Rebirth In Iberia

Visiting the Portuguese mountain village of Belmonte some 20 years ago, I could not find one Jew, although Jews certainly were among the people on the streets and in the local shops around meand probably known as such by their non-Jewish fellow citizens. The code of silence was unbroken by both Christians and secret Jews. Beneath the facade of Catholicism, a community of more than 100 Jews had maintained the practice of their faith – tradition and ritual passing from mother to daughter despite an edict of expulsion, the Inquisition and the persecution by longtime dictator Olveira Salazar. (Diplomatic ties with Israel were finally established only after Salazar’s death.) Major holidays were celebrated. Passover would begin a day earlier to avoid recognition, and the women of the community would simulate the parting of the Red Sea by beating the waters of a nearby stream with olive tree branches.

When Samuel Schwarz, a Polish engineer, visited Belmonte in 1917 and discovered a hidden Jewish presence, he was able to identify his Jewishness to the ever-vigilant women of the secret community by reciting the Shema. At the word Adonai their eyes lit up! But it was only in 1990 that the Jews of Belmonte came out of their “closet.” Now a Shabbat weekend with the village’s new congregation Bet Eliyahu is the emotional highlight of an extraordinary 10-day tour this month of Portugal, as it is for any Jewish-oriented visit to a land where Jews may have settled in as early as the ninth century BCE. It was then that the fleets of King Solomon sailed as far west as Sepharad, the biblical name for Spain and Portugal. Tour participants will observe many vestiges of the wartime Jewish presence in the seacoast towns of Cascais and Estoril, temporary stops made possible by the Portuguese consulgeneral in neighboring Bordeaux, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes. In 1940 Mendes, a staunch Catholic, issued visas to more than 30,000 Jews, despite the orders of Salazar, a friend of Hitler.

The tour leader is Rufina Bernardetti Silva Mausenbaum, a poet and lecturer from Cape Town whose parents moved to pre-apartheid South Africa when Salazar, in an ideological alliance with Nazi anti-Semitism, made life for the handful of Jews “unbearable,” she says. In fact, the few Jews in the country at the time were the only identifiable descendants of the hundreds of thousands who had been expelled from Portugal in 1497 or who had become assimilated into the general population as New Christians. They were not permitted to return as Jews until 1821, when the Inquisition was finally abolished. And even then they could come back only in small numbers. A tour stop in the village of Valencia de Alcantara, on the Spanish side of the border with Portugal, is the site of the royal opportunism that brought on expulsion. Here, Manuel I, the Portuguese king, won the hand of the Spanish Princess Isabella when he agreed to follow the example of his in-laws to be, Ferdinand and Isabella, in expelling all his country’s Jews.

A synagogue is being restored in Valencia de Alcantara, which has been Judenrein for five centuries. Of greater significance, however, is the new synagogue built across the border in Belmonte, where a Jewish presence has been maintained continuously – and secretly – for the 500 years since King Manuel’s marriage. Bet Eliyahu has a full-time rabbi, Chile-born Emanuel Salas; Orthodox services on Shabbat (again under male control after the many years when women were the bearers of the faith); and an elaborate, well-attended Shabbat dinner. The intensity of Jewish identification is unlike any I have experienced anywhere in the world. These are now a self-confident people.

Deeply engraved in the doorposts of their small houses, built around the medieval Belmonte castle, are the crosses that had identified them as New Christians. Now there are mezuzahs over the crosses and the gleaming white synagogue itself. They make a powerful statement. “We are proud Jews, and we shall not be moved,” says young Fernando Vaz, president of the congregation.

At the Shabbat dinners Vaz makes the kiddush over Terras del Monte, a kosher wine produced locally for the first time in five centuries. The wine is distributed in the u.s. by the Abarbanel family, descendants of Portuguese Jewry. While the synagogue in the heart of the old Jewish quarter of Belmonte is a clear, bold affirmation of the liberated community, the much larger Congregation Shaare Tikvah of 500 members in downtown Lisbon keeps its synagogue hidden behind a high stone wall. When the synagogue was dedicated a century ago, the government denied any public display of a non-Catholic institution. Now it is security that dictates a caution that the Belmonte Jews do not share. But a warm welcome awaits those who pass scrutiny at a peephole in the gates. Regular Shabbat services, observance of festivals and holidays, a full-time rabbi and hearty Shabbat meals in a fusion of Sephardic and Ashkenazic cuisine await tour participants. A smaller congregation in Lisbon is comprised of descendants of the anusim, the descendants of the New Christians of the 1497 expulsion from Portugal.

On April 19, a New Jersey JCC will pay tribute to Mendes, who was named a Righteous Gentile by Israel. The tribute marks the opening of a weeklong exhibit at the United Jewish Community Center (MetroWest) on Route 10 in Whippany. Tribute speakers include Professor Antonio Jose Tello, president of the study center of the Portuguese Military Academy, and Roger Mendes (no relation to de Sousa Mendes), head of the U.s.-based Portuguese Culture and Education Foundation. Some 60 years ago, the Nazis had taken over France, as well as the rest of continental Europe. The only neutral country that still offered sanctuary was Portugal, and thousands of Jews flocked to Bordeaux near the border with the hope of crossing somehow into that country. Mendes, whose name suggests his remote ancestors might have been Jewish, personally gave out the entry visas. He was summarily dismissed from his career job, but not before the Jews had found temporary refuge in Cascais and Estoril before moving on to permanent homes in the United States, the Caribbean and South America.

Mendes returned to Portugal, where he was barred from work. Ten years later, in April 1954, Mendes died in abject poverty, never knowing that Israel would designate him a Righteous Gentile and that a tree bearing his name would be among the thousand lining the promenade into Yad Vashem.

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