I had no idea what to expect when I planned to spend Shabbat in the almost mythical Converso community of Belmonte, but what I experienced I won’t ever forget. There, a community of secret Jews survived for 500 years, before returning to open Judaism in the 1970s. The town is in the hill area close to the Spanish border. Hence, it was a place that many Jews settled upon leaving Spain (as it also already had a preexisting community), but it was also off the beaten path, far from the populated coastal region, and separated from the coast by the Serra da Estrela mountains.
The exceptionally friendly rabbi, Elisha Salas, enthusiastically arranged for me to stay at a local Jewish family, the Diogos. I ate the Shabbat meals with them and they told me their story. As they only speak Portuguese, I spoke with Rabbi Salas in Hebrew, and he translated. They openly described their former crypto Jewish practices to me. They always prayed in private (not even with other members of their family), except for on Yom Kippur, when they would gather together. Prayers consisted on chapters of Psalms, recited in Portuguese. Women prayed three times a day. Special oil lamps were lit for Shabbat, in a sealed off room. They fasted the Fast of Esther. They did not eat pig or rabbit. To prepare for Pesah, bread was made with fresh water, and that bread alone was eaten throughout the eight days of the holiday. I was overwhelmed by their remarkable story of survival.
Today, the Jews of Belmonte are publicly Shabbat observant. Sixty individuals attended Shabbat services, as well as my lecture on the history of the Portuguese Jews (their cousins), that eventually made their way out of Portugal, and built important Jewish communities around the world. I reflected, that the history of Portuguese Jews is similar to that of Yosef and his brothers. Yosef hid his Israelite identity for many years, but in the end was able to rejoin his brethren and the children of Israel. Following Shabbat, I was asked to light the town Hanukkiah according to the Portuguese melody, as still observed in New York.
On Sunday, I visited some of the other towns in the region (Centro Portugal), led by enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and culturally sensitive local guides. These towns, too, had Jewish communities before the Expulsion, and then sizable Crypto communities afterwards. (As can be seen in the hundreds of Inquisition trials against individuals in this area). In Trancoso, many homes bear the mark of the cross, a symbol that they had been the homes of New Christians. The town has built a beautiful memorial to those that suffered under the Inquisition, listing the names of those ‘penanced,’ including surnames familiar to me from Congregation Shearith Israel, such as Lopes, Mendes, de Sola, Nunes, Cordoso, Hendriques and Duarte. The memorial also contains a synagogue, with a Torah dedicated to those that maintained their faith.
In Guarda, both the former synagogue and the Bet Din building have been identified. There, a Jewish Ghetto had existed under the protection of the king, in an ideal part of town, close to the market. Jews often helped settle border towns to protect against Spanish invasion, and to help develop the economy. Many worked with wool and fabrics, a profession that many descendants still engage in today. I had the pleasure of enjoying a delicious kosher lunch at the IMB Hotel, prepared in cooperation with Rabbi Salas.
My experiences in this region of Portugal have opened my eyes to the degree to which New Christians/Jews persevered in their Jewish identity. There is much debate in the academic community as to whether Crypto Judaism truly occurred, or whether the Inquisition fabricated charges to confiscate property. Perhaps the Inquisition only bothered with those with resources, but after what I’ve seen, it seems overwhelmingly clear that truly, New Christians were preserving some version of Judaism, to the best of their abilities. Indeed, people in this overall area are still regularly coming out of the woodwork (as individuals, though not as entire communities, as was the case in Belmonte) to rediscover their Jewish heritage, and to return to the Jewish community.
- Secret Jewish markings documented in Portuguese town (timesofisrael.com)
- Portuguese town receives Torah scroll, Jewish learning center (timesofisrael.com)