A JEWISH COMMUNITY IN TOMAR, PORTUGAL
by Arthur Benveniste

 


   

Mr. Vasco shows the well that feeds the mikve, Moshe Shaltiel looks on.             Mrs. Vasco and me in front of Synagogue


Tomar is a small village in central Portugal.  A spectacular castle on a hill guards the approach to the town and, on entering the town, the visitor sees a quiet river fringed with parkways and trees where a wooden water wheel turns with the flow of the water.   Tomar is also the site of a restored synagogue, originally built a half millennium ago.
 The Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies held its 1994 conference in Belmonte, Portugal.  After the conference a visit was made to Porto and its interesting, tile covered synagogue.  The group, of which I was fortunate to be a part, then made its way to Lisbon.  The road to Lisbon passed through Tomar.  We had heard about the synagogue of Tomar and wanted to visit it.   We found it on a narrow, well maintained street.   The sign at the door said,  "Museo Luso-Hebraico, Abraham Zacuto, Sinagoga."  A smaller sign next to it said in Portuguese, "Closed Wednesdays"  It was Wednesday.
    A woman from across the street saw us.  In crypto Portuguese we explained our problem to her and  she set off to find the caretakers.  Soon Mr. and Mrs. Vasco arrived.  They led us into the building and told us their story.
The Vascos were raised as Crypto Jews and in recent years had decided to practice Judaism openly.  There were only two openly Jewish families in Tomar, a total of nine people.  In the five hundred years since this building had last served a Jewish congregation, it had been put to many  uses.  A few years ago the municipality returned it to the Jews and restoration has been carried out since then.   The people of the neighborhood overwhelmingly supported the restoration and many had assisted in it as they believed they are descended from converted Jews.
The central room of the Synagogue is about 25 by 25 feet.  Several pillars reach to Moorish arches at the ceiling.  About thirty dark wooden  chairs are placed facing three sides of the central bima, which is of lighter wood and covered with a yellow fringed blue cloth.  Before this stands a wooden cabinet which holds the Sefer Torahs.   Around the floor are old stone carvings which decorated the original structure. Next to this room is a smaller room, partially below the present street level.  Here the mikva was recently found.  Only part of it has been excavated.  A temporary wooden pathway allows visitors to see the pool area.  Around the pool are ceramic bowls and other artifacts found with the mikva.  In the patio behind the mikva, Mr. Vasco found the remains of the well that once provided water to the mikva.  Deep gashes on the rim of the well show where, for centuries,  ropes were used to drag up heavy buckets of water.  Part of the rim of the well is covered by a wall built in later centuries.   Mr. Vasco was proud to announce that the municipality had just given him permission to remove the wall and expose the whole well.

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