Sephardim: The Portuguese story

Here is a new and fascinating book of great interest to Sephardim around the world. Unfortunately, it is currently available only in Hebrew.

Thanks to Ruth Almog for her Haaretz review of “Portuguese Jewry at the Stake: Studies on Jews and Crypto-Jews,” (Hebrew) edited by Yom Tov Assis and Moises Orfali (Magnes Press and the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History, 259 pages, NIS 89).

In the preface to “Portuguese Jewry at the Stake,” Yom Tov Assis writes: “This is the first book in Hebrew that is dedicated exclusively to Portuguese Jewry, a subject that has been rather neglected by scholars in Israel. This book is designed to partly remedy the situation.”

This extremely interesting compilation of scholarly articles does indeed reveal new facets of an extinct Jewish community. That said, it is not by chance that the study of Portuguese Jewry has been neglected, but because Portugal’s Jews have in large part been lumped together with those of Spain, since the two countries, whose borders fluctuated throughout the Middle Ages, were both part of medieval Iberia.

There’s a short description of how Portuguese came to be. It developed in the 11th-12th centuries following encounters between Galician and Lusitanian languages, and influenced by Arabic. Historically, Moslems conquered much of Portugal in 713. It was reconquered at the end of the 9th century and only a century later did Portugal separate from Galicia. In the second half of the 12th century, Lisbon was conquered when Portuguese were assisted by troops on their way to the Second Crusade. The Moslems left, the Jews stayed. At the time, estimates are of only 35,000 people in the whole country.

The Jewish history of Portugal is short, some five centuries:

The first Portuguese king, Alfonso Henriques (1109-1185 ), encouraged Jews to settle in the areas he had conquered. By appointing a Jew, Yahya Ibn Yaish (also known as Yahia Ben Rabbi), as state treasurer, Alfonso paved the way for his successors to employ Jews in financial and administrative positions. Ibn Yaish was not only “chief rabbi,” but also the “chief cavalier.” The king’s heirs expanded the employment of Jews as administrators in the kingdom. So it was that during the reign of Portugal’s first five kings, the situation of the Jews was good and they lived in security. The problems began later, but even during the period surrounding the 1391 pogrom against the Jews of Spain, Portugal served as a haven for the Jews of Castile.

According to Assis, the well-organized community (alfama) lived in its own neighborhoods was headed by a chief rabbi, was recognized by the crown and protected by the king. Persecution came from the church. The Jewish population increased and after the 1492 Expulsion from Spain, some 120,000 of them went to Portugal.

The Jews were never expelled from Portugal in 1496. Manuel I wanted to marry the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, who demanded he first get rid of his Jews. He didn’t want to lose them, but announced a plan for their departure. When the Jews arrived to board the ships, priests demanded they convert, and no one was allowed to leave. Thus baptised, the king could claim there were no Jews in his country and he could marry the princess.

Says Assis, most of the Jews became Conversos – converted under force – and the Jewish percentage there was the highest in Europe. Many of them succeeded in leaving and reaching other safe geographic destinations. There are the Conversos of Belmonte, whose matriarchal society has kept Judaism alive since the Inquisition.

Articles include:

— Historian Elvira Azevedo Mea’s “New Christian Women and the Inquisition” is based on her study of Inquisition files, which suggest that almost until the 20th century, it was the women in New Christian families who were responsible for passing on Jewish traditions.

— Eric Lawee writes about philosopher and financier Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508 ), during his Portuguese years.

— Late historian Elias Lipiner deals with Jewish religious law problems that concerned the Conversos.

— co-editor Moises Orfali’s “Jews and Judaism in Christian Polemics in Portugal,” shows how, even after Jews had “disappeared,” accusatory writing against them did not stop. This article also relates the long reach of the Inquisition – into Goa, India (then a Portuguese colony) – where many Sephardim lived. In 1560, the Goa Inquisition center was founded and persecuted Jews, Hindus and Moslems.

— Edgar Samuel writes about the Curiel Sephardic family over a century (16th-17th centuries) as some branches remained in Portugal, others went around the world, some were burned alive at the stake, others acquitted, some became devout Catholics and others became public Jews again in South America.

— Historian Jose Nunes Carreira’s “Portuguese Diaspora in the Near East (in the 16th and 17th Centuries ) in the Light of Travel Reports,” covers the travelogues of Portuguese missionaries. He describes travelers who reported on meetings with Portuguese Jews in Aleppo, Tripoli, Basra, Cairo, Persia and Palestine. He includes clergyman Gaspar de Bernadino who says most Jews he met in Aleppo were Spanish speakers; he met Portuguese Jews in the Galilee, where there were more than 400 “Portuguese origin” households. The reports reveal that Sephardim were on the Persian Gulf island of Hormuz and Syria’s community longed for Portugal. And he includes Frey Pantaleao de Aveiro, who discovered many Portuguese Jews in the Middle East (in Jerusalem, Galilee, Damascus and Tripoli). Aveiro wrote about Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi who leased Tiberias from the Turkish sultan in 1558. In Damascus, he met a man from Braga, Portugal, who had fled after his father was burned.

— Claude (Dov) Stuczynski’s article deals with religious identity and economic activities of the “New Christians.”

Now we need the English version to make these articles accessible to the worldwide community.

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