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Thinking About Lisbon 23-Aug-11

Thinking About Lisbon

            When I was a kid, often the first assignment of the school year was to write about “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” Well, I do have something to share about my trip to Portugal this summer. 
             In a central location in Lisbon, São Domingos Square, there is a simple memorial, put up in 2008 by the Lisbon City Council:

 In memory of the thousands of Jewish victims of fanatic religious intolerance,
murdered in the massacre that began on the 19th of April, 1506, in this place.

 A verse from Job (16:18), in Portuguese and in Hebrew, is inscribed on the square base:
“Earth, do not cover my blood; let there be no resting place for my outcry!” On one side of the square there is a
wall with the inscription in many languages: Lisbon, city of tolerance.”

Most Jews know about the expulsion from Spain in 1492, but far fewer know about the important date of 1506.
Rabbi Jules Harlow, who has a very special relationship with present-day Jews of Portugal, tells the story:

In 1506, the city of Lisbon suffered a plague accompanied by a drought. Those who could leave the city, including the royal court, left. Fear and hysteria pervaded Lisbon, whose citizens prayed daily for water and for compassion…. The Dominican Convent in Lisbon attracted crowds who were praying for relief. A light that seemed to be emanating from a crucifix over the altar of a chapel was interpreted to be a divine sign. It attracted large crowds of citizens eager for a miracle. The crowd one day included “one of the Hebrews recently enlisted in the ranks of the baptized,” a New Christian. He made a remark that was interpreted as blasphemy. According to one account, he asked, “How can a piece of wood work wonders?” An enraged crowd beat him to death, and his body was dismembered and burned in the square in front of the Convent. His brother, who complained about this outrage, met the same fate. This began a three-day massacre and burning of an estimated two to four thousand Conversos, also known as New Christians, Jews who had been forcibly baptized in 1497. The mobs of citizens who roamed through Lisbon violating and killing Jews were incited by Dominican friars, one of whom preached a sermon against the “Jews” that day, accompanied by outbursts from other friars that included: “Heresy! Destroy this abominable people!”

            In establishing the memorial, the leaders of Lisbon explicitly repudiated this dark history of persecution. A motion passed by the city council reads: “In the year of 1506, the city of Lisbon was the stage for the most dramatic and bloody anti-Judaic episode of all those that are known in our territory: During three days, 19th, 20th and the 21st of April, these events, that started next to St. Domenic’s Convent (presently St. Domenic’s square), resulted in about two thousand Lisbonites, for mere suspicion of professing Judaism, being barbarously assassinated and burned in two enormous fires in Rossio and Ribeira. Evoking this heinous crime which constituted the massacre of 1506, inscribed in the politics of intolerance, that, according to Antero de Quenta [a prominent 19th century poet and writer], contributed to the decadence of the Peninsular people; to posthumously do justice to all the victims of intolerance and to constitute an unequivocal affirmation of a cosmopolitan, multiethnic and multicultural Lisbon.”

           On Friday night of my visit, I went to Kehillat Beit Yisrael, the Masorti (Conservative) synagogue in Lisbon. It is in an apartment, with furnishings preserved from an older synagogue.  Many of the members are descendents of conversos, who call themselves B’nei Anousim [children of those compelled] who have returned to Judaism. When Rabbi Jules and Navah Harlow first visited in 2006, they moved to discover that one of the B’nai Anousim, a linguist, had taught the congregation to read Hebrew, so that they were familiar with the Siddur. They told stories of family traditions preserved over the centuries: two sets of silverware; candles lit on Friday nights; not eating shellfish or pork, etc.

Rabbi Harlow and Navah have since visited many times to teach about Judaism and prepare people to go to the Masorti Bet Din in London for conversion.           

That night, I was asked to lead. The small group (many were away on Summer vacation) joined in enthusiastically. A young man gave a fine D’var Torah (in English). They invited me and another visiting couple to join them for Shabbat dinner. We heard remarkable stories of how these people had discovered their Jewish heritage. They made a point of telling us how pro-Jewish Portuguese are today.

            I experienced this when I went on a wonderful city tour my first day in Lisbon. The driver/guide, Bruno, told me that Portugal went downhill after the Jews were expelled, and he pointed out the memorial to me at the end of the tour.

            Talking to these newly returned Jews was very inspiring. They are a powerful testimony not only to their own dedication, but also to the persistence of Jewish identity and the appeal of Judaism. They clearly love being Jewish and are eager to learn and grow in knowledge and observance. May their example inspire us to do the same.