The widespread presence of a Jewish population in Portugal became a challenge to Christian society even before King D Manuel I (1495-1521) chose to deal with the problem.
Jews had served Portugal’s monarchs since the days of D Afonso Henriques (1143-1189), Christian Portugal’s first king. They were conspicuous in their traditional role of tax collectors and the king referred to them as “os meus judeus”.
As their commercial success excited envy, so their religious presence seemed to challenge the increasingly intolerant Christian authorities in Portugal.
There were outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence in the 1400s, but matters came to a head with the Castilian Alhambra Decree of March 1492. The Catholic Monarchs decreed that all Jews must leave their kingdoms by July 31, 1492. They were forbidden to take their money with them.
King D João II accepted many temporary refugees in Portugal, laying down that their presence was guaranteed for only eight months, after which they would be exiled to Arzila and Tangiers in Portuguese Morocco, or they would be enslaved. He also removed 2,000 Jewish children from their parents and sent them to the island of São Tomé. His aim was apparently to colonise the island, without losing the Jews from Portugal.
D Manuel freed those enslaved by his predecessor but was caught by the desire of his prospective bride, D Isabella of Castile. She would marry him only if he expelled the Jews from Portugal. He agreed, and in December 1496 expelled all Jews and Moors from his kingdom. Having second thoughts, he summoned all the Jews in the kingdom to Lisbon, at which they expected to be sent into exile. But on April 21, 1497, the 20,000 Jews were forced into churches and forcibly baptised. In this one move, the king had dealt with the Jewish problem, since by definition there were now no Jews in Portugal. Their synagogues, schools, libraries and cemeteries were now no longer needed and became state property and were sold. The ‘judiaria’ in Tavira for example became the site for the new Convento de Nossa Senhora da Graça. The king had also retained the wealth of this community within his kingdom.
The newly converted were referred to as “cristãos-novos” (New Christians), crypto-Jews and “Marranos” (a pejorative) and D Manuel decreed that they should be left alone at least until 1533.
The Inquisition in Castile had been founded in 1478, and Christian authorities in Portugal wanted a similar Inquisition. The Pope agreed in 1536, and it began its fell work in 1547. It targeted many irreligious practices, but its main target was always Judaisers, or convert Jews.
Over the years, the Portuguese Inquisition dealt with more than 30,000 suspects of whom nearly 2,000 were executed (burned) at an “auto da fé”.
The richer ‘cristãos-novos’ were able, illegally, to leave Portugal and continue their trading activities from Amsterdam, Hamburg and other European cities. The poorest could not afford to escape, and instead tended to migrate as far from the Inquisition centres as they could. Over time, the centres of crypto-Jewish settlement coalesced around the borders with Spain in the northeast of Portugal.
Living in Christian communities, their Jewish faith survived but became intermingled with Christian practices. Rightly fearful of denunciation to the Inquisition, they had to abandon obvious signs of Judaism, such as circumcision, Jewish texts, menorahs, talliths, mezuzahs and Jewish festivals. Their sacred texts were disguised as Christian prayers. Crypto-Jews devised a Jewish prayer which they recited as they appeared to form the sign of the cross. The practice of sweeping from outside inwards was abandoned because it was obviously Jewish.
The Sabbath lamp was placed at the bottom of a clay jar, so that the light could not be detected from outside the house, and even in the 1920s, long after the Jewish religion had been legitimised by the First Republic in Portugal, young children in Bragança were excluded from Jewish ritual assemblies, for fear that entirely innocently they might give away some potentially dangerous information.
Their diet also underwent change, as the traditional Portuguese pork sausage was manipulated by crypto-Jews to conform with their dietary requirements. The delicious “alheira” of northern Portugal is a sausage containing garlic and turkey or chicken but masquerading as Christian pork.
There is a story that ‘conversos’ abandoned their obviously Jewish names and chose instead surnames which designated trees or other plants of a Catholic connotation. These Portuguese names would demonstrate their loyalty to their new faith. Deeper research has revealed that such names as Pereira (pear tree), Carvalho (oak) and Cruz (cross) may have been selected by ‘conversos’ but are also common to families with no demonstrable Jewish ancestry.
The ‘converso’ families of the Portuguese borderlands are even now obsessed with secrecy. A recent film crew was recording a matzah (unleavened bread) ceremony in preparation for a documentary on “The Last Marranos”. A knock at the door provoked panic among the participants, who feared the Inquisition, which was abolished in 1821, nearly two centuries beforehand.
The work of Samuel Schwarz and Artur Barros Basto to reclaim the Marrano communities of northern Portugal for Judaism has been a mixed blessing. The Marrano religion is heavily altered by Christian practices, and their obsessive habit of secrecy makes their way of life very difficult for outsiders, even other Jews, to penetrate.
By Lynne Booker