How Sausage Saved Jewish People from the Inquisition

Daniel Carvalheiro-Santos, Staff Writer

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In the 16th century, the monarchs/Pope of Rome (Papal States), Spain, and Portugal decided to commit one of the most horrific and deadly genocides in human history. This mass ethnic-cleansing that took place throughout the world is credited with being the reason for the first exodus of the Jewish community from the Iberian Peninsula. Today, the Jewish community in Spain consists solely of 50,000 Jews, with the largest communities centered around metropolitan areas such as Barcelona and Madrid. In Portugal, the number of followers of Judaism is anywhere between 1,000-8,000, however, genetically, it is believed that at least 20% of Portuguese people are descendants of New Christians, the term used to described Jewish people who converted because of the Inquisition. I will stress that the Jewish people were not the only religious organization to be persecuted. In fact, Muslims and Hindus were also subject to the Inquisition, primarily in the Goan (India) Inquisition. Due to the diaspora of Jews after the Inquisition, Sephardim (Iberian Jews) and their culture can be found throughout the world. Even in the United States, we see remnants of Sephardic culture in the first synagogue open in America, Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island. Today, there are a number of traditions that have survived in Iberian culture, one of which was life-saving for many Jewish people.

During the Inquisition, Jews were highly recognizable in their communities. Whether it be their attire or their home decor, you could easily spot a Jewish person on the streets of any medieval city. The Jewish community had to figure out a way to deceive the Inquisition Officers if they wanted to survive and practice their religion. A small group of Jews from the municipality of Mirandela in Portugal decided that the only way they could look more Christian was to “eat” non-kosher foods. Traditionally, non-Jewish and non-Muslim Portuguese people were accustomed to making their various cured meats and hanging them outside their doors to properly preserve them in the winter. As a government official would walk down the streets, they would see houses without these meats and assume that these were Jewish residences. To fix this problem, the Jewish community of Mirandela invented the Alheira de Mirandela. This sausage was made from chicken, bread, and other seasonings and had an almost identical physical appearance to that of the non-kosher sausage products. As time passed, this sausage evolved into the krischke, a Jewish delicacy used to make cholent on Friday, before Sabbath. In Portugal, Alheira was transformed into everything it wasn’t supposed to be originally: meaty. However, all that matters is that Alheira served its original purpose.

One of the most well known Jewish communities in Europe is that of Belmonte, Portugal, some of the last Marranos (Crypto-Jews) in the world. They still produce kosher alheira to incorporate into their Sabbath meals. The Jewish community of Belmonte was hidden away in a valley in rural Portugal for centuries. This geographic isolation allowed them to prosper and they were able to keep their secret from reach of the outside world for nearly 600 years. When they came in contact with other Portuguese people, they were reluctant to reveal their Jewish identity for fear of the persecution occurring throughout Europe. Despite being discovered in 1917 by a Polish Jewish miner, the Belmonte Jews did not publicly assume their Jewish faith until the 1970s when Mario Soares (Portuguese President/Prime Minister) asked the Jewish communities for forgiveness for the Portuguese involvement in persecutions of the Jewish people.

In the end, the history of the Jewish people in the Iberian Peninsula has been extremely turbulent, however they have overcome and many Sephardic traditions still shine through modern Iberian culture.


Photo Credits to National Geographic Educational Blog