David Lawrence-Young

David Lawrence-Young – Jewish Life in Portugal

David Lawrence-Young - Jewish Life in Portugal

The Story of the Portuguese Jewish Community. David Lawrence-Young


David Lawrence-Young – Jewish Life in Portugal

Three weeks ago I returned to my home in Jerusalem after visiting many of the historical Jewish sites in Portugal. Despite its long and historic past, this community must be one of the smallest in Europe. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, only 600 Jews live here. This is despite the fact that the American Journal of Human Genetics claims that about 20%, i.e. two million of the country’s population, has Jewish ancestors.


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To find the reason for this huge disparity of figures you must study this community’s very depressing history. Although the Jews played a leading part in Portugal’s great Age of Discovery during the 13th and 14th centuries, they were forced to live a ghetto-style existence. They were allowed to travel within the country but their cultural and commercial successes caused a major anti-Semitic backlash. This increased after waves of Jews escaping from the Spanish Inquisition arrived in 1391. The community was forced to obey a curfew and wear distinctive clothing. One hundred years later stricter laws followed which included King John II ordering Jewish parents to hand over their children to the Catholic authorities. As a result, seven hundred young Jews were exiled to Portugal’s West African colonies.

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Following John I’s death in 1496, his successor, Manuel I started his reign by beginning to restore freedom to his Jewish subjects. However, when he wanted to improve his political position with his more powerful neighbor, Spain, he decreed that all of the Jewish community should leave Portugal by October 1497.


Many did so but others committed suicide or agreed to be baptised and became “New Christians.” However, many of these ‘Marranos’ continued to practice their Judaism secretly. Examples of this included the special moveable mezuzah I saw on display in the Jewish museum in Belmonte. These new laws however did not spell the end of the persecution. In 1506 about three thousand Jews were massacred in Lisbon. King Manuel had not approved of this action and so he hanged forty-five of the ringleaders. Twenty-five years later the Jews were blamed for a recent earthquake and in September 1540 the first auto-da-fé took place and several Jews were burnt at the stake. At the same time, more Jews were arrested, their property confiscated and again they were forced to wear distinctive clothing. As a result, many of these ‘Marrano’ secret Jews fled to Amsterdam and other European cities and elsewhere. The last auto-da-fé took place in 1765 but the Portuguese Inquisition would continue officially for another fifty-six years until it was officially disbanded.

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As a result, Jews began to return to Portugal at the beginning of the 1800s, but over one hundred years were to pass before the government recognized their religious and civil rights. Then the growing community was allowed to build and run synagogues, cemeteries and ritual slaughter-houses. They were also permitted to register their births, deaths and marriages. However, despite this new liberal atmosphere, the anti-Semitic past must have laid heavily on many of them as there were mass conversions to Catholicism, a trend that later died out over the following decades.


When one reviews this six-hundred year history of anti-Semitism, it is understandable that many of the country’s Jews chose to hang on to their secret Jewish existence. Even as recently as 1987, when David Canelo, a non-Jew, wanted to write a book about the secret Jewish community, he was able to speak to the members only on condition that he wouldn’t publish their names. Four years later when the French TV wanted to film the local Portuguese Jews preparing matza for a documentary, a knock on the door scared away many of the participants. Obviously, the centuries-long fear of anti-Semitism still runs deep – and this was 170 years after the Inquisition had been officially rescinded!


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Today there are two small active Jewish communities in Portugal. One is in Lisbon and the other is in Porto. Attendance at their beautiful synagogues is very low and their regular services are held only on Friday nights for Kabbalat Shabbat. When I attended these services at both synagogues: Sha’rei Zedek in Lisbon and the Kadoorie synagogue in Porto, the rabbis told me that they often don’t even have a minyan on Friday nights. You can imagine the rabbi’s joy when on the Erev Shabbat that I attended the Lisbon shul, over seventy other Jewish tourists showed up and the old synagogue rang with their songs and prayers. And of course, owing to the prevalent pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel atmosphere in Europe today, both synagogues were guarded by the police and both my wife and I were questioned about our identity before we were allowed to enter.


In addition to these synagogues, we also went to visit the old synagogue and Jewish Museum in Belmonte and Tomar. Belmonte is a small village in eastern Portugal where crypto-Jews have lived for over six hundred years. This community was discovered only in 1917 by Samuel Schwarz, a Polish Jewish mining engineer. It was only after he had recited the Shemah prayer that they believed that he too was Jewish as they thought that they were among the last Jewish communities in existence. Today, even though there are no Jews living in Belmonte, it has a synagogue and a fascinating Jewish museum which contains many artefacts and a large plaque listing details of the Jews who were murdered during the Inquisition.


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About 50m/80kms south-west of Belmonte is the site of another of Portugal’s old crypto-Jewish communities. Here in a narrow side-street in a town of 40,000 people, you can find the old synagogue in the Centro Historico – the Old City. It is marked by a pale blue Magen David above the entrance and inside you will find a kind old lady who has been working there as a volunteer guide for the past twenty-eight years. This synagogue with its large central hall was again restored by Samuel Schwarz. It is in good condition and the hall is very impressive with its vaulted ceiling supported by four large pillars. The bimah in the middle is covered with a blue velvet cloth and nearby one can see the early excavations of the town’s mikveh. While inspecting the synagogue, the guide told us that the building in the past had also served many uses, including a church, a storehouse and even a prison!


To end this article on a happier note, although the past Portuguese President, António Salazar, ruled as a dictator from the 30’s for four decades, he did keep the country neutral during WW2. As a result, he saved many thousands of Jews who were fleeing the Nazi terror to the east. In addition, the Portuguese authorities are now aware of the terrible times they inflicted on the country’s Jewish population over the past six hundred years. Today, in the centre of a large square in downtown Lisbon you can find an impressive memorial plaque in the shape of a Magen David which commemorates the ‘Jewish victims of the intolerance and religious fantasy’ which led to the massacre of Lisbon’s Jews in April 1506.

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David Lawrence-Young – Jewish Life in Portugal

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