The rural Jewish communities in Portugal were very important for the Portuguese Jewish history. Some of these Jewish communities reaches back over the XIV Century. With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, some of them came to these lands in Beira interior. This is the reason why rural Jewish communities in Portugal became so important, not only because of the culture, or financial value, but for a much more important reason, to be able to position themselves as Jewish and to preserve their Jewish identity.
We must not forget that most of these Jews were not only escaping from Spain, where they have had violent episodes, such as massacres, prohibitons, and forced conversions. They were carrying their faith and beliefs on the quest for a better world to live, and most of all, to be Jews. Sepharad was once again punished, forced to escape and suffer another Diaspora.
A secret Hebrew culture
In Portugal, some of our kings provided the Jews, of social and economical prosperity, in return of services to the Portuguese Crown. In the Inquisition period and after beeing expelt in 1496 many of them left the country to the North of Europe, America, Brasil and Turkey.
Meanwhile in the Beira region our Jewish rural communities, were hidding themselves as Conversos, or New Christians practicing their own religion in secrecy. From this emerge a unique Jewish culture by the name of, Crypto-Judaism. The B’nei Anussim preserved their rites and culture in secrecy, avoiding marriages out of the Jewish communitie. In fact they were Catholics in the outside but faithful to Judaism in their hearts and inside their homes.
Jewish life in rural Portugal and it’s legacy left in this region is undeniable and part of Portugal’s history. From Jewish typical products, buildings and old traditions, there is a Jewish historical heritage, as a testimony of Portugal’s Jewish history. This Jewish identity is still visible in Portugal in the present days.
Discover the Jewish Portugal by the presence of Jews and New Christians in some ancient medieval towns is attested by the large number of entries cruciforms and other brands registering their “Christianization.”
Here we have determined from remote times by the records auctioning of rights in rem in the first half of the fifteenth century by the Jewish Solomon Navarro. The geographical situation and the abundance of water led to the establishment of activities related to the work of wool and its transformation, which lasts until today.
It is worth noting some examples of architecture sixteenth and seventeenth century, showing cruciform architecture and typical houses attributed to Jews and New Christians to the ground floor where it was installed trade / workshop and in first floor their residence.
Jews and New Christians
Jews in Portugal as well New Christians are a prove in this ancient region by the high number of cruciform inscriptions. This is a testemony of their “Christianization” in Portugal and Jewish identity.
Different sets of houses stand out from the main churches, dating from the 15th-16th century. Inside the one closest to the Catholic temple we can find a Hekhal or Aron-ah-Kodesh (Law Cabinet) adapted by the Jews in Portugal.
Some types of cruciformes are for example, a fact of Jewish presence in different urban groups. But however, the Latin Cross, has a double interpretation in it’s decoration – Jewish and Catholic. In adition and consequently, the Star of David can be seen in manor and emblazoned houses, bridges and fountains of medieval architecture.