Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Community Revealed

In 1492, four families in Belmonte, Portugal began to live secret lives that would last for generations. Like many Jews on the Iberian Peninsula, in response to the Inquisition, which forbade the practice of Judaism, these families chose to outwardly profess Christianity while secretly living as Jews. However, whereas other conversos* either left for safer lands or slowly assimilated, these four families married among themselves and remained committed to their secret Jewish lives. And, slowly, the clandestine converso community of Belmonte grew.

For generations, the Belmonte conversos lit candles in secret on Friday nights, celebrated major Jewish holidays on a schedule delayed from the common Jewish calendar and avoided pork, rabbit, scaleless fish and food made with blood.

In 1917, a Galician mining engineer named Samuel Schwartz came to the region of Belmonte for work. Finding himself in a town with Jewish roots - there is a synagogue foundation stone dating back to 1297 - was interesting to him. Discovering that there were conversos was shocking for both sides. The conversos themselves did not believe that Schwartz was Jewish until they recognized God's name when he recited the Shema.

Even after the Belmonte conversos were discovered, it took decades for them to feel comfortable going public. In fact, it was just over 500 years after the Inquisition when the Belmonte conversos reached out to the wider Jewish community. Israel sent teachers, and Jewish tourists flocked to Belmonte. Many of the conversos formally converted to Judaism, but some chose to remain living their secret-style lives. Today in Belmonte, there is a small synagogue (Beit Eliahu) and a Jewish museum. 

*also referred to as marranos and annusim

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