bette ann | A Jewish Experience In Portugal

A Jewish Experience In Portugal

October 19, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Jewish Heritage


This is how one website starts a review of the history of Jews in Portugal:


From the Golden Age of Discovery to the Inquisition, Portugese Jewry went from the heights of wealth and success to the depths of anguish and despair.

The history of Portuguese Jewry is like that of many other places, where success and sadness go hand in hand. Walking along Lisbon's streets, remnants remain of Portugal’s rich Jewish life. Sparks of Portugal’s past can be found in the remote mountain villages, where the some of the last remaining Marrano communities can still be found practicing behind closed doors, fear of persecutions still looming. Today, the Jewish community of Portugal numbers approximately 600 people. where once there were over 200,000 Jews living in Portugal.


If you have a little time and want some history and details, here are a few links for sites that provide the history of the Jews of Portugal.



We wanted to experience and learn about Portugal in all aspects, not just a Jewish historic experience, but we found ourselves continuously drawn to the old Jewish sections of the cities (Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto, Obidos, Evora) and to the small medieval villages on the eastern side of Portugal (close to Spain) where so many converted to avoid death, but practiced in secret. And today, have a re-birth.


In Lisbon, a guide arranged for us to go into the Orthodox synagogue.  The main facade of the synagogue faces an inner courtyard, since Portuguese law at the time forbid non-Catholic religious temples from facing the street.


We were not allowed to take photos inside the Synagogue but we did get a few shots to share from the grounds.



חי—To Life







There is now a small but growing Jewish community once again in Lisbon. There's a sign up announcing the Future Jewish Museum but there is some explaining  to do about that :


Lisbon will soon have a Jewish Museum, it’s just not known exactly when. It’s a project that’s been discussed for several years but never got off the ground due to lack of funding. However, now that there are five million euros available for a new Route of Jewish Quarters in Portugal (a geographical and cultural route following the Jewish presence in the country), the new museum may finally become a reality. The vast majority of those five million euros comes from the EEA Grants program (funded by European countries), and will restore the Jewish quarters and their heritage.
Lisbon’s Jewish quarter was
Alfama, where there still is a “Rua da Judiaria” (Street of the Jewry). The future museum will be found nearby, in a building on Largo de São Miguel. 


The building is currently rundown but has an approved design for its renovation, as already illustrated on the façade.


The museum will explain the history and culture of the Lisbon and Portuguese jews, remembering that 20% of all of the world’s Jews are of Sephardic descent (Portuguese or Spanish). Those Jews were expelled from Portugal five centuries ago and ended up founding the first synagogue in the United States (in New York), as well as one of the richest in the world, in Amsterdam.




In the old section of Lisbon, in front of the church were the Inquisitions were held, this plaque reads: In memory of the thousands of Jewish victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism who were murdered in the massacre started April 19, 1506





This has some personal significance as my maiden name is Rappoport – Rabbi de Porto – which some connect to Portugal OPorto and others to Porto France – but, as long as we're here, might as well think about the Portuguese geneology.


So, here's some Porto history—


Porto was spared by the earthquake that destroyed much of medieval Lisbon and thus its old city is intact — including the streets of the former Jewish quarter. By the way, Alfama - the Jewish Quarter of Lisbon - was the only part of that town not totally destroyed by that earthquake. (hmm, significance?)


After Lisbon, Porto had the second largest Jewish congregartion and was the seat of the provincial rabbi or chief judge. As everywhere else, the Jews of Porto lived in their Juderia. By command of King John I, Victoria and S. Miguel streets, near the present location of the Benedictine convent, were assigned to them for residence in 1386. The synagogue is there. 


The very small house tops you see in this photo comprise the Jewish Quarter, still pretty much the same since the 1300's.




Many, including Jewish refugee families from Spain given permission to live in the Porto Judaria, left the city when expelled by the tribunal of the Inquisition, 1543. 


There is a new, small Sephardic Jewish community now in Porto. The Jewish neighborhood is still very nearby those original boundaries still has its own police and community management.


Here is a shot of the old synagogue (white building on the left) which is now used as a 1-room home for the aged.


All along our drive and town climbs through Portugal, the Judiaria (Jewish Quarter) is where time seems to have stopped – cobbled stone streets, whitewashed houses, Gothic doorways. The Star of David embedded in the sidewalk to mark off the Jewish Quarter.


Portugal Medieval TownPortugal Medieval Town


And although we would still visit 5 more medieval towns with Jewish Quarters, some with artifacts, some with small remembrances, the highlight is when we got to Belmonte – the heart of the Crypto-Jews (converted to stay alive and practiced Judaism in secret).


There is an museum that captures the essences of the Jewish faith. It focuses on ritual and the historic significance of faith rather than death and Inquisitions.

A kosher wine store.

A café named "Shalom."

Memorial plaques on the homes of the Conversos.


And a new Sephardic synagogue.






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