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The Secret of Belmonte

Most Jewish prayer books show the 23rd psalm on a page just before the finish of Friday evening prayers, which is to say just before the Sabbath meal. It is in some ways a strange
thing to be read at this point, with its talk about walking in the Valley of the Shadow of
Death, and similar thoughts not exactly conducive to the Sabbath atmosphere.

The explanation is very simple. The psalm was recited by the Anusim — the Marranos or
secret Jews of Spain and Portugal — before each Sabbath meal. They were risking their
very lives by celebrating Shabbat, for there was a very real danger that the Inquisition’s
informants might spot them. They prepared themselves psychologically for imminent
discovery and arrest by reciting the psalm. Later it was introduced into prayer books
around the world as part of Sabbath preparation, among both Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

I contemplate this as I try to catch my breath from the long climb up the mountain of Belmonte. It is about a four-hour drive from Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, in the eastern
mountainous region not far from the Spanish border. I spent the week in Lisbon at the
university, having been invited to substitute-teach a class for a local professor who is ill, and
then headed for Shabbat in the hills.

The area around Belmonte is a region of castles and fortifications from the Middle Ages, one in particular built by the Templar Knights as an outpost in their skirmishes with the Moors. It is an area that held a large Jewish population before the Jews’ expulsion from the Iberian peninsula. Five years after the Catholic monarchs of Spain dispatched Columbus to the New World and expelled their Jews, the king of Portugal was in need of a bride. The daughter
of the Spanish crown was available to him — but at a price. He had to agree to expel Portugal’s Jews.

While many Jews left, many others stayed on, going through the motions of being Christians. Portugal was more relaxed about such things than Spain, at least at first. It was an open secret that many of the ”New Christians” were practicing Judaism behind closed doors. But the toleration, such as it was, did not last for long. The Portuguese royal family suffered one of its regular royal genetic crises — i.e., the line was left without a male heir — and Spain gobbled up the kingdom, bringing the Inquisition in with its rule.

Belmonte is a remote village of about 1,200 souls, high in the Serra da Estrela mountains. It is best known for being the ancestral home of Pedro Cabral, the valiant discoverer of Brazil, and his aristocratic family. The Cabral manor house still stands, as does the castle to which the nobility could escape in times of danger, located at the pinnacle of the mountain. Nearby are the remains of an old pillory, once used for those found guilty of moral offenses, an innovation whose reintroduction into modern society I have often imagined.

Exactly eleven years ago, on the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, a bizarre event took place. Five hundred years after going into hiding, the Jewish community of Belmonte emerged into the open. The Jews of Belmonte had lived as secret Jews, not for a month or two but for five whole centuries. For half a millennium they had hidden their identify from curious eyes and busybodies, keeping traditions quietly alive, passing down from generation to generation the prayers whose Hebrew they could no longer read or understand. They refused to eat meat because there was no kosher butcher available. They married only with other secret Jews, usually second or third cousins from within the Belmonte community. They celebrated Passover with special devotion, and anyone not attending a seder was shunned and ostracized.

There were, of course, things that could not be done. The deceased had to be buried in the town’s Catholic cemetery lest they give themselves away. Circumcision was particularly dangerous, and over time they had to abandon it. The women of the town were the crucial figures in preserving Jewish tradition. They managed without a synagogue, with no Torah scroll, with no prayer books.

The Anusim of Belmonte, those coerced into pretending to have abandoned their Jewishness, scratched out a living in the impoverished hills of underdeveloped Portugal, which is only now catching up with the rest of Western Europe. Even today, most of the local Jews are peddlers and small merchants, buying and selling clothing in neighboring villages. Most cannot read and write in Hebrew, and some cannot read and write in Portuguese. One told me that he dropped out of school, never to return, after a teacher accused him of murdering Jesus.

The Jews of Belmonte dress like the locals. Some of their older women wear head-to-toe black ”babushka” peasant dresses and scarves, somewhat like those worn in Iran but with faces unveiled. There are between 150 and 200 Jews in the town — the largest community of  ‘crypto-Jews’ in Portugal, the largest Portuguese Jewish community today outside the two main cities of Lisbon and Porto. Shortly after emerging from the shadows into daylight in 1992, a new synagogue was built in the Jewish quarter of Belmonte, financed with contributions from a Moroccan Jewish businessman.

Eleven years ago they came out into the open. Curiously, they still commonly refer to themselves as crypto-Jews, perhaps out of force of habit.

Journey to Belmonte

It is the last Shabbat of the Jewish year, the final one before Rosh Hashanah. I have made a
serious planning error. There are only two hotels in the entire town, one whose rates are
twice that of the other, and I book the cheaper one. It turns out the synagogue is at the very
top of the mountain, perhaps a hundred yards from the ruins of the Cabral fortress. My hotel
is all the way at the very bottom of the mountain.

I climb the mountain with Uri, my research associate from Haifa, who has made the trip with me, and we stop every few minutes to catch our breath. There are no foreign tourists to be seen anywhere in the entire town; the few tourists roaming about are all native Portuguese. Uri was born in Romania before moving as a child to Israel, and his Romanian, which turns out to be surprisingly similar to Portuguese, has rescued us from more than one potential dilemma.

Rabbi Elisha Salas is expecting us for Shabbat services. The Chilean-born Salas had been an accountant before moving to Israel and studying for the rabbinate. After his ordination, he moved to Efrat in Judea. He ”commutes” from there to Belmonte, where he serves as the rabbi, and also works with the synagogue in Porto. His life is not easy. On a shoestring of a budget, he takes the four-hour bus back and forth between Belmonte and Porto, to give classes, teach Hebrew, and ‘kasher’ kitchens. His newest project is supervising the building of a local Portuguese kosher winery in nearby Covilha.

There are unique local halachic issues that must be addressed. While a Jewish cemetery has been open since 1992, an old woman has asked to be buried alongside her husband who died when burials were still done in the Catholic cemetery. What should be done? While the children of the community — and some of the adult males — have been circumcised openly since 1992, others have not, the reasons for their reluctance perhaps understandable. We have been practicing Judaism for five centuries, they insist, and no one can tell us we are not Jewish today, circumcised or not.

Despite the history of Jewish suffering in Iberia, Portugal seems surprisingly free of open
animosity toward Jews. Rabbi Salas says he has never been insulted while walking the
streets of various cities and villages in obviously Jewish garb. To the contrary, he is often accosted by people who claim to be descendants of Marranos. Together with ex-New Yorker Michael Freund, a columnist at the Jerusalem Post, he has established an organization called Amishav, or Return of My People (www.elishamai@amishav.org.il), which seeks to keep Judaism alive in Portugal. Among its projects is a campaign to redeem posthumously the reputation of the ‘Portuguese Dreyfus,’ Captain Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto, an officer in the Portuguese army in the first half of the twentieth century who was viciously slandered and maligned. He had been an activist in convincing descendants of Marranos to return openly to Judaism.

The story of the community is told in a large stone plaque in Hebrew at the entrance to the synagogue. Next to it is a reproduction of a stone with Hebrew carvings recovered from a
medieval synagogue in a neighboring village, the original being in a museum.

”Shabbat Shalom,” we are greeted as we enter the synagogue, panting from the climb. The acting cantor, a young man born in the town, speaks English quite well, to our relief. He likes to adapt Israeli tunes to the prayers, and Lecha Dodi is sung to the Israeli tune of Yerushalayim shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold).

Rabbi Salas gives his sermon in Portuguese, which he has somehow picked up, adapting his native Chilean Spanish for the purposes. He welcomes Uri and me and he introduces us to the congregation as having arrived from Mt. Carmel, the mountain of the Prophet Elijah. Understanding nods and smiles answer. I ask him to tell them that Belmonte might just be a tougher mountain to climb than the Carmel.

We have made another mistake. Ascending the mountain in daylight is one thing. But getting back to the hotel in the dark is another. It is the week before Rosh Hashanah, which means there is no moon in the evening. The shortcut through the trees is as black as the Egyptian Plague. The only way ”home” is to hike a roundabout route on lit roads, for about three miles.

Shabbat morning. We climb the mountain on foot in the cool early morning air. There are
almost thirty men already at prayer, with a group of women upstairs. Most of the
congregation members daven without a prayer book, or use one that has transliterations of the
prayers into Portuguese. Most of the older men seem to know the prayers by heart. Only a few can read Hebrew script freely and even fewer understand what the letters mean.

Rabbi Salas has caught me off guard. He calls me up for the Maftir. I am embarrassed to say how long it has been since I have recited the haftara in a Sabbath service, and I am unprepared, afraid to make a mess in front of the congregation. The rabbi will not let me beg
off. Fortunately, I spent recent months working with my son preparing his own haftara for his
bar mitzvah, so at least the trop signs are fresh in my mind.

Somehow I get through it without disgracing myself too badly. The congregation is mesmerized. I am not sure if they have heard Ashkenazi melodies before for reciting the haftara, but I am almost certain they have never heard a heavy American accent in Hebrew chant.

While their Hebrew skills are in their infancy, they know how to sing many Hebrew songs. The blank stares they show when listening to us speak with the rabbi in Hebrew turn instantly into full comprehension and enthusiasm when we wish them ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’ That they know how to say, and sing, in Hebrew. And they sing scores of other Israeli tunes over kiddish — the words to some of which I myself do not remember .

While Belmonte attracts quite a few visitors, many are secular Israelis or Americans who pass through Friday night and drive off the next morning, violating the Sabbath to the chagrin of the locals. The rabbi tells us they are pleased with us for having stuck things out to the end of Shabbos, including yet another climb up the mountain. As havdala time approaches, we know that at least we can soon get down the mountain other than by foot. After havdala I try an
experiment. While everyone is wishing one another shavua tov — ‘a good week’ in Hebrew
– I wish the locals a geeta voch — ‘a good week’ in Yiddish. The stare at me nonplussed. We are very sorry, says one in broken English, but I am afraid we do not understand American.

Shabbos over, we walk Rabbi Elisha (as everyone in the community seems to call him) to his simple apartment, where Uri labors to fix some problems the rabbi has been having with his computer. While Uri works, the doorbell rings every few minutes — local Jews coming by to pick up assorted items that Rabbi Elisha has ordered for them: a kiddush cup, a new tallis, a Hebrew phonics book.

********

Joao Pinto Delgado was a Portuguese Marrano poet who lived in the sixteenth century. He is
best known for his long poem about Queen Esther and her saga. In that poem he writes:

”How can I, after contemplating such heavenly splendors, see your poor displays of pomp and ceremony and be impressed or dazzled? How can they deserve my praise? How should I fear your power, which is small compared to that of the Lord who is master of all?

”The vicissitudes of life on earth are merely shadows that pass as the clouds fly by in the sky. Above them, the sun still shines, and heaven reckons rewards for our suffering here that we’ll have by and by: for death, eternal life; for this torture, an unimaginable bliss.”

Belmonte is simple, humble and modest. It is also timeless, incomprehensible and awe-
inspiring. It is the expression of Jewish survival and determination, of the deep Jewish awareness of the Eternal and Unseen, before which pales any manifestation of earthly pomp
and transitory glory.

For five centuries, that has been Belmonte’s secret.

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book ‘The Scout’ is available at
Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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