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A Brief Outline of the Portuguese-Sephardim

O there are voices of the past,
links of a broken chain,
wings that can bear me back to times
which cannot come again;
Yet G-d forbid that I should lose
the echoes that remain!

Unknown Poet

"Like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore....."
Genisis 22: 17, 32: 13

The history of the Jews in Iberia spans some 3,000 years, having first arrived with the Phoenicians ( 1100- 900 bce. ). They lived and traded in organised communities, with Lisbon as an important trading port. They continued trading during the Greek and Carthagenian domination of the Mediterranean; Roman and Greek writings recount that they found the Iberian cities well developed in the arts, music and dance, upon their invasions and colonisation.

Sepharad is the Hebrew word for the Iberian Peninsula that encompasses Portugal and Spain. At the time that Portugal emerged as a distinct national entity under Affonso Henriques 1 ( 1139- 1185 ), there existed a number of wholly Jewish districts and towns, including large communities in Lisbon, Oporto, Santarem, Beja, Viseu, Faro, Evora, Covilha, Tomar, amongst others, King Affonso 1 employed Yahya ibn Ya’ish as his treasurer, initiating the patern of the Portuguese rulers enlisting Jewish talent in the management of affairs of State. Under King Affonso 111 (1248- 1279 ), Portugal attained total independence and fixed its historic geographic boundaries, making it the oldest country of western Europe.

Portuguese Jewry prospered and the proud enduring Portuguese Sephardi heritage was shaped. During the centuries they, the Sephardim held a disproportionate prominence in society, and played a major role in the country’s monarchal capitalism. They were exposed to heavy taxes and some measure of isolated persecution, but enjoyed mostly a ‘protected’ status; Having been relatively free of prejudice, the Portuguese Jews never considered their predicament as hopeless, and when Spain expelled her Jews in 1492, the majority ( between 150,000 and 300,000) fled to Portugal, where both the general and Jewish culture approximated their own.

King John 11 ( 1481-95 ) eager to augment his treasury, approved their admission, charging outrageous amounts of money for the right of permanent residence; The Jewish craftsmen were admitted with an eye to their potential military production, for which the Jews were well known.

Emanuel 1, also known as Manoel the fortunate, ( 1495-1521 ), signalled the end of normative Jewish life in Portugal. By consenting to the conditions set out by the Spanish Crown for the marriage to Princess Isabella of Spain to take place, he signed a decree of expulsion on December 5th, 1496; Ordering that by October of 1497, no Jew or Moor should remain in the country. No action was taken against the Moors, they were allowed to leave Portugal, because as stated cynically by the authorities; The Portuguese ( Portugal ) could be subject to reprisals from lands where the Crescent ruled supreme !!!

King Manoel, soon reconsidered the expulsion decree, as the economic loss and drain of skills would have been to the detriment of Portugal. He tried everything possible, from persuasion to torture,all with no success, with the Chief Rabbi Simon Maimi dying while resisting conversion.

On 19th March 1497, the first day of Pesach, all Jewish minors were forcibly baptised and detained with a large amount sent to Sao Tome, an island off the west coast of Africa, that way preventing the parents from fleeing. Days of madness took over in Portugal; People, old and young, women, babies, men, children were forcibly dragged, detained, tortured and abducted to be baptised and declared equal citizens of the realm. The rest, were declared Catholic in October 1497 and bewildered Conversos cautiously began to emigrate; Prompting Emanuel to respond by withdrawing the right of emigration from the "New" Christians.

In 1506 over 2,000 New Christians were massacred during a Lisbon riot. If the Conversos had any thoughts of finding solace in the religion thrust on them, such riots dissuaded them, and consequently, even those who had made genuine attempts to become Christians, once more clung to their G-d : and a new phenomenon was born; that of the "Crypto Jews". Outwardly Christian, these wretched souls, unable to leave, unaccepted as Christians, clung to whatever was possible of their Judaism.

The next step was inevitable; The Inquisition was instituted to ferret out backsliding "New" Christians, who by now had become an embarrassment to the Crown. The first Auto-da-fe took place in Lisbon on September 20th, 1540, with permanent tribunals established at Lisbon, Evora and Coimbra. ( and Goa)

It is thought that the Portuguese became inspired more by greed than piety; never the less, whatever the motivation, they produced spectacular Autos-da-fe, and the Crypto Jews sought precarious safety among the ruling classes and clergy; in time, this tendency resulted in a significant percentage of converso blood being found within Portugal’s ruling class (and nobility), as was bitterly documented by Mario Sa.

There was a systematic and thorough destruction of all things Jewish, with a fear of learning becoming evident, as this would make them a suspect ( of being Jewish.) The psychological manipulation and control by the State became entrenched, with insecurity and fear being transmitted from generation to generation, polarising the life of the whole country.

A constant flow of Conversos escaped, some with daring, some with luck, to the communities of the Diaspora, where they reverted back to Judaism, sometimes up to two centuries after living as Christians.

With this exodus, new and prosperous Portuguese communities were established in countries around the world; With their new host counties prospering with them, their knowledge and contacts and took over from Portugal as the leading civilisation(s) from the beginning of the 17th century. First Holland and in the 18th century, England.

Many important roles were played by Portuguese Jews, singly and collectively. I want to mention two important developments, that was to change the future for all Jewry: The first was the landing at New Amsterdam ( New York ) in 1654 of 23 Portuguese Jews, the first Jewish settlers on the North American mainland and the pioneers of what would in time became the world’s largest and most prosperous Jewish community. They were the pioneers of the first "Grandee Sephardic Elite" of North America.
Today, the "Shearith Israel" synagogue of New York, still proudly continue in the Portuguese tradition. Congregation Shearith Israel has a wealth of archival material and historical artefacts reflecting the American-Jewish experience for almost three and a half centuries. This beautiful synagogue in New York, better known as the Portuguese and Spanish synagogue, was founded in 1654 by the first 23 Portuguese Jews of the USA.

The second development, was the return of Jewry to England, from which all Jews had been expelled in 1290. In 1655, the great leader who was born on the mysterius and beautiful Island of Madeira, as Manuel Dias Soreio, fled to Holland, where he changed his name to Mennasseh ben Israel (1604- 1657) addressed his famous petition to the Lord Protector, the puritan, Oliver Cromwell.(1599 - 1658).
Mennasseh, whose face is immortalised in an etching by Rembrandt, came to England in 1655 and remained there for two years. His petition was not formally granted, but from 1656 onward, Jews were allowed to settle in England and establish (their) synagogues openly, once more. ( Although the Jews were already living in England for a few centuries secretly. )

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the "English" Jewry, would play a central role in the resettlement of the Holy Land and the rebirth of Zionism.

1) Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol 13 page 919
James Finn dates early Jewish life to 900bce based on two ancient Hebrew inscriptions; "Amaziah, king of Judah" and the marking of the grave of King Solomon’s treasurer; "Adoniram."
2) A History of the Marranos. Cecil Roth 5th Ed.
3) The Jews of Spain. Jane S. Gerber 1992.

Rufina Bernardetti Silva Mausenbaum
Emmarentia, South Africa

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