In my mind, Portugal has been one of those place that Jews left, and not where Jews go. But here I am arriving. My three hour plus layover in Lisbon, en route to Porto, was trimmed to 45 minutes, on account of poor weather at Newark Airport. Luckily, that was just enough time for me to make my way through passport control, security and boarding, and arrive on time in Porto.
A representative of the Ministry of Tourism for Northern Portugal greeted me at the airport and took me to my hotel. After checking in at the Sheraton, I enjoyed a chicken lunch prepared for me by the Jewish community of Porto. It was delicious! They have prepared meals for me to enjoy throughout the first half of my trip. While the synagogue does not have the capacity to prepare meals for large numbers of travelers, the Sheraton operates a kosher kitchen for Jewish tour groups.
Following some R&R, I visited the Casa da Musica, a newly built music facility. The architecture is awesome, with all kinds of optical illusions, and ways of merging its modern style with elements of Porto’s past. Most significant though, is the way that the hall promotes community participation, with different spaces for a wide variety of musical performances, public spaces, and one price only tickets for all performances, regardless of seat.
Without a doubt, though, the highlight of my first day was the (Kadoorie) Mekor Haim Synagogue, and my visit with the current day Jewish community. They synagogue was built in the 1920s and 30s as part of an effort by Captain Barros Bastos, himself a Portuguese Converso returnee, to promote return among Portugal’s Converso descendants. The synagogue is quite impressive, the largest in the Iberian Peninsula. Clearly, it was believed that many would return. In fact, the then minister of Congregation Shearith Israel, New York’s Portuguese synagogue, Dr. de Sola Pool, assisted the efforts at that time, and his picture hangs in the building until today!
Unfortunately, fascism rose soon after, and it lasted until the 70s. It caused fear among the Conversos, and dissuaded most from going public with their Jewish identity. Today, therefore, the community is quite small. However, in recent years there has been a concerted effort to revitalize the community, and they are finding success. The synagogue is maintained by a group of committed locals, including the granddaughter of Captain Bastos. Their rabbi, Daniel Litvak, travels back and forth between Porto and Israel and has helped set up kosher food options for Jewish groups visiting Porto.
My trip coincided with Hanukkah, when many from the community were away. It was therefore fortuitous that I had the privilege of being there and was honored to lead the community in the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. I even recited the blessings and led the evening service according to the Portuguese rite, which was particularly moving for me.
Following the service, everyone enjoyed a delicious communal dinner prepared on the premises. I spoke about the meaning of Hanukkah (and Thanksgiving!), and of the Maccabees’ fight for religious freedom. We discussed the holiday’s relevance to Portuguese Jewry, who struggled throughout the centuries to keep the flame of Judaism alive, both in Portugal and throughout the Portuguese Jewish diaspora. May today’s Jews of Porto succeed in their efforts!