As I walked Portugal’s medieval streets, and spoke to its people, I began to understand Portuguese Jewish history. I now ‘get’ the Portuguese Jews of long ago. I more fully understand their lives, their challenges, and their achievements. That includes both those who eventually left the Peninsula but ‘took’ some of Portugal with them, and those who remained behind, and remained Catholic (at least on the outside).
Portugal of the 15th-18th centuries was an exceptionally exciting place. It was at the height of world power, ingenuity and exploration. Few places compared, and that likely made it a difficult home to leave. Thank God for the Dutch. If not for their religious tolerance, coupled with their expanding maritime prowess, I think that far fewer Portuguese Conversos would have found their way back to (open) Judaism. And yet, even those that did flee, tellingly, continued to identify themselves as ‘Portuguese’ as a badge of honor and prestige.
Today, Portugal is a very different place. No longer is it an Empire. One of my guides quipped that the only difference between them and the British is that the Portuguese know that they are no longer a world power. Indeed, the Portuguese of today are an easy going, gracious and inclusive people. They are proud of their past, but are happy living in the present (though they would very much like to see their economy rebound already).
I was particularly struck by the complicated view that the Portuguese take toward the Inquisition. Certainly, they all see it as a black stain on their history. The inquisition wreaked havoc upon their society, sowing fear and limiting the freedom of thought necessary for creativity and progress. However, while some of the people that I met accepted the Portuguese’s culpability in the Inquisition, others actually placed the blame at the feet of the Spanish, choosing instead to see the Portuguese themselves as innocent victims of Spanish influence.
Actually, the Portuguese Inquisition was far more ruthless than the Spanish one. However, there may have also been far more cases of actual Crypto Judaism in Portugal than in Spain. Nevertheless, the Portuguese have a certain complex when it comes to the Spanish. There is a common saying in Portugal (I heard it from people all over the country) that ‘from Spain, neither good winds (weather) nor good marriages ever come’ (De Espanha, nem bom vento nem bom casamento). Certainly, the conversion of Portugal’s Jews only came as a result of King Manuel’s desire to marry the daughter of the Spanish monarchs, and her condition that Portugal first be free of Jews. The forced conversions, and the imposed distinction between New and Old Christians, caused social ills that lasted for centuries. Furthermore, as a result of the marriage, Portugal eventually fell to Spain in 1580. It would only regain its independence after fighting a ‘war of restoration’ in 1640, which is still marked each first of December.
Ironically (and thankfully), today, the people of Portugal have warm feelings towards Jews. With the cessation of the Inquisition in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and the ensuing reconciliation between New and Old Christians, these two groups began to mix, to the extent that today a large percentage of Portuguese people claim Jewish ancestry. Indeed, I found that many Portuguese are genuinely distressed that Judaism is mostly absent in their country, as they feel that Judaism is part of their individual identity as well as their national one.
I discovered many things from my trip to Portugal. My understanding of Portuguese Jewish history is far more complete now that I can place it in the broader context of Portugal’s history and culture. I’m grateful to the local guides who shared with me an intimate knowledge of their neighborhoods, and to the Portuguese government for giving me this extraordinary opportunity. All of the drivers, hotel managers and museum workers that I met treated me with exceptional care and warmth. The Portugal of today is a wonderful place for Jews to visit, and Portugal’s Ministries of Tourism (North and Central) are enthusiastic about welcoming and accommodating Jewish groups and individuals to their country.
Portugal meant a great deal to its Jews and I hope that I will be able to visit Portugal again. While my days were packed, there are additional sites of Jewish interest that I didn’t have time to visit. As I continue in my graduate studies, I look forward to further discovering Portugal’s language, sites, culture and history!