Book Review: A love-hate relationship

Portuguese Jewry at the Stake: Studies on Jews and Crypto-Jews, Edited by Yom Tov Assis and Moises Orfali
Magnes Press and the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History (Hebrew ), 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.

Portugal is a still-young country that grew out of a reconquest that followed a period of Muslim rule. The Portuguese language developed in the 11th and 12th centuries as a result of the encounter between the Galician and Lusitanian tongues, and was also influenced by Arabic. In the year 713, large sections of Portugal were conquered by the Muslims. However, toward the end of the ninth century (when it was reconquered by Vimara Peres ), a new political unit was formed to which a duke was appointed, and his seat was in Portucale, the Porto of today. Only in the 10th century did Portugal separate from Galicia, and even then the emergence of an independent Portugal was slow and complicated.

Lisbon was conquered only in the second half of the 12th century, when the Portuguese were assisted by warriors on their way to fight the Second Crusade. The Muslims left the country, but the Jews remained, in what was a small and underdeveloped land with few residents — no more than 35,000 people lived there at the time. Most of the assets were in the hands of the church and the king, and economic activity was based on sheep and cattle farming, horse breeding and agriculture.

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.

The history of Portugal’s Jews therefore is short — a mere 500 years or so — but in his preface, Assis turns these centuries into an intriguing period. The community was well-organized and headed by a chief rabbi. Known as the “Alfama,” the Jewish community was officially recognized by the crown; the Jews lived in their own neighborhoods, the Judiaria, and received protection from the king. The persecution, as was the case in other Christian countries too, emanated from the church.

‘There was no expulsion’

Over the years, the number of Jews settling in Portugal increased. After their expulsion from Spain in 1492, 120,000 Jews found refuge in Portugal. “This addition completely changed the face of Portuguese Jewry,” Assis writes, especially since those who were expelled included “the cream of Castilian Jewry.”

Later he states: “The expulsion of the Jews of Portugal in 1496 never took place.” Here’s what he means by that: The king, Manuel I, wished to marry the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, in the hope of uniting the entire Iberian peninsula under his reign. Although the monarchy demanded that Manuel expel his country’s Jews as a condition for granting his daughter’s hand in marriage, Manuel was reluctant to lose his Jewish subjects. Instead, he announced a plan for their departure, but when the Jews arrived at the harbor to board the ships waiting to deport them, they were met by priests who demanded they convert. In fact, no one was allowed to leave. After they underwent baptism, Manuel could safely declare that no Jews remained in Portugal, and he was able to marry the Infanta Isabella.

Thus it was that most of the Jewish community in Portugal became Conversos, and the percentage of Jews there became among the highest in Europe. “The story of Portuguese Jewry is a story that is both sad and intriguing,” writes Assis. “It is sad, since very many of the Jews who were baptized and remained in Portugal, together with their descendants, did not want to convert to Christianity and to break away from their people and the faith, and their baptism was forced on them …. It is intriguing, since some of the crypto-Jews of Portugal succeeded in leaving and reaching places of safety.” The fact that the Jews of the town of Belmonte, who were discovered by a Jewish explorer in the early 20th century, returned to Judaism after 500 years of living as “New Christians” is truly astonishing.

Each of the book’s articles is of interest, and together they form a rich tapestry depicting a special community, even after it turned into a community of New Christians. I found the article by historian Elvira Azevedo Mea of particular interest. Called “New Christian Women and the Inquisition” and based on her study of Inquisition files, the article suggests that, almost until the 20th century, it was the women in New Christian families who had the sole responsibility of passing on Jewish traditions. That is why so many more women than men were arrested for secretly performing Jewish rituals. One of them, Graca de Madeiros, aged 60 from Vila do Conde, refused to confess, but succeeded in hanging herself in her cell with a towel before she could be executed, “after dressing herself in her best clothes, a skirt and a short jacket.”

Eric Lawee writes about the intellectual biography of philosopher and financier Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508 ), during his Portuguese years. An article by the late historian Elias Lipiner deals with problems of Jewish religious law that concerned the Marranos, while co-editor Moises Orfali’s article, “Jews and Judaism in Christian Polemics in Portugal,” shows how, even after the Jews had ostensibly disappeared from the country, the polemic writing against them did not cease.

Inquisition in Goa

“There is no doubt,” Orfali writes, “that the fact that a relatively high number of Spanish-Portuguese Jews were found in Goa [then a Portuguese colony in India] was considered, in the eyes of the church, a constant provocation, and it led to an increase in missionary zeal. That is the reason that the church authorities … recommended to the government in Lisbon [setting up a branch of] the Inquisition in the colonies in the East.” And indeed, Orfali relates, in 1560, an Inquisition center was established in Goa and was active throughout the Portuguese colonies in Asia, persecuting Jews, Hindus and Muslims.

One of the most interesting of Portugal’s Jewish families is the Curiels. Edgar Samuel tells the family’s fascinating saga over 100 years, in the 16th-17th centuries, during which some relatives stayed where they were, and others sought refuge in various places around the world. There were those who were burned at the stake and others who were acquitted during the Inquisition, some who became devout Catholics and others who returned to Judaism in South America. The persecution ended only in 1978, when Henri Curiel, a Communist leader born in Egypt who was exiled from that country, was murdered in mysterious circumstances in Paris.

Historian Jose Nunes Carreira offers the fascinating article “Portuguese Diaspora in the Near East (in the 16th and 17th Centuries ) in the Light of Travel Reports,” which opens up a window to the little-known but rich travelogues of Portuguese missionaries. Nunes Carreira describes travelers who reported on details of their meetings with Portuguese Jews in Aleppo, Tripoli, Basra, Cairo, Persia and Palestine. Clergyman Gaspar de Bernadino reveals that most of the Jews he encountered in Aleppo were Spanish speakers; he also met Portuguese Jews in the Galilee, where at the time, there were more than 400 households of Portuguese origin. The travelers’ reports reveal that the Portuguese Jews who lived on the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and those in Syria longed for their homeland.

Another clergyman, Frey Pantaleao de Aveiro, discovered a large number of Portuguese Jews in the Middle East. He found 30 in Jerusalem and others in the Galilee and Damascus; Tripoli had some 2,000 Jews, most of them of Portuguese origin. He tells how a rich Portuguese woman, Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi , leased the city of Tiberias from the Turkish sultan in 1558. Aveiro’s meetings with Jews were accompanied by religious disputations. In Damascus he met one from the Portuguese town of Braga who had fled after his father was burned at the stake.

“While the shared language and birthplace united the Christian travelers from Portugal and the Jewish exiles, a deep chasm nevertheless divided them — that of their faith, which caused mutual rejection,” writes Nunes Carreira. “But it is a fact that even at the times of the Crusaders and the missionaries, being Portuguese in foreign lands transcended all differences in beliefs.”

In an article about the religious identity and economic activities of New Christians, Claude (Dov ) Stuczynski deals with the connection between the Jewish identity of the Portuguese Conversos and their image as wealthy people, as well as with the claim made by social philosophers such as Werner Sombart and Max Weber that Judaism gave birth to modern capitalism. Sombart reached his conclusion on the basis of a 17th-century letter from the Portuguese-born Menashe Ben Yisrael, a descendant of Isaac Abarbanel, to Oliver Cromwell, pleading with the English leader to allow the Jews to return to England and arguing that their assistance to the country’s economy would be decisive.

Stuczynski points out that historian Yosef Kaplan, of the Hebrew University, has strongly and convincingly criticized efforts to link Judaism, New Christianity and the accumulation of wealth. But the debate remains open.

Novelist Ruth Almog is the recipient of the Bialik Prize and many other awards. Her reviews appear regularly in the Culture and Literature section of Haaretz.


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