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Reviewed by:
  • Two Portuguese Exiles in Castil
  • Inacio Steinhardt
Two Portuguese Exiles in Castile, by Elias Lipiner. Hispania Judaica 10. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1997. 173 pp. $23.00.

This is a work of historical research about the Jews of Portugal, during the century preceding their expulsion from that country. It is the first of Elias Lipiner’s writings to be published in English; hitherto, his books and articles have appeared in print in either Yiddish, Portuguese, or Hebrew. This book is a fine example of Lipiner’s work, and will serve very well to introduce this remarkable scholar to readers who are inexpert in those languages.

The “Two Portuguese Exiles” of the title are David Negro, longtime favorite of the Portuguese King D. Fernando (1376–1383), and Isaac Abravanel, minister at the court of King Alfonso V (1438–1481). Both were Portuguese Jews, among the wealthiest and most influential men of their community, deeply involved in the economic and political life of Portugal. Both were entangled in similar conspiracies concerned with the subject of Iberian Union (a subject with which the Royal Courts of both Portugal and Spain were much occupied at that time, each trying to gain ascendancy over the other by means of a complicated network of dynastic alliances). Both men fled the country and were tried in absentia; both had all their possessions confiscated. David Negro became Chief Rabbi of Castile under King Juan I and died in 1385. Isaac Abravanel served Ferdinand and Isabella from 1484 to 1492; after the decree of expulsion he became once again an exile, dying in Venice in 1508.

This book is a brilliant investigation of these two cases. With great skill the author reveals the similarities between them and places them in a historical context rendered wholly convincing by sound utilization of source material. As he unravels the two stories, Lipiner succeeds in giving the reader a concise overview of the history of the Jews in Portugal. Both Portuguese and Jewish sources are extensively quoted for the benefit of the [End Page 134] interested reader: half the book is taken up by supporting documents—facsimiles, transcriptions, and translations. Some of these are published here for the first time.

Lipiner’s contribution to the study of the history of Jews and “conversos” in Portugal and Brazil is inestimable. Born in Bessarabia (Romania) in 1916, he migrated on his own to Brazil at the age of 19. While a struggling law student in São Paulo, he became interested in the history of Portuguese Jewry during that tragic period which began before the discovery of Brazil and continued through the colonization of the New World. This interest developed into a lifetime’s labor of study and research, performed in addition to the work of an active legal practice. His intimacy with both Portuguese and Jewish sources helped to make him outstanding in the field.

The qualities which have earned for Lipiner’s work such high repute in the academic world are an innovative approach, elegance of literary style, and meticulous care in researching sources. For every person mentioned in his books, Lipiner kept a record in his filing cabinet, similar to the files of his legal clients. For each individual he searched the archives, hunted down the records and examined the evidence, documenting his case studies with the greatest care. The result was invariably a fascinating text, accurate as far as possible in every detail, written in a style which made reading a pleasure—not only for the scholar, but also for the general reader.

Lipiner could never resist the challenge of historical puzzles, which other writers might relate, but could not explain. For example, in this book he clears up a long- standing and much-debated mystery. It concerns one of the items of Abravanel’s estate, which was confiscated by King John II: “the ‘silks’ that he possessed in the Great Synagogue of Lisbon.”Historians before Lipiner supposed that there were “silk-covered seats” in the Synagogue. Lipiner is able to show, using documented examples, that the Portuguese word for “silk” (‘sseda’ or ‘seda’), actually meant in Old Portuguese “site, seat, chair.” What the King confiscated...

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