Jewish Azores

by Judith Fien; Photos by Paul Ross | January 2013 | 19 Comments »

By Judith Fein

There were several puzzling things about the Jewish cemetery on the island of Terceira in the Azores — a lush, volcanic, Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. First, a plaque on the outside wall called the cemetery a “field of equality” and profusely thanked “the most illustrious members of the city council” for selling the Jews the land.

“Jews believe that everyone’s equal in death — rich, poor, old, young,” my guide said to my husband Paul and me.

Hmm, I thought. I’ve never seen writing about equality at a Jewish cemetery. And why the profuse thanking for being allowed to purchase land? The words indicated to me that the Jews were trying to ensure their safety, proclaim their loyalty or curry favor in some way. I wasn’t sure how.

Second, the tombs bore no Jewish symbols. Most of them were horizontal slabs of stone, shaped like the outlines of human bodies, but there were no lions, menorahs, hands outstretched in a priestly blessing. Instead, each one had a simple, stylized motif of a flower, and all the flowers looked alike.

I reflected on the history of the Jews in Portugal. When the Spanish Inquisition forced Jews to convert or leave, many fled to Portugal. Because of their wealth and skills, King Joao II offered permanent or temporary residency to a large number of them. When Joao II died and Manuel became king, he wanted to consolidate his power by marrying into the family of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain; they agreed on the condition that Manuel expel all the Jews from Portugal. In 1496, after some of them had left, Manuel forcibly converted the remaining ones to Christianity. Even after baptism, they had to go to great lengths to profess their Catholic faith. There were secret Jews who, in public, adopted Christian customs while they continued their clandestine religion at home. There were Jews who sincerely converted and became Catholics. But, officially, there were no longer any Jews left in Portugal.

For about l5 years, I’ve gone on the trail of these Jews. They fled to the hills of Portugal and to destinations like Holland, the Ottoman Empire, Brazil, North Africa and the U.S. They often escaped to remote places, and I thought about that constantly in the Portuguese Azores. There were hints and some elusive facts, but I couldn’t pin anything down about a crypto-Jewish presence. All I knew was that starting in 1818, some Jews from North Africa whose ancestors had fled started showing up in the Azores, which was duty free, and where they could import and resell merchandise to local businesses. The Inquisition ended in 1821, and Jews were “tolerated” in Portugal. A group of them came to Terceira, and I was staring at about 50 of their tombs, which bore names like Abohbot, Benarus, Levy, Zagory and Bensabat.

By chance, I was introduced to Francisco dos Reis Maduro Dias, an archeologist, historian and museum curator with knowledge about the history of the Azorean Jews. I was afraid he’d laugh at me, but he took my questions seriously. He had some thoughts about why the word “equality” appeared on the plaque.

In 1820, a liberal revolution in Portugal received widespread support on Terceira. The liberals espoused the idealistic trilogy of the French revolution: liberty, fraternity and equality. They also tolerated religious diversity, although there were no outward religious signs. Was this why there were no Jewish symbols on the tombs?

Then Maduro Dias told me about Mimon Abohbot. He had led the fledgling Jewish community in Terceira, because there was no rabbi and he was knowledgeable and respected, and he wanted to assure Jewish continuity. He had a Moroccan Torah; his home was the de facto synagogue; and he wrote five books by hand, meticulously, lovingly, which contained all the prayers a Jewish family would need for all occasions. One of them was in the museum in Terceira.

I hate to beg, but at that moment I felt that the most urgent thing in the world was to see the hand-written prayer book and the Torah. “Please, please, can I see it?” I asked Maduro Dias.

He smiled. Was that a yes?

It was. A few days later, at the museum where he curates in the city of Angra do Heroismo, he led me into a classical library, crammed with books, and a long wooden table where he invited me to sit. He handed me a pair of white gloves and gently placed Mimon Abohbot’s gilt-edged, handwritten prayer book in my hands. The owner’s name was on the cover, which also bore a floral motif. At the back of the book was what looked like a genealogy. As I carefully turned the pages, my eyes lingered on a Hebrew phrase that means, “I was, I am, I will be.” The Eternal presence of the Divine. Sitting in the library, holding the book, I felt as though I had entered a sacred space.

“How can I see the Torah and have someone tell me about it?” I asked Maduro Dias.

“Let me see what I can do,” he said. “It’s in the pubic library in Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel island.”

Before I left, I asked him why there was there a coastal village named Porto Judeu — the Jewish port. He said one possible explanation came from l6th century chronicles. Apparently, the first settlers who came to Terceira were afraid when they reached the shore. They said to a Jewish man with them, “Jump, Jew!” and this was the harbor where he jumped.

I jumped on a plane, flew 25 minutes to Sao Miguel and hurried to the public library. We followed a librarian named Margarida Oliveira into a room where the Rabo de Peixe Torah had been lovingly placed in a horizontal glass case. The parchment looked weathered, and had burn marks on it.

“There is a very mysterious story around this Torah,” Oliveira began. “It was found in a cave in 1997 by two kids. Unfortunately, they vandalized it, giving away and selling parts of it. They showed a piece to their religious teacher, who contacted the library. After analysis and restoration in Lisbon and Israel, the Torah was dated to the early l8th century in Morocco, probably the Torah of Maimon Abohbot.”

But why did the 300-year-old Sephardic Torah have a modern, machine-stitched, blue and gold, Ashkenazi-style mantle? A Portuguese Jew in Israel named Inacio Steinhardt, who’s done important research about the Azorean Jews, believed that Abohbot purchased the Morrocan Torah in London and brought it and another Torah to Terceira, where he used it in his home synagogue. His will stipulated that the Torah would remain in Angra as long as his descendants were there. But if they left, and no Jews remained, one of the Torahs would go back to Morocco and the other would go to the main synagogue —Shaar Hashamaim — in Ponta Delgada. There is no record of what happened to the Torahs.

Steinhardt discovered that there was a Jewish captain on the American military base on Terceira named Marvin Feldman who had obtained a Torah locally in 1970. After six years of searching, Steinhardt finally located him in Australia. Feldman said that on the base he led Shabbat services and was known as “the American Jew.” Some locals confided to him that they had Jewish origins, and they piqued his curiosity about the Jewish presence in the Azores. His search led him to Porto Judeu where, in a bar, some of the older men told him their version of the town’s name. In the l6th century, fugitive Jews were caught in a storm and sought refuge on land on Terceira. The governor of Terceira let them live on the island, but not in the man city of Agra. They settled in Porto Judeu.

One day, the locals handed Feldman a wooden box. Afraid to open it because it might have contained human remains, he looked inside: there was the 18th century Torah, which he took to the base. A Catholic priest knew Hebrew and read from it during services. As for the mantle, he’d had it made in the U.S.

In l973, Feldman departed the base and left the Torah behind. In 1997, it was found in the cave by the two kids. How did it get to Ponta Delgada? Who stashed it in a cave? And why? Was it stolen? Sequestered? Why did it have burn marks? Hmmm, I thought. There are echoes of the Dead Sea Scrolls here.

As I turned to leave the library, Margarida whispered to me, “I think my ancestors were Jewish.”

I thought this was the last important stop on the Jewish detective tour, but boy was I wrong. The tourism department informed me that a man wanted to meet me at the old synagogue. I had already walked by it before; it looked like a nondescript row house, with no writing, signs or Jewish symbols, and it was locked.

When I arrived, accompanied by two women from the tourism department, Jose de Almeida Mello — a bespectacled man with close-cropped dark hair — stood in front of the door. He greeted me in hesitant English and introduced his friend Nuno Bettencourt Raposo, a lawyer, who spoke English well. The former put a key in the lock and opened the creaky door of what he said had been a rabbi’s home; it was also used as a synagogue called “Sahar Hassamain.” He explained that he was a historian, and that both he and Bettencourt Raposo were Catholic. He said the people who built this synagogue in 1836 came from Morocco. “What we have here is very important — it is the oldest synagogue in Portugal since the Inquisition,” he exulted.

Inside, the abandoned house/synagogue was in a sorry state. We walked from an entry room to the room that housed the mikvah, or ritual bath, and saw the hole where rainwater flowed in, and the remnants of a drain and tile work.

Almeida Mello said he sees the synagogue as a symbol of religious tolerance. In 2008 he published a book about it and told the large crowd at the launch that it was “an SOS for the synagogue. We must do something now to preserve it, or it will be too late.” The city officials placed him in charge of promoting the synagogue and raising money.

“I descend from those New Christians,” Almeida Mello confided. “My ancestor was Manuel Dias, a trader. Actually, I believe that 99 percent of Portuguese people have Jewish blood because the Jews have been in Portugal for 2,000 years.”

He had a book in his hands, and he showed me that all his life when he held any book, he turned it over, and then opened it right to left — the way Hebrew is read, right to left.

“The Jewish religion never interested me,” Almeida Mello said, “but I’m fascinated by the culture. I am a religious Catholic man, but this synagogue is my passion.”

I was intrigued by his story, but underwhelmed by the building itself…until he invited us to follow him upstairs, cautioning us to use the right side of the wooden staircase, as the middle was unstable.

Upstairs were the rabbi’s living quarters. Light streamed in from outside.

“Now for the surprise,” Almeida Mello said. “Up until today, it has been a secret.” In the dining room, he opened what looked like a pantry door. “Come,” he said. I gasped aloud at what I encountered on the other side: an entire synagogue, with 30-foot-high light blue walls, a bimah, 65 carved wooden seats around the outside of the sanctuary, a chandelier and a circumcision chair. Strewn around were old prayer books, which had probably been unseen and untouched for more than 60 years.

“The synagogue was constructed inside the rabbi’s home because religious buildings had to be behind walls, with no visible identification on the outside. Inside here, it was away from the eyes of the townspeople.”

He said he had found a box in the synagogue and didn’t touch it for seven years.

“There were dead mice inside. Then, one night, in 2009, I started thinking about it. I bought gloves and a mask at a pharmacy, then opened the box and threw everything on the ground. I was totally shocked—there were manuscripts, books, parchment, fabrics, mezuzahs, phylacteries.” Almeida Mello looked at me with great intensity. “Now you understand why this is so important!”

In a hushed voice, I said that in all my travels, I had never seen anything like this. I had beheld hidden arks and sequestered shelves that held objects of worship, but an entire synagogue?

I followed him to the balcony where women once sat and prayed, sequestered behind an iron grillwork railing. I could hear their whispered talk, feel the presence of those souls who were now gone. I picked up a prayer books and held it close to my heart for a moment.

“I can still feel the presence of the Jews here,” I said, to no one in particular.

“Yes,” said one of the women from the tourism board. “It is here. In us. I think we are all descended from them.”

 

IF YOU GO:

For more information about the Azores: www.VisitPortugal.com and www.visitazores.com/en

For four-hours flights from Boston and between the islands: SATA airlines: www.SATA.pt

For more about the synagogue: www.sinagogapontadelgada.com

 

About the author and photographer:

Judith Fein is a multiple-award-winning travel writer who has contributed to more than 100 publications and is the author of “Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel.” Paul Ross is an award-winning photojournalist. Their Web site is www.GlobalAdventure.us.

19 Comments to “Jewish Azores”

  1. Robert C. Jacob says:

    By any chance did you come across the history of the name Jacob in the Azores?

  2. [...] 2008, travel writer Judith Fein wrote about visiting the synagogue with Mello. She wrote that she was underwhelmed by the building itself…until he invited us to [...]

  3. Mashiach Bjorklund says:

    Very interesting article. My wife is a descendent of those Jews from the Azores. Specifically from a village on Terceira called Altares. This has been confirmed through her cultural inheritance, and the tracing of her family’s ancestry as far back as 1700. It has also been confirmed through her DNA. Her DNA has also been matched up to other Sephardic Jews from around the world with similar Azorian ancestry. They currently live in places like New Bedford, MA, Gustine,CA, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Holland among others. In my wife’s family history, 10 siblings (including her great grandmother) emigrated from the Azores around the turn of the century. The oldest 4 went to Amsterdam where they joined a thriving Sephardic Portuguese Jewish community. That community was known to have quite a few Azorian Jews in it. This was confirmed to me about 10 years ago from a Holocaust survivor I met in Washington DC who grew up in that community before the war. The other 6 siblings came to America and settled in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s where I met my wife 33 years ago. The sad news is that those who emigrated to Holland did not survive the Holocaust. At least as far as we know. Maybe some day a close DNA match will appear and it will be the descendent of a survivor.

    • andra says:

      My cultural heritage is private.
      The jews in the Azores expressed thanks for land because it previously was not the custom to grant minority populations land.
      Perhaps Palestinians want a homeland too. Got any machine guns?

      • Joe says:

        You are an idiot. Do you sit around all day looking for Jewish related articles for your hateful words?

  4. Jose de Almeida Mello has worked tirelessly on the synagogue project for as long as we can remember.

    Last year, we published thirty-three photos of the synagogue on our Facebook page:
    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.340376566004036.71033.325821097459583&type=1

    We have also written about Sahar Hassamain synagogue in travelogues on our web site, TheTravelzine.

  5. Carol Rombro Rider says:

    John Howard Wolf– Would it be possible for you to e-mail me privately at
    cromrider@aol.com?

    Many thanks in advance,
    Carol Rombro Rider

  6. George says:

    Very good article. It’s true many Spanish, Catalans and Portuguese look (and often act like) Jews. I lived in Spain for five years and felt very much at home there as I do in Israel. It’s a very similar culture. The highest level of consciousness about Jewish ancestry I’ve found is in Palma, Mallorca.

  7. Abe Katz says:

    I think I can explain why there were no Hebrew symbols on the Jewish Tombs and why the sign: field of equality. It has to do with how equality was defined after the French Revolution. I came across this concept when I read that in Amsterdam in 1796, the Rabbis asked the community not to perform Tashlich, a ceremony in which Jews on Rosh Hashonah go to a body of water and recite prayers that represent the Jews throwing their sins into the body of water. In 1795 the same group banned the recital of a prayer that was said outdoors to welcome the new Jewish month (literally, the New Moon).

    Let me present a quote from page 41 of the book: Dutch Jewry: Its History and Secular Culture (1500-2000), Brill, 2000, by Jonathan Israel and Reinier Salverda which explains why the Rabbis in Amsterdam banned public displays of religious practices:

    “The legal position of the Jews was fundamentally changed following the famous Emancipation Decree of the National Assembly on September 2, 1796 — a few weeks after the proclamation of the separation between State and Church which implied equal rights for all the (Christian) religious denominations. Against the wishes of the majority of the Jews and their parnassim, the Jews were also granted civil rights in the young united Batavian Republic on equal footing with the other Batavian citizens. From the viewpoint of the enlightened, ‘philosophical’ humanitarian party this meant a victory of universal principles, i.e. the secular rights of the individual man and citizen as proclaimed by the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution. From the viewpoint of Jewish orthodoxy, however, this applauded Batavian decree meant a serious threat to Jewish identity and its destiny in the diaspora because of its implied integration and assimilation of Jewish ‘nations’ into the larger, essentially Christian, society.”

    One definition of equality is that no citizen publicly display his religious affiliation. France today still seems to espouse that concept. That may be why Jews did not want to display their religious affiliation in their cemetery- as a sign of gratitude for being granted equality.

  8. Marie-Anne Roudeix says:

    Before reading your paper entirely I would like to ask you if you have heard about the jewish cemitery of Madeira which is abandonned anf falling down to the sea… I have been trying for years to find the person who detains the kees, any person in charge… It is so sad, it is a so beautyfull place… I would like so much to do something about it. If. Any body has any information …

    • I haver never visited the Jewish Cemetery of Funchal, but I have heard about it and I am also very much concerned about it.
      The cemetery was built in the 19th. century when a small Jewish community, mostly of Jews from Morocco, existed in Madeira.
      I read that some of the tombs have already been dragged by the sea.
      I understand that the local authorities are interested in rescuing the cemetery. But this cannot be done in the local where it is now, because of the proximity of the sea.
      It has been suggested to transfer the tombs to a new place, near a Catholic cemetery.
      The Israeli ambassador visited the site, with a rabbi from Lisbon.
      Besides the cost of the move, there are two halahaic problems which seem difficult to overcome. One is the prohibition to touch existing tombs, the other the intention to move it to the proximity of the Catholic cemetery with its crosses.
      A Jewish professor at the University of Funchal has also shown interest in the rescue of the tombs. His name is Professor Larry Constantine, Universidade da Madeira. If you contact him perhaps he knows who has the key. If you wish to contact me my email is inacio@steinhardts.com I live in Israel.

  9. Marc Stevens says:

    Very interesting. There is an old Jewish bank in Curacao (and the rest of the Dutch Antilles) called Maduro and Curiel’s. Maduro is the name of one of the Portuguese museum curators in the story. Jewish origins perhaps???

    • I have been in contact with Francisco Dias Maduro, of Angra do Heroismo. He has been instrumental in the preservation of the Jewish cemetery of Angra do Heroismo.
      He doesn’t specifically of any Jewish ascendancy but we both believe that he may be related to the Maduro family of Curacao (and Honduras), who were originally from Portugal.

      Inacio

      • Sergio Mota e Silva says:

        Dear Inacio about Maduro family I’ve thought the same because it’s not a common name. In Haya, Holland, there is the MaduroDam Park with miniatures of old houses forming a village. It was made by a member of this Maduro family. Reading about Mr. Maduro in Azores and interested in the preservation of Jewish sites I linked the names as you did. Probably he is of Jewish descendant I believe.

        Shalom!

  10. Melvin A Dutra says:

    I grew up in Faial but I never of heard of any Jewish or for tha matter any other people coming or living in the Azores. I wonder how much has been lost and how far the Azorian Jews expanded.

    • Jewish communities existed during the 19th. century in several islands of the Azores, mostly in Ponta Delgada and Angra do Heroismo. There were 5 synagogues (in private houses) one of them in Faial. There was there a Jewish cemetery about which the late professor Moses B. Amzalak wrote a small book, in Portuguese.

  11. Dear Judith

    I am a Jewish American and have been on the trail of Sephardics for years. I live in Portugal since 1977, am researching the Sephardics since their expulsion in 1492-7, am especially interested in Nissim de Camondo and the Pereire (frenchified) brothers in France.

    Would always be glad to get in contact with you – abraços John

    • Rahel B says:

      Dear John
      You might want to join the group “saudades-sefarad@yahoogroups.com” since this topic interests you. Are u familiar with the work of Yosef Kaplan on the expulsion and anusim?
      Rahel

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