The untold story of Belmonte, Portugal

Crypto-Jews would place the mezuzah on the doorway upon entering a building and remove it in departing.
Crypto-Jews would place the pocket mezuzah on the doorway upon entering a building and remove it in departing.

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵיֽנוּ וְלָנֽוּ

(And this is what kept our fathers and what keeps us surviving)

There are curves in life, rerouting and at first disorienting but in no way random: Watching as a mother loses her sister. Holding a newborn who has survived spinal surgery. Watching as a mother and a father are told their child will never walk or speak. And receiving a mentor’s blessing and direction that “the world needs to be blown away, and you must do so.”

The man before me looks into my eyes. Though we have no way to speak to each other directly, I perceive the depth of experience he longs to share. When we pray, we both take three steps back and three steps forward, beginning the Amidah, and we bow together during Aleinu. As one, we sing:

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל
(Creator of Peace in the God’s high places, may God bestow peace upon us and upon all of Israel)

And thus I receive his courage and pride, for he is a Jew of Belmonte, whose ancestors hid their Jewish customs and identities for over four hundred years, never losing faith.

Insurmountable peril faced these silent warriors and bearers of faith. Tens of thousands of Jews slaughtered. Hundreds of thousands tricked into congregating nearby Lisbon’s port under the pretext of authorities allowing them to flee before the nefarious Portuguese Inquisition struck, only to have their children ripped from their arms and themselves forcibly converted. And yet, Belmonte’s crypto-Jews never fell into the abyss. They lived in the shadows. Few physical remnants of the early crypto-Jews exist: one set of Shabbat candlesticks, a pocket mezuzah. They hid this mezuzah in their pockets, pinning it on the wall upon entering and removing it in exiting — corporeally transient, ontologically eternal.

“The thread of continuity was never severed from this place.
Full, robust Jewish lives have thrived since antiquity.
Guarding their Jewishness in the interiority of their souls.
Here the Jewish soul did not walk into oblivion.
Here the Jewish soul remains eternally.
For from the midst of the past, shall the future arise, and from the dark
mist of medieval days shall the future emerge into the light of this
Synagogue and spiritual center.”
(inscription on Belmonte Synagoge)

Kavod Hashem, respect for God, alone perpetuated their being; they clung to a single surviving word of Hebrew — אדני. Adonai — my Master – what else could have bestowed this will to endure? Why has this community not cleaved the delicate chain, not become Trancoso, where only two Jews now live, in solitude, where the only semblance of the Jewish past is a half menorah lightly carved into a small stone?

Bnai Yisrael wandered in the desert 40 years; Belmonte over 400 years. וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵיֽנוּ וְלָנֽוּ (And this is what kept our fathers and what keeps us surviving). And I know it to be true, I know it must be true.

And this is when I decide to savor every word of Hebrew as I do a sharp roquefort and a chilled tawny Port. And this is when I commit to the commitment and the courage of the Jews of Belmonte, to whom Shabbat and kashrut were futile fantasies. Who am I to disregard the inscription from the Belmonte synagogue? If Judaism were a burden, they would have given up long ago.

“All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Be ignited, or be gone.”
—Mary Oliver, “What I Have Learned So Far”

I take on the obligation for the Jews of Belmonte who yearned to celebrate Shabbat and eat kosher food. And I pray, silently, as they would have done had they known that this line existed:

הריני מקבל עלי את מצות הבורא

(Behold, I hereby take upon myself the Commandment of the Creator)

A friend on Kivunim learned of his roots here in Belmonte. This is his pilgrimage. I, too, am a pilgrim — not to Germany and London, where I cannot feel at home, or to the Polish village whose entire population was cast into Nazi hands. This is my living pilgrimage. Maya Angelou says that ecstasy is found in the journey, not the realization, of faith and of life. And this is my journey.

“I am so happy to be alive in this world
I would like to live forever, but I am
content not to.
Seeing what I have seen
has filled me; believing what I believe
has filled me.”

—Mary Oliver, “Circles”

And I ride the curve.

About the Author
Jonah Glick-Unterman is a KIVUNIM gap year student living in Jerusalem and traveling the world while learning about Jewish history and identity. Originally from Evanston, Illinois, next year, he will enter Stanford University possibly studying either aerospace engineering or international relations.
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