I ended my visit to Portugal in Lisbon, where Jewish life first resurfaced in Portugal during the early 19th century. Fittingly, I first went to see Portugal’s oldest remaining synagogue, in the town of Tomar, about an hour north of Lisbon. Built in the mid-fifteenth century, on what had been the Jewish street (otherwise known as a ghetto, with doors that shut on each end at night), it is Portugal’s only remaining synagogue, from before the forced conversions of 1497. Over the centuries, it was used as a prison, church and storehouse. It was discovered in 1921, and purchased by a recently arrived Polish Jew, named Shemuel Shwartz, who then donated it to Portugal in 1939 to be made into a Jewish museum. Next door, the remains of a mikva have also been discovered.
My first stop in Lisbon was at Lisbon University, where the records of the Inquisition are now kept, in the national archives, Torre de Tombo. I was greeted by Dr. Mendes Pinto, whom I first met in NY, when he spoke at Shearith Israel, at a program co-sponsored by the Portuguese Ministry of Tourism, concerning the Jewish legacy of Portugal. He arranged for me to spend some time with several grad students and professors, who are doing research on the Inquisition, and on Portuguese Jewish illuminated manuscripts from the decades before the Expulsion. It was great to learn more about the archives, and to meet some fellow students.
Then, I recited the Hanukkah blessings at the city’s public Hanukkah lighting (of course, once again with the Portuguese melody!), together with Rabbi Eliezer Shai di Martino, and Rabbi Eli Rosenfeld, Chabad emissary. There was a huge crowd, and a real upbeat and festive atmosphere. The following night, I attended a Hanukkah celebration at the home of Israel’s ambassador to Portugal. Overall, I had the privilege of meeting many of Lisbon’s Jewish community. Unwittingly (and luckily!), by visiting Portugal during Hanukkah, I was able to experience and see the current day Portuguese Jewish community, to a degree that wouldn’t have been otherwise possible.
Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, is where the decision was made by King Manuel I to forcibly convert Portugal’s Jews, instead of allowing them to leave when he expelled them. When the Jews gathered at the docks of Lisbon, baptismal waters were scattered upon them, converting them against their will. In 1506, a riot broke out against the New Christians (after one of them made a comment considered sacrilege) and 2000 Jews were massacred. A memorial to that event (and to religious intolerance) appears at the site where it occurred, just off of Rossio square.
The reason that the king wanted the Jews to stay was because of their role in commerce, especially in navigation, the source of Portuguese might. A dedication to that dynamic time of exploration, appears along the river’s edge, where ships once set set sail for harbors around the world, and returned with exotic items and great wealth. Surely, Portugal must have been an exciting place to be, likely making it difficult for Jews to leave it for uncertain futures in poor and foreign lands.
My last stop in Portugal was to Lisbon’s Shaare Tikva synagogue. Built in the early 1900s, it was founded by Portugal’s first open Jews since the expulsion, who arrived from Morocco and then British Gibraltar in the early 1800s. The community grew even more during WWII, as a result of the heroic efforts of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul to Bordeaux (I met his grandson at the ambassador’s Hanukkah party), who allowed over 10,000 Jews to cross into Portugal, despite orders to not allow them to do so. The synagogue contains a gorgeous sanctuary, and is led by Rabbi Shai, an extremely friendly and versatile rabbi (he did shehita the morning of my visit!). We spent a lot of time talking together about matters of Jewish interest, and he was also kind of enough to prepare some delicious meals for me (especially the pasta…he is Italian after all!).
As Lisbon is today the home of Portugal’s largest Jewish community, my visit to there made for a perfect cap to my trip into the history of Portugal’s Jewish Nacao.