Belmonte: A Reporter Revisits an Anusim Community

More than a decade ago I set out to write an article about the “secret Jews” of the South West on assignment from The New York Times I had been warned by Dr Stanley Hordes it would not be easy to interview these descendents of Spanish and Portuguese families who fled from the Inquisition 500 years ago and eventually found refuge in remote areas of New Mexico He offered to help

The search led me to a group of young people willing to talk about their memories of elderly relativesOutwardly practicing Catholicswho continued to cling secretly to Jewish rituals such as lighting candles reciting prayers in Hebrew and observing the Sabbath With Cary Herz the photographer I searched old cemeteries for the gravestones she discovered bearing both Christian and Jewish symbols And my story came together running nationally in November 1990

Four years later Rabbi Joshua Stampfer and Hordes organized a trip to Portugal by the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies and we went along to follow the young descendents as they searched for their roots Our trip took us to the Northern town of Belmonte near the Spanish border where we knew a large number of families had fled and continued in secrecy to practice Jewish traditions

Even before we reached Belmonte the young men from New Mexico became excited about the lush green mountains and pasture lands remarking “It looks very much like our own Mora Valley at home” Their excitement pleased Hordes who observed that it was entirely possible their ancestors had left their homeland and instinctively found refuge eventually in a location where they felt at home

When we finally reached Belmonte we had the good fortune to meet Elias Nuñes the leader of the Jewish community who greeted us as “one of us” and who later took us to the small apartment where members of the community held services And then we moved on to a nearby bare hilltop where the told us the community would one day have a synagogue The property already had been donated by a local family Returning home we each sent him a modest contribution

It was a few years later I signed up for another trip to Portugal where the government planned to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Edict of Expulsion with atonement ceremonies including formal meeting of the parliament The American trip was cancelled because of a lack of participants I went anyway the only American visitor to attend

For me the most memorable experience was not witnessing the pomp and ceremony in Lisbonthere were many prominent visitors including the leader of the Israeli Knessetbut rather the return to Belmonte

Here too there were ceremoniesthe City Hall was so crowded participant spilled out into the street A small group marched off to the dedication of a Jewish cemetery Three prominent visiting rabbis led the group in a solemn procession circling the barren field And then finally there was a rush up the cobblestone streets to the newly completed synagogue

The building was a modest white walled structure with red doors It was named for the father of a Moroccan businessman who had contributed the funds: Synagogao Bet Eliahu I was told that community members had watched the construction with awe coming daily to see each gilded letter affixed above the doors and later competing to sweep the floors But it was so poor! There were no benches no seats in the women’s balcony no prayer bookseven the Torah was borrowed from a Lisbon synagogue

But the pride of community members was so evident Time and again I heard them say “Here the link was never broken”

In the years that followed I heard disquieting reports about the Belmonte community There were disputes about leadership (not unique to Belmonte) But there also were heartening reports that more members had reembraced their religion

Meanwhile an artist friend Laura Cesana had completed her book of paintings based on her many trips from Lisbon to the Belmonte community on a Gulbeckian scholarship She spent five years on her project and experienced the change Her signature painting for the book Quatro Tempos shows three doors In the first the candela is hidden behind closed doors in the second the door is ajar the third shows the door open and lastly the candela is outdoors in sunlight for all to see At last it need not be hidden

Had this really happened?

When I learned that my good friend Rufina Bernadetti Silva Maussenbaum was preparing to make another trip to Northern Portugal I had to go along

When we arrived for an arranged dinner in the synagogue’s downstairs community room the table was set with a vegetarian supper which must have been laboriously made by many hands A dozen or more members were waiting led by Fernando Vaz the community’s leader There were prayers led by a member of our group Rabbi Leo Abrami as we took each other’s measure And there was young Miguel Vaz who we were told spoke Hebrew and often led services in the absence of a rabbi

Although we had paid for our dinner there was no feeling of being exploited: this was a poor community and doing its best to greet us properly There was the language barrier but we had some help we managed to identify ourselves and we sang together We had the feeling they were open to receiving us I was struck by a small exchange: At one point an elderly woman seated in an honored position looked across at Rufina and then clasped her hands over her own heart and extended them in an unmistakable gesture

We learned the community had welcomed a dozen or more visiting groups and been open about its pride in reembracing Judaism

There have been scholarly works about the developments some predictions that the community would lose its distinctive traditions as its members emerged from their secret lives David Canelo among others had written of this prospect and cautioned the change would be evident within a couple of generations

During their long secret past it was the women who had passed along their old prayers traditions and beliefs to their granddaughters The 500year old history was preserved often at risk of persecution Now that the community had come out openly embracing Orthodox Judaism with authority passing to the men of the community there was the prospect the old ways would be lost

On a trip to Belmonte Alan Tigay Executive Editor of Hadassah encountered this expressed concern that the old oracoes the prayers would soon be lost He came away assured that the elderly women still recited them at home

Community members are seeking religious leadership but they also are concerned that they find someone sensitive to the difficulties then have faced

Since our trip a number of participants have been troubled by these considerations But our group’s leader Rufina has identified a young Brazilian who might be an ideal religious instructor The young candidate is himself a descendent of Anusimthe forced oneswho discovered his roots and went on to fulfill conversion As such he would be sensitive to the pressures on the community He has had formal religious training in Israel and is a gifted linguist

Most important the Belmonte community seems eager to have him and his young family and have offered an apartment and other assistance He would serve without salary with support for living costs

Is the future of this small community of interest to outsiders?

Colette Avital former Israeli Ambassador to Portugal has confronted this issue for years She remembers going to the remote Northern towns with Portuguese President Soares in 1989 and how he stunned a crowd at a rally by addressing to her an “apology” for the years of suffering by the Jewish people and admonishing them to hold up their heads with pride

“This act is what really made the difference and gave those people the courage to say ’yes we are Jewish’”

There are so many Sephardim in the United States and elsewhere” she argued “but it is very difficult to be a community that numbers only 400 or 500 One should not neglect this small Jewish community”

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