Alive and Well

Jews in a sun-drenched Portuguese town find a unique place to draw communal strength

Traditionally, the synagogue has always been the cornerstone of Jewish communal life. For an itinerant community of holiday-makers and expatriates in Portugal’s Algarve, however, it’s a cemetery that has assumed this role.

The remote cemetery, which dates back to the burial of Rabbi Josef Toledano in 1838, is located in Faro, capital of the Algarve, Portugal’s southern province. The restoration of the cemetery, completed in 1993, and the task of maintaining it since, have given this group of Jews from the United States, Canada, Europe and South Africa, who are drawn to the Algarve’s perennial sunshine, relaxed atmosphere and scenic coastline, a sense of unity, purpose and pride.

“The cemetery has also made our community known and is our flagship,” says Ralf Pinto, who has been head of the community since 1991 and leads services on the major festivals and the occasional Friday night, as there is no rabbi to conduct them. “We don’t have a synagogue or community center and so we hold our festival gatherings at Mariner’s Restaurant in Portimao, which is housed in the last remaining building of the Judiaria (the Jewish ghetto before the 1496 Edict of Expulsion). But we often meet up at the cemetery in Faro and afterwards go out for lunch.”

In the span of 150 years a community had disappeared, the only remnant of its presence, a cemetery.

Pinto, whose parents went to South Africa as refugees from Nazi Germany, has traced his family tree back to Samuel Levi Pinto, who lived in Amsterdam in 1650. The name Pinto is of Portuguese origin, however, and means “painted,” he explains.

A retired electrical contractor in his 60s, Pinto moved permanently to the Algarve with his wife Judith from South Africa in 1991. “We bought a holiday home here in the mid-80s and came on vacation every year for a couple of months. After about seven years of doing this, my wife announced that she didn’t want to go back to South Africa. We love the relaxed atmosphere here and the calm lifestyle, but we also missed having a Jewish community such as the one we had in Cape Town.”

Judith, an active woman who sports a deep tan from daily sun worshiping at the beach in nearby Praia da Roche, decided to try and connect Jews living in the region by holding a Hanukkah party in 1991. While six people attended that first gathering in the Pintos’ home, the numbers have grown so much that each of the major festivals celebrated since then has had to be held at Mariner’s Restaurant, with Pinto leading the services and a festive meal that follows. This year 80 people, from as far afield as Canada, Israel and South Africa, gathered around the Seder table in Portimao, the quaint harbor town an hour’s drive from Faro, where the Pintos live. Also present was Dr. Pedro David, who was born in Portugal and claims to be a descendant of conversos.

Last year, a bar mitzvah was held for Daniel Porton, whose family moved to the Algarve from Leeds — the first since that of twins Joel and Samuel Dreiblatt in 1923. And in July 2000, Ralf and Judith Pinto’s son, Jose, walked with his south African bride, Michelle Lentin, down the narrow, cobbled Trevessa da Rua Nova to Mariner’s Restaurant, where they became the first Jewish couple to be married there in 500 years.

Unlike other places in Portugal where synagogues still stand (Porto in the north has the beautiful 1927 Kadoori synagogue, and Tomar, a small town 150 km from Lisbon, has a synagogue dating back to the 15th century, for instance), there are few testaments to the Jewish presence on the Algarve. Jews were invited back to Portugal by the Marquise de Pombal to help rebuild the economy after the devastating earthquake in 1755. These retornados were the descendants of Jews who had fled to Gibraltar and Morocco after refusing King Manuel’s order of baptism and conversion at the end of the 15th century.

Due to its mild climate a number of returning Jews settled in Faro, the Algarve’s biggest city, which became known as “Little Jerusalem.” Most of the community were well educated and multilingual, speaking English, Arabic, Ladino and Portuguese.

In the 1850s, Faro had a thriving 60-family community, with two Sephardi synagogues and a kosher slaughterhouse — none of which remain today. The decline of the community started in the 1940s as the younger generations left home for bigger towns, such as Lisbon, which today has a community of 250 families.

In the span of 150 years a community had disappeared, the only remnant of its presence, a cemetery.

The old city of Faro is entered through the impressive 19th-century archway of Arco da Vila, and has at its heart a peaceful square — the Largo da Se — which is lined with orange trees and is overlooked by the Paço Episcopal, an elegant 18th-century bishops’ palace. But the Jewish cemetery does not lie within this part of town, neither is it situated near the stylish pedestrianized center with its shops, bars and restaurants.

And today, they recharge their communal identity back at the 106-soul cemetery in Faro.

To reach the cemetery, one has to go to the northeast corner of town — a neighborhood of low apartment blocks and stores that is dominated by a football stadium and a hospital. The fresh white walls of the cemetery and its decorative green iron gates are set in a Roman style archway — a stark contrast to the drab surroundings. Inside, the 106 graves, all in pristine condition, are overlooked by a large alfarrobeia tree and a fine oak, which provide much-needed shade in the warm Mediterranean climate. The atmosphere is one of serenity.

This was not how Ike Bitton found the cemetery when he visited Faro, his mother’s birthplace, in 1984. Bitton, an Illinois businessman who grew up in Lisbon but emigrated to the United States at the age of 17, found only neglect and desecration.

“I was shocked to see grass on the tombstones and rubble and debris. I stood there for a long time in reverence and silence. How was it possible to reach such a state? In the span of a single lifetime the Jews of Faro had gone, leaving only this place to bear witness,” Bitton laments in a documentary film he made of the restoration project, entitled “Without the Past.”

On returning home, Bitton put the restoration project into motion by setting up the Faro Cemetery Restoration Fund. With the help of Jews and Gentiles, as well as his brother Joseph and then-Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, Bitton was able to raise funds for the project and prove, as he says “that we are our brother’s keeper.”

While fundraising was possible from 4,000 miles away, organizing the actual restoration was not. Ralf Pinto was appointed to oversee the project. According to Pinto: “We found 106 graves of which 71 have inscriptions. As is the Sephardi/Moroccan custom there are no headstones, but marble slabs over the graves of adults, while the children’s graves are covered only with pebbles. According to another Sephardi tradition, children are buried nearest the entrance, women in the center and men at the back.”

Restoration work at the site was a momentous task, Pinto recalls. “In many cases the stones had to be chemically treated to be restored to their former state and some had to be structurally repaired. The weeds and 30 tons of rubble were removed.”

The most difficult task was digging up the 1,000 square meters of surrounding calçada (traditional Portuguese cobblestones) and resetting them. The community also set up a museum in the old tahara (purification) house, which is open daily to the public, and houses Judaica and posters of Israel. A plaque has also been put up to honor Samuel Porteira Gacon, a Jew who pioneered printing in Portugal in 1487, and a framed facsimile copy of the Torah in Hebrew that he printed hangs on the wall.

In 1993, the cemetery was rededicated in the presence of then-president Mario Soares, who planted the first of 18 cypress trees that now stand along the entrance to the burial ground. And today, the sun-seeking Jews of the Algarve may gather for festivals at the Judiaria restaurant in Portimao, but they recharge their communal identity back at the 106-soul cemetery in Faro.