A new chapter of Jewish history in Portugal

Few are the relics of any Jewish presence in Portugal, despite in 1496 being nearly two thirds dominated by one of man’s oldest religions. Believers of the Jewish faith were driven out of Europe and into Northern Africa by the 1755 inquisition, any of their remnants destroyed and replaced by Catholicism.

One surviving testament to Portugal’s little known past is the Jewish Cemetery in Faro, now painstakingly converted into a heritage centre and museum.

It is also home to another surviving piece of history, a copy of the first ever book to be printed in Portugal, a 110-page Pentateuch written in Hebrew, believed to have been printed in Faro, on June 30th, 1487. Due to its historical value the original book is currently in the care of the British Library, London.

Counting 107 graves, the cemetery has witnessed the burial of members of some 60 Jewish families the first of which, that of Rabbi Josef Toledano, took place in 1838.

It is thought there are only four Jewish cemeteries in the country, though Faro’s cemetery is the only remaining vestige of post-inquisition Jewish presence in Portugal.

Traditionally, Jews have very simple graves, made from solid cement or stone. No names are inscribed on the very tiny ones, an indication of the Jewish belief that mothers who lose their newborn children should sever the bond. Only male family members are allowed to attend a child’s burial. Stones are scattered on the tombs, placed there instead of flowers to represent their eternity, a stark reflection of the practicality and simplicity on which Judaism is based.

Making up the rest of the heritage centre is a captivating Synagogue-museum, as well as a museum dedicated to the memory of the original restorer of Faro’s Jewish cemetery, Isaac Bitton, which was inaugurated earlier this year, on June 3rd.

Faro’s original synagogue was destroyed in the 1960’s as demand failed to justify its upkeep. There are three existing synagogues in Portugal.

Now completely restored, the cemetery, as indeed the entire centre, provides a fascinating insight to the Jewish religion, being utterly compelling to people of all faiths.

It is owned and run by Ralf and Judith Pinto, South-Africans who arrived in the Algarve in 1990, where they still live in Portimão.

Their son’s wedding was the first traditional Jewish wedding to take place in Portimão in more than 500 years.

They were introduced to the cemetery through an Israeli nurse working at Faro hospital. After seeing its dilapidated state, they decided to get in touch with Isaac Bitton, who years earlier had started a trust fund for its renovation in collaboration with a Synagogue in Lisbon.

Authorisation was granted for the couple to manage and use the fund.

“We just fell in love with the place”, Judith told The Portugal News.

With Ralf as the self-confessed “concept-creator”, and Judith being the one who “executes the concept”, together they moved some 30 tonnes of rubble and lovingly restored the grounds surrounding the ancient gravestones.

Over the years more concepts and execution followed, and now the cemetery is a fully-fledged heritage centre that has been visited by Portuguese dignitaries of the highest rankings. In front of the centre 18 large trees tower grandly, if not somewhat soberly, above those who pass through its gates, the very last one planted by Portuguese President Mário Soares, in the early 1990’s.

“Coming from a suburb of 4000 Jewish families in Sea Point, South Africa, it was surprising when we realised we were one of just one thousand families in the whole of Portugal”, said Ralf.

It is estimated there are around 600 Jewish families in Lisbon, the remaining 400 spread around the rest of the country.

“We now live for this centre”, said his wife.

A visit to the Jewish Heritage Centre is an educational and enriching experience.

It is open Monday to Friday, 09h30 – 12h00, and in the afternoon by appointment only (except Saturdays.

For more information, call: (+351) 282 416 710, mobile: (+351) 968 440 414, or e-mail: ralf.pinto@sapo.pt.

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