04 January 2008

Portugal: After 500 years of hiding

Belmonte, Portugal is undergoing a renaissance of sorts.

After 500 years of hiding, its Jews are bringing prosperity.

Conversos, to be exact. Belmonte, a town of 3,600, is home to some 300 descendants of Jews who survived the Inquisition by practicing their religion in secret - the only sizable community of these "secret Jews" to remain on the Iberian Peninsula.

Until the 1990s, the Belmonte conversos kept their history to themselves. But since warily emerging from secrecy, the Jews here have generated a small local economy in one of the most economically depressed regions of Western Europe - one that is benefiting Jew and non-Jew alike.

There is employment in tourist-related industries, such as a sewing collective that embroiders sachets sold at the new Jewish Museum. Says a woman who works there, "[The tourists] come for the museum," she said. "They come to see the Jews."

Interest in Jewish Portugal is growing. Main city synagogues see more visitors, and frequent discoveries of a Jewish past are made. A Catholic priest making home renovations, knocked down a false wall to find the remains of a pre-Inquisition synagogue.

What is special about Belmonte is that it has not only Jewish history but real Jews, unlike many other Iberian communities which have silent Jewish quarters.

But Belmonte has more than Lisbon and Toledo, both with Jewish history but very few Jews. While other towns might still have a crypto-Jewish community still in hiding, another may never be discovered.

This interest resulted in a French donor providing funds for a small synagogue in 1997. The Jewish Museum has had more than 14,000 visitors since 2005, when it opened.

Abilio Henriques, the 68-year-old elected president of the Jewish community, now spends Sunday afternoons collecting entrance fees and directing visitors into the wood-and-velvet interior of his local synagogue.

"Kippah for men, none for women," Henriques explains as people walk in.

Henriques's aunt, Ana Marão, 72, sews Stars of David on the challah covers and tablecloths that she crochets for a living. "Now, the symbol is fine, but earlier..." Marão said as she drew her hand across her throat.

Sephardic Jews may have lived in Portugal since 10 BCE. An inscribed granite reliquary dates to 1297, the community's first synagogue. In 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain and many went to Portugal where they thought they'd be safe. However, in 1497, Portuguese Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or flee.

As in other countries, many decided to go underground and become secret Jews, following rituals as best they could. Even after the Inquisition finally ended in 1821, local Jews stayed hidden.

"It was a matter of tradition," said University of California, Los Angeles's Eduardo Mayone Dias, professor emeritus, who has written about Belmonte. "That had been their only method of survival. The fear of Inquisition and of outside influence was very real."


In 1994, change began. An Israeli rabbi visited to convert a Belmonte group. The community wanted contact with other Jewish communities, and a French documentary ("The Last Marranos" 1990) showed footage of Belmonte, triggering arrivals of tourists.

A number of tour companies cater to the tourists. "One brochure urges visitors to try 'Inquisition-defeating sausage,' a local recipe in which chicken is substituted for pork."

Although many Conversos are coming out of the woodwork, some families still avoid the synagogue and the tourists, continuing to practice as they have for 500 years. Women lead ceremonies at home that have developed in isolation and are somewhat different than Jewish rites and rituals today.

When rabbis began arriving, it caused tension in the community, whose women were the leaders for 500 years. Orthodox rabbis who came there reportedly told the women their services were no longer needed.

Several years ago, in fact, I was visiting a rabbi in Barcelona when he fielded a call from a Belmonte resident. The gist of the call was that the community could live with the Inquisition but not with the Orthodox rabbis who had no idea of the role the women had played for five centuries.

In any case, the article is interesting. Read more here.

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