Direct line to Portugal

The Hebrew inscription “Shaarei Tikvah (Gates of Hope) Synagogue” is etched into a white gate on Rua Alexandre Herculano in Lisbon. There is nothing else about the nondescript gate to indicate that Jewish prayer services regularly take place inside. In the early 20th century, a group of visitors invited by the Portuguese Ministry of Tourism was told, less than a century after the official end of the Inquisition in Portugal in 1821, that it was forbidden to build a synagogue whose facade faces the street. Like any other visitor to Portugal, the Israeli tourist encounters stunning vistas, castles, palaces and sad fado folksongs. But reverberating in the background is the expulsion of the Jews, the Inquisition and the crypto-Jews who covertly observed Jewish commandments. Portuguese sources put the late-15th century Jewish population at approximately 30,000 – about 3 percent of the total population at the time. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Portugal’s King Joao II permitted the entry into the country of 50,000-70,000 Jews. But in 1497, these tens of thousands of Jews were sentenced to expulsion and forced conversion. Today, the number of Jews in Portugal is estimated at a thousand or so.

26,000 Shabbats in hiding
In 1917, Polish engineer Samuel Schwartz discovered the Jewish community of Belmonte, a small village in the Serra da Estrela region of northern Portugal. It is the only Jewish community in Portugal that survived the Inquisition as an organized community. Its members have exclusively married one another for hundreds of years. A sign hanging in the local synagogue tells the incredible story of the community, who lived in hiding for 500 years, until they emerged from the shadows and returned to the open practice of Judaism in 1992. The sign reads: “Here in the houses of the village, they clandestinely observed the commandments of Judaism for 500 years, from 1492 until 1992. They passed down the tradition orally, from one generation to the next, secretly observed the Sabbath, and observed Sundays for the sake of their neighbors, careful not to be tripped up between the customs of Judaism and of Christianity for fear of falling into the hands of the Inquisition and its dungeons.

“They recited the blessings on challah and wine, murmuring words from the prayers in the dark, preserving their Judaism deep in their souls. Here the Jewish soul was not lost, here the Jewish soul remained forever. And from out of the past will spring the future. From the darkness of the Middle Ages to the light of the synagogue and the spiritual center.” Belmonte today has about 2,000 residents, 200 of whom are Jews. Its location 15 kilometers from the Spanish border made it a place of asylum for expelled Spanish Jews, and also for Portuguese Jews, over whom hovered the fear of Christianity. The mountainous region is still isolated, and not particularly developed. Jewish-American journalist Alan Tigay, who visited Belmonte a few years ago, quoted a local Jew he met: “The Jews here had a flame that never went out,” he wrote. A fire burned in the hearts of the Jews here that was never extinguished.”

A flame in more than one sense: Tigay’s host showed him a candeia, a tin lamp that burns olive oil, employing a long linen wick. The candeias illuminated the homes of Belmonte’s Jews for 26,000 secret Shabbatot. The beginnings of the community’s return to the open practice of Judaism first took root when Portugal became a democracy in 1974. At the time, members of the community asked the Jewish community of Lisbon to help them organize community life and refresh their knowledge of the commandments. But it was not until 1990 that a rabbi arrived in the town to convert the surviving 180 crypto-Jews; one of the newly circumcised Jews was 79 years old at the time. In the years since, several Jewish weddings and circumcisions (of infants) have taken place in Belmonte.

The cornerstone of the Belmonte synagogue was laid in 1297, before the Spanish expulsion. But today’s synagogue, Beit Elijah, was built only 15 years ago. Our group met two shy, reserved Jews in the synagogue, both wearing baseball caps. They said that the community lacks the funds to pay a full-time rabbi, and that they therefore shared the rabbi of the Jewish community of Porto, Rabbi Elisha Salas. New initiatives include a museum of Belmonte’s Jewish history that opened last month and the production of kosher olive oil and wine. The owner of the winery, Roy Moreira, who is not Jewish, says that Portugal is now open to Jews. “Belmonte is a place where Judaism is not only history, but an existing fact,” he says, and adds that about 600,000 liters of the kosher wine they produce is exported to Jews in Europe and the U.S.

Interested parties may contact the Jews of Belmonte (which is twinned with Safed) by sending an email in English to the head of the Belmonte tourism bureau at tourism.estrela@mail.telepac.pt.

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