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 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.