Exodus? The Jewish Community in This European City Is Thriving

Some 500 years after the Inquisition expelled the Jews of Portugal, their descendants are returning - and nowhere is that more noticeable than in the beautiful coastal city of Porto

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The coastal city of Porto, northern Portugal.
The coastal city of Porto, northern Portugal.Credit: Harry D Wall
Harry D Wall
Harry D. Wall

PORTO – While most European countries are contending with declines in their Jewish populations, one Portuguese community is experiencing a remarkable renewal some 500 years after the Inquisition.

The maritime city of Porto in northern Portugal has seen its Jewish community increase more than tenfold since 2013, and while it currently only totals 500 members, that rapid growth is still noteworthy.

“Jews coming to Porto have found an environment of tolerance, little antisemitism, and an active and welcoming community,” says Michael Rothwell, a member of the board of the Jewish Community of Oporto (as the city is also known in English). He explains that there are weekly Shabbat services, Sephardi style (on the High Holy Days, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions are observed), a kosher hotel and restaurant, and a Jewish education center.   

The population surge is also driven by the passage in 2015 of an amendment to the citizenship law, which enables any Sephardi Jew who can trace his or her ancestry to Portugal to apply for citizenship. By 2020, some 22,000 descendants of Sephardi Jews had become citizens, about a third of those who had applied, with most applications coming from Europe, Brazil, Turkey and Israel. 

Another reason for the growth, Rothwell says, is antisemitism in Europe, particularly France, from where a large number of the community’s new members have arrived. “These days, Portugal is a tolerant country with very little antisemitism,” he adds.

Michael Rothwell, a member of the Porto Jewish Community board.Credit: João Bizarro/Jewish Community of Oporto

Intellectual elite 

Portugal has made a concerted effort to rediscover its Jewish heritage in recent years, and not just in Porto. Several towns and cities have renovated their Jewish quarters and created cultural programs to highlight their Sephardi history. Some 5,000 to 6,000 Jews now live in Portugal, according to Porto museologist Hugo Vaz, with the largest number found in the capital, Lisbon.

Before the coronavirus struck last year, Porto was enjoying a surge of tourism, investment and growth. Your correspondent visited the city in pre-pandemic times, and while there are currently restrictions on visiting the country, Portugal’s tourism minister is hoping the country’s borders will reopen in May for those who are vaccinated, immune or testing negative for COVID. Luckily for tourists, the city’s charming cobbled streets, picturesque waterfront and iconic, arched iron bridge straddling the Douro River are going nowhere.

Jews have lived in Porto for over two millennia, long before the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1139. The community flourished in the kingdom in the 12th and 13th centuries, when its 200,000 Jews comprised about 20 percent of the total population. Their occupations ranged from goldsmiths and tailors to astronomers and bankers, and they were the intellectual and economic elite. Many held prominent positions in the royal court, rising to positions of power in the 13th and 14th centuries when they served as royal physicians or advisers to the king.  

Portuguese Jews contributed to the Age of Discovery, when Portuguese ships set sail across the globe to map trading routes and establish colonies. They included financiers of the sailing fleets and cartographers such as Abraham Zacuto, whose charts were reportedly used by Vasco da Gama and other seafaring explorers building the Portuguese empire.

“The Jews played a great role in the discoveries of the New World, the routes to India,” says historian Prof. Amândio Barros, adding that they “synthesized knowledge from all over the Mediterranean to enable Portugal to grow its empire.”

All that ended in 1496 when the Inquisition, which had started in Spain a few years earlier, made its way across the border. Under pressure from the Catholic Church and the Spanish monarchy, Jews were either expelled from Portugal or forced to convert, becoming “New Christians.” That didn’t diminish suspicions against them either, as the Inquisition accused many of secretly practicing Judaism, with subsequent persecutions of these Marranos, or crypto-Jews.

The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synaogue in Porto.Credit: Harry D Wall

Walking around the city nowadays, few remnants remain of the ancient Jewish quarters – three neighborhoods descending to the riverside district of Ribieria. The municipality has, however, posted signs that refer to historic Jewish places.

The first area is located near the cathedral in the Sé district, where Jews resided within the old city walls. Another, Monte dos Judeus (Jews’ Mountain), is near the ruins of the Monchique convent.  

The oldest-surviving Jewish remnant is an inscription from a since-destroyed 14th-century synagogue. The original stone etching is located at the Carmo Museum in Lisbon, and a replica is exhibited at the new Jewish museum, near the synagogue. The main Jewish quarter was Judiaria do Olival (Jewish Olive Grove), a ghetto established in 1386 until the Inquisition.

A walk through the city’s narrow and steep streets with Porto native Gonçalo Quelhas Lima helps evoke the shadows of a vanished era. “You cannot imagine Porto in the early Middle Ages without the Jews,” says Lima, who was raised Catholic but had a Jewish grandfather and feels a deep connection to both Judaism and Israel. 

Gonçalo Quelhas Lima in the former Jewish quarter of Porto.Credit: Harry D Wall

On San Miguel Street in the Vitória neighborhood, we stop outside a seniors’ facility. An unknown chamber was discovered during renovation work here – possibly a hidden prayer room for the Marranos of yore. Nearby, a large house is marked as a home of the noted Jewish philosopher and mathematician Uriel da Costa, who left Porto for Amsterdam and later returned, presumably after converting to Christianity. 

Continuing our descent, we come across a steep set of stone steps and a marker denoting that these were once known as “Escadas da Esnoga” (the synagogue stairs), which led to what once was a major synagogue. 

“Porto was not the worst during the Inquisition,” says Lima, noting that the Inquisition did not last long in the city. “But its entire Jewish heritage and community was destroyed,” a tragedy that has only started to be addressed in modern times. 

We stop at an imposing building, the São Bento da Vitória Church, believed to have been built on or near the remains of the former synagogue. On the façade, a sign notes the persecution of the Jews and a poignant plea: “May their blood never be forgotten, and their memory blessed.”

Arriving at the riverside, its cafés and restaurants facing the port wine houses across the Douro, one can imagine an area once filled with Jewish merchants and traders.

The iconic Luís I Bridge in Porto.Credit: Harry D Wall

The Portuguese Dreyfus

Following the Inquisition, it would be over 400 years before Jews returned to Porto. Ironically, it was Ashkenazim who were the first to rebuild the Jewish community here, arriving at the end of the 19th century from northern and eastern Europe. “They were mainly Polish, German and Russian Jews, small traders,” recounts museologist Vaz.

In the 1920s, Capt. Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, a decorated officer from World War I and a Jewish convert descended from the Marranos, led a movement to help others return to Judaism. He would travel to the villages along the border with Spain, sometimes on horseback, seeking out Marranos to join the new community. With his newfound passion for openly practicing Judaism, he was sure that many of the “hidden Jews” would join him in his quest.

His enthusiasm led him to London, where he raised significant support and found a sponsor for building a synagogue. Thanks to the generosity of the Kadoorie banking family, then living in Hong Kong and whose mother was of Portuguese descent, a new synagogue – the largest in Iberia – was built in 1938 and named after its benefactor. 

Capt. Artur Carlos de Barros Basto.Credit: Bricking

Alas, no recruits to Judaism resulted from the captain’s efforts. “The Marranos were not willing to be subjected to a formal conversion to Judaism, since they [already] considered themselves Jews and were distrustful of the ‘Redemption Project’ – a foreign plan originating from London,” Rothwell explains. “They also refused to give up their Marrano rituals, which were considered heretical from a halakhic perspective,” he adds, referring to Jewish religious law. 

The captain’s Jewish activities eventually saw him run afoul of Portugal’s new dictatorship. After a military trial, he was cashiered out of the army, the “Portuguese Dreyfus.” The persecution of Capt. Barros Basto also became a message to the Marranos of Portugal, who feared the consequences of their own conversion during an era of rising antisemitism. It was only in 2012 that Barros Basto’s reputation was restored by the Portuguese parliament, the result of a campaign by his granddaughter, Isabel Ferreira Lopes, then-vice president of the Porto Jewish Community.

During World War II, thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis headed west to Portugal, which was officially neutral during the war. Some stayed in Porto, but most continued on to the Americas.

The Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue, located in the northern part of the city, is housed in a large, graceful white building, appropriately Moorish in style, its frontal façade articulated with laced windows and a grand arched entrance. Interior walls are festooned with colored tiles, many of them the famous “Azulejo” blue Portuguese ceramics. The front wall of the main sanctuary is decorated with tiles featuring Andalusian motifs. The bimah is in the middle, as is the Sephardi tradition, while the sanctuary rises high through the women’s section, covered by a large cupola. 

Porto's Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, decorated for Shavuot.Credit: João Bizarro/Jewish Community of Oporto
Interior of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, Porto.Credit: Harry D Wall

The Porto Jewish Museum, located near the synagogue in the Boavista neighborhood, tells the story of the community’s history in both Portugal and Porto itself, and also that of Portuguese Sephardi Jews in the Diaspora. Its most precious possession is a menorah, made of iron and gold, from the Spanish city of Toledo during the time of Maimonides in the 12th century.

Nearby is the new Holocaust museum, which formally opened in January but has limited access right now due to COVID-19 restrictions. The only such museum on the Iberian Peninsula, its main mission is to provide education about the Shoah – it features a simulation of the barracks at Auschwitz – and against antisemitism.

In recent years  many life-cycle events were celebrated at the synagogue: bar/bat mitzvahs, brit milahs and weddings. There are Jewish education and  cultural programs, films, lectures and concerts, as the community makes itself at home once more.

The Jewish Museum of Porto.Credit: João Bizarro/Jewish Community of Oporto

“Today, it’s easy to be a Jew in Porto,” says England-born Rothwell, who first moved to the city in 1982 with his wife, who was born here. Back then, he says, it was difficult to gather enough Jews to form a minyan for prayer. Thanks to the amended citizenship law, though, he sees future growth coming mainly from Sephardi Jews returning to their ancestral home. 

In Porto, the captain’s dream of “If we build it, they will come” did not exactly take place as he imagined. Instead of the Marranos, the community is now drawing Diaspora and Israeli Jews. Some 500 years after persecuting and expelling its Jews, the city has become a beacon of tolerance in a time of rising antisemitism, proudly displaying its welcome mat to all Jewish visitors.