Legend: Blue = Subjects connected with Judaism;

orange = dual rites, in different religions; brown = reference to the bibliography.


Thoughts on the Introductory Historical-Chapter

The Presence of the Jews in Belmonte


Antonieta Garcia (1993) The Jews of Belmonte – the Paths of Memory [1]

Sara Molho (2006)

Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green


Center of Belmonte, 1996


Dr. Garcia begins her book on the Jews of Belmonte with a chapter entitled, The Presence of the Jews in Belmonte, also referring to Marranos as Jews, although according to Halakhah (Jewish-law), they are regarded as having strayed from orthodoxy and are required to convert, either to set aside any possible doubt regarding their Judaism (taking a lenient approach), or, more stringently, because they are not regarded as Jews at all. (see below, from the conclusions of Lucien Wolf and following). In fact, since the book by Schwarz (1925), who had become acquainted with the Crypto-Jews of Belmonte in 1917, when they were still disguising themselves as Catholics, many people have written about them, but no one lived among them as he did, except: -

David A. Canelo and

Antonieta Garcia.

The works of Dr. David Canelo on the Marranos (see the chapter from his writings on this web site: Crypto-Judaism goes on in Belmonte) began to appear in the mid-1980s, and Garcia's first book, whose introduction is under discussion here, was published in 1993. Since then she has written other books on similar subjects.

Canelo's point of view is different from that of Garcia, as is the way the two are regarded by their research-subjects, the Crypto-Jews of Belmonte. Canelo was a resident of the town from his early childhood. In the past he was a teacher, and today he is the principal of the town's high school as well as the director of the Jewish Museum, which was opened there in April 2005. According to him, he began to investigate the subject upon the recommendation of his teachers at the university, since many of his childhood friends were in fact Marranos, while he himself was a Christian, though at the time he gave no thought to that. His self-image is similar to his image in the eyes of his subjects, his friends. This point of view explains his attitude of respect: he does not reveal everything known to him, if he has the slightest apprehension lest something might be interpreted by them as injurious. For example, I saw some material in his possession (such as specific Marrano prayers), which he has not yet published, and it is doubtful whether he will ever publish them. Perhaps this sensitivity of his is the reason why he does not emphasize the feminist aspect of Marranism in Belmonte, which has been brought out by many scholars – since he was never present at the particular ceremonies held in secret by Crypto-Jewish women, either because he is a man or because he is a Christian.


A Well in Belmonte, 1996

(Maria) Antonieta Garcia is the wife of the Ex-Mayor of Belmonte whose term of office lasted for more than eleven years during the 1980s (though they were from another town in the area, where they live). This was a fateful period in the life of the local Marrano-families, precisely when the young people – as a somewhat belated response to the encounter with Schwarz – initiated the return to the bosom of normative Judaism. It must be said that this process was assisted both by the Town-Council and personally, by the Mayor. Thus it happened that the Mayor's wife, Dr. Antonieta Garcia, began to look closely at the lives of these families, observation that soon became a mentored scholarly research for the purpose of writing a dissertation.

However, Garcia knew a great deal about Marranism even before her research into the Crypto-Jews of Belmonte, since she herself stemmed from Marrano roots, and the subjects of her research knew her as such. Hence, in their eyes she was not an outside observer but "one of us," as they themselves told me. Perhaps that is the reason why she uses their (her) way of speaking and calls them Jews in every respect even before they officially returned to their original religion.

Garcia sums up the historical chapter of her book as follows:


In fact, when we began our research in Belmonte, we could not have known what we would have the good fortune to see and participate in, during this eventful period [when the Marranos returned to the bosom of normative Judaism]. That is why we found it necessary to collect every document, to record all activities, and to be witnesses to the process of change. We experienced difficult times together, in which old and new clashed with one another. Nevertheless, we sought to retain a connection with everyone, so as better to understand the religious and cultural changes that the community underwent[2]… We can confirm now that historical factors coincided to preserve historical memory, especially when great ideological openness emerged. This openness could have had the power to absorb and assimilate [the Marranos of Belmonte] among the [non-Marrano] majority... as happened with other Marrano communities that existed in the past but vanished now, such as in Porto, Braganza, and Covilhã.

Just Belmonte, in the double rebirth of the community – both in the course of the First Republic [after 1910, when the monarchy was replaced by a republican regime, see below] and in the 1980s [after the Carnation Revolution in 1974, which put an end to the fascist regime that preceded it], women and men were discovered who maintained the unbroken transmission of the [Marrano] heritage, with its personal resonance and its social group existence.

(p. 56, of the Portuguese original; all brackets ours)


The Manueline-window in the
citadel of Belmonte, 1996

Although the author surveys earlier periods in Portugal in general, like her, I too will concentrate here on her own collection of materials about the Marranos of Belmonte during the twentieth century. In my opinion, this collection of municipal data during the twentieth century by Garcia is extremely thorough, very important for understanding developments before and after the Crypto-Jews' encounter with Schwarz, not to be found in other studies, thus entirely worthy of praise. This is also true of the description of her own experiences in the place. As to past generations, I have selected for citation here only her estimates regarding the period of expulsion in 1497 and the forced conversion of the Jews of Portugal following it:


It is estimated that at most five thousand people left the country, out of 75,000 Jews who originally lived in Portugal, and possibly 120,000 exiles more from Spain. Of course these are mere estimates, and in any event many people remained who were reluctant to accept the coercive situation as it was. Some of these became New-Christians, Marranos... terms that are still current today in Belmonte. The term Marrano has a pejorative connotation, since it refers both to a pig and to the Jewish-connotation. The source of the obscurity and overlap is very old, as we are taught by Padre Frei Francisco de Torregoncillo:[3] “in the past these terms were used especially to greet those who are worse than dogs, like Marranos... which means pigs in Spanish, and this is because of what characterizes both the Marranos and pigs, that if one of them snores or grunts, all the rest rush upon hearing the snoring.”

(p. 35 of the Portuguese original; all emphasis ours)

Regarding Belmonte itself, Garcia points out that aside from the Hebrew inscription that was found thrown away there, which, according to Schwarz, had been carved on the cornice of the local synagogue dating from 1297,[4] there is no written evidence at all of the presence of Jews in the town, either before or after the expulsion of the Jews of Portugal. Hence it is not clear whether the continuous presence of the Crypto-Jews there was maintained or severed over the course of the generations.


It should be recalled that, according to the remarks of Baquero Moreno in Trancoso, at the International Conference for the Study of the History of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula on November 13-15, 1987, the Jews of Belmonte settled there between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, there is a family tree in Belmonte of a [Marrano] family that began with a couple – Maria Caetana and João Diogo Henriques - 150 years ago, to whom the establishment of the community is attributed. Many people have seen this family-tree. They repeat: “One-hundred-fifty years ago, a [Marrano] couple settled in Belmonte.[5]

(p. 37 of the Portuguese original)

However, in Garcia's opinion, the existence of Inquisition-dossiers against people from Belmonte in the Court of Coimbra in the seventeenth century raises doubts as to whether the Jewish settlement of the town ever ceased to exist, though it is entirely clear that some people did leave it.


In conclusion, and in the context of the remnants and testimony that we have gathered, it would be hasty to conclude that the well-populated community of the thirteenth century would be entirely eliminated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, only to return as a highly connected social network to the same village in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, in order to obtain precise and absolute information, it is necessary to extend our evidence to early times! In any event, the study that we took upon ourselves here mainly focuses on the last century. Examination of the registry of births, marriages, and deaths to be found in the Municipality of Belmonte shows that in the mid-nineteenth century, along with Maria Caetana and João Diogo Henriques, there were other couples belonging to the Marrano community.

(p. 38 of the Portuguese original).

As mentioned above, in 1917 Samuel Schwarz discovered the Marranos of Belmonte and convinced them that he, too, was a Jew. This was after the establishment of the first republic of Portugal in 1910. At that time a more tolerant atmosphere began to reign in the country, and, to a degree, even of secularization. In Garcia's estimation, against the background of the easing of contacts within the republic, the dissipation of suspicions and the increase of trust, the very presence of Schwarz in Belmonte is what made possible and also encouraged the interest of the Marranos in their Jewish roots. With praiseworthy diligence, Garcia traces the developments in the Belmonte local authority, and here are her findings regarding the period prior to Schwarz' arrival, a time of openness, initiative, and modernization on the part of the local Marranos:[6]


Old versus new in Belmonte, 1995

The minutes of the Town-Council meetings show how much influence was concentrated at that time [the beginning of the Republic] in the hands of members of the Mosaic Faith:

In a meeting on October 15, 1910, a decision was made that José Henriques Pereira de Souza and José Caetano Vaz [the Marranos] were to join the elected Council of the Republican local authority, the former as chairman and the latter as a council-member for the affairs of Caria [the second largest town in the area]. The vigorous activity that they both displayed is very surprising, in comparison with earlier council members...

On December 14, 1910, the Town Council proposed to the Republican government... the establishment of various schools because of the growth in the population... in Caria, in Monte do Bispo, as well as in Belmonte – three schools, while the Council took upon itself to equip and finance the teachers' quarters. Similarly the request for the establishment of three cemeteries was accepted, one in Gaia (which was annexed to Belmonte), and more...

At that time various other decisions were passed: sanitary measures were taken (such as the prohibition against letting pigs walk in the streets); various kinds of trees were planted on the town's uncultivated land; regional development was initiated by attaching the base of the Republican Guard there; improvement of the service in the area to the Beira Baixa Railroad Company was recommended; at the same time they also decided to refurbish the Municipal-Building and the Republic Square. Following the example of other places, here, too, they change the names of several streets in honor of the Republican Movement and of national figures (indeed, a few of the names stuck, while others did not!). During this José Henriques Pereira de Souza’s term of office, the Municipality asked to be included in the governmental planning for constructing a road to link Belmonte with Inguias.

At that time, too, the Jews [=Marranos] of Belmonte, upon the initiative of the head of the Municipal Council, witnessed the appointment of Antonio Pereira de Souza junior, as tax collection agent for the Council. Similarly Raphael Diogo Henriques and Anthero Caetano Vaz [also Marranos] were appointed as guarantors (Fiadores).

In April 1911, Alfredo Pereira de Souza was appointed to the post of secretary, with a salary...

On July 26, 1911 a special meeting of the Council was held, at which “the President was unanimously elected as a representative to the Electoral Commission of the district capital for the purpose of setting up the municipal-political factions.

When funds dwindled and the Council discovered that it did not have the means to pay salaries, the president “forwent his salary” to make it possible to pay the salaries of the clerks. From our investigations we have learned that J. H. P. de Souza made a dynamic personal impression on the management of the Municipality, which was in contrast with the routines of his predecessors. Clearly the establishment of the Republic made it easier for the descendants of the New-Christians in the municipal council.

Anti-clericalism was typical of those times: in early 1912 the Municipality sent Senator José de Castro as its representative to the anti-clerical demonstrations in Lisbon (and later they were to name a street in Belmonte after him!). This attitude was useful to a group of people who in any event were alienated from the Catholic Church and in some cases even in conflict with it. During the period of the First Republic, the number of civil and mixed marriages rose... freedom of worship flourished, all this leading to increased openness toward other communities and The Other, making it possible to accept differences. Thus, in the atmosphere just described, Samuel Schwarz became acquainted with this community, and in this conjuncture its existence burst into the world's consciousness.

(pp. 39-41 of the Portuguese original)

As to the events following Samuel Schwarz' appearance on the scene,[7] the author sums them up as follows:


Samuel Schwarz alerted the Jewish Community of Lisbon and proposed the establishment of a school in which the members of the Mosaic Faith could learn about their religion properly. Contributions were raised to this end, leading to the dispatch of Lucien Wolf, the historian and diplomat. In 1926 he visited the kernels of the communities of Belmonte, Caria, Covilhã and Porto to examine the possibilities of implementing the project. Later he proposed to the Alliance Israélite and to the Board of Deputies of British Jews his Report on the "Marranos" or Crypto-Jews of Portugal (1926). Wolf concluded that among some of the families a few ceremonies had been preserved, and that there indeed were Jews who desired to return to the Jewish religion. He recognized that there had not been a correspondence between their prayers and customs and the Hebrew liturgy, for their texts were cited in Portuguese. Nevertheless he confirmed that there was a firm Jewish consciousness among them.

(p. 42 of the Portuguese original)

A street in Belmonte, 1996


At the same time as in other places in Portugal (see also the citation above), people who had been Crypto-Jews for centuries awoke and sought to draw near to their Jewish sources. According to Garcia, the efforts of the Marranos of Belmonte and of Porto were combined, as exemplified by young men from Belmonte who studied in the Porto Yeshiva (there were a total of five of these). Interestingly, some of the old people of Belmonte began to call these Yeshiva-students new priests (padres novos). In her opinion, this expression illustrates the intermingling of elements from the two religions that was prevalent then (see below Kurt Lewin’s terminology on this psychological situation of the Marginal Man).

Among others, three men from Belmonte studied [in the Yeshiva of Porto], who were meant to be the future teachers and rabbis. In Halapid [the newspaper of Porto’s Barros Basto], no. 38, of September 1928, we read: “Belmonte: three local students of the Yeshiva of Porto, Luis Raphael Henriques, Antonio Rodrigues and Tobias Diogo, were present at the Passover services here. They gave a number of Hebrew-language lessons and basics [of the religion] to some of the adults. This year about thirty people already celebrated an orthodox Jewish Passover.”

(p. 43 of the Portuguese original)

An Issue of Halapid

This, too, appeared in Halapid:

On January 1, 1928, young travelers from the Jewish youth organization Hehaver [of Lisbon] arrived for a visit in Belmonte. During their stay they had the pleasure of being hosted in the homes of a number of Crypto-Jews. They were enchanted by the cordiality of the host families, especially the members of the Pereira and Souza families.

(p. 43 of the Portuguese original)

In time, during the early 1930s, the new regime took over in Portugal, and the power of Salazar increased. There was a retreat from openness, and once again clericalism, conservatism, and anti-Semitism arose in Portuguese society. These returned most of the Crypto-Jews to clandestinity, including those of Belmonte, and they again sought to fade into the background rather than to stand out. However, the daily life and patterns of behavior typical of Marranos had already been distinguished and brought to light, and it was easy for outsiders to identify “who was a (Crypto) Jew”. Among other things, most of the Crypto-Jews managed to avoid the performance of public Catholic ceremonies, including Sunday mass and confession. Also they cleaned their houses meticulously in particular on Friday... For that reason, some people mistreated them for pretending to be Christians. Here is what Garcia was told by a woman whom she interviewed:


On the Jewish holidays, the men would go out into the street to avoid arousing suspicion. But it was up to us – the women who stayed inside the house – to take care of everything. We sang and we recited the prayers only after putting the young children to sleep. If they had heard us saying the prayers, they might have unintentionally repeated what they heard at home when out into the street. Only after they were mature... [for example when they began] to keep all the fasts, did we include them in our ceremony. Not only that: when we didn't come to church for mass, and other people bothered us because of that in school, we were trained to say that we had heard mass on the radio, or on television.

(pp. 44-45 of the Portuguese original)

It took time for some softening in the fascist regime to take place, and in the 1960s contacts began to take place among acquaintances and researchers of the past, who began to visit Belmonte again. At the same time, for their part, the Crypto-Jews of Belmonte dared to report to the synagogue in Lisbon on their own initiative for the orthodox Jewish holidays (which do not correspond with the Marrano calendar they kept). On April 25, 1974, the Carnation Revolution took place in Portugal. The journalist Ron Ben-Ishay was sent from Israel to cover the event, and fortunately for us he managed to document the Marranos of Belmonte in his modest film from that time. Garcia (who does not mention neither him nor the Israeli writer Shifra Horn, who was also active there, apparently before Garcia reached Belmonte) writes as follows:


April 1974 marks the end of an era. The considerable freedom following that time brought about a change in the behavior of the Jews. A new page was opened in the life of the community [of Belmonte] during the decade of the 1980s, and the Marranos emphasized once again the difference between them and their surroundings. In 1986 the community also witnessed the election of one of its members, João Diogo, to the Municipal-Council.

(p. 46 of the Portuguese original)

Beginning in the 1980s, Antonieta Garcia's reports are presented directly, since she was an active participant in events. Because of the importance of her account, along with her quoted accounts of informants, I will present some of them in full:


In November 1987 a ceremony to welcome the Sabbath was held in the Municipal Auditorium, with sixty-three people present, including ourselves. The Hebrew ceremony was held by Rabbi Haim Shapira [from the United-States], accompanied by a translation into Judeo-Spanish. In the course of the ceremony R”R, a man from Belmonte, whispered in my ear: “We pray differently, but we always make sure to keep the Sabbath,[8] while in Lisbon they can barely manage to collect a quorum in the synagogue!” This was a renewal of the organization that was interrupted in 1930, and its purpose was to carry out the declared wish of the community of Belmonte: to return to the bosom of traditional Judaism.

(pp. 46-47 of the Portuguese original)


The Fortress of Trancoso

In that year, Garcia reports about a most interesting conference, mentioned above, on the Jews of Portugal, which was held in Trancoso, to the north of Belmonte:


The International Conference in Trancoso on the History of the Beiras[9] and the Jews of the Iberian-Peninsula (November 13-15, 1987), was sponsored by the Association for Portuguese-Israeli Friendship, the Municipal Council of Trancoso, the Israeli Embassy in Portugal, the Civil Administration of Guarda, and also the Bureau of Archeology and History of Trancoso. The program of the conference included: lectures, exhibitions, films, guided tours of the Judiarias [Jewish quarters] and of other historical sites in the region.

It was reported there that the B'nai Brith Organization showed interest in the secret Jews of Belmonte. A representative of a Parisian organization, Roch-Pinah... also took an active part in the Trancoso Conference... and it was decided to hold its second pan-European session in Belmonte itself... People spoke there of the urgency of a return to the bosom of Judaism ... (meaning: avoiding Catholic rites). At the conference it was also reported that they intended to make Belmonte in Portugal into the sister-city of Yavneh in Israel.[10]

(On the conference, pp. 47-49 of the Portuguese original)

Having discussed in brief the relation of the Jews of the world and their organizations to the Marranos of Belmonte at this Conference, I will cite now Garcia's remarks about what the same Marranos had then regarded as representative of their Jewish-life, which is reflected by their traveling on the Sabbath (!!) from Belmonte to the Trancoso-Conference. It is important to hear this description first hand:


These were the first steps: about thirty of the Jews of Belmonte traveled on the Sabbath for the discussion that was held during the Conference about the television program Portugal Forever.[11] They explained: “We couldn't get here yesterday [for the beginning of the Conference] because Fridays are devoted to cleaning the house and to things that can only be done on that day!

They also lamented that it was said of them as they set out for the Conference: “There goes the municipal-bus, and it's loaded with Marranos…”

The dinner that was organized at the conference also received a good measure of criticism and protest: the codfish that was served was garnished with none other than cold ham and was immediately called “porco travesti” (disguised pork). The organizers of the Conference were unaware that Jews are not allowed to eat pork, and indeed, it was not eaten there... Again we were very surprised at the joy of those who took part in the Havdala-ceremony that was held on Saturday night by the Rabbi of Yavneh in the Auditorium of Trancoso Municipality and was concluded with folk-dances.

(On the conference see pp. 47-49 of the Portuguese original, all emphasis ours).

The Gallows Square in Trancoso, 1998


Later on the author lays out before us the process that developed gradually before her eyes in Belmonte, But first, it must be pointed out that, as is proper, Garcia attributes particular importance to the term Community (=Kehilah) in Judaism, following a book in Spanish by Paloma Dias Mas, published in 1986: Garcia cites:


“Belonging to a Jewish-Community involves registering those who are interested, and includes paying membership-dues. These dues are the main source of income for The Community, which offers in return religious, cultural, and educational services as well as welfare.”

(see p. 243 of Dias Mas' book)

According to Garcia’s own report, the cluster of Marrano-families in Belmonte went from stage to stage in their slow return to Judaism: beginning with the traditional Marrano situation, through consolidation into a quasi-community, yet pre-communal in my eyes, while preparing and studying for the official establishment of a Halakhic Jewish Community (=Kehilah). Thus in reality Garcia describes in 1988 a pre-communal stage, preceding the official establishment of The Community, and/or the acquisition of knowledge of how to run it, which was missing in Belmonte. Moreover, since the official conversion had not yet taken place, this should be seen as a quasi-communal stage.

Indeed, in the course of consolidating as a quasi-community, when supervision of religious matters passed from the adult women to the young men – with their entire permission – on January 19, 1998 the Mayor of Belmonte received an official announcement from the highly connected network of Marrano families regarding the holding of the founding-meeting of the Jewish Association of Belmonte (again: Association but not Community. The definition of Community would finally be given to another association only after one more year had passed). The address of the preliminary 1988 Association was the residence of the Vice-President of the Council, who were:


            President                      Antonio Henriques Morão

            Vice-President               João Diogo

            Secretary                      Elias Antonio Sousa Nunes

            Treasurer                       Rafael Henriques Rodrigo

            Members:          a          Antonio José Henriques Vaz

b          Julio Mendes Henriques

c          Antonio Luis Henriques

d          Manuel Sousa Daniel

(p. 49 of the Portuguese original)


Following it, from early 1989, the establishment of a new organization was proclaimed: The Community. Though I must repeat that the apprenticeship in the principles of normative-Judaism takes a great deal of time, and just as it began with small steps in the 1980s, it lasted far longer than the official establishment of the institutions of The Jewish Community (1989), and even beyond actual conversion (from 1992 on), and of course far after the conclusion of Garcia's book (1993). Regarding this extended glide into Judaism still going on, which I myself followed at least until 2000 and afterward, see the chapter Feathers etc. on this web-site.

At the time of passage from quasi towards true-community, frequent visits began to take place on the part of activists from the Lisbon Community such as the judge Dr. João Guerra and Professor Pereira – both of whom were of Marrano origin – who supported the efforts of the young men in the Jewish Association of Belmonte. This trend increased afterwards, and other heads of Jewish organizations who came were Sam Ben-Chetrit, the head of the Beyahad movement, or, for example, the Israeli author, Amnon Shamosh. According to Garcia's account, since the Marranos began to take note of the differences in rite between theirs and normative Judaism, over time, with the generous help of Jews from outside, they began to adopt innovations derived from normative Judaism such as the sending of New-Years cards or renewed acquaintance with holidays that had been forgotten: The Marrano children presented a play in the local Cultural Center called “Hanuccah", the Holiday of the Maccabees.” Purim was also celebrated, now according to the normative tradition, in the presence of cultural activists from the various Jewish communities who had helped inspire and organize the celebration.[12] In that way, in tiny steps, they began to observe all the normative holidays and festivals again, and later (in early 1991) normative Jewish marriage ceremonies as well, which were held in the temporary synagogue that had already been founded in Belmonte.


Normative Jewish Symbols
in the home of converted Marranos, 1998.

As our author relates:


In May 1988 we took part for the first time in a Sabbath ceremony that was held by the Portuguese Jews. The event, which bore the name One Sabbath in Belmonte, was organized by the Jewish Center of Portugal, the Student Association of Portugal, in cooperation with the Jewish Association of Belmonte. It included lectures and films as well as Sabbath rituals. The prayers were held in the Municipal-Council Chamber. Along with the Jews of Belmonte and other Jews from Lisbon, Covilhã and Fundão. [Again, no distinction is made between Jews and Marranos who had not yet converted, S.M.]. Mr. S”M, who led the prayer in Hebrew, proclaimed: “Everyone should pray in his own way, with great joy!” Within the murmurs that soon arose, with traditional motions,[13] we could not distinguish any of the uttered words.

(p. 50 of the Portuguese original)

In the days of this Association, which preceded the Jewish Community, there was no lack of dramatic events, including replacement of the chairman. A controversy that arose on May 28, 1988, in public forum brought about the replacement of the head of the Jewish Association of Belmonte and an announcement to that effect in the newspaper Noticias da Covilhã. This event made waves both among Jews and Crypto-Jews. On June 16, 1988, a public apology was made to the Municipal-Council for the “incident” that took place in the restaurant on May 28. Official notice was also given of the replacement of the president of the Jewish Association by his colleague (the former secretary, see pp. 50-51 of the Portuguese original).

At last The Kehilah (=Community) of the Jews of Belmonte was established. Though its members had not yet formally converted, henceforth it would be called The Community, as published in “Diario da Republica” on January 9, 1989, series 3. This is a list of the members of the Community Council for that year according to Garcia:


            President                      Elias Antonio Sousa Nunes

            Vice-President               Joakim Manuel Vaz Morão

            Secretary                      José João Mendes Rodrigo

            Treasurer                       Rafael Henriques Rodrigo

Members           a          Julio Mendes Henriques

                                    b          Antonio Luis Henriques

                                    c          Eduardo Baltazar de Sousa Henriques

 (p. 51 in the Portuguese original)

On February 8, 1989, the rights and duties of the members of The Community were placed in writing, as well, of course, as those who were entitled to join it. These were the goals of The Kehilah as published on January 1, 1989:


1.   To spread the Jewish religion among the members;

2.   To spread the Jewish cultural tradition;

3.   To encourage and motivate unity and mutual assistance among the Jews of Belmonte and in general among the Jews of Portugal;

4.   To be involved, as an autonomous community, in the Jewish community of Lisbon, since it is the only body that represents the Jews of Portugal;

5.   To inform the Jews of the entire world about the return of the Crypto-Jews of Portugal to the bosom of Judaism;

6.   To act toward cooperation with Jewish individuals and organization to achieve the aforementioned goals ...

 (p. 51 of the Portuguese original)


The official stationery of the Rabbi who later served the
Community of Belmonte, 1994


Above I have presented only the official aspects of the process of return to normative Judaism according to Garcia. However, from time to time she offers marvelous descriptions of the social state of mind of the Marranos of Belmonte, and this is the situation of Marginal-Men (in the terminology of Kurt Levin's Field-Theory). That is to say, the Marranos stood precisely at the contact point on the margins of two religious cultures: Judaism and Christianity, or in the area where they overlap (see above, for an example of this overlap, with respect to the term padres novos, which was given to the Yeshiva-students of Porto). Clearly each of the religions demands sole fidelity, thus the poor Marginal People could do nothing but hesitate between the two cultures/religions and squat uncomfortably on the fence. Moreover, Christian customs were well known to the Marranos, because they had pretended to be Christians for centuries, whereas Halakhic Jewish customs – which they were now expected to observe – were entirely new to them, and they had to learn them first, to study them well, and to adopt them from now on. Our author sums up these dilemmas in the daily life of these Marginal-People: "It seems that this community is making a great effort to return to Judaism. However, not everyone is endowed with the same degree of confidence, decisiveness, or even will in this context." We owe a special debt of gratitude to Garcia for her firsthand account of the way these things actually happened. Below are several examples of the confusion and hesitation during these transitional-stages, in her words:


a.                                      It appears that the exposure disturbed some of them, while others were willing to be overt. Families were divided by differences of opinion, which reflected the uncertainty, the lack of confidence, and the great apprehension that were prevalent in Belmonte.

(p. 48 of the Portuguese original)

b.                                      However, criticism as to holding two positions simultaneously was soon heard. This took place during an auction of landscape pictures from Israel to raise funds, where the demand was voiced for the fence squatters to adopt a more decisive definition of their religious position.

(p. 52 of the Portuguese original).

c.       In February 1989 [after the establishment of The Community], during a procession with the statue of Our Lady of Fatima[14] a confrontation broke out between the contradictory positions. The town, which was mainly Catholic, took part enthusiastically in the preparations for welcoming the procession; an atmosphere of closing the ranks was forged, which also included those who habitually avoided religious ceremonies [i.e., the Marranos, the Marginal-Men]. The local church was full of people, and the processions involved many participants: “Belmonte was capable of a reception that takes places once in a lifetime.” This atmosphere influenced some of those known as the Jews of the community [as noted, the author also uses the term Jew for Marranos who had not yet converted, S.M.]. Thus a “Jewish” woman was seen reciting a prayer while Our Lady passed, and it was known that the women of one of the “Jewish” families took part in the farewell procession itself. Moreover, blankets were spread out and statuettes were displayed, such as a statuette of Our Lady of Fatima, in the windows of “Jewish” homes or the display windows of “Jewish” shops, as in the Pilgrims' Square and elsewhere. At the same time, we ascertained the indifference of most of the community, who remained at home. And if people did look out of the window, it was just to look at the passersby.

(p. 52 of the Portuguese original, all emphasis and quotation-marks - ours)

The author describes the institutionalization of the new Community step by step: the local authorities began to invite its representatives to official local events, and there was increased contact between The Community and others, as well as with the Israeli Embassy. The Ambassador, Ms. Colette Avital, came to make acquaintance with the Marranos of Belmonte in July 1989, and after that visit, there were constant contacts between the Israeli Embassy and Belmonte on various cultural matters. Among other things, the Ambassador took part in a Sabbath celebration (normative, not Marrano), which was sponsored by the Municipality. Here is Garcia's description:


Bilingual texts were distributed, and Hebrew and Portuguese sounds were heard, while the religious ceremony was held in the Municipal Assembly room. We learned there that Jewish prayers are recited while facing east. For that reason, the direction of all the benches was changed, and all the pictures were removed from the walls, except the picture of the President Mario Soares, which remained in its place. The Community had admired Soares since March 17, 1989, when he asked forgiveness of the Jews in the medieval Jewish-Quarter [the Judiaria] of Castelo de Vide.[15] When he stated: “The Jews have contributed greatly to our life and to our history. Regretfully, religious fanaticism and the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal disrupted our most exalted tradition and caused the persecution of the Jews. Antero de Quantal has already pointed out that the expulsion of the Jews of Spain and Portugal was one of the reasons for the decline of the Iberian Peninsula for many generations. In the name of Portugal, I ask forgiveness from the Jews for the persecution they suffered in our land.” The Jews of Belmonte will not forget those words.

(p. 53 of the Portuguese original, all emphasis ours)

Among the joint cultural activities of the Embassy and the Municipality was the appearance of an Israeli chorus, there were a number of painting and photography exhibitions, including Children of the World Paint Jerusalem (1989), a photography exhibition (1990) of Frederic Brenner (who made the famous film about the local Marranos at that time), which was called Israel, Characters and Landscapes. There was also an exhibition of paintings by Akiva Wasserman, Vues et Vies à Belmonte (Views and Lives in Belmonte), which was sponsored by the European Council for Jewish Community Services in that year. He painted these works during earlier visits, when he came to organize various cultural activities.

This cooperation around the year 1990 led to contacts to form a sister-city covenant with an Israeli town (see above, the report on the Conference in Trancoso), and, after various hesitations, this took indeed place, but in 1996, after Garcia's book was completed, and not as planned: rather than Yavneh the sister town chosen was Rosh-Pinah, a mountain town near Safed, and the agreement was completed after a new Mayor took office in Belmonte. The connection with Rosh-Pinah was formed after a sister-city covenant was made between Guarda - to the north of Belmonte - and Safed.

Nevertheless, in 1990 one of the high points of cooperation took shape at the Israel Independence Day celebration there:


At that time The Community held a festive banquet to celebrate Israel's forty-second Independence Day, in the presence of the Ambassador of Israel and the Mayor of Belmonte, as a guest of The Community, and several Jews from Lisbon, accompanied by a television crew that was meant to broadcast it all to Israel. In light of this, one may assume that the proper time had come to mention the very existence of the Jews of Belmonte and give them international publicity. Indeed, those factions that demanded the continued isolation of the community (at the same time tainting it with the possibility of mamzerut – births from unions forbidden by Halakhic Judaism) were fading away. Finally the gates were opened to the acceptance of The Community of Belmonte into the bosom of Judaism.

The President of The Community, Elias Nunes, in his speech at that assembly, pointed out the importance of the State of Israel... and summed up the change in times: “There is no more fascism, nor more Nazism... and the Catholic Church is now just one of a number of religions.” He also thanked the Jews of Covilhã and Fundão for their support [once again, this refers to Marranos in those towns].

The Mayor was pleased by the decision to celebrate Israel Independence Day in Belmonte... In his speech he recalled the great importance of Jewish participation in the Golden Age of Portugal, and in that context he mentioned Gaspar da Gama, the Jew who, as a translator, had accompanied Pedro Alvares Cabral, the native of Belmonte who discovered Brazil.

(pp. 54-55 of the Portuguese original; all emphasis ours)


The historical chapter that begins Garcia's book ends with the first practical, religious processes of the return to normative Judaism among the Marranos of Belmonte. First Rabbi Yosef Sebag, who had been appointed to serve The Community, arrived from Israel for a week's visit to make the acquaintance of his future flock. During his visit, inquiries, which had begun earlier, continued regarding a budget to construct a special building as a synagogue, as befits a Jewish Community worthy of its name. Meanwhile a temporary synagogue had already taken shape, more recent and better established than the one that appears in Ron Ben-Yishai's 1974 film. Along with the Rabino's short visit, a mohel (ritual circumciser) from Lisbon came to Belmonte. This was Dr. Yehoshua Ruah, a physician and the Head of the Lisbon Community, who circumcised men prior to their conversion.

At the time of the High Holy Days in September 1990, the Rabino established himself in Belmonte, the synagogue therefore moved to Rua Areal 58, and henceforth this would be the address of The Community. The descendants of Marranos now had a Jewish religious leader, lessons in Hebrew, and they were on their way to normative Judaism.

The process continued, but Garcia's collection of research data stopped here, just before the conversion, and her book was published. For this rare documentation, we are, as noted, extremely grateful!


Chandelier in the new Synagogue,
dedicated in 1996. Belmonte, 1998.


© All rights reserved to Sara Molho, 2006

Publication of this article is permitted, but without changes,
and with the stipulation that full mention is made of the source:


[1]     The quotations stem from a translation from Portuguese to Hebrew by Miriam Nahon and Sara Molho (1996), edited again by Sara Molho (2006). The source is: Antonieta Garcia (1993) Os Judeus de Belmonte - Os caminhos da Memoria, Instituto de Sociologia e Etnologia das Religiões, Universidade Nova de Lisboa: A presença de Judeus em Belmonte (pp. 33-56). The photographs are by Sara Molho as are the comments in square-brackets within the quotations.

[2]    Garcia was studying the cluster of Marrano families in Belmonte, the 1980s, and of course before that, when Schwarz [who also used the term] discovered them in the 1920s. Is it applicable then, sociologically speaking? This is because living disguised as Christians for 500 years completely disintegrated the Communal-Institutions typical of Judaism and absorbed their functioning within the institution of The Family. According to this sociological-approach I refer to three stages: the pre-community, quasi-community, and true-community stages, see my Hebrew article Masks for Yom-Kippur and Passover, and also my chapter Feathers etc., both of which appear on this web site. Garcia's own definition of the Jewish Community, citing Paloma Dias Mas (1986), proves that she admits that she witnessed the pre-community stages prior to conversion. Also, there can be no Jewish-Community made up of people who are not yet Jews! (However, it should be mentioned that in Lisbon, too, there are in 2006 Marrano organizations of those who are not yet converted to Judaism, and they have their own synagogue).

[3]    See the passage cited above, according to João Lucio de Ezevedo (1989), and also according to Padre Frei Francisco de Torregoncillo (1730), pp. 116-7.

[4]    A quotation from Habakkuk II:20: “But the LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” The letter yod appears three times as an abbreviation for the name of God in the inscription, whereas ordinarily it would appear twice. The numerical value of emphasized-letters indicates the date of 1297, as was customary in the Iberian-Peninsula when founding synagogues.

[5]    The son of the author's landlord referred her to this document in 1972. As to myself, I first saw it in 1994 at the Rabino’s (=Rabbi’s) home. It is not particularly old. Nowadays I have a copy of it. S.M.

[6]    The material in this sub-chapter has been abbreviated, and those who are interested may consult the original.

[7]    On this matter see the bibliography on this site on the introduction by Claude B.Stucynski to the Hebrew translation of Schwarz' book.

[8]    It is interesting to see, in a couple of passages cited below, the Marrano interpretation of “keeping the Jewish Sabbath” during the Conference at Trancoso.

[9]    This is the name of certain regions in central Portugal.

[10]   Footnote by the author: It symbolic that Yavneh is the place where Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai, established a spiritual center during the destruction of the Second Temple, having recognized that there was no chance for military victory against the Romans. After the destruction, that center preserved the embers of Jewish life over the generations. [ However, ultimately, Yavneh did not become the sister-city of Belmonte. See below. S.M.].

[11]   A documentary film about them made by Seruca Salgado.

[12]   Hanuccah had been unknown to the Marranos from their own tradition, and they learned about it only after they began to have outside contacts with other Jews. The Purim holiday did not include festivities in the Marrano-tradition, but the fast was observed in honor of “the Holy Queen Esther,” as they called it. Indeed, in Inquisition files, this fast was known by that name. However, there are scholarly grounds for presuming that the term Fast of Esther was brought to Belmonte from the outside by Jewish visitors. In any event, this fast was observed scrupulously by all the Marranos, since it was close in importance to that of Yom Kippur. In fact it begins the series of Positive-Commandments in preparation for the Marrano-Passover.

[13]   The author chose to explain these movements according to the Zohar, translating the Aramaic expression “butsina-kadisha” differently from the common translation into Hebrew: “a holy lamp”, (an object) whereas in Hebrew it is usually translated as “a holy light” (a moving flame).

[14]   Fatima is a Christian pilgrimage site to the southwest of Belmonte, but not nearby. Catholics believe that the Holy Virgin was revealed there and prophesied to shepherd children.

[15]   Castelo de Vide is a town to the south where prominent remains of an earlier Jewish presence are found.


© All rights reserved to Sara Molho, 2006

Publication of this article is permitted, but without changes,
and with the stipulation that full mention is made of the source: