The history of Portuguese Jews is full of contradictions — of welcome and expulsion, of celebration and secrecy.
When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them found refuge in neighboring Portugal under the rule of King João II, joining a native Portuguese community that had existed since the days of the Roman Empire in the fifth-century C.E. But when his successor, King Manuel, married with Spanish royalty five years later, the Jews of Portugal found themselves faced with a difficult choice — leave the country or become so-called New Christians.
King Manuel himself apparently did not wish to force the expulsion of the Jews, many of whom played important roles in the kingdom. Prosperous Jewish merchants bankrolled the Portuguese voyages of exploration, and Jewish astronomers and scientists such as mathematician Abraão (Abraham) Zacuto and cartographer Jaime de Majorca provided maps and tools that Portuguese navigators used to build an empire that stretched from Brazil in South America to Macau in Asia.
Manuel tried to convince the Jews to convert rather than leave, but many Jews left for religiously liberal countries such as Holland, where the Jewish scientists and merchants helped the Netherlands to become a major seafaring power.
Back in Portugal, the situation deteriorated for the Jews after Manuel's death. His successor, King João III, allowed the pope to set up an office of the Inquisition in Portugal. For the next several hundred years, Jews could be burned for practicing their religion.
Portuguese Judaism nearly died out, but in the mountains of the Portuguese interior, in the region of Serra da Estrel- la ("Mountain of the Star"), a community of Jews nurtured their traditions in secret for hundreds of years in the town of Belmonte.
In the 20th century, long after the Inquisition had ended, they realized that their traditions — to light the candles every Friday night, to pray on Saturday, to celebrate the birth of Moses at the time of Christmas — 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. Now more than 120 openly practicing Jews live in Belmonte, making up 10 percent of the town's population.
A Surge of Spirit
Today, the Jews of Belmonte have a new synagogue, Sinagoga bet Eliahu, dedicated in 1997. It commands a magnificent view over the lush Cova da Beira valley, the most important fruit-production center in all Portugal carpeted in cherry, apple and peach trees.
There is also a brand-new Jewish museum in town that opened in April 2005 and already receives 1,000 visitors per month, primarily Portuguese schoolchildren. The museum presents information on Jewish rituals, as well as local Jewish history, and also serves as a memorial to the estimated 1,800 Portuguese Jews who were killed by the Inquisition over several hundred years.
Both the synagogue and the museum were built with the help of the municipal and regional government.
Indeed, the entire Serra da Estrella region is experiencing a surge of interest in its Jewish history and traditions. A 15th-century synagogue in Tomar that was long lost to the Jewish community has been acquired by the Portuguese government, and made into a museum where services have been occasionally held on High Holidays.
Next door, the remains of a 15th-century mikvah have been uncovered.
Kosher products are now manufactured in several towns — Ribeiro Sanches olive oil in Penamacor; Terras de Belmonte wine in Covilhã; and, most recently, jams and marmalades in the walled city of Trancoso.
In several regional towns, the local tourism offices happily conduct tours of the old Jewish quarters, and Trancoso is even planning to build an interpretation center to present the history and way of life that the town's Jews once led.
The Portuguese people of Serra da Estrella call the history of the Jews their own history. And for the Jews of Belmonte, the last community directly descended in an unbroken line from the ancient Sephardim of the Iberian Peninsula, this 21st-century C.E. is a time of renaissance.
For more information, contact the Serra da Estrella tourism office via e-mail at: [email protected]