By EDGAR ASHER
THERE is an unmistakable wind of change blowing across the Iberian Peninsula.
It is a little over 500 years since the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal.
In January, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed an order that all Jews were to be expelled from Spain in that same year.
This had long been the desire of the head of the Spanish Inquisition, the ruthless Tomas de Torquemada.
The army of the Spanish king had also decisively defeated the last of the Muslim armies and Spain was thus completely restored to Christian rule.
Many of Spain's Jews managed to cross the land border into Portugal, but in 1494, the Jews of Portugal suffered the same fate as their co-religionists.
This followed the marriage of Portugal's King Manuel to the daughter of Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
The Jews were given a clear choice, convert to Christianity or leave Portugal.
In the 15th century there were literally hundreds of town and villages across Spain and Portugal that had a significant Jewish population.
The Jewish community lived mainly in a section of a town referred to as the 'juderia' in Spanish or 'judiaria' in Portuguese.
At the height of Jewish culture in Portugal there were more than 150 Jewish communities throughout the country, comprising about ten per cent of the total Portuguese population at the time.
A similar proportion of Jews had lived in Spain, making the peninsula by far the biggest concentration of Jews anywhere in the world at that time.
The consequence of the 15th century expulsion left Spain and Portugal visibly free of Jews.
Tens of thousands of Jews managed to leave to go to more relatively tolerant countries and were able to maintain the outward trappings of their religion.
Those Jews who remained on the Iberian Peninsula had to completely hide their Jewish background and adopt by force the Catholic faith.
Some of them - known as Crypto Jews or hidden Jews - secretly carried on their Jewish traditions, such as lighting candles on Friday night, but outwardly pretended to be Catholics.
Geneticists in several countries have been conducting research into the genetic signature of the present general population of Spain and Portugal.
Their findings would indicate that today some 20 per cent of the population of the peninsula has Jewish blood.
In the post Second World War years under the dictatorial rule of Francisco Franco in Spain and Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, the history and contribution of Jews in the peninsula was not spoken about nor, with very few exceptions, were the places where Jews used to live identified in any way.
Synagogues had long ago become churches; Jewish cemeteries had been built over, but not before the headstones were taken away to be utilised as building material.
The Jewish cemetery in Segovia, for example, does not have remaining any headstones or residue of bones.
Before the expulsion, Segovia had a thriving Jewish population with Jews playing a significant part in the everyday life of this formerly important trading city.
There are significant changes in Spain and Portugal today as now the history of the Jews is openly discussed, as well as the association of Jewish populations in various cities and towns.
In 1987, the then president of Portugal, Mario Soares, for the first time in Portugal's history, publicly asked for forgiveness of Portugal's small Jewish population for his country's responsibility in the Inquisition, and all the later persecution of the Jews.
In December, 1968, in Spain, in the final years of the Franco regime, the 1492 'Alhambra Decree' by Ferdinand and Isabella was formally rescinded.
As despotic as the Franco regime was, it has to be put on record that many Jews were saved by Spanish diplomats issuing travel visas during the Second World War, especially in Hungary.
In the war, many Jews managed to travel across the Iberian Peninsula to safety.
However the attitude of Franco to the Jews and his admiration for those who tried to annihilate them does not really compensate for those who were saved.
It would be too simplistic to say that the identification of Jewish life in so many places across the peninsula is solely for the benefit of tourism.
After all, the number of people interested in Jewish demography out of the 57 million people who visited Spain in 2012 is a very small number.
It would also be naïve to think that suddenly Spain and Portugal had pangs of conscience for all the hurt that had been caused to the Jews in the past.
But the fact remains that all over the peninsula the Jewish presence is being identified like never before.
Their location on tourist city maps are clear to be seen and the contribution of former Jewish citizens who more than 500 years ago made their home across Spain and Portugal is no longer swept under the carpet.
As already said on an official level, both Spain and Portugal acknowledge the suffering caused to its Jewish citizens in the past.
They also acknowledge the outstanding contribution of Jews in the Middle Ages to medicine, science, literature and exploration.
It is too soon to say that there is a sustained revival of Jewish life across Spain and Portugal.
However there are encouraging indications that there is an awakening of Jewish activity, particularly in Portugal, helped in no small way by Jewish organisations in Israel that offer both financial and practical assistance in the establishment and development of Jewish communities across the peninsula.
I decided in this visit to Spain and Portugal to begin my journey in Madrid.
It was to be a 1,240 mile drive, during which I would witness examples of Jewish revival that, even 10 years ago, nobody would have predicted.
The main synagogue in Madrid is located in Balmes Street in the north central part of the city.
Visitors who would like to participate in Shabbat services are required for security reasons to either send a copy of their passport to the synagogue beforehand or go along to the synagogue, with their passports before Shabbat, to be registered.
Near to the synagogue is a rather indifferent and expensive kosher restaurant with a very limited menu where Shabbat meals can be ordered.
There are a couple of delicatessen shops near the synagogue and one baker that sells kosher bread.
Ninety-eight kilometres north west of Madrid is the city of Segovia.
It was in Segovia that Ferdinand and Isabella promulgated the 1492 decree (later signed in Granada) that the Jews had four months to either convert to Christianity or leave the country.
The Old Jewish Quarter (Juderia Vieja) is clearly marked. The juderia is quite large and reflects the fact that the Jews who lived there enjoyed a good standard of living.
One such Jew, Abraham Seneor, became very wealthy and influential in the Spanish court. In 2004, the Segovia City Council established in the juderia a permanent exhibition that uses up-to-date audio-visual presentation to tell the history of the Jews in the city and also explains Jewish ritual.
A very unusual feature is gold-coloured shields, provided by the local authority, incised into the pavement at the various entrances of the juderia.
The shields are in the shape of a map of the Iberian Peninsula and spell out the word for Spain in Hebrew - 'Sferad'. Between the Hebrew letters can be read another word 'Zocher' - remember.
Due west of Segovia is Spain's premier university city of Salamanca. Although the city had in the past a rich Jewish history, today very little of that epoch remains.
However, a visit to the impressive main entrance of the university will be a reminder that in the 12th century, when the university was founded, one of its most famous scholars was Fray Luis de Leon a poet and academic whose statue faces the main entrance.
Before the inquisition Salamanca was one of the most important seats of Jewish learning.
De Leon, a direct descendent of Jewish conversos (forcibly converted Spanish Jews), was a noted Hebrew scholar having translated into Spanish the Shir Hashirim - the 'Song of Songs'.
An hour's winding drive to the south of Salamanca is the quaint town of Bejar.
Bejar has certainly seen better times as it used to be a busy textile manufacturing centre, but today the factory buildings are empty or in disrepair.
It is estimated that in the 15th century, a fifth of Bejar's population were Jews.
They worked in the textile trade as weavers, dyers and tailors with their Christian neighbours; they were also on record as being doctors, shoemakers, farmers and wine growers.
In 2005, Jewish philanthropist David Melul Benarroch donated funds to buy and refurbish a dilapidated 15th century house and establish a Jewish museum that retold the story of the Jews of Bejar from the time of their first arrival in the town to the expulsion.
Among the artifacts is a Jewish tombstone from the 12th century that attests to a Jewish presence in the town at that time.
Three floors of the modern museum tell an incredible story of a town that today probably does not have one Jew living there.
The museum, fully and enthusiastically supported by the local authority of Bejar, is open at varying times on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but it is also possible to visit on other days by prior arrangement.
A 20-minute drive from Bejar, along a beautiful scenic route is the spa town of Hervas.
The juderia of Hervas is well marked on maps and in the juderia itself.
As in the case of Bejar, there are no Jews living in the town today.
Portugal's main university city of Coimbra is some 300kms from Salamanca.
Before the period of forced conversions, the city was home to many Jewish families.
After the introduction of the Portuguese inquisition, Coimbra, together with Lisbon and Evora, became one of the places where the inquisition tribunal sat.
Today the streets of Coimbra's Jewish quarter are not clearly designated, although near the judiaria is a large fountain, known as the 'Jewish Fountain'.
It is clear that the fountain was a focal point of Jewish life in the various towns and villages where they lived.
Due south of Coimbra is the Templar city of Tomar. Here in the 14th and 15th century, the Knights Templar built their headquarters in a massive castle while a prosperous Jewish community grew in the town below.
Today in the former judiaria one can visit the centuries old synagogue, as well as a newly-discovered mikva and an ancient water heating system.
The Tomar synagogue is the oldest and best preserved in Portugal.
It is in a good state of repair and is supervised by a Jewish custodian. She is one of only two Jewish families living in Tomar, having come to the town originally from Belmonte in the north of Portugal.
The synagogue has become a museum displaying various artifacts including ancient tablets, texts and gravestones.
After the edict of 1496, the Jewish community left the synagogue and it was used for various purposes until 1921 when it was classified as a national monument.
In 1923 Jewish engineer Samuel Schwarz, who originally came from Poland, purchased the building from its owner with the view of preserving it. This he did at his own personal expense.
Schwarz, who for some time was the president of the Lisbon Jewish community, was well known for discovering many crypto-Jewish families in the northern town of Belmonte.
From Tomar I drove westward toward Lisbon.
However before arriving in Lisbon I made a short stop at Obidos, a very picturesque village close to the Atlantic Ocean.
The village is a magnet for tourists who meander slowly through its narrow streets. This picture postcard village has not changed very much over the centuries.
It is recorded that there was an active Jewish community in the village from as early as the fifth century. The town itself is encircled by an ancient fortified wall which is a well-preserved example of medieval architecture.
Obidos is also well known for the production of chocolate and, each year in the spring, there is a chocolate festival held in the village attracting thousands of visitors.
At all times of the year, it is possible to sample in most cafés examples of Obidos chocolate liquor.
Despite the richness of Lisbon's Jewish history, there is not a lot to be seen in the city that attests to the Jews living there.
The Alfama quarter near to the River Tagus is where the Judiaria Grande used to be. To the north of the quarter is a memorial which commemorates the killings and injustices done to the thousands of Jewish people between 1506 and 2008.
It was near this spot that many Jews were condemned to change their religion or be burned at the stake.
The main Lisbon synagogue, the 'Sha'are Tikvah' - 'Gates of Hope' Synagogue is the centre of Lisbon Jewish life.
Built in 1904, the synagogue's architect was Miguel Ventura Terra, one of the most distinguished architects of his day.
It was the first synagogue to be built in Portugal since the late 15th century. Its main façade faces into a courtyard because Portuguese law at the time forbade non-Catholic places of worship to face directly on to the street.
The community is fortunate to have a young, very motivated minister, Rabbi Eliezer Shai Di Martino, who was born in Rome and at 20 he decided to go to Israel to study.
In 2006, he received his semicha. Almost immediately after this he left Israel with his Mexican wife Malka and settled at first in Porto before taking up his present position in Lisbon.
One of his main objectives is to teach basic Judaism to his congregation and also a little Hebrew.
However, he says that the biggest challenge to all of Portugal's Jews is the fact that most of the couples are intermarried.
The synagogue at times finds it difficult to get a minyan. Although the community is very active and enthusiastic many families with young children have moved to more affordable areas such as Cascais or Estoril and the number of Jews around the synagogue has declined.
During the tourist season there is little problem as this beautiful synagogue attracts many visitors.
As with the main synagogue in Madrid, security is very tight and usually one is admitted by prior arrangement.
Evora is 134km east of Lisbon. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, although its judiaria has little to remind the visitor that this town once had a thriving Jewish community; in fact in the 15th century, the Jewish community was one of the largest in Portugal.
The judiaria was situated inside the city walls and at the time had two synagogues, a hospital and a leper colony.
If you look carefully you can still see on some doorposts indentations where there was once a mezzuzah.
Some 60km north of Evora are two small towns Castelo de Vide and Marvao.
Marvao is very close to the Spanish border and many Jews passed through as they fled from Spain following the implementation of the Inquisition.
This walled town has a kiosk at its entrance welcoming visitors in many languages, including Hebrew.
A few kilometres to the west of Marvao is Castelo de Vide, a prosperous, attractive little town.
Here the judiaria is well marked out and the old synagogue has been completely restored and includes a small 14th century stone ark.
Archaeological studies revealed on the lower floor of the synagogue three silos dug out of the granite for the storage of grain.
At the lower end of the judiaria is an impressive granite fountain. It was said that after the Jews were ordered out of Castelo de Vide in 1496, many stayed and converted to Christianity.
Some 160kms, north of Castelo de Vide is the small town of Belmonte, the jewel of the present Portuguese Jewish community.
The first synagogue in Belmonte was recorded to have been established in 1297.
By all events, the Jews were very active in the town working as artisans and traders, mainly from their own homes.
In the late 20th century the 'secret' Jews of Belmonte began to rediscover their heritage and slowly started to reestablish a Jewish community presence.
Known as Bnei Anousim or Marranos, the secret Jews of Belmonte had succeeded in preserving their Jewish identity.
Some 20 years ago, with the help of the Israeli Shavei Israel organisation, the Jews of Belmonte were able to return to the Jewish people and practice their faith openly.
In 1996 with the assistance of generous donors the Jewish community of Belmonte opened their own synagogue in the town's Jewish quarter.
In 2003, the American Sephardi Federation also invited support for the 'Belmonte Project'.
When the oldest Jewish couple in Belmonte, Carlos and Benvinda Diogo Henriques, died within a short time of each other, they had owned a plot of land, next to the old historical 'Jewish quarter,' where they lived.
Their children decided to donate the plot in their memory for the future construction of a synagogue. The money for the construction was donated by Solomon Azoulay, a benefactor from Switzerland, in memory of his father Eliahou Azoulay, whose name was given to Belmonte's synagogue - Beit Eliahou.
The fine Jewish museum in the town tells in detail the history of Belmonte's Jews.
After 1496, the Jews of Belmonte, like the rest of the remaining Jews in Portugal, practiced their religion in secret.
On exhibit in the museum is a unique portable metal mezzuzah case with a sliding lid.
The owner would carry the small case in his pocket and when he arrived home he would place the mezzuzah while he was in his house in a prepared indentation near to the inside of his front door.
Rabbi Elisha Salas is Shavei Israel's emissary in Portugal. Rabbi Salas, 56, was born in Chile and in 1999 made aliya to Israel with his wife and four children.
Certified also as a shochet, Rabbi Salas spends about three of every four weeks in Portugal, primarily in the north of the country.
He also is responsible for supervising the production of kosher wine and cheese in Portugal. He also teaches Torah and Jewish culture to the Bnai Anousim.
The story of Portugal's Jewish revival does not end in Belmonte.
In Trancoso, some 50kms north of Belmonte, a new Jewish cultural and religious centre has just been dedicated with a Torah scroll specially brought from Israel by Shavei Israel founder and chairman Michael Freund.
The centre will operate an outreach programme for the many anousim in the area.
Near the entrance of the new synagogue is a memorial wall with the names of Bnai Anusim who were tried and punished by the Inquisition for secretly practicing Judaism, in some case Jews were burned at the stake.
Today Trancoso is a testimony to Jewish survival under the most difficult circumstances.