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Rediscovering Portugal’s Jewish Heritage

Slowly, but strongly, Portugal is rediscovering its Jewish Heritage. In Lisbon, Porto and the small mountain towns near the Spanish border, like Belmonte, Jewish Heritage in Portugal is coming out of the shadow, after a long period of hibernation that lasted for more than 500 years. The Jews settled in what is now Portugal since the times of Salomon. Drawn to Portugal for its trading opportunities, many Portuguese Jews fled to Spain in the 15th century, due to the Inquisition. Some Jews remained, and even when forced to conversion, they managed to retain their traditions in a hidden way. They were called the cryptic Jews.

Connecting with the Sephardic Jew: Jewish Heritage in Portugal

With nearly 20% of the population having Jewish ancestry, Portugal is strongly committed to recovering its Jewish heritage. A “genetic memory” is being awakened, as more and more Portuguese Jews examine the past and search to connect with the strong Jewish Heritage in Portugal. They are looking for their tribe: dormant, but not lost. Jewish quarters, like the one in Tomar, and cultural centers and Synagogues are becoming more and more popular, for locals and visitors alike, as Sephardic traditions and Jewish Heritage in Portugal reemerge.

Restoring Jewish Heritage in Portugal

The Portuguese government is also responding to the growing number of Portuguese searching for their Sephardic roots, as recent legislation offers citizenship to Jews who can trace their ancestry to before or after the 15th century expulsion. The Portuguese network of Jewish Quarters (Rede de Judiarias) is one of several initiatives aimed at restoring Jewish Heritage in Portugal. Judaica – Film and Cultural Festival, which every year takes place in several locations in Portugal, is another example of the rediscovered appetite for Jewish culture in Portugal. Today, there’s a small but committed Jewish community in Portugal concentrated mainly in Lisbon. The Portuguese Jews are rediscovering their Sephardic origins and connecting to their past and traditions, by restoring and celebrating the Jewish Heritage in Portugal.

Photos © Público/ Paulo Pimenta