(completed 1938, the year of Kristallnacht)



by J. Cooper

For 500 years
They hid
In the mountains of Belmonte
Along narrow streets
Among pretty flowers,
olive trees, and apple orchards

For 500 years
They hid -
Their religion
Forbidden by law

For 500 years
They prayed to their God
With tears in their eyes
Prayed to be allowed to pray

For 500 years
They lit the Sabbath candles
And drank the sacramental wine
In the cellars of their homes
Mothers passed on rituals
to daughters and grand-daughters

For 500 years they hid their belief
For 500 years they kept their faith

A knock on the door brought fear
A stranger could not be trusted

Forbidden by law
For 500 years
The flame was not extinguished

Today they walk with heads held high
To their house of worship

Magen David firmly planted in the garden
Menorah standing proudly in the garden
Outside Sinagoga Bet Eliyahu

Their voices sing the liturgy
Their voices sing
Sephardi melodies

For 500 years they hid
Behind closed doors
                                                                             Belmonte esnoga


Portugal Through a Jewish Lens (2006)
by J. Cooper

J. Cooper, Dr. Harold Michal-Smith (philanthropist), Jorge Balles, Eduardo Lopes, Isabel Lopes Barros Basto, Yaacov Gladstone, J. Cooper

Most tourists in Portugal enjoy the beautiful Algarve region and perhaps see Lisbon. My trip there was vastly different. My husband and I learned about the history of the country, its Jewish communities and saw many relevant sites. We visited and interacted with three unique Jewish communities of B'nai Anousim, that is, descendants of Jews forcibly baptized in 1497. 
The trip was organized by our friend Yankle Gladstone, a tireless activist who has spent much time and effort reaching out to Jews in remote areas and helping them. In our group of seven, there were three “returnees”. One of them was our friend and guide - himself born in the Azores to a Catholic family.
(j cooper, mlopesazevedo)

Portugal is a country with little anti-Semitism. It is generally believed that  a good deal of the population have Jewish  antecedents. Recent DNA studies have borne this out. The Jewish presence in Portugal is noteworthy. 

The first treasurer of Portugal in 1147 under the founding king Afonso I, was the chief rabbi, Yahia Ben Yahi. From the founding of the country, until the forced baptism of 1497, Jewish communities flourished in Portugal with its members formed an important part of the king's advisors and ministers, engaged in the professions such as medicine and astronomy, were involved in trade and commerce, and also engaged in large scale agricultural production.  Discriminatory laws, such as the Lateran Council requirement to wear a distinctive symbol (a yellow badge or hat) were often disregarded or dispensed with, often to the great consternation of the local church hierarchy. Jews were an integral part of Portuguese medieval society often  protected by royalty.

In 1492, the year of the expulsion from Spain, a large contigent of Jewish refugees crossed the border to Portugal on a temporary "visa" allowing them to stay six months. The wealthiest 600 families were able to purchase permanent residency. However, the estimated 100,000 refugees were unable to find refuge elsewhere and  King John II made them slaves after six months.  The cruel king took an estimated 2,000 young children from theses refugees and sent them  to the island of "crocodiles" where many perished (Sao Tome off the coast of Africa). In 1495 John died and his successor, king Manuel I granted the Jewish slaves their freedom, afterwards refusing a generous donation from the Jewish community. 

However, by 1496 king Manuel  had his eyes on the Spanish throne, and as a condition of marrying the daughter of the Catholic monarchs of Spain, he agreed to order the expulsion of Jews from Portugal, decreeing on December 5, 1492 that they leave within 10 months. King Manuel, a Miachevelian prince before his time, did his best to convince the Jews he had ordered to leave to stay and convert to Catholicism. He applied pressure by taking minor children away from their parents in the spring of 1497, promising to return them if they converted. 

Ultimately he allowed only 40 or so Jews to leave Portugal, including his personal physician and astronomer, rabbi Abrahma Zacuto, inventor of the navigational tables that allowed Portuguese sailors to sail to India. The remaining Jews, estimated to comprise anywhere from 10 to 25 per cent of the population, (estimated to be 1 million), were forcibly converted to Catholicism by royal decree, dragged to the baptismal fount and  given Christian names and godparents.

The king thought that he had solved the Jewish "problem" with a stroke of the pen, hence there would be no more Jews in Portugal, only New Christians who, promised the king, would not be persecuted as long as they conducted their religious affairs in the privacy of their own homes. Those New Christians who continued to observe the essentials of Judaism in secret became known as Marranos, considered by some to be a perjorative term. Some still deliberately call themselves that – particularly in the emerging Lisbon community. (One member of our group, a noted sociologist, explained the term “stigma conversion” as deliberately converting the negative stigma into something positive).

King Manuel's policy of turning a blind eye to Jewish practices failed when in 1506 a rioting mob killed between two to four thousand New Christia in Lisbon during a three day spree. (see The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler). Eventually the dreaded inquisition was established in Portugal in 1536 and the Marranos were forced to flee or live secret lives. A few candlestine communities survived right into the 20th century, Belmonte being the most well known.

There are 40,000 inquisition files in the national archives, most of which deal with accusations of secretly observing Jewish rites. About 3,000 people were burned at the stake, or more accuretely roasted, for it took approximately two hours to die from the licking flames of the pyre. All those burned, with few exceptions,  were accused of being secret Jews.


Notwithstanding that we were sleep-deprived, our guide  arrived early to take us on our first walk through Lisbon. We started at the square honouring the prime minister  Marques de Pombal who rebuilt Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755. He also abolished the distinction between “New Christians” and old Christians. We saw the National Theatre (Dona Maria II), built on the site of the former  Palace of the Inquisition. Next to the theatre, we visited  the church belonging to the Dominican friars where the  terrible massacre of New Christians occurred on  April 5, 1506.  It started when two New Christians debunked a miracle giving a scientific  explanation for it. Then we saw “Praca do Commercio” (Blackhorse Square), the huge square where some of the autos-da-fes  were carried out.

The first evening was enjoyed with Beit Yisroel, a community of B’nai Anousim. Their shul, Ohel Ya’akov, a fourt fourth floor walk-up, is a magnificent improvement over their former premises. The look of pride in the eyes of Joseph and Adriana is a highlight of this trip! We heard their stories. For example, Marco and Anabella, formally converted in London by the Masorti Conservative movement, immediately married under the Chuppah! We feel connected to Beit Yisroel especially because we are members of Beth Israel in Peterborough, Canada!

 Beit Yisroel, Lisboa


Belmonte, high on a hill in the north, is where we spent our first Shabbat. Belmonte is unique, for 500 years they maintmaintained their Crypto-Judaism. Women kept the faith alive, passing on rituals to daughters and grand-daugdaughters. They traditionally lit candles in the cellar and observed dates like Yom Kippur a few days late.

When Samuel Schwartz, a Polish engineer, visited Belmonte in 1917, they didn’t believe he was Jewish. They thought they were the only Jews left in the world and didn’t know one could practice Judaism openly. Only when he recited the “Shema” did he gain their confidence.

Most  have since “returned” to normative Judaism, have a beautiful synagogue and want to learn as much as they can. They, of course, have a problem getting the resources they need to accomplish this.The synagogue, Beit Eliahu, is in a picturesque location high up in the hills and has pretty gardens. The grass is arranged to form a Magen David, and  a large menorah too. 
We returned for a moving Havdalah.


Porto has a story if its own. We had a touching meeting with Isabel Basto Lopes, grand-daughter of Captain Barros- Basto. Of crypto-Jewish ancestry, he was known as the Captain, the "Portuguese Dreyfus", described by the noted historian Cecil Roth as the “Apostle of the Marranos". A highly-decorated officer during Worl War I, in 1923 he organized a Jewish community in Porto bringing back to Judaism many of those who had remainned Jews in spirit.

 His dreams were indestructible. He established a Yeshiva, the journal “Halapid” and in 1938 (the year of Kristallnacht!) the "Mekor Haim" Synagogue. Because of his “Judaising”, Basto was expelled from army service*, and defamed amid false accusations. Yet he carried on. He made the Porto community a shelter for refugees of WWII; some of whom, redeemed, are there to testify.  

We later made a side trip to Amarante because Barros Basto is buried there beside his grandfather, albeit in a Christian cemetery (There was no Jewish cemetery). We recited Kaddish and the prayer We Remember Them.

 In Porto the rabbi is from Italy. His wife is also the Jewish studies teacher. We visited the beautiful Mekor Haim synagogue and stayed for Mincha. Standing around talking, someone complained that Ashkenazim are alienated from the Marranos issue. That prompted some indignation and our singing, in Yiddish, of “Zog Maran” a song that talks of how Crypto-Jews prepared for Passover and hid their matzos! (which surprised and sort of amused them).

 Kadoorie Mekor Haim esnoga in Porto built by Captain Barros Basto, completed 1939

 Lisbon Again

Back in Lisbon, the members of Ohel Ya’akov felt like old friends. Shabbat with them was so, so meaningful! Certain prayers were omitted because, they said, there wasn’t a minyan. In our culture that usually means they don’t include the women. Here it means that some in the assembled congregation had not yet completed their conversion or return.

They treated us like visiting Royalty. We were served a great meal that never ended. Some local dishes were codfish cakes replacing gefilte fish and Portuguese “biscuit cake” and flan. Birkat Hamazon began about 11:30! After hugs and more and more kisses, they drove us all home.
Their determination is inspiring, but the needs of Jewish Portugal are great. It is our responsibility to somehow help with Jewish resources and education.
We brought home wonderful souvenirs- friends…

Belmonte, (Dr. Abe Lavender, former president of Society for Crypto Judaic Studies, USA in the background)

*Captain Barros Basto was posthumously rehabilitated by a unanimous vote of the Portuguese National Assembly in 2012.



Book launch in Lisboa