Portugal is now heart of a Sephardic revival


What do you do when you are the director of tourism in a region so remote that people visit only to see snow, and at that only once a year? You turn Jewish, that's what.

For Jorge Patrao, the quest for new attractions in the mountainous areas of Portugal has led not only to a national Rede das Judiarias (Network of Jewish Sites) but one that links 52 cities and towns across the Iberian Peninsula that are unearthing, renovating, researching and reviving all signs of the Sephardic Jewish presence that went underground with the Inquisition 600 years ago.

Not only that, says Mr Patrao, but what began as a commercial quest has turned into "a vehicle to reclaim the historic identity of our country".

Founded in 2011, and boosted by EU funds, the network's first inspiration was the community of Belmonte.

There, a small group of Jews - not killed nor expelled, but merely forced to convert - carried on some fashion of Jewish rituals in secret until they re-emerged after the 1974 revolution.

The first Jews of New York were from Portugal

Today, tourists, Jewish or otherwise, have the opportunity not only to view the newly-built Belmonte temple but the Tomar synagogue built in 1430, Hebrew markings in Trancoso, the Jewish quarters in Castelo de Vide, plus a recently inaugurated, sleek Sephardic museum in the northern Braganca, designed by Souto Moura, Portugal's leading modern architect.

It's all part of a tremendous upsurge in awareness of Portugal's Jewish history, jump-started in 1996 by The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, a bestselling novel by American Richard Zimler set during a long-hidden massacre of Jews.

The renewed interest has led to the creation of large centres for Sephardic Studies and, last year, the passage of a symbolic "Right of Return" bill for ancestors of Jews forced to flee. And as Mr Zimler points out: "Whereas having a Jewish grandmother was once shameful, it's now trendy."

But the most lasting proof of Jewish-Portugal can be seen in the stone walls of mikvot and the carvings of menorim found along Mr Patrao's network of history trails - and a lifelong quest that has made this non-Jew one of Europe's leading experts on Sephardic traditions and genealogy.

Mr Patrao says: "From these villages to Turkey or Italy, then Holland to New Amsterdam - the first Jews of New York City were actually from Portugal. On this route, you can find traces of the Jewish life and knowledge that fuelled the great discoveries of new worlds."

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