The Only Jew in Mammarrosa

By Jeri Zeder

synagogue in Lisbon Portugal
By Boaz Gabriel Canhoto [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Before we left our hotel for the synagogue in Lisbon, Portugal, my husband, in fluent Portuguese, asks for directions. Good thing, too; the address in the phone book is wrong. If he hadn’t asked, we’d have missed services.

My husband probably wouldn’t have been going to a synagogue if it weren’t for me, but then I probably wouldn’t be in Portugal if it weren’t for him. Raised Catholic, but married to a Jewish woman and raising Jewish children, he participates in Jewish practices but is skeptical of religion. While I am skeptical intermittently, my Jewish identity is rock solid. I want to go to services in Lisbon—although I seldom attend in the U.S.—because I am lonely for the Jewish civilization lost three centuries ago to the Inquisition.

Every other year we join my in-laws in the tiny village of Mammarrosa, in the Beira Litoral region north of Lisbon, near the cities of Coimbra and Aveiro. They live in the U.S. but were born in this region, as was my husband. Here, modern and ancient worlds coexist. You see it on the twisty cobblestone streets, where speeding drivers are forced to slam their brakes when a peasant walking her ox and potato-laden cart suddenly materializes on the far side of a blind curve. On the beach in Aveiro, oxen drag in enormous nets of silver, wide-eyed sardines from boats powered by oars. I see life as it was when Jews lived here.

Only 500 to 1,000 Jews live in Portugal today, making me and my children the only Jews for miles around. When the Moors ruled Portugal, Jews lived relatively peacefully. But from 1496 until 1821, during Portugal’s Inquisition, tens of thousands of Jews appeared before autos-da-fe, the Church’s judicial courts, where they were sentenced to expulsion, conversion, or burning at the stake. They included those who had just fled the Spanish Inquisition to seek refuge in Portugal. For three centuries, Portugal’s New Christians and Marranos (Jews who had converted but who secretly practiced Judaism) lived in mortal fear. Many fled.

Today, the Portuguese are oblivious to the absence of Jews the way we Americans are oblivious to the absence of Native American Indians. When we do think about them, we reduce them to artifacts, their way of life and what became of them relegated to references, metaphors, and factoids.

I watch my in-laws for signs of understanding and wonder how much is fair to expect. An African-American friend once said to me, “You cannot know what it is like to live inside this black skin.” True. But chasms always exist between people. Can’t I be an ally?

My husband’s grandmother acknowledged the Inquisition to me long before I married her grandson. “It is true,” she said simply. “It was terrible, but it happened.” My mother-in-law recalls that my husband’s older brother, then fourteen, once brought his best friend to Portugal. The boy, a New Yorker, was Jewish and had never been away from home before. My mother-in-law recognized not only his homesickness but also that the country’s Catholicism overwhelmed him. My father-in-law proudly notes that Spinoza was not Spanish, but Portuguese. Coming from anyone else, his observation might be ironic, but I’ve known him for over twenty years. His sympathies are clear. In these small stories and many thoughtful acts, my in-laws have shown their alliance across the chasm.

I’ll never doubt that my in-laws are my allies, but I’ll never feel comfortable in their homeland. At the Convento de Santa Clara-a-Velha, my mother-in-law relates the legend of Queen Isabel, who escaped punishment when the gold in her apron miraculously turned into rose petals before she was caught giving it away to the poor. Part of me finds this delightful. But like an elbow in the ribs, the Jewish part confides: This story was passed down by those who purged Portugal of Jews.

No one alive today can fairly be held accountable for the Portuguese Inquisition. But they should be accountable for failing to notice its lingering effects. Perhaps that is why I refuse to taste roast suckling pig, the region’s delicacy, at family gatherings. It is not a principled refusal: I eat pork fried rice at home, and I crave tender Portuguese clams prepared with garlic and fresh cilantro. Maybe the Jewish part of me is just trying to poke someone else’s ribs.

Portugal is beautiful. I love the look of the people, their manners, the dry Mediterranean hillsides populated with ancient olive trees, the fragrant eucalyptus groves, the spicy, olive oil-soaked cuisine. But in the midst of this exotica, I thumb through the phone book for Sephardic names. I want to visit the synagogue in Lisbon.


About Jeri Zeder

Jeri Zeder is a freelance writer. Her articles on traveling in Portugal and her sister-in-law's Catholic wedding have appeared in