The Key to the 500Year Old Door

This article was printed in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the forced conversion of the Jews of Portugal

It was 7:am on Corpus Christi Day 1989 when my travel companion and I left Lisbon for Belmonte 7 1/2 hours later we stepped off the train at the tiny blue and whitetiled station nestled in the hills of northern Portugal far from the hand of the Inquisition and hopped into one of two taxis We asked the driver if he knew of David Canelo (who wrote THE LAST CRYPTOJEWS OF PORTUGAL) He asked “O Judeos?” graciously guiding us to a cafe which had rooms to let upstairs (The tariff read “750” and we weren’t sure where to put the decimal point It turned out our monasticlike rooms were $750 per day!)

With old iron skeleton keys we locked our rooms and set out by foot with camera and tape recorder to find Canelo and the Judeos (CryptoJews) As we approached the center of town we heard a slow drumbeat as a procession of darklyclad people crossed from the church to the nearby park for a picnic

As neither of us spoke Portuguese we went to a cafe to ask if anyone spoke Spanish A young man offered to help us escorting us through the narrow dirt streets to the homes of several Judeos However they were all at the Corpus Christi picnic We were taken to the home of David Canelo a nonJew who had grown up in the town and knew the Judeos very well Canelo offered to be our escort and interpreter (translating our French and Spanish into Portuguese)

Under a cloudy gray El Greco sky we squeezed into David’s small screamingred car and threaded our way through the narrow winding streets to the old stone church at the top of Belmonte (beautiful mountain) En route David pointed out various houses where Judeos lived He took us into the Catholic church and the adjacent graveyard filled with crosses and flowers Across the vista we could see a mysterious stone castle under an eerie stormy sky We were completely alone on the hill In the dusk the air was heavy and still

We drove down to an area of houses and parked under a streetlamp quietly waiting to be noticed Soon several shadowy figures cautiously approached the car recognized David and came close enough to exchange greetings with him and inspect the two strangers inside After extensive discussion between David and the Judeos outside it was decided that I was to roll down my window and prove somehow that I was a Jew! That was no easy task given their suspiciousness even five centuries after the forced conversions of their ancestors! In the dark misty night I offered a few verses in Ladino There was no response Then I sang the “Hatikvah” in Hebrew There was a small timid acknowledgment; a vague recognition by a few who began pointing their fingers at us

I decided to sing the “Shema” the core prayer of our culture THAT WAS THE KEY THAT UNLOCKED THE 500YEAR OLD DOOR! When they heard the word “Adonai” they knew that we also must be “Judeos” Only then did they feel safe enough to invite us through David for a visit in one of their homes A plan was made to return in two hours to a specific house and we drove off to treat David and his wife Mimi to dinner

Later that night arriving at the appointed address we found the lights out and the windows tightly shuttered as if the house had been vacated No one answered the door Nothing moved behind the shutters

Having arrived in Portugal only the day before we were fatigued and felt disheartened Our spirits sagged as we drove back to the same street lamp and turned off the motor Again we waited in the blackness Again mysterious figures emerged from out of nowhere encircling the car After more negotiations and assurances we were finally escorted back to the house This time the door was opened and we were welcomed in with bottles of soda and a tray of candies (Astonishingly this was David’s first visit inside the home of a Judeo the home of a man he had known since childhood a man he had interviewed for his book!)

It was modest but tidy inside decorated with several old Israel travel posters bits of Judaica and a tin menorah on the bookcase Our host in his 50’s said that he thought of himself as “a good Jew” and that he intended for his son to make his Bar Mitzvah next year Our host’s mother and son appeared to live with him and all three seemed excited about the upcoming celebration

I was asked to sing which I did in Ladino and in Hebrew After awhile our host agreed to let me tape record his singing of the prayers he and the other secret Jews sang hymns they had sung as long as he could remember They were in Portuguese (Had they been in Hebrew the Jews most surely would have been caught centuries ago) One was about the Exodus from Egypt and another with the “Hatikvah” melody was about hope and “the place where David wanted to dwell” He sang them softly but with conviction

Disappearing into one of the back rooms for a few minutes our host reappeared reverently carrying two statues With pride he told us that they were “St Esther” and ’St Moshe”

Although we were asked not to take any photographs the evening concluded very cordially and we were invited to meet the host’s sisterinlaw and family the next day at her home

Our meeting took place in the rear of the house in the family’s beautiful dark woodpaneled diningroom where we were seated around a large wooden table There was a Magen David on the wall After introductions and brief pleasantries our hostess agreed to let me record her singing some of the CryptoJudaic prayers Just as we were about to begin a group of male family members burst into the room and a heated discussion ensued The debate centered on my tape recording the songs In the end the men left and the sisterinlaw in a velvety alto sang several of the prayers we had heard the previous night Again we were asked not to photograph anyone or anything that we had seen

Many of the CryptoJews of northern Portugal manufacture men’s trousers later selling the goods at the marketplace We were taken to one of these “pants factories” where a number of Judeos shyly greeted us The family resemblances were striking because they tend to marry only within their own group

In general the Judeos seem reserved; timid and somewhat distrustful of strangers Belmonte is isolated and until recently the Judeos had little contact with the Lisbon Jews

During these 500 years the forced converts (anusim in Hebrew) would go to the church on the hill on the ’bel monte’ for family baptisms weddings and funerals I was told that as a Judeo entered the Catholic church he would whisper to himself: “I come here neither to worship wood nor stone; only to worship You Highest Lord who governs us”

Judy Frankel was well known as a performer of Ladino Folk Songs She traveled widely to interview Sephardic women and collect their music We are grateful for her part in preserving this great heritage She passed away in 2008

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