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Enjoying Jewish Portugal

Exterior of the Jewish Museum at Belmonte

Story and Photos by Evelynne Cherny 

Together with two friends, I recently flew to Portugal, long on my bucket list.

Never did I dream that the history of the Portuguese Jews would weigh so heavily on me. Our first stop was Lisbon, a sprawling city of some 525,000 people. Our orientation bus tour took us to Marques de Pombal Square, named for the man who oversaw the rebuilding of the city after the devastating earthquake of 1755. We continued to the Belem district and other places of interest, including the Memorial to the Auto de Fe (Act of Faith) for the year 1496, located in the square adjacent to the church where the Jews were forcibly baptized and their children taken away.

However, having missed a night's sleep, flown to Lisbon via Munich and taken a city tour immediately after landing, there is no doubt that I missed some of the city sights. We arrived at the hotel at 6pm and reconvened at 6.45pm for the short walk to the synagogue, where we attended a memorial service for those who were recently killed in Paris and Copenhagen. With rumbling tummies, we walked to the restaurant/community hall some 500 meters away for a well-earned dinner. By the time we came back to the hotel our body clocks were registering Israeli time - midnight - and we all fell into bed exhausted.

The following day, Thursday, we boarded the bus at 8amto Coimbra, famous for its university which opened in the 14th century. Today's students still wear their flowing black gowns around the campus. We walked around the Judeira, dating back to 1139 before being taken to the Baroque library in the university complex, where we were allowed to view a rare Hebrew Bible of the 12th century, believed to be written for Don Isaac Arbabanel. The books in this library covered a huge variety of subjects and the worn leather covers bore testament to the many hands which used them throughout hundreds of years. The librarian was plied with many questions and the guide had some difficulty in hurrying us away from there as another librarian, in another part of the complex, was waiting to show us more treasures.

Friday saw most of us wanting a few more hours sleep before embarking on another day of sightseeing. A short bus trip to the seaside area gave us a good view of the Belem tower, which we were able to enter, and the Estaus Palace located opposite the tower, the latter being the seat of the Inquisition. Those who were found to be heretics by the Inquisition court were burned at the stake.

We walked around the old Jewish quarter in Lisbon, the guide showing us where the mezzuzot had been attached to doorways and where there were some Hebrew inscriptions, sadly worn from the ravages of time. The tiny cobbled streets in this area are steep and one wonders how anyone managed to climb up or down and not break their backs or necks. We stopped a short distance from the original synagogue, where there is a lookout over the River Douro and the original Jewish quarter of the city.

Next we travelled to Sintra, a beautiful romantic town complete with a royal palace dating back to the 15th century which was used by the kings as their summer palace. On our journey back to Lisbon, we were taken to the western point of Portugal, where we had a beautiful view of the beachside suburb of Nazare. We returned to Lisbon to prepare for Shabbat and to attend the evening service in the shul, followed by Shabbat dinner in the community hall. (I never thought it was possible to make such a mess of challot but the lady who baked them had added aniseed to the dough as well as creating something so heavy it was inedible.)

Inside the Porto Synagogue

Shabbat morning was quite cold, so, bundled up in coats, hats and gloves, we walked the 150 meters to the shul. Without our group, I doubt there would have been a minyan. This was sad to see in a country where the Jewish population prior to the Inquisition was 25% of the total population. I now began to understand that if even half of those who come from Converso families returned to Judaism, there would be a strong and healthy community in this part of the world instead of the dwindling few who remain.

It was so cold inside the shul that we sat with our overcoats on to stop ourselves from shivering. I guess heating costs a fortune and the few people who are members of the shul probably can't afford to pay for heating such a large space. I always feel awkward and out of place in a Sephardi service, and since there was no eruv I could not take my siddur with me. I hunted around the bookshelf without finding anything I could follow until one of my friends found an Artscroll Ashkenazi siddur on another bookshelf and I was fine. I watched, fascinated, when the Aron Kodesh was opened because it housed some seven Sifrei Torah and in another room near the ladies seating area, there were more Sifrei Torah.

By the time we had finished lunch in the communal hall, I was ready for an afternoon sleep because we were going to be taken out to hear the local singing specialty, Fado, in the evening. I walked back to the hotel and my bed, where sweet dreams took over very quickly. We returned to the community hall for seudah shlishit and havdalah; the hall was still very cold and many of us sat with coats on until we had thawed out. An hour later, our bus delivered us to a local restaurant/bar where we listened to several singers singing Fado. These mournful melodies are sufficient for a maximum of 10 minutes for my ears but I patiently waited until we were transported back to our hotel some two hours later.

A palace in Lisbon used during the Inquisition

On Sunday morning we boarded the bus for our next city and overnight accommodation. We drove northeast towards the Spanish border to the town of Tomar, one of the oldest towns in Portugal, founded by the Order of the Knights Templar. Walking through the cobbled narrow streets, we came to the original synagogue and adjacent to it, the original mikveh which is currently being renovated as a museum. The shul had been used as a barn at one stage. An elderly lady, who was a Converso, took pride in showing us all the Jewish artifacts which she has displayed in what was the synagogue.

Then we moved on to the town of Castelo de Vide. Climbing the cobbled streets, we came to a building which was originally a shul in this town. Our guide, the former mayor Carolino Tapadejo, who comes from a Converso family, has been largely instrumental in ensuring that the history of his town is preserved. He met us with a translator and gave a lengthy amount of time to showing us as much as possible. When we saw what had been the synagogue and is now a museum, our Israeli guide suggested we daven the mincha service there and this gave us all a warm feeling.

The streets in this little town are treacherously steep and without guide rails, which are now in place in the center of these pedestrian-only streets, I would never have tried to walk down them. I admit I am not a mountain goat!

After thanking the former mayor for his precious time in showing us around his town, we boarded the bus for our last stop of the day, the bridge where thousands of Spanish Jews crossed into Portugal when they were first expelled from Spain. Named the Ponte de Sor, in the town of Marvao, it has a memorial plaque in memory of all the Jews who were killed during the inquisition regime. The Spanish border was located at one end of the bridge and as the Spanish Jews were expelled from Spain, they made their way across this bridge to the Portuguese who welcomed them because of their economic abilities.

The border is now located some 5 kms from the bridge but walking over the same stone bridge as the fleeing Spanish Jews did some 500 years ago was a sobering experience, especially as there is now a memorial to that event on the wall of the watchtower, then used as a customs house.

Our bus then brought us to the hotel in Alpalhao where we stayed overnight. Our Israeli guide was the kashrut supervisor in the hotel kitchen, where the chef produced a beautiful meal enjoyed by all his weary but happy travelers.

Bright and early the following morning, we were again on our way to the town of Belmonte. This town has preserved its Jewish history and is home to hundreds of Bnei Anusim (descendents of forcibly converted Jews) who have decided to make their way back to their Jewish roots. We were shown the homes where the crosses engraved in the stone close to the doors indicated that "New Christians" lived there. Our walking tour took in the medieval castle, the Jewish quarter, and the Jewish museum and synagogue. A large metal chanukiah stands in the main street adjacent to the kosher liquor and food store, which was invaded quickly by our group. The speciality matzos, made by hand with a sweet topping and eaten as a snack, were a big hit with everyone. Unfortunately the wind became colder and stronger as we walked about this lovely little city. After we had invaded the shop and made our purchases, much to the delight of the owner, we assembled next to the chanukiah for a group photo, followed by a quick return to the bus as the weather continued to deteriorate.

A view from the gallery in the Belmonte Synagogue

Our next stop was Guarda – a preserved walled city with huge, thick walls from which hung the city gates, closed as sunset fell and not re-opened until daylight the following day. The Jews started to settle here in the middle of the 13th century, bringing with them their leather craftsmanship from Salamanca in Castille. This regional handiwork has been maintained in the city until today. This lovely little city was the recipient of a beautiful Jewish museum, courtesy of a large donation from Jose Levi Domingos, a local Jewish man living in Belmonte, together with his family in Safed. The municipal council also gave funding towards the building of the museum.

Senor Trancoso, a Jewish man, who is not a registered tour guide but is a resident of Belmonte offered to show us around the Jewish sites in Guarda, Belmonte and Trancoso. Members of his family - textile traders, - have lived in this part of the world for many generations. He knows the community like the back of his hand and spent many hours taking us to see all that these towns have preserved or, in the case of the museum, what he has been instrumental in having built. The new synagogue, part of the museum, is simple in design, yet full of symbolism. The weather grew colder and colder as we walked the streets and sites until tiny snowflakes began to fall. The local coffee shop did a roaring trade as we all purchased hot drinks to thaw out.

We soon arrived at our last hotel in Porto, situated in the middle of several shopping malls, much to the delight of the women, as we had not had time along the way to wander in the shops and make some purchases. This hotel has a kosher kitchen and dining area and we were treated to a beautiful meal of fresh salmon. Porto was once a major community of thriving Jewish merchants. Recently, the main synagogue of the Jewish quarter was discovered during renovation to an ancient building, where behind a false wall, workers stumbled on an ark thought to be from the 15th century. The very small current community uses the beautiful shul named Mekor Haim. It was built in 1929-1938 with financial help from the Kadoorie family and houses a shul, mikveh, storage areas and rooms for study. 

A librarian at the Portugal Coimbra University holds a 12th century Bible, believed to have been written for Abarbanel

Unfortunately, only 50 Jews are members of the shul and the attendance on a good Shabbat is about 14 people. One wonders what will become of this beautiful building and the remaining Jews.

The shame is that we saw very few, if any, children throughout our journey in Portugal, so it became obvious that young people have moved away in order to find work. It was very sad to see a city or country without children.

Below is a poem I wrote and recited on the last night of our trip. It gives a brief summary of our journey:

We three girls from Modiin

Thought we'd take a little spin

To Portugal we went to see

The Jewish sites were the key

It opened our eyes to history past

Surprises everywhere and memories to last

The Travellers prayer to start our day

Followed by Mishnah to guide our way

Many shuls and houses too

Where once lived a Portugese Jew

Our hearts ached for what WAS here

Many of us shed a tear

The stories told by the Mayor

Our ancestors we very much cared

But then Jose tugged at our heart strings

Telling us about the wicked kings

Jose worked so hard to bring

The memory of all the Annusim

Seeing new shuls and museums Jewish

Fantastic to see what Jose can establish

Michael tried to keep us all on time

While Sheila with candy kept us primed

This group of travelers all shared a laugh

Polite and helpful were hotel staff

Shabbat was a highlight of our week

Prayer and song we did seek

Let's hope we can do it all again

With good health, happiness and hopefully no rain.



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Thursday, 25 April 2024

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