Tuesday, 2 December 2008


Letter from Belmonte

The Flame Of 26,000 Sabbaths
By Alan M. Tigay

In the mountains of northern Portugal a community of Crypto-Jews has reembraced Judaism after 500 years. But as they study the faith of their ancestors it’s not clear if they have more to learn or more to teach a Jewish world that is fascinated by their journey.
Friday night dinner in the synagogue, and the room is packed. Just a few years after emerging from the 500-year tunnel of secret observance, the Jews of Belmonte, Portugal, are engaged in what has become a fairly regular occurrence—hosting Jewish tourists from the United States. “This is the twelfth group we’ve had,” says Fernando Vaz, the community’s president.
About a dozen locals are dining with the Elderhostel party of some 35, and I am seated next to Vaz. Shortly after hamotzi he leans over and asks me, just above a whisper, “Are all the people in this group Jewish?”
When I tell him that they are, he asks with genuine puzzlement, “Then why are they traveling tomorrow morning instead of staying for Shabbat?”
The intimate way he puts the question signals that after struggling for several days to get people in the community to open up, I have gained a measure of trust. My pre-trip research had made one point clear—after five centuries, secrecy had become not only a survival tactic for Belmonte’s Jews, but an integral part of Judaism as they knew it. Even though their Jewishness is now proudly in the open, most of the town’s 180 Jews are still naturally reserved.
Another lesson in Vaz’s question is the community’s simplicity, its focused faith and tenacity. He seemed to be asking why, if he and his neighbors had sacrificed for so long to be able to fulfill the mitzva of Shabbat, would Jews who are totally free discard their observance? I had read everything I could find about Belmonte. All that remained was to talk to the people and let them tell their story. But when I first set foot in the synagogue, the comment I heard repeatedly when I introduced myself was, “People here won’t want to talk.” They will open up, I discovered, but the hurdle of confidence is high.
Breaking the ice is often a matter of a single contact. When I tell Francisco Diogo Rodrigo that I met his son at the synagogue in Lisbon a few days before, one of the first things he asks is, “Where are you eating lunch?” At a round table in his tiny living room, the amount of food competes with the number of Jewish books and objects he shows me—a siddur, a Haggada, the Five Books of Moses, a history of Belmonte, Passover products—most of which he has acquired over the past few years.
“The Jews here had a flame that never went out,” says Rodrigo, 56, “even though we passed through periods of great difficulty.” The flame he speaks of is both figurative and literal. When the subject turns to Shabbat his wife, Benvinda, brings out a candeia, a tin lamp, fueled with pure olive oil and lit with a long-burning twisted linen wick. It was the candeias that illuminated the homes of Belmonte’s Jews for 26,000 secret Shabbatot.
No one is sure when Jews first came to Belmonte, a town of 7,500 less than 30 miles from the Spanish frontier. The foundation stone of a synagogue dated 1297 proves the existence of a community before the expulsion from Spain. Two factors swelled the community’s numbers. Many Jews from Spain crossed the border and stayed in the first towns they reached. Later, many from Portugal’s main cities fled to the mountains around Belmonte and to the north to be as far as possible from the Inquisition.
Towns in the northeast filled with Jews. In Covilhã, just south of Belmonte, the Jewish “census” was uma casa sim, uma casa não (one house yes, one house no)—that is, 50 percent.
The Inquisition waned at the end of the eighteenth century and was abolished in 1821. When the Polish engineer Samuel Schwartz discovered the crypto-Jews in 1917, he estimated there were 10,000 Jewish families in the north.
He recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him. “The people here didn’t believe Samuel Schwartz was Jewish,” related Fernando Vaz, “But when he recited the shema and said the word ‘A-donai’ the women covered their eyes and said, ‘He is one of us.”
“A-donai” is the only Hebrew word Belmonte’s Jews kept, but they still preserved a great deal. Jewish lore is filled with people lighting candles on Friday nights without knowing why. Belmonte is the only place where secret Jews maintained many practices—Shabbat, Yom Kippur, Passover, the Fast of Esther, elements of kashrut and numerous prayers—and also their significance. And unlike virtually every other story of secret Jews, they came all the way back.
What they came back from is a story in itself. Egalitarian Judaism, it seems, came first to Belmonte, where Jewish practice was carried by women who said the prayers and passed them on to daughters and granddaughters. When the community adopted Orthodox Judaism, ritual leadership passed to the men. As the teachings of the rabbis took precedence, the old orações (prayers), despite richness and clear Jewish provenance, were consigned to the past.
Many close to the community bemoan the demise of the orações, and it’s hard to look at the history and not conclude that it’s a shame. One, a Belmonte Jew now living in Lisbon, told me he is sure some of the older women still recite the old prayers at home. “There used to be Crypto-Jews,” he says. “Now there are Crypto-Marranos.”
But if the women have strong feelings about their positions being usurped by men they show little resentment. “When I was a girl I learned the prayers with my mother and grandmother,” recalls Ana Morão, 64, a short, pretty woman with gray hair. “The families would gather in a house and the women’s job was to lead the prayers.” She says the orações are still in her heart—her eyes fill with tears when she talks about them—but she has no regrets about the direction Jewish practice has taken. “The arrival of the rabbis and the building of the synagogue were marvelous things, and the future will only be better,” she asserts. I hear similar comments from virtually every woman I speak to. What dissent I do hear is mixed with pride. “Of course I still say the old prayers,” says a woman who freely gives me her name but asks that it not be used in print. “The rabbis didn’t teach us anything. We taught them.”
“They came to open our eyes but our eyes were more open than theirs,” the woman adds, raising her eyelids like a Kabuki actor. But she also expresses great satisfaction that her son now prays in Hebrew and she says the building of the synagogue was the greatest thing that ever happened in Belmonte. “You know it’s the most beautiful synagogue in the world,” she says. When I suggest she might be prejudiced she looks at me as if I am a recalcitrant child. “No,” she asserts, “it really is the most beautiful.”
As I speak to women I imagine ultimately they will have it both ways. Some day a generation fully confident of its Jewishness will realize what the orações represented and will revive them. Or they might pick up a siddur from abroad and find their grandmothers’ words. “They are losing prayers that not only should be kept in their prayer books, but should be translated and put into ours,” says Schulamith Halevy, a Jerusalem poet who is close to the community and an advocate for anousim, as the descendants of forced converts are known in Hebrew.
History seems logical in hindsight, but like the rebirth of Israel the return of Belmonte’s Jews was not inevitable. It was more than 70 years from their “discovery” by Schwartz to the decision to embrace Judaism officially and openly. “I never imagined everything would change,” says Morão. “But my husband and I went through the conversion, got married again and now we go to synagogue on Shabbat.”
Like the events that drove Jews into secrecy, the return was spurred by events around them. From the 1920’s to the 1970’s, Portugal was ruled by a conservative dictatorship, desperately trying to hold on to its empire and past glory. It was an atmosphere in which change was not valued highly.
The revolution in thought flowed from the political revolution that restored democracy in 1974. “I was doing my military service when the idea of return started to advance,” says Fernando Vaz, now 39. “People of my generation began to develop new ideas, and we were supported by the older people.” The Jewish community in Lisbon—founded by Jews who arrived from Gibraltar after the Inquisition was abolished—offered more assistance. The first full-time rabbi came in 1990 and oversaw the conversion of 180 people, circumcision of men as old as 79 and the Jewish remarriage of dozens of couples. The synagogue was dedicated in 1996.
I ask everyone why Judaism survived in Belmonte and virtually nowhere else (there are many people in Portugal with knowledge of Jewish ancestry and some with vestiges of Jewish practice, but there is no parallel to the return of an entire community). “What allowed us to survive was that for all these years marriages were always arranged between Jews,” says Elias Nunes, a former president of the community and one of the prime instigators of the return.
Other than purity of Jewish descent, many agree that Jewish survival in Belmonte was aided by an absence of persecution. “The Inquisition never came here” is heard over and over. On another night in the synagogue dining hall I sit at a table with several members of the community and guests, including two historians. When someone asks what I have learned I mention Belmonte’s reputation for tolerance and Maria Antonieta Garcia, who has written extensively about the community, says it is a myth. “The Inquisition may not have been as strong here,” she says, “but it definitely came to Belmonte and the cases are documented.” Garcia, who also has Jewish roots, goes into a learned account of the Inquisition and the sociological explanations for survival. There are other guests present, including tourism officials, who listen attentively, but I notice the local Jews at the table tune out during her remarks.
The Jews of Belmonte are not intellectuals; most of the youngsters go into the family business and not to university. They survived as Jews not out of study but out of faith. One of the town’s indelible images is a love of Judaism that is impossible to describe. I’ve never seen such passion in the kissing of a mezuza—touching one’s head, heart and lips in a sweeping gesture—or in the way women throw kisses from the balcony as the Torah is carried around below them. As Antonio Henriques Vaz kisses his 20-year-old son Miguel after leading the service (the congregation has been without a rabbi for almost a year and is trying to raise the money to hire a new one) I imagine not only a father’s pride but 500 years of pent-up pride representing fathers who never had the experience.
Now that they are again an integral part of the Jewish people, I’m not sure Belmonte’s Jews have decided how to relate to the rest of us. Fernando Vaz’s question about Sabbath observance shows one more thing—once they reentered the fold they inevitably took sides. They want to know the Jewish world but there is an undercurrent of fear that too much exposure will jeopardize the heritage they kept.
Inácio Steinhardt, a Portuguese-born journalist who has been in Israel for 25 years, has known the community since the 1960’s. A few years ago the Jewish Agency asked him to spend a day with a group from Belmonte visiting Israel for the first time. Two weeks after leaving Belmonte I am with Steinhardt in a Tel Aviv café and he tells me the story. “My acquaintance with the people gave me the feeling that they would be shocked to meet the secular Israel,” he says. “So I insisted that I meet them at the airport and that my day with them should be their first day in the country.”
Belmonte’s Jews have much to teach us and show us—not just what we lost 500 years ago but things of such recent memory that we can almost touch them in our collective memory. Though everyone has a telephone and a few are already wired to the Internet, visits are mostly arranged by knocking on doors. On the day I went looking for Elias Nunes, neighbors pointed me to his house where his wife said he would be home shortly. Less than five minutes later he was walking up the cobblestone street. It was a scene repeated time after time. People are always home, or near home. On Shabbat, even the infirm take to the streets and stairways that crisscross their neighborhood to walk to synagogue. The area around the town’s old Jewish quarter is probably the only thriving shtetl I’ll ever see.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone with questions at all. The story is not for the Jews of Belmonte to tell but to live. The miracle is found not in their sound bites but in their existence. And perhaps more important than trying to probe the spiritual dimensions to figure out how they survived I should ask why we are so fascinated by them. In them we see evidence that even if our faith and our religious commitment wither, our grandchildren might still recapture it. There may have been concern in the question Fernando Vaz put to me on Friday night, but there was hope in the eyes of the visitors around him.


Belmonte Jews

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Belmonte Jews are a community that survived in secrecy for hundreds of years by maintaining a tradition of endogamy and by hiding all the external signs of their faith. The Jewish community in the municipality of Belmonte, Cova da Beira subregion, Portugal, goes back to the 12th century and they were only discovered in 1917 by a Polish Jewish mining engineer named Samuel Schwarz. Their rich Sephardic tradition of Crypto-Judaism is unique.
Only recently[when?] did they contact other Jews and they now claim to profess Orthodox Judaism, although they still retain their centuries-old traditions.


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