Jewish Portugal, What We Saw & Learned

When we travel, my husband Josh and I love to seek out Jewish life and history. Here's a summary of our findings in Portugal, where we visited from late June to mid-July this summer (2017). 

Porto and the Kadoorie Synagogue

The seaside city of Porto was once home to a large Jewish population prior to the Spanish Inquisition and is happily starting to thrive again. There is a gorgeous Sephardic Synagogue in Porto called the Kadoorie Synagague (below) which is the largest in the Iberian peninsula, which includes Portugal and 

img-4810.jpgSpain. We went to Shabbat services there and also met with the curator, Ugo, who gave us a tour as well as an outstanding history lesson of Portuguese Jewish life-past and present. The current growth increase in membership is primarily driven by immigration of French and Turkish Jews who are seeking asylum from anti semitism.  

Hidden Jews—a fascinating part of history I was unaware of

Until the late 1490's, Portugal was very friendly to it's Jewish population which was about 20% of the total. However, the Spanish Inquisition changed all that when the King of Spain mandated that if Portugal wanted peace, they would need to eliminate their Jews. So, Jews were told that they could either leave the country or convert to Christianity. Many did leave and many converted but still practiced their Judaism behind closed doors, giving birth to the name Crypto Christians also known as Crypto Jews, Hidden Jews or Marano Jews (many names for the same group). Practicing in secrecy had risks. Neighbors would see Shabbat candles glowing or notice that a nearby Jew wasn't working on Saturday or a Jewish holiday. Not all neighbors were accepting, as you can imagine and trouble often ensued. Another potential “give away” was the consumption—or lack of-- of pork. Those who didn’t eat pork were suspected of being Jewish, so to maintain their secret, Jews ate chicken sausage which looked just like pork sausage. Clever! Knowing that family traditions last for centuries, I am curious how these clandestine traditions are still being carried out in places across the world where practicing Judaism is accepted. If you have any information, please let me know!

Fun Fact

Did you know that Portugal is the only country where non Jews play dreidel at Christmas? It is not called a dreidel but it is!

Intriguing Idea--Portuguese Citizenship

In an effort to rebuild the Jewish community of Portugal, Sephardic Jews are welcomed as new citizens. My mother is Sephardic (grandfather from Ismear, Turkey and grandmother from Solanika, Greece) and is very interested in pursuing this. She’s currently brushing up on her ladino and legume recipes for Passover. 


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Memorial to the Jews of the Inquisition in the old Jewish area of Porto.

A cut out in a wall in a nursing home where there had been an ark (the nursing home probably was a synagogue).

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Joseph, our guide for our Jewish walking tour in Porto. He was a wealth of interesting information. (That's me with him.)

A street sign in the Alfama section of Lisbon.



A nice, welcome touch in an organic food store in Porto.

Funny thing, I didn't know that Andy Warhol's Brillo installment included all of the packaging text including the OU kosher symbol. (seen in a contemporary art museum in Lisbon)


For our Portugal Foodie Notes, click here


Written by Jane Moritz, Chief Maven Officer, Challah Connection 2017


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