Identified as the Enemy, or, Why There Are So Few Jews in Portugal

3 June 2016

Identified As the Enemy, or
Why there are so few Jews in Portugal


By Richard Zimler

At present, only a few hundred Jews live in Portugal, with small communities in Lisbon, Porto and a little town in the northeast mountains, Belmonte. In the 15th Century, however, tens of thousands of Jews made their homes there, and they constituted a significant minority in even the most isolated cities and towns.
  What happened to them?
  Portugal’s Jewish communities were destroyed during a unique period in the nation’s history that begins in the year 1492 and ends in 1536.
  To set the stage a bit, Portugal was then a wilderness at the farthest edge of Europe, a land where bears roamed forests of oak and pine, where wolves howled at night and – along with bandits – still threatened nighttime travelers along barely passable country roads. The main cities back then were the same ones as now, Lisbon and Porto, though the market towns of the arid south – Evora, Beja and Elvas, for example – had a relative importance which they no longer have.
Lisbon in particular was an island of commerce and relative comfort at this European frontier. Hardly a metropolis in any modern sense of the word, it did nevertheless boast about 65,000 inhabitants, not to mention thousands of visiting sailors, traders and travelers at any one time. It was above all, a bustling port, where hundreds of stevedores servicing the great caravels, off-loaded cinnamon and pepper from India, silks from the Orient, gold from Africa, and timber, silver and exotic animals from the New World.
The Portuguese capital was then a jagged conglomeration of densely populated streets crowned by a hilltop palace, with a central district running from Rossio Square down to the Tagus River at the Terreiro do Paço, the old name for today’s Commercial Square. To most visitors and residents, it must have seemed at times a place of unbelievable commotion. Particularly the main shopping street of its era, New Merchants Street, which was about 300 meters long and 9 meters wide. According to a survey done in the early 1500s, it was bordered by 405 three- and four-story townhouses, with 30 silk workshops, 11 booksellers, 13 haberdashers, 9 apothecaries and dozens of other workshops and stores.1 Significantly, New Merchants Street ran right through the central Jewish neighborhood, and many of the shopkeepers were Jews.
Yet before we get too carried away with the wonders of Lisbon, let’s also recall that it was a city without any modern conception of sanitation or public hygiene. Imagine the stink of 43 fishscalers, 25 tripesellers, 30 municipal butchers and 50 rag dealers within an area no larger than a small American city like Chapel Hill2. Imagine the muck produced by illiterate and lice-ridden residents spilling their penicos or chamber pots out their windows while half-heartedly barking “agua!” – water – to passersby walking on the unpaved streets below. Add to that the pungent odor of the dung heaps just outside the city walls, into which refuse, dead slaves and God knows what else would be heaved, and then you know why my novel is so very full of scents.
Let’s also not forget that this was a time of plague and superstition. And of slavery and serfdom, as well. Because at the time, about 10 percent of the population of Portugal is estimated to have been Africans in chains, cleaning the everpresent muck from the streets and peddling water and provisions on foot. After a visit to Portugal at this time, Clenardus, a well-known Belgian humanist, wrote: “The towns look like chessboards, with as many blacks as whites.”3
   As for the Jews, they probably made up about 5 to 10 percent of the population of Portugal in 1492. These Sephardic Jews had lived alongside Romans, Christians and Moors in Portugal since possibly as early as Biblical times, when Jewish merchants followed the expansion of Phoenician trading colonies all the way along the shores of the Mediterranean to Cadiz, a major Phoenician trading city founded in 1,100 BC. Though perhaps not quite that early. Most historians feel more comfortable placing the origins of Jewish settlement to about a millennium later, beginning with the domination of Europe and the Middle East by Rome. Bear in mind that when Rome crushed Israel, Jews were forced into the so-called Roman diaspora, re-settling in many other areas of the Near East and Europe.
  Whatever the case, from the first centuries of our Common Era on, Jews lived in Iberia, under the domination first of Romans, then of Swabians, Visigoths and other Germanic peoples who invaded Portugal in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries. When a North African Islamic people known as the Moors invaded in the 8th century, the Jews stayed on and lived under their dominion as well.
  Over the next several hundred years, crusading Christians took the whole of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors, step by bloody step. Lisbon fell to Christians in 1147. And by 1249, all of Portugal was in the hands of the Church – which brings us up to our Christian-dominated period of 1492 to 1536, a unique era in Portuguese Jewish history because of unprecedented drama and suffering.
  No less than four traumatic events occurred during this time for the Jews of Portugal, leaving them bewildered, lost and, in a very real sense, identified as the enemy by the Christian population and particularly Church officials. And abandoned forever by their one traditional ally, as well – the Portuguese crown.
It was a time from which the Jews of Lusitania would never recover. And it beginning, too, of the Portuguese Jewish diaspora, a vast network of trading centers stretching from Goa in India all the way to the Caribbean island of Curação.
The first of these traumatic events occurred on March 31, 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the great ethnic cleaners of their day, issued an expulsion edict from the Alhambra in Granada, banishing the Spanish Jews from their homeland.
Where did the Jews go?
Many, particularly those from Castile, trekked right across the scalding Estremaduran plateau during the first week of August of 1492 and crossed the mountainous frontier into Portugal. According to the priest and chronicler Andrés Bernáldez, 3,000 Jews entered at Bragança, 30,000 at Miranda do Douro, 35,000 at Vilar Formoso, 15,000 at Marvão and 10,000 at Elvas.4
Upwards of 100,000 Spanish Jews are believed to have entered Portugal at that time, one and a half times the population of Lisbon and probably about 10 percent of the entire Portuguese nation.
King John II permitted 630 wealthy families to stay in Portugal on a permanent basis upon payment of 100 cruzados. He allowed the rest of the Spanish Jews to enter his kingdom and remain for eight months on payment of a fee of eight cruzados per person. Except for blacksmiths and tin-smiths, needed to forge armaments and whose fee was therefore reduced to the bargain rate of four cruzados.5
  There was only one problem: many of the hopeful immigrants couldn’t pay up. So they entered Portugal secretly. Others who managed to scrounge up the needed cash couldn’t then raise enough money to pay boat owners for voyages out of Portugal within the eight-month sanctuary period allowed to them by the King. Those discovered to have slipped into Portugal secretly or unable to leave after eight months of refuge were summarily sold into slavery.
  Keep in mind that many of these Jews had been reduced to extreme poverty. For the simple reason that with so many uprooted form their homes at the same moment, Spain had become a buyers’ market overnight. According to Bernáldez once again, “A vineyard went for the price of a handkerchief, a house for a donkey, a workshop for a piece of linen or a loaf of bread.”6
And so, not even a house or a vineyard would have given these terrified émigrés enough money to buy their freedom. I should add that all Jewish communal properties, for instance synagogues and schools, were not permitted to be sold and were confiscated by the Spanish crown, many subsequently converted into churches.
  To a lesser extent, this unprecedented immigration must have been a disaster for the Portuguese Jews as well, for they would have been responsible for trying to absorb and accommodate the tens of thousands of new Spanish residents for at least eight months. After all, this was still a time when Jews were expected to live inside the walls of their ghettos and take care of their own.
One can only imagine the recriminations heaped upon the Spanish Jews not only by the Christians but by the less generous of their Portuguese Jewish brethren as well.
  And so, in August of 1492, two classes of Sephardim were created in Portugal, Portuguese and Spanish, both undoubtedly dismayed and impoverished.
  Then, eight months later, King John II made good on his threat to turn to Spanish Jews who could not raise enough funds to set sail from his kingdom into slaves. He gave free reign to his crueler instincts, in fact, and had 2,000 Spanish Jewish children under eight years of age torn from their parents, forcibly baptized, and sent to the uninhabited Portuguese island of São Tomé, off the coast of West Africa. There, most of them quickly died of a combination of malaria, hunger, thirst and predation. We are told by the well-known 16th-century Lisbon printer Valentim Fernandes that 1,400 had already died by 1506.7
  Evidence of the devastating psychological effect this had on the Jews is that it is highlighted by virtually every Sephardic chronicler over the next century, including perhaps the most important, Samuel Usque. Several couch their lamentations for the children in Biblical terms, something which underscores the sacred drama they ascribed to the event. For instance, Rabbi Shelomóh Alkabetsz, a 16th-century poet and kabbalist, writes in his elegy: “Zion’s precious children (Lamentations 4:2), were again thrown into lions’ lairs and the hills the leopards haunt (Song of Songs 4:8), in a land of deserts and shifting sands, a country barren and ill-omened, where no man ever trod, no man ever made his home (Jeremiah 2:6), but in which lived the horned owl and bustard, screech-owl and raven (Isaiah 34:11), jackals and ostriches, where the wild animals consort with the hyena and the satyrs shout for one another (Isaiah 34: 13-14).”8
  I also believe that the Jews over the next century dwelled at length on this event as something of an omen. Trained in symbolic reasoning by careful study of the Torah, they very likely regarded this loss of their children as symbolic of their lack of a future in Iberia – of there being no place in Spain or Portugal for their seed to grow, so to speak.
Unfortunately, we know little of the relations between the Spanish Jews who remained stranded in Portugal and their Portuguese brethren. We have no records of the overcrowding that must have taken place in the ghettos, for instance, or how the Jewish schools and hospitals accommodated so many new residents. In part, we have such scarcity of information, because less than five years later another trauma left the Jews severed from their very selves.
This second event occurred in December of 1496. By then, King Manuel had come to power in Portugal. And he had generously granted freedom to the enslaved Spanish Jews. Then, however, he got greedy. He decided to cut a deal with Ferdinand and Isabella. He would kick the Jews – and Moors – out of his kingdom in exchange for the hand of their daughter in marriage
Just before the expulsion order was to take effect, however, Manuel decided to convert the Jews rather than lose such valuable subjects. In March of 1497, he closed all ports of disembarkation and ordered the Jews rounded up and dragged to the baptism font.
We are told that up to 20,000 of these forced converts were corralled on the grounds of the Estaus Palace in Lisbon, a royal residence on Rossio Square which was later used as the home of the Inquisition.9
  Although accounts have reached us some Jews who murdered their children and then committed suicide rather than become Christians, most did indeed agree under threat of death or loss of their children to accept Jesus as the Messiah.
What could happen to those who refused to be baptized was illustrated only too graphically by the suffering of the chief rabbi of Portugal, Rabbi Simon Maimi, who, along with six others, was walled up to his neck in a dungeon for seven days and seven nights. Three of these Jewish leaders died, including Maimi, and the other four, according to one chronicler, were taken out to sea and tossed overboard.10
  Called Anusim amongst themselves, meaning Forced Ones, the Jewish converts were referred to as New Christians by the Crown, to distinguish them from so-called Old Christians.
  These New Christians of Portugal were given twenty years to lose their traditional Jewish customs, a promise which proved hollow over the next two decades of prejudice and imprisonment. Even so, many of them persisted in their beliefs. In secret and at great risk, they said their Hebrew prayers and practiced their rituals, in particular those related to the observance of the Sabbath, which since the destruction of Solomon’s temple, had become the center of Jewish life, taking the place of any geographic center. One such secret Jew was Berekiah Zarco, the narrator of my novel.
  To understand why this conversion would have been so very traumatic to the Jews, I think we have to make a leap of consciousness. To imagine that we are defined, much more than is possible for our modern Western mind, by our faith. In this regard, I think we have to recall that the first three mitzvahs of Judaism, three of the most important of the acts each Jew is expected to make, call for more than a belief in the God of Israel, but a love of a single unified God. In accepting Jesus as the Messiah and the Trinity as the fundamental structure of the Godhead, each Jew was quite literally severing his covenant with the God of Israel and his own identity, severing his link in a chain leading back to Abraham.
Keep in mind, too, that this was before the great age of secularization, when a Jew –like myself – could define himself as such without believing in God, without going to synagogue or without knowing a single Hebrew prayer. Back then, this was unthinkable. There were no secular Jews. Or, if there were, they kept such information to themselves for fear of being judged as heretics and even excommunicated by their own communities, as happened to a Jew of Portuguese descent several decades later, Baruch Spinoza.
Curiously, some historians and philosophers, such as the Israeli Spinoza specialist Yirmiyahu Yovel, claim that secularization in Europe began right here, with this split, when the New Christians found themselves in a no man’s land between Christianity and Judaism, alienated, if you will, from both religions and seeking a new path toward self-definition.11
In any case, if there are any doubts as to how desperately the 15th-century Jews of Portugal fought against conversion, as to how significant an event it was for them, then the following comments from Samuel Usque should prove useful. Usque was a Portuguese Jewish exile who published one of the masterpieces of Portuguese literature in Ferrara in 1553, an historic poem entitled, Consolations for the Tribulations of Israel. In discussing the Crown’s attempt to first baptize Jewish children, Usque writes:
  “Many fine promises were made to induce them voluntarily to become Christians, but they were firm and refused; whereupon they were dragged by the legs and arms to the churches, where water was thrown on them. After this they were sent back to their afflicted parents, who sustained a miserable existence, who were told that their children were now Christians and would hate them unless they did the same. But they would not submit. The king ordered them to be deprived of food and drink. At the end of three days, finding they would rather die than abandon their faith, they were dragged by the hair and beards, with blows and wounds, to the churches, where water was sprinkled on them. Those who were thus baptized had Christian names given to them, and were given in charge of Old Christians, to watch that they observed Catholicism and kept to the faith. A father who had thus been taken with his six children, by learned reasoning recommended them to die rather than renounce their religion. They were all murdered. Some, sooner than abandon the religion of their fathers, threw themselves into wells or from windows. Their corpses were taken up and burnt, to inspire their surviving friends and relatives with fear and dread.”12
In addition to the profound rupture and ongoing identity crisis this conversion clearly caused, a second reason for trauma was political.
  I should mention here that Portuguese Jews had always maintained autonomous communities under the direct protection and dominion of Christian kings.
  What I mean by autonomous is that the Portuguese crown gave the Jews the right to control their own schools, courthouses, libraries, bathhouses and synagogues. They quite literally lived in islands inside the Portuguese kingdom. Jewish Autonomous Islands.
In exchange for this autonomy, which was greatly prized, the Jews paid heavier taxes than Christians, forfeited the right to full citizenry and were subject to a dangerous extent to the whims of the Crown. Because of this, they grew to depend heavily upon the King’s mercy, and upon the relationship of so-called Court Jews with the reigning monarch.
The Jews had also been expected to live inside their neighborhoods or ghettos and were, during different periods of their history, locked inside at sundown. In many places for their own protection, I should add.
And so, at the moment that baptismal water trickled over their foreheads, this autonomy, this power, these autonomous islands, simply ceased to exist. No Jewish schools, no hospitals, no courts, no rabbis, no cantors. No Jewish butchers, no kosher wine or food. No freedom from Christian stares and hate. No freedom from the Church, which prior to the conversion had little power over the Jews.
  And no books.
  King Manuel banned all Hebrew books, except medical texts. This was a more significant development than it might at first appear, because when the King took away their books, when he confiscated the Torah and Talmud as well as the mystical writings of generations of Jewish philosophers, the New Christians lost all possibility of maintaining their rituals and relation to God.
Keep in mind that it is a Jewish tradition that the Torah IS God’s body. Or if you prefer to speak less poetically, there is a belief that if God had a body, it would be the Torah. And there exists the strong belief, too, that Hebrew is a holy language. Without Hebrew, because of the peculiarities of a language in which letters are also numbers, it also became quite literally impossible to practice many of the rituals of Jewish mysticism, of kabbalah, which takes clever advantage of the numerical possibilities of Hebrew.
And so, to sum up the significance of the Great Conversion, the Jews lost their traditional identity, their political power, God’s metaphorical body, their holy language, and their mystical philosophy of kabbalah in one fell swoop.
Which brings us to our third trauma.
As I mentioned, at the time of the great conversion in 1497, King Manuel gave the New Christians 20 years to lose their Jewish customs before he would begin prosecuting them. A tolerant attitude for a greedy and fanatical ruler, one might say. Enough time for these traumatized souls to get a breather, at the very least.
  Except that it didn’t work out that way.
  Nine years after conversion, on the afternoon of April 19, during the week of secret Passover celebrations, a riot broke out. It’s hard to say the exact reasons. We are told by historians that the residents of Lisbon were desperate, even crazed, because of the plague and drought then afflicting the city. What we know for sure is that the Christian mob, rallied by Dominican friars shouting “Death to the Heretics, Death to the Jews” swept through the traditional Jewish neighborhoods of Lisbon, grabbed who they could find and killed them. It is estimated that 2,000 New Christians were burnt in two great pyres in the Rossio. The wood for burning them was gladly paid for by Northern sailors hoping for a highlight to their stay in Lisbon.13
Given that the New Christian population of Lisbon could probably not have been more than 10,000 or 12,000 at most, every family must have had at least someone who perished that day.
  In addition, in a city of 65,000, everyone would have known who was a converted Jew and who had lost loved ones. Imagine the stares over the next months endured by New Christians having to bury and then mourn their dead, having to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Imagine their mistrust and fear.
  In part, I think this fear would have been more difficult for the Portuguese Jews to bear than for their brethren in Germany, Eastern Europe, Spain and other areas. Because Portugal, surprisingly enough, after all I’ve said, had traditionally been a tolerant place for the Jews.
  By this I mean that in Portugal, Jews had had the right to hold lands and to practice a wide range of professions – something not always the case in Germany, France and England, for instance. In Portugal, there had always been renowned Jewish doctors and surgeons, of course, and tailors, shoemakers, goldsmiths and silversmiths, but also Jewish farmers, vintners and blacksmiths. And fruitsellers and manuscript illuminators like the Zarco family in my novel. Indeed, there was no profession off limits to Jews.
Furthermore, in Portugal, the Jews had not been subject to periodic pogroms, as they were in most areas of Eastern Europe or even Spain. From the beginning of Christian rule in the 12th century up until the end of the 15th century, Christian-Jewish relations in Portugal are, in fact, characterized by remarkable calm.
And so to sum up the first three traumas, we first see a Jewish population swelled to the breaking point with poor and emotionally shattered brethren from Spain, their children stolen from them and sent to die in Africa. Then we see the Jews converted en masse under the threat of death, their links to Judaism and particularly its mystical possibilities severed, their previous identities and political power lost. And finally, at the heart of the Portuguese capital, we see two thousand New Christians murdered and burnt in pyres in front of the Dominican Church.
After that, thirty years later, the definitive end came. Because on May 23,1536, the Inquisition was definitely established in Portugal, making it virtually impossible for New Christians to practice their traditional religion, even in secret, as they had before. It became criminally punishable even to wash one’s sheets on Friday, before the evening of the Jewish Sabbath. Or to light candles at the wrong time. And for such infractions, there was a very real chance of ending one’s days in a dungeon or having one’s feet roasted over a fire.
  In this atmosphere of fear, every Old Christian would have been regarded as a potential informant or blackmailer. Every New Christian would have considered himself a target of whispers, stares, gossip, discrimination and fanatical hatred.
When the first Auto-de-Fe occurred in Lisbon on September 20, 154014 ,when the first group of shackled and starving New Christians were marched into Commercial Square to the cheers of happy crowds of Old Christians munching on their stewed prunes, when flames were set to their pyres, the screams of these Portuguese men, women and children marked the end of Judaism in Portugal.
  From that moment on, each New Christian knew that he or she had been identified for good as the enemy – the enemy within, so to speak – a potential threat to the moral and social order of the day.
Decimated and terrorized, quite literally living under a state of siege, these New Christians did anything they could over the next three centuries to get out and never come back.
And they did flee, making Constantinople and Salonika thriving Jewish cities – along with Ferrara, Rhodes, Livorno, Dubrovnik and many other places.
  A great many also moved to the most isolated areas of the country, where they would be relatively safe from the persecution of the Church – which is how the Jewish community in Belmonte, a town in the northeast mountains, began.
As a footnote, I should add that most of the descendants of the courageous Jews who did manage to flee from Portugal, who succeeded in establishing communities in far-off lands, were killed in the Holocaust. Forty-five thousand alone died who had lived in Salonika, Jews who still spoke and sang in Portuguese or Spanish, some of whom had kept their 16th and 17th century house keys from Lisbon and Beja, Porto and Evora.
  To end, I’d simply like to a quote a brief lament from Samuel Usque’s Consolations for the Tribulations of Israel, a lament to which even Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice may owe some debt:
  “How was the dust of which I was kneaded different from that of all other earthly bodies, that you, O earth, do not want or permit me upon you? What deformity is there in my face, what disproportion in my limbs compared to other rational beings, that you, O nations, reject and repudiate me?”15


1. João Brandão (de Buarcos), Grandeza e Abastança de Lisboa em 1552 (Lisbon, 1990), chapter 4.
2. Ibid., chapter 4.
3. Quoted by A.H. de Oliveira Marques, “A View of Portugal in the Time of Camões,” in Empire in Transition, ed. Alfred Hower and Richard A. Preto-Rodas (Gainsesville, Florida, 1985), p. 10.
4. E.H. Lindo, The Jews of Spain and Portugal (New York, 1970), p. 287.
5. Elias Lipiner, Os Baptizados em Pé (Lisbon, 1998), p. 13.
6. E.H. Lindo, The Jews of Spain and Portugal (New York, 1970), p. 285.
7. Elias Lipiner, Os Baptizados em Pé (Lisbon, 1998), p. 20.
8. Ibid., p. 29.
9. Ibid., p. 106.
10. Ibid., p. 108.
11. Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics (Princeton, 1989).
12. Quoted by E.H. Lindo, The Jews of Spain and Portugal (New York, 1970), p. 330.
13. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, The Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the Royal Image in the Shebet Yehudah (Cincinnati, 1976).
14. Cecil Roth, A History of the Marranos (Philadelphia, 1959), p. 73.
15. Quoted by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in Consolação às Tribulações de Israel, p. 61.


Richard Zimler has lived in Portugal since 1990. His Sephardic Cycle is made up of four novels about different branches and generations of a Portuguese-Jewish family. The works in this series are: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn and The Seventh Gate. His novels have been published in 23 languages. His website is:

Michael Fieni