-cream pastry that is Lisbon’s culinary signature. Men at the next table were excitedly discussing this summer’s Champions League final — the Super Bowl of European soccer — to be held in Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz. Six hundred years after the Inquisition tore apart Lisbon’s ethnic mosaic, soccer has become the universal religion of modern Portugal, giving austerity-weary locals a reason to cheer.