29 Jun, 2014
An early etching of an Auto-da-fe'
An early etching of an Auto-da-fe’

After a delightful lunch in one of the many sidewalk cafés surrounding Lisbon’s Rossio Square, we went to our photo-shoot appointment at the city’s only synagogue. Our appetites for the grilled fish entre were a bit dampened by the knowledge that in 1544, as Portugal’s Inquisition got into full swing, there had been an auto-da-fé in this very square, the site of our leisurely repast. Auto-da-fé is a sanitized term for public burnings, where good citizens jeer, cheer, and zealously participate in slicing, dicing and stealing as their victims scream and burn to death. In a series of such public spectacles, about 1200 of Portugal’s Jews were burned at the stake. Until that time Portugal had been a relatively safe harbor for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition which had been going on for a little over fifty years.

To avoid this excruciating death, many Jews and Muslims, known as conversos, converted to Catholicism. However, conversion did not always prove to be a safe haven. Many conversos were subjected to horrendous tortures or life-long service as galley rowing slaves.

Another misery inflicted upon Portugal’s Jews was the state orchestrated mass kidnapping of Jewish children who were sent to work as slaves in the equatorial African islands of Sao Tome and Principe. It wasn’t without good cause. After all, labor was needed to work the sugar plantations of these Portuguese outposts where a particularly virulent strain of Malaria cut life expectancies to only a few years.

Lisbon's Grand Synagogue faces a courtyard
Lisbon’s Grand Synagogue faces a courtyard

In 1821, the Marquis of Pombal halted the Inquisition and Jews were invited back to Portugal so that the country could benefit from their acumen as businessmen, scientists and doctors.  In anticipation of a congregation of many hundreds, Lisbon’s Grand Synagogue was completed in 1904.

Interior of Grand Synagogue
Interior of Grand Synagogue

Today, the Lisbon Jewish community numbers only about three hundred, having reached its peak during the World War II years when neutral Portugal was a gateway out of Europe. The synagogue was the first to be built since the late 15thcentury. Its main façade faces an inner courtyard since Portuguese law at the time forbade non-Catholic religious buildings from facing the street.

Our Lisbon photographic work completed, we went to the airport to pick up our prearranged lease car. At building 125, we met the cheery Peugeot representative. Following him, we dragged all of our luggage and photo-gear to a labyrinthine underground car park to retrieve our vehicle. Because Europeans are thrifty and eco-conscious this huge catacomb like parking area was nearly unlit. Stumbling along with our many bags, we eventually came to a car that was alleged to be ours. Who could tell in the dark? We were asked to sign a sheaf of documents which the Peugeot representative kindly attempted to illuminate with his almost exhausted pen-sized flashlight. Truly, it was so dark I have no idea what I signed, except I needed that car even if I was agreeing in writing to send my first born to Sao Tome to work the sugar plantations.

After the signing, the fun began. Imagine being acquainted in the dark with a new French car by a man who mostly speaks Portuguese. Standard shift just added to the challenges. After 10 minutes of misunderstanding the gentleman’s heavily accented miss-explanations we took our copies of the slavery contracts I had signed and backed the car out of its ridiculously narrow slot. Being a new model car, it was fitted with warning beepers that hooted and beeped if we got too near anything. The parking slot was so narrow that as soon as I began backing the vehicle, it erupted with a cacophony of hooting, beeping and flashing warning lights. I was stressed to the max by this pyrotechnic display in the near dark where structural columns and parked cars lurked in close proximity as I eased out the clutch. You do remember clutches don’t you? Proud that I hadn’t hit anything, we were finally out of the catacombs.

Interior of ancient Tomar Synagogue
Interior of ancient Tomar Synagogue

An hour and a half later we arrived in the town of Tomar which has an authentically preserved medieval quarter replete with tiny, cobblestone streets zigzagging between ancient stone buildings. The vice-mayor had arranged for two smiling docents to meet us at Tomar’s old synagogue that dates from the mid-15th century.  As there are only two Jewish people now residing in Tomar, (one was our docent), the synagogue, a truly interesting Museum of Jewish Culture, is maintained by the city.  Since the expulsion and forced conversions of Portuguese Jews in 1496, the synagogue has served such diverse functions as a prison, church, grocery warehouse and hayloft.

Fronting on a narrow street in Tomar’s ancient Juderia, or Jewish ghetto, the small synagogue is a square shaped room with three short aisles defined by four central columns supporting Gothic vaulting. The four pillars are said to symbolize the four matriarchs of the Torah – Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel – who are recognized as co-founders of Israel, in equal stature to their more renowned husbands, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The twelve arches supported by the four columns symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel.

View of arched Tomar Synagogue ceiling
View of arched Tomar Synagogue ceiling

A two hour drive north from Tomar brought us to Porto, the city made famous as the source for the delicious, sweet alcoholic beverage, Port. Just as intoxicating, for those infatuated by architectural delicacies, is the city’s remarkable and unique Art-Deco style synagogue. There are very few religious buildings of any kind in the Art-Deco aesthetic. In detail as well as overall form and concept, this one is a true gem.

Porto's Art-Deco Synagogue
Porto’s Art-Deco Synagogue

The Porto Synagogue’s story began in the 1920s when there were approximately twenty Ashkenazi Jews in the city. A Portuguese army officer, Captain Artur Barros Basto, who learned at the bedside of his dying grandfather that his family were actually conversos, decided to take up the faith of his Jewish ancestors.

By 1929, Barros Basto had raised funds to buy a plot of land. Work progressed slowly due to limited finances until 1933, when Laura Kadoorie, the wife of Sir Elly Kadoorie, a Portuguese-born Jewish philanthropist living in Britain, died. Laura was a descendant of Portuguese Jews who fled that country’s inquisition centuries before.  To honor their mother, Laura’s children financially supported completion of the Synagogue of Porto and it was renamed Synagogue Kadoorie – Mekor Haim. 

Art-Deco details of Porto Synagogue
Art-Deco details of Porto Synagogue

A short visit to Portugal offers the tourist three wonderful and diverse synagogues to ogle, delicious Port wine as well as delightful Portuguese cuisine, culture and countryside. My suggestion, if you rent a car, is be sure it’s delivered above ground.


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