The Jewish Pulse of Portugal

The Jewish Pulse of Portugal


Though most of us are familiar with the Jewish history of Spain, few know that many victims of the Inquisition fled to Portugal, where they survived until Catholic persecution followed them there. Fewer still are aware that Portugal is a current treasury, not only of Jewish history, but of a thriving and contemporary Portuguese-Jewish revival.

In fact, unlike most other countries that have a painful Jewish history (such as Poland and Spain), Portugal has on several occasions officially apologized to the Jewish community for its past deeds, and is uniquely supportive of its Jewish and crypto-Jewish community. The latter are an increasingly vocal group of former “Marranos” – secret Jews – who are now proudly reclaiming their birthright.

Portugal Shaare Tikvah Lisboa

For 2022, we present several tours that offer travelers true insights to Portugal of today. Five places, in particular, are especially fascinating to the Jewish traveler, and are therefore a permanent part of all the new itineraries.

PORTO was well known among the Jewish traders during the Middle Ages, and its charming Jewish Quarter still remains. Besides its prominence in the wine and port trade of the Douro Valley, Porto is now the site of the largest synagogue in Iberia, Mekor Haim (The Source of Life). Built in the mid-20th century, it is the first new Portuguese synagogue in over 400 years. Today, Mekor Haim is a hub for the many Jews returning to the open practice of Judaism, growing from 60 to 700 members in the last ten years alone. This year, they expect to open a new Jewish Museum and kosher store.

TRANCOSO, a small town in the hilly Guarda District, has a Jewish history that dates back 900 years. The town recently honored its Jewish heritage with the establishment of the “Isaac Cardoso Center,” honoring the 17th century Jewish physician, philosopher, and writer. It also boasts a new synagogue, Beit Mayim Hayim (the House of Living Waters).

BELMONTE has long been receptive to other cultures, and its Jewish community still exists today – heirs to an ancient Sephardic lineage. Throughout the time of the Inquisition, the Jews of Belmonte managed to preserve their religious rites. In fact, despite Catholic pressure, they continued to marry only among themselves for centuries. In 1989, this community was officially recognized, and in 1996, it inaugurated the synagogue “Beit Eliahu” (Elijah’s House) in the Jewish Quarter. In 2005, a new Jewish Museum opened in Belmonte, portraying the history of the Sephardic presence in Portugal and featuring an Inquisition Memorial. Throughout the Jewish Quarter, one can still see houses with crosses engraved on them – a protective disguise used by Jews to avoid suspicion. Since 2011, Belmonte has also hosted the “Portuguese Network of Jewish Quarters,” a community of descendants of the secret Jews. As if that were not enough, Belmonte boasts the only Jewish hotel in Portugal.

Sintra Village
Haggadah Commentary 1506

Another small but significant Portuguese treasure is CASCAIS.

A beach resort beloved by Lisbon’s Jewish community. During the Holocaust, this town also sheltered Jewish refugees, and Cascais’ Municipality has opened the Espaço do Exilio Estoril (Exiles’ Memorial Center) to honor this memory. Recently, its vibrant Jewish Center published a groundbreaking book, Jewish Voices for Portugal, which highlights the wisdom of five Portuguese-Jewish commentators (among them, the 15th century scholars Isaac Abarbanel and Joseph Karo) on the Torah. The book was co-authored by the dynamic leader of the center, Rabbi Eli Rosenfeld.

Last, but not least, is LISBON.

Here, in the dynamic capital, world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind (who created Berlin’s amazing Holocaust Memorial) is building the Tikva Jewish Museum, scheduled to open in 2026. (The word Tikva, of course, means “hope.”) According to the Libeskind Studio, this groundbreaking new museum will tell the “untold story of the Jews in Portugal, their culture and history,” and also celebrate “religious tolerance and cultural difference.” All in all, Lisbon’s vast new museum will beautifully exhibit Portugal’s unique respect for its Jewish past, present – and future.

Shaare Tikvah Synagogue Lisboa

All in all, Portugal is a treasure for a Jewish traveler – Boa Viagem!

photography: © Yonatan for Momentum Tours & Travel, Inc.

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