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June 29, 2016 / 23 Sivan, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘Portugal’

David Mendes And Zipporah Nunes Machado

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

      One of the truly amazing aspects of Jewish history is that there were Jews who secretly maintained as much religious observance as they could while living under the merciless eye of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.

       These Jews, while outwardly professing Christianity, wanted nothing more than to escape to a country where they could openly practice the religion of their forefathers. In 1531 the Inquisition was officially instituted in Portugal. Yet, more than 200 years later, we find certain Marrano families who married only amongst themselves and clung to Judaism.

        Two people who came from such families were David Mendes Machado and his wife, Zipporah. Both were born in Portugal during the Inquisition – he in 1695 and she in 1714. Both were baptized, since this was the only way their families could outwardly appear to be loyal Christians while maintaining their secret Jewish practices. Indeed, Zipporah’s Christian name was Maria Caetana.

Rev. David Mendes Machado


         According to Naphtali Taylor Phillips,[i] David Machado escaped from Portugal with Dr. Nunes and his family in 1732. However, Rabbi David and Tamar De Sola Pool point out that this date must be incorrect:


                        According to the tradition transmitted by his descendants, Hazzan Machado began life as a Marrano, that is a Jew who could practice the faith of his fathers only in the secrecy of his heart and hearth. His older brother, whose loyalty as a Jew was discovered before he could escape his tormentors, was burned at the stake. In 1732, David Machado, it is said, escaped from his spiritually strangled existence in Portugal and came in the following year, 1733, to Savannah proudly professing his Judaism.

                        Though there is no reason for doubting the basic story, the dates call for revision. The records of the congregation [Shearith Israel Synagogue] show that already in 1728 David Mendes Machado was one of its contributing members. This earlier date explains how in 1736 he could enter the Jewish ministry after a life of Marranoism in which Jewish observance was a perilous matter of life and death, and the acquisition of Hebrew learning was virtually impossible. For a Marrano brought up under the watchful eyes of the Inquisition who wished to return to Judaism, there was much both to learn and unlearn, and in addition in order to be minister in Shearith Israel he had to acquire a knowledge of English. More than eight years of freedom of worship in New York could well have opened for him the gates of Hebrew knowledge, and given him familiarity with the synagogue ritual and acquaintance with the complex rules of shehitah, enabling him to become the religious leader of the synagogue. [ii]


          Reverend Machado served a cantor of Shearith Israel in New York City from 1737 until 1747. His responsibilities were not limited to leading religious services. He was also hired “to keep a public school in due form for teaching the Hebrew language, either the whole morning or afternoon as he shall think most proper. Later, the Reverend Mr. Machado had to keep school in the Hebra building, mornings from nine to twelve and afternoons from two to five.”


                        Another of his duties was to give a certificate of kashruth for all kasher beef exported to the Caribbean communities. For this service it was agreed in October, 1747, that he would be paid six shillings for every twenty barrels of kasher beef, so as to make up the relatively large increment of £ 20 a year that had been voted him. Less than two months later, on December 4, 1747, he died. The congregation paid £ 18.7.0 for funeral charges and for clothing for his widow and children. He was given a worthy tombstone with the epitaph inset on a lead plate. Some thirty years later during the Revolution, that lead was taken from his tombstone. (In those days lead, needed for bullets, was taken from windows, from the weights on fishing nets, and even from tombstones.) Therefore Hazzan Machado’s memory is preserved not through any tumulary inscription, but in a living line of descent that was outstanding in every generation in Shearith Israel’s history.[iii]


Zipporah Nunes Machado
        Zipporah Nunes came from another Marrano family. She and other members of her family were at one point imprisoned by the Inquisition for practicing Judaism. However, her father, Dr. Samuel (Diogo) Nunes (Ribeiro), was a well-respected physician, and his medical expertise was needed by the royal court in Lisbon. Therefore, the family was eventually released. Since the Church wanted to insure that the Nunes family would not return to secretly practicing any Jewish rites, it appointed two Christian “spies” who were required to live with the family.
        This made life intolerable for the family and, in 1726, they escaped from Portugal to London. (For the details of this bold escape see Glimpses Into American Jewish History: “Escape From The Inquisition” at http://www.jewishpress.com/page.do/19159/Glimpses_Into_American_Jewish_History_%28Part_9%29.html)
         In 1733 Zipporah came with her father and two brothers to settle in Savannah, Georgia. Her mother arrived some months later. She was amongst the first Jewish settlers of Savannah. (See Glimpses Into American Jewish History: “The Jewish Settlement of Savannah, GA” at
        Crypto-Jewish women displayed exceptional religious tenacity and were the primary transmitters of secret Jewish rituals on the Iberian Peninsula. A Nunes oral family tradition reveals that the women were so conditioned to leading a double life that for years after their move to America they continued to recite their Hebrew prayers with the aid of the Catholic rosary. Zipporah’s great-grandson, Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851), recounted that she would repeat a silent prayer whenever the clock struck. This prayer had some reference to her imprisonment by the Inquisition.
        “Zipporah Machado was an unusual woman, charming and cultured, mistress of six languages. Her charity, which she bestowed as her means permitted, was ‘unbiased by national or sectarian prejudices.’ “[iv] She was known in her youth as a great beauty.
        In 1733 Zipporah married David Machado. They did not have children until 1746 when Rebecca was born. Sarah was born a year later. However, Hazzan Machado never really knew his two daughters, because he passed away in 1747, leaving Zipporah a widow with two young children.
        In 1753 Zipporah married Israel Jacobs of Philadelphia. “Her marriage with Jacobs was considered somewhat of a messalliance, he being a man of ordinary attainments. He was familiarly known by the term ‘Daddy,’ applied on account of his fondness for children, from whom when separated he was never happy and in whose society he spent much of his time.”[v] They had one child Rachel, who was born in either 1754 or 1760. Zipporah died in 1799 at the age of 85. Israel outlived her, passing away in 1810.
          Zipporah’s oldest daughter Rebecca married Jonas Phillips, a Revolutionary War veteran. (For information about her life see Glimpses Into American Jewish History: “Rebecca (Machado) Phillips: Colonial Jewish Matriarch” at http://www.jewishpress.com/page.do/17894/Glimpses_Into_American_Jewish_History_%28Part_13%29.html)
           Zipporah was also the great-grandmother of Uriah Phillips Levy (1792-1862), a commodore in the United States Navy, and of Manual M. Noah (mentioned above), a Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall.
             Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at  llevine@stevens.edu.


[i]Family History of the Reverend David Mendez Machado, N. Taylor Phillips, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1894; 2, AJHS Journal page 45. This article is available online from AJHS at http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm.


[ii]An Old Faith In The New World, Portrait of Shearith Israel 1654-1954, by David and Tamar De Sola Pool, Columbia University Press, New York, 1955, pages 162-163.


[iii]Ibid., page 163


[iv]Early American Jewry, The Jews of Pennsylvania and the South, 1655-1790, Volume 2, by Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1953, page 335.


[v]Family History of the Reverend David Mendez Machado

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

The Jews Of Portugal: Contemporary Sites And Events (Part Two)

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

        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.


Tomar Synagogue


         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.


Belmonte Synagogue



         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 5

Shoshana Matzner Beckerman

Early Caribbean Jewish Communities (Part I)

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

     Places like Barbados, Curacao, Jamaica, Tobago, the Lesser Antilles, and St. Eustatia probably conjure up, in the minds of many Jewish Press readers, visions of vacation resorts. But many may not know that Jewish communities existed in these places as early as the first part of the seventeenth century. Jews lived in the Caribbean (formerly referred to as the West Indies) years before they settled in New York in 1654.
      The establishment of the first permanent Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere during the middle of the seventeenth century was viewed by Spanish and Portuguese Jews with satisfaction and pleasure. On the one hand, these settlements represented an extension of the prodigious commercial activity of Spanish and Portuguese Jews; on the other, some felt that this activity represented the realization of the Messianic age.
      Indeed, in 1650, no less a personality than Haham Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam wrote that in his opinion the establishment of American synagogues corresponded to prophesies in the Book of Daniel. Some years later the poet Daniel Levi de Barrios confirmed the ideas of Menasseh ben Israel in a bizarre interpretation of the text of Zechariah. According to de Barrios the prophet literally mentioned the Americas!
      It may well have been that the theories of Haham Menasseh ben Israel and Daniel Levi de Barrios were, to some extent, motivating factors behind the emigration of Jews to the Western Hemisphere during the seventeenth century. One should keep in mind that these enterprising men, while intensely interested in material gains, were at the same time idealists. Most had lost their wealth in Spain or Portugal due to the persecutions of the infamous Inquisition. In addition, they had suffered torture and imprisonment.
      Rather than abandon their Jewish religious convictions, they chose to forsake the land they loved – home of their forefathers for centuries. The New World held out the tantalizing prospect of being able to practice Judaism, if not openly then at least with less fear of persecution.
      This and the next Glimpses column will deal with some of the history of some of the more prominent early Caribbean Jewish communities.



      Barbados was captured by the British in 1605. Jews are said to have settled on this island as early as 1628. Since Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and were not permitted, until 1656, to openly live as Jews in England, those Jews who initially came to Barbados must have been forced to live as crypto-Jews (Marranos).
      Professing Jews did not reach Barbados until 1656 when Abraham de Mercado, a medical doctor, and his son, David-Raphael de Mercado, were granted permission to settle there by the British government. Until 1654 Dr. de Mercado had resided in Recife, Brazil. While there he had been one of the elders of the Jewish community. He was so highly respected that in 1641 Menasseh ben Israel dedicated one of his books to him. David-Raphael de Mercado was a man of considerable means, and in 1679 his name headed the list as the largest Jewish taxpayer in Barbados.
      Rabbi Eliyahu Lopes, who left Amsterdam for Barbados in Tammuz 5438 (July 1678), was the first haham of the Jewish community. While still relatively young, he had established a reputation as an effective preacher in Amsterdam. In 1675 he was given the honor of preaching the sermon at the dedication of the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. There is evidence that Rabbi Lopes was still serving in his position as Haham in 1683. The Jewish community apparently expanded during the 1680’s, because by 1688 there were two synagogues in different parts of the island.
      The Jews of Barbados remained generally committed to the traditions of their forefathers and did not forget their former Jewish European communities. Records show that one Yirmiyahu Burgos of Barbados sent one hundred florins to Amsterdam to be dispensed to the poor and needy.
      The persecutions of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal were responsible for a continuous influx of Jews to Barbados during the eighteenth century.



      Christopher Columbus made a total of four trips to the Caribbean and South America during the years 1492-1504. On May 4, 1494, during his second voyage, he arrived at the island of Jamaica. Columbus annexed the island in the name of his master and mistress, the king and queen of Spain. However, it was not settled by the Spanish until Juan de Esquivel came from Santo Domingo in 1509.  For the next 146 years Jamaica remained a Spanish colony.
      In 1580, King Philip II of Spain united the crowns of Spain and Portugal. It is likely that shortly thereafter Marranos from Portugal arrived with other merchant adventurers to participate in the colonization of Jamaica.
      In 1655 the island was captured by the English. Some of the Jews who fled from Recife, Brazil when the Portuguese recaptured it in 1654 ended up settling on the island of Jamaica. The Jewish community began to prosper, and in 1684 a synagogue was dedicated. Shortly after its completion Rabbi Yeosiahu Pardo arrived to serve as haham.
      Among the first settlers sent to Jamaica by the Amsterdam community were Aron de Mosseh Tartas, who emigrated in 1694, and Daniel Ribeyro de Payva, who arrived in 1717. Their ancestors and relatives were persecuted by the Portuguese Inquisition. In 1647 Isaac de Castro Tartas was burned at the stake in Lisbon; Antonio Ribeiro de Payva, an apothecary in S. Vicente de Beira born at Penamacor in about 1721, was sentenced to prison for Judaizing, and reconciled in the auto da f? of Lisbon on September 24, 1747.
      In 1760 Reverend Isaac Touro, a native of Holland, left Jamaica to serve as chazzan of the Yeshuat Israel Synagogue (subsequently known as the historic Touro Synagogue) in Newport, Rhode Island. His son Judah Touro (1775-1854), who was born in Newport, was the famous philanthropist.
      “A Tory, Judah’s father remained with his family in Newport after the British captured the city. The Touros became dependent upon the charity of the British occupying forces, which helped the family relocate to Jamaica, West Indies, where Isaac died in 1783.”[i]

      (This article is based in part on “Notes on the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the United States, Guiana, and the Dutch and British West Indies During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” by Cardozo De Bethencourt, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1925, 29, available at www.ajhs.org/reference.adaje.cfm.)

[i] www.ajhs.org/publications/chapters/chapter.cfm?documentID=223



      Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

Escape From The Inquisition

Thursday, December 1st, 2005

 The Inquisition

“In 1478 at the request of the Spanish sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella, Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) issued a papal bull allowing for the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. It lasted until it was “abolished” in 1834, although its most fervent activity was during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Spanish Inquisition is the notorious for two reasons. First, it was more cruel precisely because it was administered by the secular government. Second, it was concerned, in large part, with the conversos. These were Jews who had converted either under duress or out of social convenience, and were suspected of secretly practicing the Jewish faith.”[1]

“The Spanish Inquisition was particularly terrifying because of its inherent characteristics. The accused never knew who their accusers were. Once arrested, the accused heretic’s properties were seized. These properties were then administered at first by the Crown, and later by the General Inquisitor. This fostered the means for anyone to accuse for personal reasons, or to get gain. In many areas, ‘. . . men began to wonder whether a man’s worldly wealth, as well as his descent, was now become [sic] an incriminating circumstance’ (Roth, 1964, The Spanish Inquisition. United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.  p. 60). The Inquisition certainly did not limit itself to purifying only those of the Jewish faith. This was especially true if the accused was found to have any Jewish blood in his ancestry. Even if the accused was now a devout Christian, he was tried as severely as possible because of his roots. The accused was also not allowed to have a lawyer or counsel for his defense, and the names of all witnesses were kept secret from him.”[2]

“More than 13,000 Conversos were put on trial during the first 12 years of the Spanish Inquisition. Hoping to eliminate ties between the Jewish community and Conversos, the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492.

“The next phase of the Inquisition began around 1531, when Pope Leo X extended the Inquisition to Portugal. Thousands of Jews came to Portugal after the 1492 expulsion. A Spanish style Inquisition was constituted and tribunals were set up in Lisbon and other cities. Among the Jews who died at the hands of the Inquisition were well-known figures of the period such as Isaac de Castro Tartas, Antonio Serrao de Castro and Antonio Jose da Silva. The Inquisition never stopped in Spain and continued until the late 18th century.

“By the second half of the 18th century, the Inquisition abated, due to the spread of enlightened ideas and lack of resources. The last auto-da-fe in Portugal took place on October 27, 1765. Not until 1808, during the brief reign of Joseph Bonaparte, was the Inquisition abolished in Spain. An estimated 31,912 heretics were burned at the stake, 17,659 were burned in effigy and 291,450 made reconciliations in the Spanish Inquisition. In Portugal, about 40,000 cases were tried, although only 1,800 were burned, the rest made penance.”[3]

In 1497 all Jews living in Portugal were forced to convert to Christianity. These Jews were known as “New Christians” or Marranos. Despite the obvious dangers involved, a considerable number of these New Christians while outwardly professing to be devout Catholics, secretly kept as many mitzvos as possible. They remained loyal Jews for hundreds of years, and married only other “New Christians” who did the same. Of course, if at all possible, these New Christians sought ways to flee from Portugal. Their goal was to go to a country that would allow them to openly practice Judaism. Very few families actually succeeded in doing this.

A Daring Escape

“Dr. Samuel Nunez – was an eminent physician in Lisbon during the Inquisition. They, although of the Jewish persuasion – had long been professing Christianity, but by pursuing their religious devotions privately, were enabled to remain secretly true to the faith of their ancestors.
The Doctor was one of the court physicians, but even this did not save him from the wrath of the Grand Inquisitor when it was ascertained that his Christianity was but a pretense; he, with the members of his family, was cast into prison, and remained there until the medical services of the Doctor being called into requisition, they were liberated by the Ecclesiastical Council upon the advice of the Grand Inquisitor, on condition, however, that two officials of the Inquisition should reside in the family as spies upon their religious practices.”[4] “The Doctor had a large and elegant mansion on the banks of the Tagus, and being a man of large
fortune he was in the habit of entertaining the principal families of Lisbon. On a pleasant summer day (in 1726) he invited a party to dinner, and among the guests was a captain of an English brigantine anchored at some distance in the river.  While the company were amusing themselves on the lawn,   the captain invited the family and part of the company to accompany him on board the brigantine and partake of a lunch prepared for the occasion. All the family, together with the spies of the Inquisition and a portion of the guests, repaired on board the vessel, and while they were below in the cabin enjoying the hospitality of the captain, the
anchor was weighed, the sails unfurled, and the wind being fair, the brigantine shot out of the Tagus, and was soon at sea, and carried the whole party to England. It had been previously arranged between the Doctor and the captain, who had agreed for a thousand moidores in gold to convey the family to England, and who were under the painful necessity of adopting this plan of escape to avoid detection. The ladies had secreted all their diamonds and. jewels, which were quilted in their dresses, and the Doctor having previously changed all his securities into gold, it was distributed among the gentlemen of the family and carried around them in leathern belts. His house, plate, furniture, servants, equipage, and even the dinner cooked for the occasion were all left, and were subsequently seized by the Inquisition and confiscated to the state.”[5]

In this manner Dr. Nunez, his wife Rebecca, his mother Zipporah, his two sons Daniel and Moshe, and his daughter Sipra (Zipporah) escaped from Portugal to London. As was the case with many New Christian men who escaped from the Iberian Peninsula, he and his sons were no doubt circumcised shortly after their arrival. On the 11th of Av, 1726, Dr. Nunez remarried his wife Rebecca according to Halacha.[6] On July 11, 1733 Dr. Nunez and his family (except for his wife who had apparently died while they were living in London) arrived in Savannah, Georgia.

Zipporah Nunez (1714-1799[7]) “was a young lady nineteen years of age when she arrived from abroad with her father. Zipporah [apparently originally named Maria] had been born in Portugal, a Catholic, and she grew up in this land to marry [in 1733] a ‘rabbi,’ Mr. [David Mendez] Machado, the hazzan of Shearith Israel [Synagogue in New York]. Her contemporaries agreed that Zipporah Machado was an unusual woman, charming and cultured, mistress of six languages. Her charity, which she bestowed as her means permitted, was ‘unbiased by national or sectarian prejudices.'”[8] Zipporah “was a woman of many accomplishments, conversant with several languages, and until her death maintained a lofty
dignity, and was known in her earlier years as a great beauty.”[9] “She was the mother-in-law of a Revolutionary veteran (Jonas Phillips) and the great-grandmother of a commodore in the United States Navy (Uriah P. Levy) and of a Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall (Mordechai M. Noah), all Jews.”[10] She was also the great-grandmother of Raphael Jacob Moses.[11] Raphael Moses was a successful businessman and a staunch fighter for the South during the Civil War. He had the distinction of carrying out the last order issued by the Confederacy. Many members of his extended family were all observant Jews.


[2] http://www.bibletopics.com/biblestudy/64.htm

[3] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Inquisition.html

[4] Family History of the Reverend David Mendez Machado, N. Taylor Phillips, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1894; 2, AJHS Journal page 45. This article is available online from AJHA at http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm.
[5] Ibid., pages 46 – 47 quoting Statistics Of The State Of Georgia: Including an account of Its Natural, Civil, and Ecclesiastical History; Together with a Particular Description of Each County, Notices of the Manners and customs of Its Aboriginal tribes, and a Correct Map of the State, George White. Savannah: W. Thorne Williams, 1849.

[6] New Light on the Jewish Settlement of Savannah, Malcolm H. Stern, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, volume 52, 1963. Reprinted in The Jewish Experience in America edited by Abraham J. Karp, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 1969, page 72.

[7] The Record Book of the Reverend Jacob Raphael Cohen, Allen D. Corr? with biographical annotations by Malcolm H. Stern, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, volume 59, 1969, footnote 105. This article is available online from AJHA at

[8] Early American Jewry, Volume II: The Jews of Pennsylvania and the South, 1655 – 1790, Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1953, page 335.

[9] Family History of the Reverend David Mendez Machado, page 50.

[10] Early American Jewry, Volume II: The Jews of Pennsylvania and the South, 1655 – 1790, page 335.

[11] The Last Order Of The Lost Cause: The Civil War Memoirs Of A Jewish Family From The ‘Old South’: Raphael Jacob Moses, Major, C.S.A., 1812-1893, Mel Young,  University Press of America, 1995, New York, page 334.

Dr. Yitzchak Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He may be contacted at llevine@stevens-tech.edu.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

Aaron Lopez, Colonial American Merchant Prince

Wednesday, October 5th, 2005
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from Lopez of Newport, Colonial American Merchant Prince, Stanley F. Chyet, Wayne State University Press, 1970.

One cannot fully appreciate the life and accomplishments of Aaron Lopez (1731-1782) unless one is familiar with the history of the Inquisition. “The story of the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Span is well known.  Not so well known is what happened five years later in the neighboring country of Portugal. Of those Jews who chose to flee Spain in 1492, large numbers went to Morocco, Italy and to the Ottoman Empire.  But, the greatest number, perhaps half of the total went to Portugal. King Jo?o II, of Portugal, allowed them to enter.  He was preparing for war against the Moors, and he needed the taxes collected from these Jews to finance that war.

“Permanent residence was granted only to 630 wealthy families who were allowed to establish themselves in several parts of the country upon payment of 100 cruzados.  Others were allowed to settle for only eight months upon payment of eight cruzados for each adult.  The king then bound himself to provide shipping so that they could leave.   One hundred thousand refugees may have entered under these conditions.  At the end of eight months, however, the king saw to it that little shipping was available and few could leave.  Those left behind were declared forfeit of their liberty and were declared slaves of the king.”[1]

The situation of the Jews continued to deteriorate. Pressure was exerted upon them to convert to Christianity. Those who did not were told that they had to leave Portugal. However, in the end, the vast majority of Jews were not allowed to leave, and any who had not undergone conversion were forcibly converted. “Holy water was sprinkled on them and they were declared to be Christians. King Manoel (the successor to King Jo?o II) then informed the Catholic Kings of Spain, ‘There are no more Jews in Portugal.'”[2]

“If any of these New Christians, as the Portuguese contemptuously designated them, thought to find security in their new status, events proved them frighteningly mistaken.” Even two centuries later those ‘of the Jewish race’ in Lisbon still had occasion to dread the threat of
persecution. A day of wrath dawned for one of their number on October 19, 1739, some 203 years after the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal.”  On that day, Antonio Jos? da Silva, one of Portugal’s outstanding poets and dramatists, was garroted (strangled) and burned in an auto da f? (the burning of a heretic). The “crime” that led to his death was his heresy for secretly “observing the Mosaic laws.”[3]

Despite the obvious dangers that New Christians who secretly practiced Judaism were subjected to, hundreds of years after their forced conversion in 1497 one could still find families tenaciously clinging to the faith of their fathers and willing to risk their lives for Judaism. “Among the New Christians in Lisbon at the time (of Dom Antonio’s execution) was the family of Diego Jos?Lopez, born and twice-married in Portugal.” Dom Diego “remained a loyal Jew, outwardly devout Catholic professions notwithstanding.”

Duarte (Edward) Lopez was born into this well-to-do family in 1731. “Raised to practice Judaism only in secret, while maintaining outward conformity with Catholicism to all appearances, Lopez reached maturity, married and had a baby daughter before deciding to leave Portugal for a new, openly Jewish life in British North America, where he joined his older brother Moses. Moses Lopez, who had himself left Portugal in his teens, had come of age in New York City before establishing himself in Newport, Rhode Island, in the early 1740s.”[4]

“Arriving in Newport (on October 13, 1752) the Lopezes lost no time in availing themselves of their new freedom.” Duarte had himself circumcised at the age of 21. He and his wife Anna “were remarried, with the traditional Jewish ceremony. His name was changed to Aaron, and hers to Abigail. Their daughter’s name (Catherine) they changed to Sarah.”[5]  “With the help of his brother Moses (Aaron) set himself up in business. By 1760, his efforts to engage in the wholesale commodities trade had also proved successful. His business activities grew widely over the next 15 years to include whaling and a few ventures in the slave trade, as well as the export of Newport manufactures such as furniture, axes, plank and board, flour, barrel staves and salt fish.”[6] The Lopezes lived as strictly observant Jews, and Aaron played a key role in the establishment and development of what eventually became known as the Touro Synagogue. He laid the first corner stone[7] and served more than once as parnas (president) of the congregation.  He frequently donated money for the upkeep of the synagogue and in 1770 presented one of the five beautiful candelabra that are suspended from its ceiling.[8]

For Aaron and his family, “The Sabbath was to be taken seriously; ‘It being Friday and late in the day I shall not have time to enlarge.’ His shop would be closed on the Sabbath (and on Sunday as well); no ship of his would depart Newport on a Saturday.  He would not conduct business on the Jewish Festivals either. ‘When I was a[t] Newport least (sic) April,’ an out-of-town client told him, ‘it happened to be on holy days and could not see you.’ Obviously it was Passover which had made Aaron inaccessible. On one occasion Aaron is known to have secured 250 pounds of matsah, unleavened Passover bread, from New York – not such a large order when one considers the size of his m?nage. Even the outbreak of the Revolution and flight from Newport could not persuade the Lopezes to forgo observance of the Passover.”

“Some of the cheese Aaron sold, it is worth noting, was ‘coushir’ (kosher), fit for use on the tables of God-fearing Jews and often shipped to their communities in the Southern colonies and the Caribbean. Not at all infrequently, as it happened, kosher provisions – ‘Jew beef’ and tongues, as well as cheese – were on sale in his shop and included in cargoes to the West Indies. A cargo might even contain so rare a delicacy as ‘chorisas’ (haroses)”[9]

“With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1776, Lopez began to suffer a dramatic downturn in his business, along with most colonial merchants. As the British took Savannah in 1778, Lopez evacuated his family to Leicester, Massachusetts, where he set up a retail shop and a modest commodities trade via overland routes through Salem, Boston and Providence. Over the course of the next four years, he became a key supplier to the American forces, providing such necessities as flour and leather breeches.”In 1782, while on the way to Newport with his family, Aaron Lopez accidentally drowned in Scott’s pond in Smithfield, Rhode Island, while watering his horse. He left behind his grieving (second) wife Sarah, devoted father-in-law and business partner Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, and 15 surviving children. “What sort of a Jew was Aaron? He lived in the world of eighteenth-century American Sephardic orthodoxy and simultaneously in the world of the eighteenth-century Gentile milieu. He belonged as much to the one as to the other, and he appears to have been conscious of no inevitable conflict between the two. ‘All who knew him agree,’ wrote a Massachusetts journalist shortly after Aaron’s death, ‘that he was, in the fullest import of the words, a good citizen and an honest man.’ Nearly all we know or can surmise of Aaron’s life lends substance to this observation.”

Ezras Stiles believed “him to have been ‘without a single enemy and the most universally beloved by an extensive acquaintance of any man I have ever knew.’ Aaron’s ‘beneficence to his fam[ily] and connexions, to his nation [the Jews], and to all the world is almost without parallel.’ Such was the buenafama of Aaron Lopez.”


[2] Ibid.


[4] http://www.cjh.org/academic/findingaids/AJHS/nhprc/AaronLopez.html

[5] The Story of the Jews of Newport (1658 – 1908), Morris A. Gutstein, Bloch Publishing Co., 1936, page 67.


[7] The Story of the Jews of Newport, page 92.

[8]  History of Touro Synagogue by Rabbi Dr. Theodore Lewis, Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, Number 159, Summer 1975, page 284.

[9] Ibid.,  page 134.

Dr. Yitzchak Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He may be contacted at llevine@stevens-tech.edu.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

Recife – The First Jewish Community In The New World

Wednesday, June 1st, 2005

Many people know that on September 7, 1654, twenty-three Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (renamed New York after the Dutch left). Most are not, however, aware of the fact that these Jews came to America from Recife, Brazil. Recife, now the capital of the state of Pernambuco, is located on the northeastern shore of Brazil. It has a fascinating Jewish history of its own.

Brazil was originally under Portuguese rule, and Jews first arrived there some time after the year 1500. They were active in making Recife a prosperous center for the production of sugar in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many if not all of the Jews who came to Recife before 1630 were “New Christians,” that is, Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. These Jews were also known as Marranos. They most likely came to the New World for two reasons. First, there were attractive economic opportunities in Brazil that were not available in Europe. Second, and at least as important to these Jews who secretly clung to the faith of their ancestors, is the fact that until 1580 the Inquisition was not as prevalent in Brazil as it was in countries that Spain controlled.

With the unification of Portugal and Spain in 1580, the Inquisition spread with full force to Portugal and to the areas controlled by it in the New World.

Though the Inquisition was never established in Brazil, it had its “familiars” in that country, who spied upon secret Jews, and, in case of detection, seized them and sent them to Lisbon to be tried by the tribunal there. On the other hand, a favorite method of punishment by the Inquisition of Lisbon was to transport convicted relapsed Jews to the colony of Brazil, it is said, twice every year. The earliest notice of Jews in the country refers to some who had been thus banished in 1548. In the same year, however, several Portuguese Jews transplanted sugar-cane from Madeira to Brazil, and Jews were connected with the sugar industry of the country for the following two centuries. During the twenty years following the arrival of the first Jewish settlers they were joined by many volunteer exiles of the same faith, until their prominence in trade became noticeable; and edicts were issued by Don Henrique, regent of Portugal, on June 20, 1567, and March 15, 1568, forbidding Marranos to settle in Brazil. This edict, however, was repealed for the sum of 1,700,000 crusados ($714,000) given by the Marranos of Lisbon and Brazil, and the privileges of residence and free commerce were granted to Neo-Christians by an edict of May 21, 1577.[1]

New Christian Jews, while forced to practice Christianity publicly, did whatever they could to maintain their Judaism secretly. They attended Catholic mass regularly and did their best to appear as “loyal” Christians to their neighbors. However, whenever possible, they clandestinely gathered to daven. In order to avoid the ever watchful eye of the Inquisition, the servants of New Christians often did not work on either Saturday or Sunday. The simple act of bathing on Fridays or wearing nicer clothes on Shabbos could be construed as “a lapse into Judaism,” possibly setting in motion an inquest certain to end badly for the accused. We should keep in mind that the simplest and safest thing for New Christians to do would have been to forsake Judaism entirely. Yet, despite the risk of barbaric punishments and even a horrible death, many tenaciously clung to as many Jewish practices as they could.

In 1630 the Dutch occupied Pernambuco. Holland had a tradition of granting Jews a good deal of religious freedom, and this same freedom was now extended to Recife and its environs. So promising was the position of the Jews in Brazil that Ephraim Sueiro, brother-in-law of Manasseh ben Israel, emigrated to that country in 1638, and was to have been followed by Manasseh himself, who dedicated the second part of his “Conciliador” to the community at Recife (1640). Two years later no less than 600 Jews from Amsterdam embarked for Recife. Included in this number were Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, a well-known Amsterdam rabbi, and scholar Moses Raphael d`Aguilar. They came to Brazil as spiritual leaders to assist the congregations of Kahal Kodesh Tzur Yisroel in Recife and Magen Abraham in Mauricia. By 1645, the Dutch Jewish population of Recife was about 1,500, approximately half of its European population.

Synagogue records show a well-organized Jewish community with a high level of participation by Jews as well as New Christians, who were finally able to openly return to the practice of Judaism. There was an elementary level Talmud Torah and an upper level yeshiva in which Gemara was taught. These records also indicate the existence of a tzedaka fund and an overseeing executive committee. The community was, not surprisingly, in general observant. Each adult male was required to stand guard on a regular basis. There are documents that show that Jews were exempt from doing guard duty on Shabbos. They were, however, required to hire gentiles who served in their stead.

The life story of the Rabbi Aboab is most interesting.

Rabbi Aboab da Fonseca was born in Portugal in 1605 into a family of New Christians. After settling in Amsterdam he returned to Judaism and eventually became a rabbi and a friend of Menashe Ben Israel. (When Rabbi) Aboab joined the Amsterdam Jews in Recife as their hakham, (he became) the first American rabbi.

He continued for 13 years as the spiritual mainstay of the community. After the repulse of the Portuguese attack on the city in 1646, (Rabbi) Aboab composed a thanksgiving narrative hymn… the first known Hebrew composition in the New World that has been preserved.

While in Recife, Rabbi Aboab also wrote his Hebrew grammar, Melekhet ha-Dikduk, still unpublished, and a treatise on the Thirteen Articles of Faith, now untraceable. After the Portuguese victory in 1654, (Rabbi) Aboab and other Jews returned to Amsterdam, where he became a prominent leader of the local Jewish community.[2]

Held in high esteem by his former Amsterdam congregants, (Rabbi) Aboab was reappointed as hocham in the synagogue and made teacher in the city`s talmud torah, principal of its yeshiva and member of the city`s bet din, or rabbinic court. He died in 1693 at the age of 88, having served the Jewish community of Amsterdam for 50 years after his return from Recife.[3]

The bereavement of their spiritual guide was so keenly felt by Amsterdam Jewry that for many years the name of Rabbi Aboab and the date of his death were incorporated in the engraved border of all marriage contracts issued by the community.[4]*

During the twenty-four years that Recife was under Dutch rule the Jews developed a vibrant community. Recife became the first place in the New World where Judaism was practiced openly. Its members were doctors, lawyers, peddlers, and merchants. Many Jews prospered in the tobacco, precious gems, wood, and sugar trades. It even had a street called the Rua dos Judeos (Street of the Jews) on which the synagogue Tzur Yisroel was located. Indeed, in 1999 archeological investigation located the exact site of the synagogue when its bor and mikvah were found. The site has been restored and is now a featured tourist attraction of the Recife community.

Everything changed in 1654 when Portugal reconquered Brazil. Fearing the reenactment of the Inquisition, the Jews of Recife either returned to Holland or fled to Dutch, French, or English colonies in the Caribbean. Jews mainly of Sephardic descent (collectively known as “La Nacion”) had recently established small but flourishing economic enclaves in Parimaribo, Barbados, Curacao, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Cayenne.

A total of sixteen ships transported both Jewish and Dutch colonists from Recife. Fifteen arrived safely; however, the sixteenth was captured by Spanish pirates only to be overtaken by the St. Charles, a French privateer. After much negotiating, the master of the St. Charles agreed to bring a group of twenty-three Jewish men, women and children from the captured ship to New Amsterdam for 900 guilders in advance and 1,600 on arrival.[5]

These twenty-three refugees arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. They, together with at least two other Jews who had arrived not long before, were the founders of the Jewish Community of New York.

*After finishing this article I discovered that Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca was apparently a follower of Shabbtai Tzvi. (See www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view. jsp?artid=344&letter=A#810, The Sabbatean Prophets by Matt Goldish page 33, and Sabbatai Sevi by Gershom Scholem, pages 520-522.) To put it mildly, I was shocked, given the greatness of Rabbi Aboab. However, it made me realize how strong the messianic movement in the 17th century must have been to gain adherents of Rabbi Aboab`s caliber.

[1] www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=990&letter=S

[2] www.bh.org.il/Communities/Synagogue/Recife.asp

[3] www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Fonseca.html

[4] http://www.bh.org.il/Communities/Synagogue/Recife.asp

[5] www.cjh.org/about/Forward/view_Forward.cfm?Forwardid=13

Dr. Yitzchak Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He may be contacted at llevine@stevens-tech.edu).

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

The Secret of Belmonte

Friday, November 7th, 2003

Most Jewish prayer books show the 23rd psalm on a page just before the finish of Friday evening prayers, which is to say just before the Sabbath meal. It is in some ways a strange
thing to be read at this point, with its talk about walking in the Valley of the Shadow of
Death, and similar thoughts not exactly conducive to the Sabbath atmosphere.

The explanation is very simple. The psalm was recited by the Anusim — the Marranos or
secret Jews of Spain and Portugal — before each Sabbath meal. They were risking their
very lives by celebrating Shabbat, for there was a very real danger that the Inquisition’s
informants might spot them. They prepared themselves psychologically for imminent
discovery and arrest by reciting the psalm. Later it was introduced into prayer books
around the world as part of Sabbath preparation, among both Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

I contemplate this as I try to catch my breath from the long climb up the mountain of Belmonte. It is about a four-hour drive from Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, in the eastern
mountainous region not far from the Spanish border. I spent the week in Lisbon at the
university, having been invited to substitute-teach a class for a local professor who is ill, and
then headed for Shabbat in the hills.

The area around Belmonte is a region of castles and fortifications from the Middle Ages, one in particular built by the Templar Knights as an outpost in their skirmishes with the Moors. It is an area that held a large Jewish population before the Jews’ expulsion from the Iberian peninsula. Five years after the Catholic monarchs of Spain dispatched Columbus to the New World and expelled their Jews, the king of Portugal was in need of a bride. The daughter
of the Spanish crown was available to him — but at a price. He had to agree to expel Portugal’s Jews.

While many Jews left, many others stayed on, going through the motions of being Christians. Portugal was more relaxed about such things than Spain, at least at first. It was an open secret that many of the ”New Christians” were practicing Judaism behind closed doors. But the toleration, such as it was, did not last for long. The Portuguese royal family suffered one of its regular royal genetic crises — i.e., the line was left without a male heir — and Spain gobbled up the kingdom, bringing the Inquisition in with its rule.

Belmonte is a remote village of about 1,200 souls, high in the Serra da Estrela mountains. It is best known for being the ancestral home of Pedro Cabral, the valiant discoverer of Brazil, and his aristocratic family. The Cabral manor house still stands, as does the castle to which the nobility could escape in times of danger, located at the pinnacle of the mountain. Nearby are the remains of an old pillory, once used for those found guilty of moral offenses, an innovation whose reintroduction into modern society I have often imagined.

Exactly eleven years ago, on the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, a bizarre event took place. Five hundred years after going into hiding, the Jewish community of Belmonte emerged into the open. The Jews of Belmonte had lived as secret Jews, not for a month or two but for five whole centuries. For half a millennium they had hidden their identify from curious eyes and busybodies, keeping traditions quietly alive, passing down from generation to generation the prayers whose Hebrew they could no longer read or understand. They refused to eat meat because there was no kosher butcher available. They married only with other secret Jews, usually second or third cousins from within the Belmonte community. They celebrated Passover with special devotion, and anyone not attending a seder was shunned and ostracized.

There were, of course, things that could not be done. The deceased had to be buried in the town’s Catholic cemetery lest they give themselves away. Circumcision was particularly dangerous, and over time they had to abandon it. The women of the town were the crucial figures in preserving Jewish tradition. They managed without a synagogue, with no Torah scroll, with no prayer books.

The Anusim of Belmonte, those coerced into pretending to have abandoned their Jewishness, scratched out a living in the impoverished hills of underdeveloped Portugal, which is only now catching up with the rest of Western Europe. Even today, most of the local Jews are peddlers and small merchants, buying and selling clothing in neighboring villages. Most cannot read and write in Hebrew, and some cannot read and write in Portuguese. One told me that he dropped out of school, never to return, after a teacher accused him of murdering Jesus.

The Jews of Belmonte dress like the locals. Some of their older women wear head-to-toe black ”babushka” peasant dresses and scarves, somewhat like those worn in Iran but with faces unveiled. There are between 150 and 200 Jews in the town — the largest community of  ‘crypto-Jews’ in Portugal, the largest Portuguese Jewish community today outside the two main cities of Lisbon and Porto. Shortly after emerging from the shadows into daylight in 1992, a new synagogue was built in the Jewish quarter of Belmonte, financed with contributions from a Moroccan Jewish businessman.

Eleven years ago they came out into the open. Curiously, they still commonly refer to themselves as crypto-Jews, perhaps out of force of habit.

Journey to Belmonte

It is the last Shabbat of the Jewish year, the final one before Rosh Hashanah. I have made a
serious planning error. There are only two hotels in the entire town, one whose rates are
twice that of the other, and I book the cheaper one. It turns out the synagogue is at the very
top of the mountain, perhaps a hundred yards from the ruins of the Cabral fortress. My hotel
is all the way at the very bottom of the mountain.

I climb the mountain with Uri, my research associate from Haifa, who has made the trip with me, and we stop every few minutes to catch our breath. There are no foreign tourists to be seen anywhere in the entire town; the few tourists roaming about are all native Portuguese. Uri was born in Romania before moving as a child to Israel, and his Romanian, which turns out to be surprisingly similar to Portuguese, has rescued us from more than one potential dilemma.

Rabbi Elisha Salas is expecting us for Shabbat services. The Chilean-born Salas had been an accountant before moving to Israel and studying for the rabbinate. After his ordination, he moved to Efrat in Judea. He ”commutes” from there to Belmonte, where he serves as the rabbi, and also works with the synagogue in Porto. His life is not easy. On a shoestring of a budget, he takes the four-hour bus back and forth between Belmonte and Porto, to give classes, teach Hebrew, and ‘kasher’ kitchens. His newest project is supervising the building of a local Portuguese kosher winery in nearby Covilha.

There are unique local halachic issues that must be addressed. While a Jewish cemetery has been open since 1992, an old woman has asked to be buried alongside her husband who died when burials were still done in the Catholic cemetery. What should be done? While the children of the community — and some of the adult males — have been circumcised openly since 1992, others have not, the reasons for their reluctance perhaps understandable. We have been practicing Judaism for five centuries, they insist, and no one can tell us we are not Jewish today, circumcised or not.

Despite the history of Jewish suffering in Iberia, Portugal seems surprisingly free of open
animosity toward Jews. Rabbi Salas says he has never been insulted while walking the
streets of various cities and villages in obviously Jewish garb. To the contrary, he is often accosted by people who claim to be descendants of Marranos. Together with ex-New Yorker Michael Freund, a columnist at the Jerusalem Post, he has established an organization called Amishav, or Return of My People (www.elishamai@amishav.org.il), which seeks to keep Judaism alive in Portugal. Among its projects is a campaign to redeem posthumously the reputation of the ‘Portuguese Dreyfus,’ Captain Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto, an officer in the Portuguese army in the first half of the twentieth century who was viciously slandered and maligned. He had been an activist in convincing descendants of Marranos to return openly to Judaism.

The story of the community is told in a large stone plaque in Hebrew at the entrance to the synagogue. Next to it is a reproduction of a stone with Hebrew carvings recovered from a
medieval synagogue in a neighboring village, the original being in a museum.

”Shabbat Shalom,” we are greeted as we enter the synagogue, panting from the climb. The acting cantor, a young man born in the town, speaks English quite well, to our relief. He likes to adapt Israeli tunes to the prayers, and Lecha Dodi is sung to the Israeli tune of Yerushalayim shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold).

Rabbi Salas gives his sermon in Portuguese, which he has somehow picked up, adapting his native Chilean Spanish for the purposes. He welcomes Uri and me and he introduces us to the congregation as having arrived from Mt. Carmel, the mountain of the Prophet Elijah. Understanding nods and smiles answer. I ask him to tell them that Belmonte might just be a tougher mountain to climb than the Carmel.

We have made another mistake. Ascending the mountain in daylight is one thing. But getting back to the hotel in the dark is another. It is the week before Rosh Hashanah, which means there is no moon in the evening. The shortcut through the trees is as black as the Egyptian Plague. The only way ”home” is to hike a roundabout route on lit roads, for about three miles.

Shabbat morning. We climb the mountain on foot in the cool early morning air. There are
almost thirty men already at prayer, with a group of women upstairs. Most of the
congregation members daven without a prayer book, or use one that has transliterations of the
prayers into Portuguese. Most of the older men seem to know the prayers by heart. Only a few can read Hebrew script freely and even fewer understand what the letters mean.

Rabbi Salas has caught me off guard. He calls me up for the Maftir. I am embarrassed to say how long it has been since I have recited the haftara in a Sabbath service, and I am unprepared, afraid to make a mess in front of the congregation. The rabbi will not let me beg
off. Fortunately, I spent recent months working with my son preparing his own haftara for his
bar mitzvah, so at least the trop signs are fresh in my mind.

Somehow I get through it without disgracing myself too badly. The congregation is mesmerized. I am not sure if they have heard Ashkenazi melodies before for reciting the haftara, but I am almost certain they have never heard a heavy American accent in Hebrew chant.

While their Hebrew skills are in their infancy, they know how to sing many Hebrew songs. The blank stares they show when listening to us speak with the rabbi in Hebrew turn instantly into full comprehension and enthusiasm when we wish them ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’ That they know how to say, and sing, in Hebrew. And they sing scores of other Israeli tunes over kiddish — the words to some of which I myself do not remember .

While Belmonte attracts quite a few visitors, many are secular Israelis or Americans who pass through Friday night and drive off the next morning, violating the Sabbath to the chagrin of the locals. The rabbi tells us they are pleased with us for having stuck things out to the end of Shabbos, including yet another climb up the mountain. As havdala time approaches, we know that at least we can soon get down the mountain other than by foot. After havdala I try an
experiment. While everyone is wishing one another shavua tov — ‘a good week’ in Hebrew
— I wish the locals a geeta voch — ‘a good week’ in Yiddish. The stare at me nonplussed. We are very sorry, says one in broken English, but I am afraid we do not understand American.

Shabbos over, we walk Rabbi Elisha (as everyone in the community seems to call him) to his simple apartment, where Uri labors to fix some problems the rabbi has been having with his computer. While Uri works, the doorbell rings every few minutes — local Jews coming by to pick up assorted items that Rabbi Elisha has ordered for them: a kiddush cup, a new tallis, a Hebrew phonics book.


Joao Pinto Delgado was a Portuguese Marrano poet who lived in the sixteenth century. He is
best known for his long poem about Queen Esther and her saga. In that poem he writes:

”How can I, after contemplating such heavenly splendors, see your poor displays of pomp and ceremony and be impressed or dazzled? How can they deserve my praise? How should I fear your power, which is small compared to that of the Lord who is master of all?

”The vicissitudes of life on earth are merely shadows that pass as the clouds fly by in the sky. Above them, the sun still shines, and heaven reckons rewards for our suffering here that we’ll have by and by: for death, eternal life; for this torture, an unimaginable bliss.”

Belmonte is simple, humble and modest. It is also timeless, incomprehensible and awe-
inspiring. It is the expression of Jewish survival and determination, of the deep Jewish awareness of the Eternal and Unseen, before which pales any manifestation of earthly pomp
and transitory glory.

For five centuries, that has been Belmonte’s secret.

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book ‘The Scout’ is available at
Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.

Steven Plaut

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/the-secret-of-belmonte/2003/11/07/

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