| The Great Beyond |

Out of the Shadows

Globetrotter Moshe Klein’s journey of history and mystery in Portugal

Photos: Moshe Klein

Moshe Klein’s adventures usually take him to places where a once-vibrant Jewish community is either on a steep slope of decline, or is already nonexistent. But his quick trip to Portugal was a completely different kind of experience, as communities buried under the oppression of the Inquisition have begun to reemerge after hundreds of years, creating a journey of history and mystery


Generations of Secrecy

AT some point, we’ve all studied the Inquisition — how  the Roman Catholic Church forced Jews, first in Spain and then in Portugal, to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. Those who remained and converted, but kept Judaism in secret, faced tribunals, torture, and death. Tens of thousands are known to have died horrific deaths over that dark period that spanned more than three centuries. It remains unclear how many lived double lives, pretending outwardly to be Christians while secretly practicing Judaism, and managed to survive.

With the Spanish Inquisition starting in 1478, one might think that the event has been relegated to the history books. But globetrotter Moshe Klein had always wondered what had become of those Jews, who have been variously labeled over the years as Anusim, Marranos, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews. At Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue, during a recent trip to Holland, Klein asked a local if he knew what had happened to Portugal’s hidden Jews.

The answer left him speechless.

“He told me that there was a revived community of Anusim living in Belmonte,” says Klein, referring to a bucolic village located in northeast Portugal not far from the Spanish border.

Researching Belmonte became a priority for Klein, who soon discovered that it was one of six communities in Portugal’s remote countryside whose residents are believed to have descended from Crypto-Jews. Even though he was scheduled to head back home to Williamsburg in two days, the opportunity was just too appealing to pass up. Klein changed his ticket to schedule in a quick side visit to Portugal.

Klein’s itinerary was short and targeted, with a good friend joining him for the 28-hour trip. The two planned to go with a local Jewish tour guide to visit Belmonte’s Orthodox Jewish community, with an additional stop in nearby Trancoso, confident that they had just enough time to get a feel for two very different Jewish villages. Klein admits that he never imagined that he would end up squeezing in a last-minute visit to a third Jewish village in another part of the country, and discovering an authentic shtetl.

Out of Hiding

Klein’s quick visit to Portugal was much different than his trips to some other Jewish communities, where he documents formerly thriving kehillos that are slowly fading into the annals of history. In Belmonte, though, Klein saw a nearly invisible community that is being reborn.

Set high on a mountainside, Belmonte’s Beit Eliahu Synagogue was built in 1996 to serve the needs of the village’s budding Jewish community. Artifacts and documents dating back hundreds of years show that Beit Eliahu stands on the very location where Belmonte’s shul once existed before the onset of the Inquisition.

Beit Eliahu overlooks a sweeping valley whose green expanse is dotted with clusters of red-roofed homes, the panoramic view bounded by distant mountains. Inside the shul, high windows are topped with drapes, their vivid red color matching the paroches on the aron kodesh, set on an angle in the corner of the shul. A large menorah atop the aron kodesh is flanked by a pair of Luchos, but as majestic as they are, it is the humble ner tamid that is the shul’s most unique feature. Shaped like a teapot with a raised, hinged lid, the ner tamid pays homage to the vessels the Anusim used to keep the lights of their Shabbos candles hidden from prying anti-Semitic eyes that hungeredfor Jewish blood.

The town now has a rabbi and a functioning mikveh, and is also home to the Museu Judaico de Belmonte, built in 2005 to document the area’s rich Jewish history. The museum highlights Belmonte’s centuries of hidden Jews and includes hundreds of religious items, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year. Klein was fascinated to learn about the traditions that evolved over the centuries in Belmonte, as its Jewish community survived underground, with no access to rabbanim, seforim, or any other guidance.

While they appeared to be practicing Christians, Belmonte’s Jews married among themselves during the many years of the Inquisition. Their children had Christian weddings, but those celebrations were preceded several days earlier by a secret family dinner that included chuppah and kiddushin.

Belmonte’s Jews commemorated Shabbos with covered candles, but little else. They would refer to Yom Kippur by several names, including “the day of the master,” “the big day,” and “the spiritual day.” Because they were under strict scrutiny on Yom Kippur, they marked the holiest day of the year a day late, on the 11th of Tishrei, to avoid detection. The only other Yom Tov that Belmonte’s Jews observed was Pesach, known as “the holy holiday” but, like Yom Kippur, it, too, was subject to significant modification. Inquisitors would station themselves with binoculars on a hillside overlooking Belmonte, surveying households on the first two nights of Pesach for signs of secret Sedorim taking place.

“Knowing what was happening, local Jews would avoid eating chometz on the first day of Pesach and would conduct their Seder on the first night of Chol Hamoed, baking what they called ‘the holy bread’ on that same day, a practice that continues even today,” says Klein.

Another Pesach tradition in Belmonte is the “prayer of the water,” with residents going to the edge of a lake with a branch taken from an olive tree.

“They would hit the water like Moshe Rabbeinu did, and then put the branch away,” explains Klein, who surmised that the custom is an allusion to Kri’as Yam Suf.

Klein saw Jewish symbols hearkening back hundreds of years in certain locations in Belmonte, which he found to have somewhat of a touristy feel. But even as the resurgence of Yiddishkeit continues, hundreds of years of furtive behavior has left its mark.

“Even the people who have come out as Jewish and openly go to shul still daven in their cellars,” notes Klein. “That’s where families practiced their religion.”

The renovated shul around the red-roofed homes of Belmonte is a testament to tenacity against all odds during 300 years of oppression

All the Jews Are Gone

It is impossible to fully appreciate the significance of Belmonte having a functional shul and a rabbi without understanding the village’s full history.

A stone marker dated 1297 that is believed to have come from Belmonte’s first shul establishes the presence of Jews in the town as early as the 13th century, and it is likely that there were Jews there even earlier. When the Spanish Inquisition led to the expulsion of all Jews in 1492, Belmonte’s Jewish population swelled.

But it wasn’t long before the winds of hate blew through Portugal as well. Faced with a choice of forced conversion or death, many of Belmonte’s Jews pretended to renounce their faith even as they continued practicing it in the utmost secrecy. Coming under the suspicion of the local populace, who referred to them as “New Christians,” the Crypto-Jews lived in fear of being outed, knowing that discovery meant death.

Portugal’s Inquisition, considered by some to be even more devastating than Spain’s, finally came to an end in 1821. With centuries having elapsed and no information indicating that Portugal’s Conversos still existed, it was generally assumed that they had assimilated and faded away. But all that changed in 1917, when Polish engineer Samuel Schwartz walked into a shop in Belmonte called Casa Veraya de Susa. Schwartz was working in the nearby mines, and as he left the store, he was approached by a man who uttered a strange warning.

“Don’t do business with him,” said the man, referring to the store’s proprietor, Baltasar Pereira de Susa. “He is a Jew.”

Having worked previously in Spain with a family who knew that their ancestors had been Marranos, Schwartz was intrigued. He had seen Hebrew letters on stones in a few places in Belmonte, and suspected that there had been a Jewish presence in the hilltop village at one point in time. Was it possible that Belmonte was home to descendants of the original Anusim, still clinging to their traditions and leading double lives centuries after the Inquisition?

There was only one way to find out. Schwartz went back into the shop and asked de Susa if he was Jewish.

The answer was a very firm and resolute no, with de Susa insisting that he was a devout Christian. Still, Schwartz wasn’t convinced, and he wondered if perhaps de Susa actually was Jewish, but was afraid to say anything about his heritage. He tried reassuring de Susa, identifying himself as Jewish. But the store owner grew increasingly angry, yelling at Schwartz that he couldn’t possibly be a Jew, because there were no more Jews.

The encounter stayed with Schwartz even after he left Casa Veraya de Susa, and he wondered if de Susa understood that admitting his Jewishness wouldn’t place him in danger. On his next visit to the shop, Schwartz explained that contemporary Europe was filled with Jews who were openly religious, but de Susa said nothing.

Schwartz kept showing up at the store each week on Erev Shabbos, asking de Susa where he could find challah and where the shul was. Each time he was met with stony silence and anger that grew more palpable with every passing week.

But the hostility that Schwartz had encountered previously was nothing compared to what he experienced on his next visit to Casa Veraya de Susa. The proprietor’s grandmother was ready for Schwartz when he appeared in the shop, and it was clear that his presence would no longer be tolerated. All the questions that Schwartz tried to ask de Susa’s grandmother were promptly rebuffed, and she steered the conversation in another direction, challenging him to prove that he was Jewish.

Drawing on a foundational tenet of Yiddishkeit, Schwartz began reciting the words “Shema Yisrael.” He realized immediately that the two words he had said held absolutely no meaning to de Susa or his grandmother, but he continued on, and in a split second, everything changed. As Schwartz said “Hashem,” it was clear from the look on the de Susas’ faces that he had just uttered a code word that identified him as a Yid, one that was only pronounced just once a year in the Converso community — on Yom Kippur.

De Susa and his grandmother were in a state of shock, unable to comprehend that they and their fellow Anusim weren’t the only Jews left in the world. They told Schwartz that for as far back as anyone could remember, praying was done only in the cellar, and Shabbos candles were covered with jars so no one would see their light, which would identify them as Jews. Schwartz learned that de Susa’s grandmother was the de facto communal leader, taking on the role of chazzan and rabbi — a tradition common among the Crypto-Jews because men, not women, were typically scrutinized to see if they were exhibiting any Jewish behaviors.

Schwartz spent several years learning everything he could about Belmonte’s Jewish community, sharing his discoveries in 1925 in a book he called The New Christians in Portugal in the Twentieth Century. Glimmers of Yiddishkeit that had been concealed in the deepest, darkest recesses of the homes of Anusim began to glow once again, their very existence taking historians by surprise and bearing worldwide testament to Klal Yisrael’s eternal nature.

A brachah from Belmote’s Rabbi Eliyahu Shaeffer, at the crossroads between resurgence and secrecy

Lingering Shadows

Just 45 minutes separate Belmonte and Trancoso, another place that Klein visited in search of Anusim, but the two towns might as well have been located on different planets. While Belmonte had an almost touristy feel, with Jews freely embracing their religious roots, the shadows of the Inquisition linger in Trancoso, half of whose population of 3,000 was Jewish when the centuries-long wave of terror began.

“I walked down the street and people would lock themselves in their houses,” recalls Klein. “I asked someone on the street if he was Jewish or a descendant of Jews, and he threatened to call the police on me.”

A prominently placed pole that had once been used to “reeducate” Conversos made it easy for Klein to appreciate Trancoso’s fearful vibe.

“It was used for someone who they didn’t feel was chayav misa, but still had to be punished,” explains Klein. “They would tie a ‘guilty’ person to the pole and hit him and curse him to teach him a lesson.”

Klein saw another spot in the center of Trancoso that had an even darker legacy.

“Whoever was caught practicing Yiddishkeit would be burned there,” says Klein.

Trancoso’s locals were clearly unnerved by Klein and his peyos. Some ignored him, while others gave him a polite smile before quickly making their way as far away from him as possible. A visit to the house that had once belonged to Trancoso’s rabbi evoked a similar response, with Klein asking neighbors if it was true that the current occupants were his descendants.

“The second I asked, there was no one to talk to,” recalls Klein. “The whole idea of a Yid in Portugal, especially in that region, brings anxiety. People just don’t want to associate with anything that looks Jewish.”

But even as Trancoso has followed a different path than Belmonte, with its residents outwardly clinging to the veneer of Christianity adopted by their ancestors hundreds of years ago, the town’s Jewish presence is hard to miss.

“On every corner of every street, there was a Jewish sign or a piece of Jewish history,” says Klein. “There are buildings with known Jewish significance, but no one will talk about it. Everyone was nice, but it was like being in the shtetl where the distinct feeling is, Don’t come here, don’t mix with us. They just want to live life and be left alone.”

Because their Yiddishkeit was practiced in secrecy, the minhagim in Trancoso evolved differently than in Belmonte. Trancoso’s Jews would fast on Yom Kippur but would grill a non-kosher animal near a window so that passersby would smell the meat and assume it was being eaten that day. And it is commonly believed that many of the crosses engraved in the stones next to the doorways of many homes were placed there by Anusim, who hoped to convince outsiders that they had renounced their Jewish faith.

A Jewish cultural center with an on-site synagogue was built in Trancoso in 2012, but it is clear that even though the town’s religious roots are being recognized, Jewish residents are not rushing to reveal their ancestry. Similarly, the sizable number of centuries-old locked homes whose ownership remains unknown had Klein wondering if they still guard long-held secrets.

“If there’s one thing that I learned visiting Belmonte and Trancoso, it is never to bet against the resilience of the Jewish People,” says Klein. “They practiced what they understood as Judaism for five centuries with no guidance. It is amazing to see how they hung onto their traditions.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1013)

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