Secret Jews survive 500 years of solitude

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"SHOULD it be three candles or four?" asked a male worshipper in the tiny apartment bedroom that serves as the village synagogue. "Four. Tomorrow is Thursday, the fourth day of Hanukkah," explained Israeli rabbi Salomon Sebbagh.

The 200 Jews of the medieval hilltop village of Belmonte are understandably a bit rusty on Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival which ends today. Requiring a bulky eight-pronged Hanukkah candle-holder and much ritual, it was one of the expressions of Jewishness their ancestors were forced to forgo during 500 years of clandestine worship, much of it in fear of the Holy Inquisition.

Despite the threat of the stake, however, "the Jews of Belmonte", as they are becoming known to the Jewish world, clung secretly to Judaism for five centuries while pretending to be Catholics. Only recently, having tested the waters during the 20 years since Portugal's dictatorship was overthrown, has the 200-strong community formally cast aside the pretence of Catholicism and begun worshipping openly as Jews.

Many of them have roots in the village dating back before the 1496 expulsion of Portugal's Jews. They speak of how their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents maintained their faith at home while being baptised and married in the Catholic church for the sake of survival.

The village is unique throughout the Iberian peninsula, in that the entire Jewish community clung secretly to its identity for 500 years, waiting out the Inquisition - which formally ended only in 1820 - as well as a series of dictatorships and, despite Portugal's neutrality during the War, the threat from the Nazi Holocaust. Now, with the help of Rabbi Sebbagh, sent from Israel two years ago, the Jews of Belmonte are worshipping openly, albeit in an apartment bedroom for now, learning Hebrew to replaceprayers handed down phonetically in Portuguese and brushing up on the finer points of Orthodox Judaism that secret home worship did not permit.

As in neighbouring Spain, Jewish intellectuals and merchants played a prominent role in Portuguese society until victory over the Moors, who had occupied most of Iberia for more than 700 years, added fuel to growing anti-Semitism on the peninsula. In 149

2, the so-called Catholic Kings of Spain, Fernando and Isabella, ordered all Jews to leave the country or convert. Portugal's rulers followed suit four years later, setting up their own version of the Holy Office, or Inquisition, to enforce the order.

There were perhaps 200,000 Jews in Portugal at the time, 20 per cent of the population, with more than half of them refugees from the earlier Spanish expulsion. Thousands left, but tens of thousands became conversos (converts) or "new Christians" -inclu ding, ostensibly, those in Belmonte. Now, there are perhaps 2,000 practising Jews in Portugal.

Apart from the Inquisition, with burning at the stake the penalty for heresy, the Spanish and Portuguese introduced an early version of ethnic cleansing, limpieza de sangre (purification of blood), that barred the conversos from any prominent office, continuing to penalise them for their original faith.

Perhaps it was the remoteness of Belmonte that allowed its Jews to survive. It is built around a 13th-century castle, birthplace of the explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, the man Brazilians have to thank for speaking Portuguese: he reputedly discovered Brazil in 1500. The village is cut off from the rest of Portugal by the country's biggest mountain range, the Serra de Estrela.

As thick mist swirls around the castle and a nearby cluster of medieval granite churches, only a few cobbled steps away from what was the old judiaria (Jewish quarter) of single-room, croft-like granite houses, it is hard to imagine Jews managing to pray, marry or circumcise their baby boys without their Catholic neighbours' knowledge. It would seem that the Catholic villagers protected their secret.

"When I was at school, we all knew who the Jews were from their names but nobody cared," said Lucinda Melo, a Catholic who runs the village tourist office. "I suppose it was like that throughout the centuries. There are only a handful of names - the Henriques, the Vaz, the Mouras, the Sousas. We used to play together. I think the Jewish children, perhaps, had a bit of an inferiority complex but we always treated them equally. They came to church, but everybody knew they were Jews."

As Mrs Melo pointed out, the Jews are the wealthiest people in the village, mostly in the clothing retail business, and have long since moved out of the old Jewish quarter to modern villas and apartment blocks. "They're rich and very ambitious," she toldme. "Mr Abilio Morao Henriques, who has a trouser factory, is the richest man in town."

I met Mr Morao Henriques, an affable 55-year-old, as I looked for the synagogue in a cream-painted block of flats in the Chafariz do Areal district. "That's it. No 58. The first floor on the left is the synagogue, across the landing is where the Rabbi lives. I own the whole block, by the way, but I live in the palace down the road," he said with a grin. He recalled how he had been secretly circumcised at the age of six by a Jewish doctor from Lisbon. "I married my wife in 1960 in the Igrezia Nova (New Church), but we'd already married at home according to Jewish rites a month earlier, with God as our rabbi." Mr Morao Henriques said the community had mostly married among themselves and looked disappointed when he said his 32-year-old son had married a Catholic.

It was a far cry from the Inquisition as I visited Rabbi Sebbagh, a black-bearded 32-year-old who is paid by Israel's Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, in his apartment. He sat preparing his evening prayers at a pine and glass dining table, his terrace window wide open to the street, where Jewish and Catholic children played together. "It's amazing how these people have clung to their faith," he said. "When I arrived, I discovered they'd been baking unleavened bread secretly over the centuries, fasting at Yom Kippur, lighting candles on the evening before the Sabbath, whispering prayers in phonetic Hebrew. My wife and I are teaching them Hebrew and orthodox Judaism."

"When I first came here and heard them pray, I was choked with emotion and covered in gooseflesh," said his wife Miriam. "They told me they used to go secretly down to a nearby river and slap a tree branch in the water as a ritual to recall Moses' parting of the sea."

The Jews here are widely known as marranos, a derogatory term originating in Spanish and roughly translatable as "porkies". They don't like it but are used to it, and say there has been little anti-Semitism in the village and no backlash against their resurgence. "Even under the dictators Caetano and Salazar - until the 1974 `carnation revolution' - there was no anti-Jewish policy," said Elias Nunes, president of the village's Jewish community. "But there were, of course, fanatics, the kind who insultedus, said we murdered Christ . . . After the revolution, we finally felt free."

The blinds were drawn in the neighbouring synagogue as the Rabbi led evening prayers, but the apartment door remained ajar and Catholic children played on the staircase. As I watched him light the fourth Hanukkah candle before a dozen male worshippers, with two women in an adjoining bedroom watching through a slit in the wall, the ceremony seemed particularly appropriate. It marks the end of an earlier period of religious persecution and recalls a Talmud story of how a tiny amount of oil miraculously bu rned for eight full days. Behind closed doors for 500 years, but now in the open, the Jews of Belmonte have miraculously kept their own faith burning.