Portugal, for those who have never visited, is an awesome place. But don’t hype it too much or you’ll sound like you don’t get the vibe.
One of the interesting things about Portugal, something I connect with, is the deep friendliness paired with an honest relationship with hardship. Fado, the traditional music of this country, is exactly that. Unlike the vibrant Flamenco of its Spanish neighbors, Fado is a slowly melding pot. It doesn’t force you to separate the happy from the sad, it lets you feel where the two intersect. And none of this prevents Portuguese people from smiling, giving you directions, and making conversation with you. They kind of remind me of me. To be “happy” is not to be joyous all the time. It’s to treat others with kindness and warmth and compassion- and also to protect yourself and realize the pain too. Rather than hiding it or gritting your teeth and smiling, pretending it’s not there.
While for me personally, I find a lot of Lisbon’s tourist attractions crowded and kind of dirty, other parts of the country (and even the city) are magical. Just take a look:
Portugal is a land that has known both great sorrow and joy. It was once home to one of the largest empires in the world. Despite Romance language learners gravitating towards Spanish and French, Portuguese has 260 million speakers on four continents. With a sound that just makes my ears feel at ease. It’s kind of a sexy tongue.
It’s one that I learned in a semester in undergrad in a course “Portuguese for Spanish speakers”. And this is my first time getting to speak it in a Lusophone country. That’s the cool word for “Portuguese-speaking”. What’s interesting is that although I learned Brazilian Portuguese and there are differences between the two dialects, I actually sometimes find myself understanding people here even better. The pronunciation is a bit more similar to the Castilian Spanish I learned first. And interestingly enough, it shares both grammatical features and phonology with Catalan. For example, while some Spanish verbs have stem changes, i.e. dormir becomes duermo, in Catalan it’s dormo and in Portuguese it is also dormo. In fact, in both Catalan and Portuguese the final “o” becomes a “u” sound. And what’s more, in the continental variety of Portuguese, the “l” carries a particular weight to it that sounds kind of like Russian…or Catalan! Geographic distance is not the only factor in linguistic similarity, and Portuguese and Catalan are proof of this, despite sharing no borders.
Portugal has known good and bad, both in its imperial endeavors as well as its domestic politics. While I am far from an expert on Portuguese history (I really didn’t come here to be sad, there’s enough of that in the Middle East), I do know they had a modern dictatorship. And much prior to that, they had the violence of the Inquisition.
After having enjoyed some of the delicious pastries, the nature, and some art, I decided to wander through some local neighborhoods to an archive. I love archives- I’ve written about this before. I’ve visited them in Girona, Salerno, and Tortosa. They are always a source of inspiration and an opportunity to hold history in your hands, to connect physically to the past. And they’re always free.
There’s not a lot of visible Jewish sites left in Lisbon. There are some elsewhere in the country, but kind of far for a relatively short trip, so I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to see. I tried wandering the Alfama, the former Jewish quarter, and while there are apparently walking tours, there’s not a lot of Jewish things left to see. Although you will notice the sign for the Jewish museum being constructed, apparently against the wishes of some neighbors. Who are slowing down the process and whose motives aren’t entirely clear. Some suspect anti-Semitism. I am not an expert on Portuguese architecture, but the claim that the museum will disrupt the neighborhood vibe seems specious at first glance. The neighborhood is dirty and a new building could probably do them some good. Here’s the construction sign:
In the Alfama, I asked a shop keeper for any advice about Jewish sites. And to my great pleasure, he was kind enough to tell me his friend runs tours. And he looked visibly pleased to be speaking with a Jew. He was proud to tell me his friends visited Tel Aviv recently and loved it. And irrespective of my own feelings about Tel Aviv (it’s not my favorite place in Israel), what was awesome is that he clearly liked Jews. And I showed my warmth in kind. He also said I spoke really good Portuguese 🙂
I’m an out-of-the-closet Jew and so while it doesn’t come up in every conversation I have (and sometimes I purposely say I’m American to avoid prejudice), it comes up often. Naturally. So I tend to get a good feel for the attitude of a culture towards Jews pretty easily. And what I can say is that at least up until now, I haven’t felt any noticeable animosity. While that might sound understated, it’s actually incredibly positive for today’s Europe. A place where anti-Semitism is spreading like wildfire and a third of people don’t know what the Holocaust is. What’s so interesting about Portugal, then, is how little of this animosity I feel. Something reflected in the fact that polls show it having relatively low levels of anti-Semitism, despite the global trends in the opposite direction. Even its next door neighbor Spain was rated the society with the highest levels of anti-Semitism in all of Europe.
When I visited the public library in Sintra, a city outside Lisbon, I asked about what Jewish books they had. While it’s not a scientific study, it’s often instructive to see if local libraries have books on X or Y topics as a sense of their communal importance. And it’s just as interesting to see what books they are and how they’re categorized.
In the case of Sintra, the librarian patiently wrote down the information of several books. While at first, I had been disappointed at the two lonely Jewish books smushed between tons about Christianity and Islam in the religion section, I soon learned something else was at work.
In the Sintra public library, most Jewish books were found alongside (or within) books about Portuguese history. The National Library in Budapest told me they didn’t have books about Jews because, “we only have books about Hungarians here”. But the Sintra public library had Jewish knowledge integrated into their sections about Portugal itself. A kind of anecdotal example that has so far paralleled my experience in both countries. I found Hungary quite anti-Semitic and xenophobic. And here, not as much. Even though in both countries, Jews have played an outsize role in their history. Well, in Portuguese history. Because apparently in Hungary, Jews aren’t Hungarian.
So today, feeling an itch to look at some old documents and see if I could find some Jewish ruins, in the metaphorical sense, I headed to an archive.
At the archive, I managed to find archivists’ notes on the Inquisition. According to the staff member, these notes were pretty old- and they were what the archivists saw in original Inquisition documents. Everything was beautifully handwritten, even if the contents themselves were saddening. A kind of writing Portuguese were made for.
For those who don’t know much about the Inquisition, when the Catholic kings conquered the Iberian peninsula from the Moors, they sought to unify disparate lands and consolidate power. While initially they had tolerated and even co-existed with the Jewish communities- some of which dated back to Roman times- this changed. In 1492, the Spanish conquered the last Moorish outpost and Catholicism was made the only state religion. Jews who had lived on this land for thousands of years were forced to flee their homes, and many did- to Turkey, Morocco, Greece, Serbia, and elsewhere. Leading to today’s Sephardic Jews. Some of whom still speak Judeo-Spanish. I even have a friend who teaches it in America- so if you find yourself at Binghamton, look up Prof. Kirschen.
The remaining Jews were tortured into converting to Catholicism. Those who didn’t, were murdered, sometimes en masse. And others converted to Catholicism, sometimes secretly practicing their ancient faith.
Spain imposed the Inquisition first, leading many of its remaining Jews to flee to Portugal. Where unfortunately, a few years later, the country followed in Spain’s footsteps.
With brutal consequences I saw first hand today.
I found 5 shelves full of beautifully bound books. I peered closer and found they were Inquisition records from the city of Évora. The shelves contained no less than 113 separate volumes. From a city that today has 56,000 people in a country of 10.3 million. So it hardly represents the entirety of the Inquisition. I’m not even sure it represents all of this records from this one city.
I opened one up.
I couldn’t have imagined me using my Portuguese to read Inquisition documents when I learned it back in St. Louis, but this is how I roll. And it’s always eye opening and fulfilling to see things first hand.
It didn’t take long to find the first person accused of the “crime of Judaism”. That’s a direct quote. For today’s anti-Semites like Linda Sarsour who claim hatred of Jews “isn’t systemic”, all they have to do is go to a library to realize they’re wrong. It’s absurd to have to even say that. The Inquisition documents were so brutally detailed and organized they seemed no different than the Nazis years later. Perhaps even an inspiration.
The stories were heartbreaking. I felt my emotions rising, unhindered by my American stiff upper lip nor my Israeli “who gives a shit”. It was my inner Portuguese saudade mixed with a lot of sadness. I felt connected to these people from ages ago, I wallowed in their pain, I held my hand to the text as I lifted their message into my life today.
The first condemned Jew I met was Alfonso Álvares. He was 55 years old from Évora, the son of Lourenço and Constança. Married to Inés de Miranda. His crime: “judaísmo”. He was arrested on November 12, 1654. A full 118 after the arrival of this torturous regime to Portugal. 162 years after it’s initiation in Spain, where some of the Jews fled from. The Inquisition was not a one year event- it lasted centuries to expunge the Jewishness from the entire peninsula- and its colonies in America.
What was Alfonso’s punishment for being a Jew? He was imprisoned, all of his property was confiscated, and he was burned as a heretic 10 days later. I wonder if this qualifies for Ms. Sarsour’s definition of “systemic”. It only involved the state, the Catholic church, the prison system, and the organized confiscation of property. You know, totally spontaneous.
Page after page was filled with people burned alive, imprisoned, and tortured for the “crime of Judaism”.
There was even a man, oddly enough, who wasn’t persecuted for being Jewish, but rather for making a “silver Jesus with the face of John, the Negro”. A weird story that the archivist on staff didn’t even understand. But clearly an example of how persecution of Jews is often the precursor to even more acts of hatred. As senseless as the ones that started it.
Then there was Branca Alvares, a Jew arrested on January 21, 1586, burned alive August 2, 1587. In the intervening time, sentenced to prison, stripped of her clothes and her dignity. A martyr for our faith, a defender of our right to be who we are. I never met you, Branca, but I admire your bravery in the face of stupid hatred. Our people persist because of people who resist, like you. May your memory and those of all our people burned at the stake be for a blessing. I dedicate this blog to you. I hope that my work in the world does honor to your courage.
It’s worth noting here that many of the victims had their property confiscated by the Church, acting in concert with the state. A common theme in Jewish migrations (and expulsions) is that we are often invited to countries for our trade networks and knowledge. And subsequently expelled when the state decides it needs our property. Portugal and Spain are no exception- their imperialism in the Americas was funded by persecuting Jews and stealing their money. Which is why the Inquisition couldn’t end even with the conversion of the remaining Jews. Denunciations of New Christians, or “conversos”, continued for centuries, allowing the state to intimidate people into conformity and compliance. And simultaneously, rob Jews of their money to finance conquest around the world.
This aspect of anti-Semitism is one that confounds liberals to this day. An overly simplistic understanding of rich=abuser, poor=victim does not help them understand the nature of anti-Semitism, which doesn’t fit this model. Jews historically have been placed in the position of middle men. Almost never in the history of Western civilization have we been allowed to lead a nation, but we are often invited to partake in slightly lesser but well remunerated jobs like lawyers, doctors, or in olden times, court advisors. But never the king himself. Which is why today in America, you have a strong representation of Jews in Congress, in entertainment, and in any number of prestigious professions. Yet never has there been a Jewish president- nor do I think there will be. Western civilization has not reckoned with anti-Semitism yet, and until it does, we will not be allowed at the top.
What are the implications? Jews are stereotyped as rich. I’ve heard this trope from Brazilians, Argentinians, Belgians, and even people I went to high school with. Part of the reason for that is rulers could put certain Jews in these kind of prominent positions and divert the disgruntled populace’s anger towards them. Rather than the ruler himself. All the while, maintaining Jews’ inferiority by denying them access to the top of the system. Often reinforced by discriminatory clothing, restricted living quarters, brutal violence, and more. Christmas was traditionally a time to persecute Jews.
It’s a lesson progressives today need to learn if they want to understand the nature of anti-Semitism, because it operates in a different fashion from racism. But with no less destructive results, as we’ve seen lately in Pittsburgh, across Europe, and elsewhere.
In other words, while some Jews are poor, the success of other Jews economically is used by rulers to eventually rally the populace to execute their genocide and expulsion. Giving the ruler access to Jewish capital to finance his latest endeavor, and of course never actually helping the angry pitchfork-bearers themselves.
What’s curious about Portugal is the Jews are back. In fact, while I’m not sure exactly why, Jews were back here sooner than in Spain. Already in the early 1800s, after a thorough cleansing of anything Jewish here, Jews were allowed to return to the land they once called home. It’s a brave and risky act I can’t even imagine. You can still find today in Lisbon Shaare Tikva, a synagogue built by these returning Portuguese Jews. In a twist of history few would have expected when Branca and Alfonso were being burned at the stake for the crime of Judaism.
I’m not sure what brought them back. It’s a crazy thought- how could you trust the Portuguese people after all that hurt? Maybe Portugal wanted Jewish capital again. After all, today with its economy facing issues, it’s inviting descendants of expelled Jews to re-apply for citizenship. An Orwellian, if perhaps well-intentioned, process. In which Jews are having to collect documents 500 years later to get citizenship to a country their ancestors were expelled from. An odd and uniquely Jewish scenario, but one that is leading quite a number of people to apply. I hope the law is applied fairly and liberally if it is truly meant to make recompense for the past. And that if the country wants us back this time, I hope it ends better today.
What’s truly amazing about the whole thing is how normal Portugal is today.
I’ve visited a lot of countries in Europe over time. Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Switzerland, Italy (twice), Hungary (twice), France (twice), Spain (four times), Romania (three times). And now Portugal.
And what I can say is, as of today, I can’t think of a single country where I’ve felt more at ease as a Jew. Italy comes close. Perhaps their Mediterranean cultures, where my DNA and my gentle curls flowing over my olive skin help me feel at home among my distant cousins. Indeed, a third of Portuguese are estimated to have Jewish blood, in addition to us being from the same part of the world. It’s certainly more comfortable than the sometimes awkward stares I’d get in pastier countries like Romania or Switzerland, where a border guard thought I was an illegal Mexican immigrant because I spoke Spanish.
But there’s a little extra something here too. The Portuguese, perhaps having slogged through the Inquisition, imperialism, and a dictatorship, have found a way to let their sadness mingle with their joy. To let their emotions become a part of who they are, rather than something to suppress.
So that when these barriers eventually fell, Portuguese often found themselves researching their own Jewish history. In fact, the town of Belmonte is full of Portuguese with Jewish roots- who have re-embraced their faith and built a synagogue.
There is ignorance everywhere, and Portugal is no exception. Sometimes curiosity about us is naïvely, though sometimes innocently, mentioned in the same breath as masons or the capitalist system. Like we’re some sort of curious phenomenon worth exploring or perhaps an exoticism. A less textured way to see us. But honestly I don’t know enough about it to fully understand. All I can say is that even the ignorant comments here have stung less than in other places and so far seem to be said with less malice.
Yet Portugal is one of the few European countries that I feel is headed in the right direction with regards to its Jewish past- and present. And hopefully future. While supposedly enlightened nations like France and Germany and Sweden experience an ever-increasing amount of anti-Semitism, Portugal is not joining the crowd.
Hanging out in the far west of Europe gazing towards America, Portugal is doing what it has always done. Mixing its pain with its joy. Creating that unique blend where it doesn’t need to deny its faults, nor deny itself pleasure. Here, you can’t isolate one from the other. It’s a psychologically healthy phenomenon that perhaps explains why this country, even with hundreds of years of anti-Semitic persecutions, is able to reconcile this with welcoming Jews back. Much better so than their Spanish neighbors next door.
So as I dedicate this post to all the brave Jews here who persisted and resisted in the face of anti-Semitic hatred, to their descendants living out their Judaism- or returning to it- I’d like to offer a hope.
Portugal is evidence of the wily and often surprising twists of history. The proverbial arc that bends towards justice is a messianic lie that is put to rest by the rollercoaster that is the Portuguese Jewish experience. An experience filled with pain and with surprising hope. Could a Portuguese Jew 400 years ago have ever imagined me reading his death sentence in an archive- alive? The inspiring quirks of history are as noteworthy as the failures.
So as I watch the world spin in unexpected and sometimes scary directions, hope accompanies my fear.
A hope that Europe becomes more like the Portugal of today than the Portugal of four centuries ago.