Latest update: November 11th, 2011
In the first article on the Jews of Portugal, we reviewed the glorious periods of the history and depths of persecution to which Jews were subjected during the Inquisition. We continued through to the revival of the Jewish community in Lisbon. This piece highlights the contemporary Jewish sites, with the extended hand of the small Jewish community to their brethren worldwide.
The largest Jewish community in Portugal is in Lisbon, where there are two synagogues – a Sephardic, Shaare Tikva (which was featured in The Jewish Press article on the Jews of Portugal) and an Ashkenazic, Ohel Yaacov. The Sephardic synagogue houses documents and religious objects dating back to the 1300’s.
In Lisbon, there is also a Jewish cultural center, a kosher butcher, a special slaughtering house and a home for the aged. Additionally, there are remains of the medieval Jewish quarter and Rossio Square, the site of the Palace of the Inquisition where 1,300 Jews were burned at the stake. There is a collection of Jewish tombstones, with inscriptions written in Hebrew in the Archaeological Museum. In the National Museum of Ancient Art, there is a painting of Grao Vasco, a 16th century Jew.
A unique ancient synagogue can be visited in the Jewish quarter of Obidos. The synagogue dates to the end of the 12th century. Obidos is a seaside village located about 80 kilometers north of Lisbon, in the Costa de Prata region. A Jewish community lived in Obidos between the fifth and seventh centuries, when the Visigoth occupied the city. Another Jewish community lived there between the eighth and 12th centuries, while it was under Arab rule.
The city of Tomar is located in the Costa de Prata region. The first Jews settled in the town in the 14th century. The Jewish quarter occupied only one street, the present-day Rua Dr. Joaquim Jacinto. Despite its small size, the Jewish community was prosperous, and its influence was to increase greatly during the 15th century. This was the period of the Discoveries, when Tomar’s governor was Prince Henry the Navigator.
In Tomar, an ancient 15th century Jewish synagogue and mikveh (ritual bath), one of the two surviving monuments of medieval Jewish heritage, have been preserved. The synagogue has become a national museum and features historic remains of medieval Portugese communities. In 1993, a Yom Kippur service was held at the synagogue due to the large number of Jewish tourists.
Located at 73 Rua Dr. Joaquim Jaquinto, the synagogue of Tomar features a white painted, plain facade. The interior consists of a rectangular main prayer room of about eight meters on each side. Four pillars support the ceiling, with 12 pointed arches in the Moorish style, which was much appreciated in the Iberian countries during the Middle Ages.
According to the Sephardic tradition, especially among Jews of Portuguese origin, the four pillars symbolized the four mothers of Israel: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, while the 12 arches are thought to represent the 12 tribes of Israel.
The four upper corners of the room contain clay jars incorporated into the walls and positioned upside down, an ingenious traditional method employed in the Middle Ages to improve the acoustics. Modern additions include wooden chairs facing the central bimah, surrounding it on three sides. The Torah scrolls are kept in a wooden cupboard. Old stone carvings of the original structure decorate the walls of the prayer sanctuary.
A second, smaller room is situated next to the main prayer sanctuary and is partially below the current street level. Discovered in 1985, it was originally used as a mikveh. It houses a collection of artifacts, especially ceramic bowls that are displayed around the mikveh’s pool. A well, half covered by a more recent wall, has been discovered on the patio behind the mikveh, its edges bearing deep cuts from ropes.
Today, the building of the synagogue houses the Museu Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacuto, the Abraham Zacuto Portuguese Jewish Museum. It is named after Abraham Zacuto (c.1450-c.1522), a mathematician and author of the celebrated Almanach Perpetuum, a book published in Leiria in 1496 that contains mathematical tables largely used by Portuguese navigators during the early 16th century and later.
The exhibits include various archeological findings attesting to the Jewish presence in Portugal during the Middle Ages. The exhibits include an inscription, dated 1307, from the former main synagogue of Lisbon. A second notable 13th century inscription is from Belmonte, on which the Divine Name is represented by three dots in a manner reminiscent of the ancient Hebrew manuscripts from the Dead Sea.
Another small Jewish community can be found in the Costa Verde region in the city of Porto, which served as a major center for Jewish traders during the Middle Ages. One of the sites is the earliest known Jewish Quarter found in Portugal, now Rua de Santa Ana. Visitors can also visit the beautiful Kadoorie Synagogue, built in 1927.
Last year, a group of citizens from the city of Porto, who view themselves as descendants of Crypto-Jews, issued a request to the government of Portugal to turn a building where the remains of an ancient synagogue were found into a museum dedicated to the history of the city’s Jews.
It is believed that the building served as the synagogue of Rabbi Isaac Aboab. Rabbi Aboab, known as the “last gaon [sage] of Castile,” was the head of the Guadalajara yeshiva. In March 1492, on the eve of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Aboab and a group of Jewish dignitaries managed to obtain political asylum in Portugal. The rabbi settled in the Judiaria (Jewish) quarter of Porto, along with a few hundred Jewish families.
Five years later, the Portuguese authorities forced all the Jews in the country to either convert to Christianity or be expelled. Many of those forced to convert continued to secretly observe the Jewish commandments. Over the years, the Jews abandoned the Judiaria, and many of its buildings were handed over to the Church or various charity organizations. The synagogue building was handed over to a state charity.
Two years ago, the organization gave the building to a priest named Agostinho Jardim Moreira, to be converted into an old age home. During renovations on the building, a recess was found behind a secret wall where a synagogue ark that held the Torah scrolls once stood. The location of the building precisely matches a description provided by 16th century writer Immanuel Aboab (a great-grandson of Rabbi Aboab), who wrote that the synagogue was located “in the third house along the street, counting down, from the church.”
The Israeli ambassador to Portugal, Aaron Ram, has appealed to the city of Porto and the local bishop regarding the matter. In addition, the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University has asked UNESCO for assistance in preserving the site.
The last Marrano community can be found in Belmonte in the mountainous region of Serra da Estrel. In the 20th century, long after the Inquisition had ended, they realized that their traditions − to light the candles every Friday night and to pray on Saturday – were signs of their Jewish ancestry. With the help of rabbis from Israel, approximately 80 of Belmonte’s Jews converted to Orthodox Judaism in 1991.
Currently more than 120 openly practicing Jews live in Belmonte, making up 10 percent of the town’s population. In 1997, Portugal’s first new synagogue in 70 years was dedicated in Belmonte. Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Portugal’s President Jorge Sampaio attended the dedication ceremony. The town also boasts a mikveh.
Excavations of possible 15th century synagogues are being undertaken in Evora, in the mountain village of Castelo de Vide and in Valencia de Alcantara, which is on the Spanish side of the border. In the Evora Museum, there is a stone with Hebrew inscriptions on it (dated 1378), along with a moneybox and a bench from the Inquisition. The Public Library across the street from the Evora Museum contains a rare, first edition copy of the Almanac Perpetuum, written by Abraham Zacuto. Visitors in Evora can visit the Kadoorie Synagogue, as well.
Mediaeval Faro, the capital of Algarve, had a Jewish quarter that was noted for being the site of’ the first printing press in Portugal, where the Pentateuch in Hebrew by Samuel Gacon in 1487 was published. After the 1496 order was given for the expulsion of the Jews, the Jewish quarter declined as a result of the dispersal of its inhabitants. This was reversed in the 19th century, when a prosperous community of Jews from Gibraltar and Morocco settled in Rua de Santo Antonio.
Around 1830, the renewed Jewish community built two synagogues and a cemetery. The remote cemetery, which dates back to the burial of Rabbi Josef Toledano in 1838, later fell into ruin when the community almost completely disappeared. In 1993 this cemetery, situated between Rua Leao Beneto and Estrada da Penah, was restored with the combined efforts of several Jewish Portuguese and foreign organizations. Portuguese President Mario Soares attended the restoration ceremony.
Closer to the historical center was the Synagogue of Rua Castillo. Some signs of the Jewish community’s prosperity in the 19th century are still visible, such as Abrado Amram’s residence at the palace in Rua Filipe Alisto. It is now known as the Comigo Algarve Praca.
The Algarve Jewish community was established in 1991 with a Chanukah tea party at the home of Ralf and Judy Pinto. Since then, all the main chagim are celebrated with tea parties or dinners. When sufficient numbers are present, an erev Shabbat service is arranged. The highlight of any year is the communal Pesach Seder, which attracts some 60 people from all parts of the Diaspora.
In 1998 the Algarve community celebrated its first bar mitzvah in 75 years, for which a Sefer Torah was brought from Lisbon. Last year, the Pintos’ son Jose and his bride Michelle were the first Jewish couple to be married in Algarve in 500 years.
Ralf Pinto, the Algarve Jewish community spokesman – whose parents went to South Africa as refugees from Nazi Germany – has traced his family tree back to Samuel Levi Pinto, who lived in Amsterdam in 1650. As he explains, the name Pinto is of Portuguese origin, and means “painted.” Pinto and his wife moved permanently to Algarve from South Africa in 1991.
This tiny yet vibrant Jewish community is unique in its determination to revive Jewish life and restore the Jewish heritage of Portuguese Jewry in the historic city. In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Press, Pinto appeals to the worldwide Jewish communities to join his community in restoring the Isaac Bitton Museum at the Faro Jewish Cemetery.
As he emphasizes, “Whereas traditionally the synagogue is the cornerstone of Jewish community life, in Algarve it is the restored cemetery which takes on this role.” Charged with the task of maintaining and developing the cemetery as a historic heritage site, Ralf Pinto is now developing a museum celebrating Jewish life, at the cemetery’s entrance. He elaborates: “A 25 square-meter wooden house will be installed, adjacent to the existing Tahara house. The addition will contain the original furniture from the synagogue that stood in Rua Castilho N? 4 in the old Jewish area of Faro till 1970, when it was sold and demolished.
“A model chuppah will be set up with dressed mannequins and recorded music. We are now looking for donations of a wedding dress, a tallit with black stripes for the rabbi, a large tallit for the actual chuppah and if at all possible, a yad for Torah reading. So, if you have these items, please donate them to us.”
Pinto notes that the museum is a very important tourist site for the many Jewish visitors to the area and to the non-Jews who have an opportunity to learn about Jewish life. The community plans to plant 18 trees at the entrance to the museum in honor of one of the “Righteous Among The Nations”, Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, whose heroic actions paved the way for over one million Jews to escape the Holocaust.
The community publicizes its get-togethers by means of the local press and by mailing circulars to its members, and is listed in the International Jewish Travel Guide. When visiting Algarve, Pinto urges all visitors to contact the Jewish community at Rua J?dice Biker 11 5Shoshana Matzner Beckerman
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