To boldly go where too few have gone before
Sintra and Tomar
Let’s be honest. I wasn’t that excited about going to Portugal.
When I was ten years old, we briefly disembarked in Lisbon on our way to Israel but all I remember from that visit was a beautiful garden. I don’t believe I was that interested in gardens at the age of ten so it must have been a really nice one.
Further, after spending ten days in Spain, I felt that I would have enough difficulty assimilating that experience; to add another would simply blow my circuits.
That may still be the case: Circuits blown.
We arrived in Lisbon Thursday morning from Seville, a flight not unlike going from Louisville to Chicago, a small city to a larger one, with the benefit of staying within the European Union so there was no passport control in entering Portugal and the time zone was one behind so we arrived at the same time we flew.
When we were dropped off to explore Sintra, just a bit outside of Lisbon, my wife and I didn’t know what to expect. We decided to get off the beaten path and and walk up…We found a small restaurant where we had a Portuguese gazpacho with strawberries, cheese with olive oil and a great roasted vegetable sandwich. My wife had seen the ad for a Portuguese liquor on the plane and I saw a bottle of it behind the cashier and asked about it. He offered me a taste (on the rocks is how they drink it): Beirao. The herb-y drink was very refreshing and since I didn’t have to drive but did have to navigate down some pretty steep cobble stone streets I indulged in just a few sips.
We went to the summer castle of a Portuguese king built in Romantic style a few hundred years ago such that it could easily be mistaken for a display as part of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
There is a very small Jewish population in Portugal now and most towns have merely a plaque or street name to recall our presence, sometimes a street called “Jewish street” or a section of town called ‘Juderia’. Our presence in Portugal was wiped out far more effectively it turns out than Akhenaten’s by those who followed him in ancient Egypt.
I learned a few things from our guides that I hadn’t known. First, it may be that the origin of the name ‘Marranos’ derives from a Spanish word that means ‘deceitful’ rather than ‘swine’ and only later acquired that additional even more pejorative connotation. Further, the names of the New Christians, those Jews who converted rather than leaving Portugal 5 years after having uprooted from Spain during the 1492 Expulsion, were often forced to remove their Jewishness without being given the opportunity to blend into the Old Christian population. Mendez was apparently one of those New Christian names (it was the name of our guide!) as well as names of fruit trees and words from nature like Lima.
Friday we visited a synagogue in Tomar, the oldest still standing shul in Portugal which is open and run by a Christian woman who makes sure it’s open 365 days a year. We went in and heard about its history and Nava Harlow who accompanied us with Rabbi Jules asked me to lead the Hazzanim in a song of some kind. The six of us sang a Sephardic setting for Psalm 29 which I often use on Friday night as part of Kabbalat Shabbat. We followed the resonant and joyous Psalm with the mourner’s kaddish as the synagogue is rarely used by a minyan. Tomar has only two Jewish families at this time.
On our way to Tomar, Rabbi ‘Julito’ as he’s known here and Nava spoke to us about the history of the Portuguese Inquisition as well as the work they have done helping descendants of Conversos find their way back to Judaism. Her B’nei Anussim (the descendants of forced-converts) had stories galore including the grandmother from outside Recife who always had a specific knife for killing chickens, the mother from Mozambique who had two sets of silverware for fish and meat, the mother and grandmother from Majorca who would never sweep out the front door (because there was a custom not to sweep out the door with the mezuzah), the Portuguese mother who asked why she should continue circumcising their sons on the 8th day after more than 500 years of continuing the practice as Christians.
Although most of the conversions have taken place under the auspices of the Beit Din of London, there were two that were arranged for a Masorti assembled Beit Din in Lisbon but use of the Orthodox mikvah was flatly denied. Unfazed, they used the Atlantic Ocean which was freezing. Apparently it was hard to distinguish between the salt water of the Ocean and the tears of these long lost crypto-Jews who had found their way to their spiritual home.
In one of the teaching sessions one of Rabbi Jules’ students responded to the Biblical and Talmudic discussion of returning lost objects, “You found us and returned us.
Hearing all the devastating news in Nice and recent outrages in Europe have given European Jews reasons to be wary, vigilant and concerned about attacks. That said, in my travels in Spain and Portugal, I have felt quite safe both in terms of people I’ve seen in my long walks throughout the cities of the Iberian Peninsula as well as the relatively heavy police presence I’ve noticed in areas with large populations.
That said, I find it odd that I feel self-conscious wearing my kippah in public. It seems unlikely, I think, that I would be attacked but why take a chance? Most of the time I wear a larger hat for the sun and the kippah underneath so that if I’m in a setting where it’s appropriate to wear and in a closed non-public location, I can simply remove it and not worry so much.
We went to the orthodox shul in Lisbon on Shabbat and I’ve rarely received such a security screening anywhere else.
We were lead on foot by our non-Jewish guide from Ayelet, a lovely man named Oscar. When we arrived at the shul, there was a wall connecting the two buildings on the street with a locked door to a small courtyard behind which a gorgeous synagogue stands. When it was built, it was illegal to have a synagogue face the street; now the kahal feels lucky they don’t have to create that space from scratch.
Outside the door on the street there was a cop standing near the curb and two young men outside the door providing the screening. After a five minute conversation with the guide, one of the young men called me over to vouch for all ten or so from the group that wanted to davven that day. I was asked whether the guide had been good to us, whether he had given us anything to take inside (I said only water) and could I identify each person as a member of the group I recognized as they entered.
When we all made it to the courtyard, the other young man, who was also the gabbai of the shul asked us again about the guide as he was now out of earshot. He said it had occurred in other groups that the guide had slipped something to a congregant to bring into the shul.
The service was Sephardic and Moroccan in style for the most part with one quote from Jerusalem of Gold in the Musaf kedushah and the Geirowitch Adon Olam (Russian version most of you probably identify as ‘the traditional’ Adon Olam).
As in every Sephardic shul, the hagbah is BEFORE the reading and the Yad the Chazzan used was HUGE. It reminded me of a paraphrase from Crocodile Dundee: Now That’s a Yad!
It’s odd to feel I have to hide I’m Jewish in the streets of Lisbon and Madrid. It makes me feel like a crypto-Jew.
Obviusly, it’s not the same thing: I don’t have to pretend to be something else in particular (as real crypto-Jews did) and, perhaps most importantly, because in this situation it’s the government and church that would most interested in protecting me rather than ‘outing’ or harming me.
Still, I look forward to the day I can visit Madrid, Lisbon and Seville and feel as comfortable wearing my kippah as I do in Jerusalem.