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.

DNA: Portuguese conversos’ genetic identity

“How has a small Portuguese Jewish community retained its genetic identity,” is the title of a recent Haaretz story, concerning a new genetic study recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Of course, the writer meant a Converso or Crypto-Jewish community. Those of us with interests in Sephardic, Converso and crypto-Jewish history, as well as DNA and genetics, answered the question posed by this story rather quickly: How about not marrying others with different backgrounds?

Tracing the Tribe asks why this is always so surprising to people who don’t know or don’t want to believe the history of these communities? In various Southwestern US states, the same marriage pattern prevails in many families of Jewish descent. Even though they do not declare themselves public Jews, they tend to only marry others “like” themselves. We know what “like” means – why don’t these scientists?

A genetic analysis of northern Portuguese crypto-Jews recently yielded a mysterious discovery: It exposed an isolated Jewish community that has somehow retained its genetic identity for centuries – while avoiding the inbreeding that usually occurs in such situations.

Now scientists are trying to understand how these Jews managed to bypass a condition which worries most small, closed Jewish communities in the world.

The new study by researchers from Porto and Coimbra Universities showed that Jews from the Braganca area are genetically closer to Middle Eastern Jews than to the surrounding Portuguese – even after living there for 500 years. This emerged from an analysis of the Y chromosome, which is passed exclusively from father to son with negligent recombination.

[NOTE: What is more interesting is that the article indicates in several places that there appears to be a larger converso population than these small communities indicate. They retained their genetic identity without inbreeding, meaning that the pool of individuals is much larger. While earlier studies indicated that Spain’s genetic analysis showed some 2o% of Jewish descent, Portugal’s should be similar.]

The story indicates that genetic match was observed also in the Jews of Belmonte, a small town about 200 kilometers south of Braganca. This study is the first time that the genetic makeup of northern Portuguese Jews had been analyzed.

[NOTE: Anyone reading up on Sephardic Jewish history and the Inquisition knows that many Jews escaping the 1492 Exile went through Braganca into Portugal where they thought they would be safe, although it was short-lived.]

However, the genetic analysis of Belmonte Jews showed a dramatic drop in genetic diversity, indicative of inbreeding. This is normal for isolated communities, simply because less genetic material is introduced each generation.

“All small-sized gene pools tend to lose diversity, but the communities from the Braganca area have succeeded in maintaining a very high diversity, with a relatively small non-Jewish introgression,” said Professor Antonio Amorim, a
geneticist from the University of Porto who performed the research.

The recently published – a few weeks ago – research in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology showed paternal lineages of 57 unrelated males of established Jewish origins from around Braganca.

A high lineage diversity was found, at both haplotype and haplogroup levels (98.74 and 82.83%, respectively), demonstrating the absence of a strong genetic drift, the research said. Professor Amorim was surprised at both the low level of inbreeding and the retention of Jewish genes.

[NOTE: Tracing the Tribe knows that if you marry only others with your same background in a small number of local families or “similar” families in a wider geographic region, the Jewish genetic identity will be retained.]

“These results can only be explained assuming that the effective size of the population is much greater that it would seem at the first sight,” Amorim concluded, “and/or that there is a reproductive strategy minimizing the loss of male lineages but not avoiding totally the input of non-Jewish males.”

The research team indicates that “a deeper and more detailed investigation is required to clarify how these communities avoided the expected inbreeding caused by over four centuries of religious repression.” The team is still waiting for the mtDNA (maternal DNA).

[NOTE: Considering the fact that women were the leaders of the Belmonte community for centuries and kept the spark of Judaism alive, and that converso communities around the world often have matriarchal leaders who preserve tradition and knowledge, Tracing the Tribe expects that mtDNA results will show the same Jewish connection.

Jews have lived around Braganca since the late 12th century at least, but the major influx was after the 1492 Expulsion during the Inquisition. At first, they thought they would be safe, and they were for a few years, but then Portugal demanded, as Spain had done, that they convert to Catholicism. Some left again, some had their children forcibly kidnapped (and sent to Sao Tome Island, where many died) to force the parents to convert, and larger numbers converted publicly, but maintained their adherence to Judaism in secret.

Over the centuries, without interaction with established Jewish communities, the people lost much of their Jewish knowledge but maintained what they knew. The families in this genetic study are part of that community.]

Michael Freund, head of Shavei Israel, says that thousands of people – in Portugal and elsewhere – are turning towards Judaism as they believe they are descendants of crypto-Jews.

“This study demonstrates the extent to which the Jews of Portugal who were forcibly converted more than five centuries ago sought to preserve their Jewishness down through the generations,” he said. “They made heroic efforts to sustain their Jewish identity in secret, and many only married among themselves, as the findings of this study indicate,” he said.

Read the complete story at the link above.

Portugal: Faro Jewish Heritage Center

Jewish history is found in surprising places, often by visitors who simply stumble by chance onto something rather interesting.

Tortoise Tales (a diary of motor home adventures) is a blog covering slow travel in a motorhome through Europe by two rather adventurous UK retirees Frances and Bernard Platman, who began their travels in October 2003.

In this post, they discuss their December 2009 visit to Faro, Portugal, in the Algarve region.

The Faro Jewish Heritage Center is the focus of this post.

The site covers the center, the cemetery, the museum and much more, as well as activities and events for the tiny permanent Jewish community (augmented by visitors) in this area – all thanks to former South Africans Ralf and Judy Pinto, who host holiday celebrations and other activities. If you’re planning a trip to the Algarve, contact them.

At right, see a photo of the Faro Jewish cemetery.

How did Frances Platman learn about the Pintos?

Shortly after arriving at Armacoa de Pera, on the Algarve in Portugal, I was reading the Portuguese English paper and noticed in the “what’s on” columns for 13th December a snippet saying if we wanted an invite to a Chanukah party just phone….. So I did and spoke to a charming man who originally hailed from South Africa but had been living full time in Portimao on the Algarve for a number of years.

He and his wife are instrumental in setting up the Algarve Jewish Community,

They have been organising events for special occasions since their arrival in Portugal. He is also the director of the Faro Jewish Heritage Centre, Cemetery and Museum, and offered to take us there.

The Centre is the only remaining vestige of the first post Inquisition Jewish presence in Portugal and the cemetery contains marble gravestones from the period 1838 to 1932. The small museum has many artefacts and original furniture from an 1820 synagogue together with a video, “Without the Past”.

There’s more in her blog post and much more on the Faro Jewish Heritage Center.

How was the Chanukah party?

The Chanukah party on the 13th December was very jolly, held in our hosts’ apartment. There were people there who were visiting just like us but also residents from all over the Algarve , some permanent and some who come and go from their country of origin. Fried foods were eaten, candles were lit and songs sang to remember the miracle of the holy oil in the temple which lasted for eight days although there was only enough for one when the Jewish people were besieged.

Jewish visitors to the area are always welcomed by this enthusiastic couple. We intend to keep in touch with them in the future as we have enjoyed our new friendship.

Thanks, Frances, for this post.

Readers interested in mobile home travel will also find Tortoise Tales interesting.

Canary Islands: Crypto-Jewish history

Thanks to Harry Stein’s, Tracing the Tribe learned about a century-old paper on Crypto-Jews in the Canary Islands, delivered by Lucien Wolf to the Jewish Historical Society of England in London on December 12, 1910.

The paper is a treasure chest of Jewish names and history. Here’s a map of the islands:

Read the complete paper here, but understand that it was posted using OCR (optical recognition software) and there are many errors caused by software inaccuracies (for various reasons). I recommend reading the online version carefully.

Information covers secret synagogues, kosher butchers, the Inquisition, Sephardim in London, buccaneers, sea captains, French merchants, Holland, the plague. Records discussed refer to dates as early as 1480. For many of those names listed below, there is detailed information on their fates, by public burning or other means, such as serving 10 years in the galleys.

In May 1524, several anti-Converso edicts were published in the Cathedral Church of St. Ana in Las Palmas:

— 1. A general call for the elimination of heresy and confession of erroneous practices.

— 2. This was directed specifically at Jews and Moslems, providing detailed accounts of their religious and social manners and customs at great length. It is a record of Jewish ceremonies and customs which had survived among the Conversos and helped informers to detect the heretics.

— 3. This prohibited masters, owners and ship’s captains, visiting and leaving the Canary ports, from allowing on board or providing passage to “converts or New Christians, converted to our Holy Catholic Faith from Judaism ” under pain of excommunication and confiscation of their ships and other property.

These three edicts generally encouraged “religious maniacs,” according to Wolf, and resulted in a large number of denunciations (1524-26).

Here are the names from the paper. If these are of interest, then do read the paper to learn more such as occupations and many geographical location.

Antonio Fernandez Carvajal
Duarte Henriques Alvares
Antonio Rodrigues Robles
Simon de Souza
Domingo de la Cerda
Antonio de Porto
Rodrigo de Leon
Rabbi David
Goncalo de Burgos
Luis Alvares
Luis de Niebla
Goncalo de Cordova
Juan de Ler
Juan Fernandez
Pedro Dorador
Alvaro Esteves
Beatrice de la Cruz
Gutierrez de Ocana
Diego Frances
Alvaro Gonsales
Mencia Vaes
Silvestre Goncales
Maistre Diego de Valera (Isaac Levi pre-1496)
Pedro Gonsales
Alonzo Yanez
Ana and Duarte Goncales
Hector Mendes
Hernan Rodrigues
Fernando Jaryam
Aldonca de Vergas y Vargas
Duarte Goncales
Duarte Perez
Pedro Berruyo
Juan Yanez
Catalina Nunez
Fernan Pinto
Jorge Fernandez
Duarte Henriques Alvares
Diego Rodrigues Aries
Duarte Henriques Alvares
Antonio Rodrigues Robles
Leila Henriques
Antonio Fernandes Carvajal
Domingo Rodrigues Francia
Jorge Francia
Domingo de la Cerda
Joseph Carrera y Coligo
Lourenco Rodrigues (Isaac Lindo) Lindo and wife Perpetua
Goncalo and Lucina Rodrigues Vaes
Manuel Lindo
Manuel Pereira
Jaques Faro
Antonio Fernandez Nunez
Juan de Tarifa

Place names include:

The Canaries:
Santa Cruz
Los Santos
San Lucar
San Lucar de Barremeda
Las Palmas
La Laguna

Marchena, Andalucia

Castel Blanco

Cape Verde

A very interesting paper! For more resources on Sephardic names, go to and

Washington DC: Jews of Brazil program, Oct. 20

The Library of Congress will host Daniel R. Pinto of the Embassy of Brazil for an illustrated lecture on the Jews of Brazil at noon Tuesday, October 20.

The free program is open to the public and is sponsored by the LOC’s African and Middle East Division (which incorporates the Hebraic Section) and the Hispanic Division.

Pinto was born in Rio de Janeiro to Egyptian Jewish refugees. He attended Rio’s French School and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Candido Mendes University. Prior to joining the Brazilian Foreign Service in 1999, he worked in the tourist, health care and banking industries. He has been posted at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington since 2006, and follows intellectual property and trade policy issues.

The history of the Jews in Brazil is long and complex. Jewish settlers came to Brazil in 1500, fleeing persecution in Portugal in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition. Under Dutch rule, the Jews of Brazil worked on sugar plantations and were allowed to practice their religion. They established a synagogue in Recife in 1636, the first synagogue in the Americas.

Less than two decades later Brazil fell under Portuguese rule, which caused many Jews to leave the country. Some of these refugees fled to New Amsterdam (New York), founding the first Jewish community in America in 1654.

When a Portuguese royal decree abolished discrimination against Jews in 1773, Jews began to return to Brazil. By 1920, more than 7,000 Jews lived in Brazil. More than 100,000 Jews—less than .01 percent of the population—live in Brazil today.

The program will be held in the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) Reading Room, Room 220 of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street S.E., Washington, D.C.