Two Towns, Two Synagogues

posted 1 Jul 2019, 23:58 by Charles Greene
Where in the world is Rabbi Eli?
Two Towns, Two Synagogues
Belmonte – Castelo Branco, Portugal
The history of Jews in Belmonte goes back to the 12th century. Of course, after 1498 it became a very hushed history. Rather than simply submitting to baptism and living as “cristãos novos”, they went deep underground, practising the customs of their ancestors in secret for centuries to come. (Not all the customs, naturally. The first ones to go were those that would blow their cover; shofar, circumcision, and synagogue were no-no from now on.) They would congregate in deepest secret, just a few times a year, each time switching to the home of yet another of the community, always remembering the fires of the inquisition that were never far away.

The conspiratorial ways of the Crypto-Jews of Belmonte had such an imprint on their lifestyle that for centuries after they went in hiding, they believed themselves to be the last remaining Jews on earth. In fact, when Samuel Swartz, an engineer from Poland, came here in 1917(!) to supervise the operation of the mills, he had a hard time to convince them he was Jewish as well. It was not until he told them how he celebrates Yom Kippur and Shabbat, and recited part of Shema by heart, that they accepted him, with difficulty, as one of the tribe.
A few months ago, our very own Isi Davis visited Belmonte and wrote an excellent piece about his visit.

As you can see, he was unable to get inside the Bet Eliahu synagogue. (Old habits kinda die hard. You do have to arrange for a visit, or know the “secret number” to call. ;) It is very pleasant and heimische, but you shouldn’t expect medieval imposing architecture, nor any unique traits of an old Portuguese community (as you would in Amsterdam, for instance). This synagogue is a mere 23 years old, consecrated in 1996.
Ironically, now that the Crypto-Jews came out of hiding and lead an openly Jewish life, what with the Jewish museum, a Rabbi, a Synagogue, and a kosher hotel in town – between the tourism revenues and the grants they’ve been receiving from international Jewish organizations, the town of Belmonte finds most of its sustenance from the tiny Jewish community it once worked so hard to erase.

The city of Tomar, one of the oldest historical and architectural jewels of Portugal, was born inside the walls of a 12th century convent, a Templar stronghold. By the early 15th century, the Jewish population of the city numbered hundreds. Many Jewish tradesmen and artisans came here to find refuge after the exile from Spain, and were largely undisturbed (counted as nominal Christians under the census) until the establishment of a Tribunal of Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. Once the active persecution began, the wealthiest Jews managed to flee while the rest were forced to convert.

There was no major pocket of crypto-Jewish life in Tomar that we are aware of. Yet, amazingly, it is here that you will find one of the best preserved old Synagogues of the Iberian peninsula. Built between 1430-1460, it has had a colourful past; after the Jews were forced out by the decree of king Manuel I, it has served, consequently, as a prison, a Christian chapel, a common cellar, and a grocery warehouse, before being classified as a national monument in 1921, and eventually purchased by Samuel Swartz (remember him from the story of Belmonte Jews?), who had finally converted it into a Jewish museum in 1939. The museum bears the name of Abraão Zacuto, a Rabbi and historian who served as the royal astronomer to King Joao II.

Every original detail has a symbolic meaning; the four columns supporting the vault represent the four matriarchs, and there are twelve corbels, one for each tribe.
The Synagogue is fully functional – various organizations and private donors sent in donations in money and kind from all around the world (the Torah scroll came from a congregation in Australia). Alas, there are not enough Jews for a minyan in Tomar; the three remaining families go to Lisbon for the holidays (about 90 minute drive). If you want to bring a group to pray here, you have to arrange for it way in advance (this is the voice of experience).

In a sense, this is a mirror image of the Jewish stage in Belmonte; the synagogue was preserved but the community is largely gone. Last week, the wonderful Dona Tereza, an elderly lady who took it upon herself to maintain the Schule and the museum after the passing of her husband Luiz, peacefully passed away and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Lisbon. Her amazing energy, love of all things Jewish, her kindness and positivity remain an inspiration to everyone who ever met her. (I haven’t seen her for over a year and was looking forward to another encounter – which, as we just found out, was not meant to be. May her soul be bound up in the bond of life eternal.)
Next on “Where in the World”: in the footsteps of Marranos