Keeping the faith against all the odds

Thursday, December 12, 2019, 22:36

The synagogue in Belmont

Belmonte synagogue

We are once again in the Beira Baixa town of Belmonte, home of the man who had brought about the evangelisation of Brazil. ( But Catholicism was not the only religion deeply held in Belmonte, Judaism was there too and, just up the hill from the statue of Pedro Álvares Cabral, is the old Jewish quarter of the village.

What I am about to tell you is a story of deeply held faith and extraordinary, almost incredible, tenacity. It starts more than 500 years ago, at the time of the reconquest of Spain by the Catholic Kings, Fernando of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, contemporaries of that same king who had favoured and then forgotten Cabral; Dom Manuel I.

To read the extraordinary story of the Jews of Belmonte, click here

First, though, let's have a brief look at the background. There were already Jews in Iberia when it was part of the Roman empire. Throughout the 2000 years since then, times of persecution have alternated with times of tolerance. The founding of the Portuguese state took place in one of the latter periods. Afonso Henriques, the warrior king who carved out his realm from amongst the many princedoms of Iberia, employed a man called Yahia ben Yahia III to take care of taxation and the royal treasury and appointed him chief rabbi. He also promulgated charters allowing non-Christian merchants freedom of worship and the use of their traditional laws. Subsequent kings maintained these and King Sancho I even protected the Jewish community in Lisbon by removing rioting crusaders from the city.

Possible dedication stone of an early synagogue in Belmonte
The possible dedication of an early synagogue in Belmonte

Dozens of Jewish communities sprang up across Portuguese territory during these early centuries but it's hard to know if there was one in Belmonte. From a carved stone discovered during excavations under the present church, it seems that there may have been. No one seems completely certain as to its significance but what is certain is that it is Hebrew script.

The Jewish Museum of Belmonte, which houses the stone, has the following explanation.

Museum explanation of the Hebrew carved stone

Even though the evidence of a long-standing community in Belmonte may be inconclusive, one almost certainly became established there at some point in the late 15th century. In 1478 at the start of the campaign of reconquest across the border in Spain, the Inquisition began its horrendous work against religious minorities causing the Jews to begin to flee. If you were travelling along rudimentary roads with only what you could carry, where is one place you might you end up and decide to settle? Answer: thirty kilometres or so within the border of your new country; in Belmonte.

Those who did not, hoping to wait out the turbulence, were to be rudely disappointed. After the fall of Granada in 1492, Spain underwent a period of religious fanaticism. All Jews who refused conversion were expelled. A few went east to Constantinople or south to Morocco but most made their way to Portugal. Such a massive influx - an estimated 100,000 people in one year - proved too much for local populations to absorb and so Dom João II proposed to allow in only those immigrants who could pay a tax and to facilitate their emigration later to other countries. (There are echoes here of modern day movements of people.) Life immediately became more uncomfortable for all Jews. 

After João's death his successor, Manuel I, started by returning to tolerance and repealing discriminatory laws, but soon things turned sour. I suppose if you hope to maintain the independence of your small kingdom in the face of a larger, richer nation – one indeed that had just proved its prowess in war - the most sensible move is to make a strategic alliance. Dom Manuel duly courted and married Isabella of Aragon, daughter of Fernando and Isabella and at that time heir to the Spanish throne. As part of the marriage settlement, however, he found himself obliged to subscribe to their antisemitic policy. Jews were told either to leave, without their children, or to submit to conversion. Some escaped overseas but It seems Manuel was eager to retain the wealth and expertise of the Jews so, on arrival at the port in Lisbon, Catholic priests forcibly converted many.

After the decree of expulsion, some inhabitants of Belmonte may have left to make the trek to Lisbon where the king's ships were said to be waiting but most chose to remain, ostensibly accepting local 'conversion'. Such people became known as 'Marranos' (probably from Arabic meaning 'forbidden' and therefore pigs or swine) or somewhat less offensively - though inaccurately and still unacceptably - 'New Christians'. Today the term used is often crypto-Jews.

Cross scratched into a wall showing the house of a 'new Christian'

A cross carved in stone indicated the house of a new Christian.

The story is told that for self-preservation the Belmonte Jews cut off communication with their co-religionists elsewhere, and though outwardly accepting of Catholicism, continued to practise their faith in secret. They retreated to their cellars on the Sabbath so celebrations would not be seen by outsiders. Candles for example, were placed into deep pots so that their beams would not shine through the cracks of shuttered windows. People became adept at making products that looked like pork sausages using substitutes such as bread and chicken, to fool the locals into believing that a true conversion had been made. High Days and holidays were observed a few days earlier or later than the true date. Marriages took place only within the community.

Over the generations, religious traditions were passed down mainly from grandmother, to mother to daughter. Prayers were repeated, often uncomprehendingly, as the Hebrew language became a stranger to them. The urge to keep their faith secret was not misplaced as prejudice across Portugal grew and persecutions began. In 1506, 2000 Jews were killed in a riot in Lisbon and in 1536 the Inquisition itself, with the terrifying 'Auto da fé', moved into Portugal, leading to centuries of accusations of inadequate adherence to the Catholic faith. Neighbour testified against neighbour and no doubt petty disputes were solved through denunciations. Thousands were burned and tens of thousands punished in other ways.

In Belmonte, though there were some accusations and trials, the village's isolation protected most of the few who tried to cling on to their faith. Handed down from mother to daughter, like the game of Chinese Whispers, the prayers and customs became distorted the language lost and many festivals forgotten. Other non-kosher customs grew up blended with the Christian rituals they saw around them.

This is how the Jewish Museum explains it.

Museum explanation of the life of the crypto-Jews

Even after the abolition of the Inquisition in 1821, the Jews of Belmonte kept their rituals secret and, never meeting Jews from elsewhere, they came to believe they were the only ones left in the world... until early in 1917 a Jewish Polish mining engineer named Samuel Schwarz, who was working in the local tungsten mines, heard tales of hidden Jews and went looking for them. He apparently verified through reciting Hebrew prayers that the people in this remote village remembered and recognised the word for God, Adonai, and were in fact the rumoured long-lost Jews.

Photograph of Samuel Schwarz
Samuel Schwarz, the mining engineer who rediscovered the Jews of Belmonte

500 hundred years of fear of persecution and secrecy take their toll on a population and it was not until half a century later, in the 1970s, that they felt safe enough to come out of the shadows and make official contact with the Jews of Israel. After a reconversion ceremony they were at last accepted back into the world-wide community of Jews.

Since then, rabbis from Israel and Brazil have served their flock in Belmonte, though orthodox Jews find the Portuguese variant of their religion difficult to accept. There has been a small amount of immigration from elsewhere but the original community still keeps itself to itself and is shy of outsiders, even of Jews from elsewhere. A big change, though, is a willingness to display the symbols of their heritage and faith as is shown by the massive menorah outside a shop call Casa da Judiaria - the House of the Jews.

 Massive menorah outside a Jewish shop

Though there are communities of Jews elsewhere, in Lisbon and Porto for example, they are made up mostly of relatively recent arrivals. Belmonte is accepted as the only truly Portuguese community of Jews and as such is also home to a branch of the Portuguese Jewish network and a museum of Jewish history

The office of the Jewish network of Portugal
The Jewish network centre, Belmonte

To me the museum is something of a disappointment. It could more accurately be described as what the Portuguese call a 'Centre of Interpretation'. There as a great deal of information using modern technology, video and interactive sites but relatively few artefacts. Of course, if you are trying to hide your true identity from those around you, anything that gives you away must be discarded so it is not surprising that things to connect them to their faith were thrown away or lost. Nevertheless, it was a huge disappointment to me that the Torah – the Jewish Bible, if you will – was unavailable. What was there, and which I found immensely touching, was a pair of keys left by their owners in the clearly misplaced hope of an eventual return. Sometimes these were left with sympathetic neighbours, in other cases they were taken with those who fled. It is said that Jews of Portuguese heritage, even those who fled 500 years ago, sometimes arrive with keys that have been handed down through the family for generations. Often not only do the houses they came from no longer exist, in many cases the owners do not even know where those houses were.

Keys of Jewish houses left in the care of neighbours
Keys from Jewish houses, Belmonte museum

The modern world is impinging on the lives of the hidden Jews in ways once undreamt of. There is now a special radio station playing Jewish music and religious texts. For those who remember the old days, this must be a shock to the system; not only has the old reticence been abandoned but an opening up the wider world has taken place.

The Jewish radio station in Belmonte

Of course, this extraordinary story has brought money making possibilities to Belmonte. People travel here from all over the world and they need accommodation and restaurants. There were three young Israeli men in the guest house where we stayed. Such people, of course, also need a souvenir for the folks back home. What better than an ashtray, olive bowl or mug with a blue Star of David or a menorah on it?

knick knacks in the shop in Belmonte
Knick knacks in a shop in Belmonte

Not all tourists are impressed, though. Up by the castle we met a Jewish American from Florida who spoke with - to my mind - unbecoming cynicism of the Jews of Belmonte.

"Of course, they're not real Jews, you know."
"Whatever makes you say that?"
"Well wouldn't you claim to be Jewish if you got a stipend from Israel?" 

Well, I don't know about you, but this seems to me to be an unnecessarily jaundiced view of human nature. The people of Belmonte may have forgotten much of the detail of their faith; they may have distorted some of the customs and practices; but they clung to the knowledge of their origins and faith throughout 500 years, most of which were fraught with extreme danger. To me – and I am not Jewish – there is a great honour in what this community did and if, belatedly, they are receiving some reward for it, it seems to me to be long overdue. I have been immensely touched by the story of these people and I think that if you have not, you must be hard hearted indeed.

As a coda to this tale, in 2013 Portugal decided to make belated amends for the expulsion of the Jews. Anyone who can prove a connection to those Jews expelled in 1497 – some knowledge of Ladino, a dialect based on Spanish/Portuguese retained by Jews in Turkey; a document proving ancient residence in Salonika, another place of refuge chosen by some refugees in 1497; or even keys from the 15th century may be enough – is eligible for a passport and residence in Portugal. In these days of turbulent politics a second passport might come in handy!

Do you have any tales of Belmonte? If you do, please write in and tell us. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)


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