The Jewish Azores

A trip to an off-the-beaten track location yields an unexpected surprise from the Island’s past.

THE AZORES archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean 521 (photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
THE AZORES archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean 521
(photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
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 on a Jewish cemetery.
And why the profuse thanks 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 graves 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 residence 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 15 years, I’ve been on the trail of these Jews. They fled to the hills of Portugal and to Holland, the Ottoman Empire, Brazil, North Africa and North America. 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.
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, Bensabat. I was about to leave the cemetery when a voice whispered in my ear: “Count the petals.” I whipped around, but no one was there. Who was talking to me? Dutifully, I began to count.
“Paul!” I called out excitedly to my husband. “Every flower has six, seven or eight petals. Six is the number of points on a Jewish star. Seven is the menorah in the ancient Temple. Eight is the number of candles in a menorah or hanukkia. Could it be that these are hidden Jewish symbols? If so, why were they hiding?” 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 knew nothing about the symbols, but 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, respected, and wanted to assure Jewish continuity. He had a Moroccan Torah scroll; his home was the de facto synagogue; and he wrote five books by hand, meticulously, lovingly, and they 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 handwritten 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 to a long wooden table where he invited me to sit. He handed me a pair of white gloves and then 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 16th-century chronicles. Apparently, the first settlers who came to Terceira were afraid when they reached shore. They said to a Jewish man with them, “Jump, Jew!” and this was the harbor where he jumped.
Like the first Jew, if that story was true, 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 there were 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 18th century in Morocco – probably the Torah of Mimon Abohbot.”
But why did the 300-year old Sephardic Torah scroll 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 Moroccan Torah scroll in London and brought it and another Torah to Terceira, where he used it in his home synagogue. His will stipulated that the scroll would remain in Angra as long as his descendants were there.
But if they left, and no Jews remained, one of the scrolls would go back to Morocco and the other would go to the main synagogue, Sha’ar Hashamayim, in Ponta Delgada.
There is no record of what happened to the scrolls.
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 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 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 16th century, fugitive Jews were caught in a storm and sought refuge 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 18thcentury 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 US.
In 1973, Feldman departed the base and left the Torah scroll 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? Hmm, 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 house, among a row of houses, 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 mikve, 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. Several weeks before I arrived, he and his collaborators founded the Association of Friends of the Synagogue; they were now a legal entity and could raise money. Several days before my visit, Jews and notables came from near and far to support the synagogue’s restoration and the dissemination of information about Azorean Jews.
“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.
“We do that too!” said the two women from the tourism department, visibly excited. “I never thought about it,” said one, demonstrating that she opened books the way Almeida Mello did.
“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. Okay, I thought, this is interesting, but why the hullabaloo about this decayed, dilapidated building? “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 inside: an entire synagogue – with 10-meter-high light blue walls, a bima, or platform, 65 carved wooden seats around the outside of the chapel, 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,” explained Almeida Mello.
He said he had found a box in the synagogue, but 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, mezuzas, 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, sequestered shelves that held objects of worship, but an entire synagogue? “Look!” Almeida Mello said, pointing to the seven light fixtures in the synagogue. “They’re placed in the shape of a menorah with one vertical line and a horizontal line across the top of it.”
I smiled to myself. I counted petals in a Jewish cemetery and he counted lights in an abandoned 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.”For more information about the Azores: and For more about the synagogue: 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 website is