On a trip to Portugal this summer, passing through the small mountain village of Belmonte we encountered the history of Portuguese Jewish “Marranos,” or “New Christians” as they were called. We also encountered Jehovah’s Witness missionaries and young Israelis who took part in the techno-dance Boom Festival in the mountains of Portugal. We felt the weight of time and history, where the forces of life are stronger than those forces that try to suppress it.
In the remote village, the “New Christians” were still considered Jews. This is what a young man told us in an outdoor café in Belmonte. At 11 in the morning it was already hot, and we customers all crowded to the shaded side of the alleyway. It’s a pastoral place in the hilly country below the Serra da Estrela Natural Park. But what struck us more than anything else was how crosses were featured so demonstratively on the roofs and the old city wall.
For centuries, Jewish families lived in Belmonte, secretly hiding their Jewish traditions within the 4 walls of their own homes. Outside they were Catholics like their neighbors, but in the confines of their living rooms and kitchens, they were still Jews. Then in 1917 the Jewish community in Belmonte was re-discovered when a Jewish engineer from Poland named Samuel Schwarz encountered families with Jewish customs. The municipality officially recognized the Jewish heritage in 1989. And seven years later a synagogue was once again opened in Belmonte – “Beit Eliyahu.”
It all started after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 AD and many of them fled to Portugal. When the Portuguese king Don Manuel wanted to marry the Spanish king’s daughter Isabel a few years later, he had to choose. As long as Jews were allowed to live in Portugal, Isabel refused to set foot on Portuguese soil. So Don Manuel came up with a ruse, because he didn’t want to expel the Jews. He could not let the wealth of the Jewish residents who lived in his empire pass him by.
He decided not to expel Jacob’s descendants, but to Christianize them. As soon as the Jews were forcibly converted, the situation changed for them abruptly. They were now recognized as equal citizens. In one fell swoop, they were allowed to do everything that had previously been forbidden to them as Jews. And then of course they realized that it wasn’t so bad to be Christian, because they could secretly follow their Jewish customs at home. In the church, they were Christians, so-called “New Christians.” In Belmonte people were tolerant and left those of other faiths alone, initially at least.
One of the last surviving crypto-Jewish communities on the Iberian Peninsula is Belmonte, whose Jews were forcibly Christianized during the Inquisition and then continued to practice Judaism in secret. But over the generations many descendants of the converts lost their Jewish roots.
“From the point of view of the Christians we were Jews; but for the Jews we were not, for a long time. Fortunately, today we have overcome these barriers,” a local descendant of the Portuguese Marranos told us. Around 35 families from Belmonte have officially returned to Judaism, including the Mendes, Henriques and Oliveira families.
When we left the narrow streets after about an hour and headed back to the car, we came across the giant cross on the hill again. And this time, just a few meters from the mega cross, Jehovah’s Witnesses stood in the shadows. An older and a younger gentleman, both in shirt and tie, proselytized in Portuguese. Their sole purpose was to attract Jews. So their pamphlets were in Hebrew, titled “Find the answer in the Bible.”
They know that many Jews visit Belmonte every year because of its special history, and that’s why they rush to the Jewish tourists from Israel, like us. When we started talking to them, I asked them why the booklets were only in Hebrew. But neither of the two could speak English or Hebrew to me. Instead, they handed us pamphlets and Watchtower magazines. I didn’t understand anything of their explanations, except the word Jesus. That made us both suspicious. We were here in Belmonte, where Jews lived their Jewish customs in secret for centuries, and now we came across missionaries again trying everything to pull Israeli Jews in an overtly Christian direction. Crosses were all around us, which puts many Jews off from the start, because Jews suffered in Europe under the sign of the cross.
However, that wasn’t the end of the experience. Close by, we had a chance encounter with five young Israelis taking part in a nine-day dance festival in the municipality of Castelo Branco, Portugal. They told us that thousands of Israelis attended the wild biennial techno party in the mountains of Portugal. This European giant of a festival was even named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the seven wildest festivals in the world.
Where Jews once suffered during the Spanish Inquisition, young Jews now gather with over 40,000 people from all over the world to voluntarily submit themselves to other influences and dance around the clock.
“Portugal has a unique vibe like no other country,” one of the Israelis told us. “The Inquisition is part of history and we live in the present. Of course everything can repeat itself, but we live life in the present as if there is no tomorrow.” That’s the dynamic of life, and that’s the people of Israel. “History repeats itself,” we say in Hebrew.
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