Menu JTA Search

New Judaism’ reaches crypto-Jews

BELMONTE, Portugal, Oct. 13 (JTA) — A small crowd has gathered in the synagogue and the Orthodox rabbi stands in front, trying to reassure the worshipers that the new prayer books he brought from Israel don’t threaten this Jewish community’s 500-year-old traditions. “When Miguel or Don Rafael or I read aloud, we will read the Hebrew,” announces Elisha Salas, the Chilean-born rabbi from Israel. “But if you want to understand what we’re saying, all you have to do is look at the translation, and you’ll find the same exact thing in Portuguese.” Salas, who is dressed from head to toe in black, looks around the room at the dubious faces. “Does that mean we’re no longer going to use the other prayer books?” someone asks. “You can use them if you want,” Salas responds patiently, peppering his Spanish with a few Portuguese words he has picked up since he arrived in Belmonte several months ago. “But bit by bit we can also start using these.” Salas works for Amishav, a Jerusalem-based organization that helps residents of communities with historical ties to Judaism return to the traditional Jewish fold. Amishav works in far-flung places such as India, Brazil, the Spanish island of Mallorca and in Portugal. In Belmonte, Jews secretly practiced a hybrid form of Judaism for five centuries, saying Jewish prayers in Portuguese in their homes while celebrating “front” holidays, such as Ascension Thursday, to throw off Christian Inquisitors. The Belmonte Jews descend from Sephardim who took refuge in these mountainous borderlands during the century of pogroms that erupted in the 1390s in neighboring Spain. In 1492, the Spanish monarchy expelled all remaining Jews. Several years later, the king of Portugal followed suit, ordering the Jews in his realm — who by then made up as much as one-third of the population — to convert to Christianity. But many secretly continued Jewish rituals, lighting Sabbath candles and baking a lumpy variation of matzah at Passover time. There are pockets of crypto-Jews throughout northern Portugal, but the Jews of Belmonte are the largest community in the country known to have preserved their Judaism together. They were discovered in the early 20th century by a Jewish mining engineer from Poland. Since the end of Portugal’s dictatorship in the 1970s, they have been free to practice Judaism openly and as they choose. Salas — who, Amishav President Michael Freund says, was sent at the request of the Belmonte community — says he hasn’t come to the Jews of Belmonte to “change or modify any of their customs.” But Salas is the latest in a line of rabbis teaching Orthodox Judaism to Belmonte’s Jews. The efforts are raising questions about the proper way of dealing with religious customs developed during the Inquisition and maintained ever since, while at the same time trying to bring crypto-Jews here and elsewhere back to traditional Judaism. The skeptics include Judith Cohen, a Canadian ethnomusicologist who has done seven years of fieldwork in Belmonte. Cohen says Orthodox rabbis are “scouring the countryside in Mallorca and in Portugal,” doing “missionary” activity. In Belmonte’s Jewish quarter, plump grapes grow on the vines that crawl along the walls of homes next to Bet Eliahu, the synagogue that serves the community of about 150 Jews. A plaque on the wall says the building’s construction was funded by Moroccan Jewish businessman Salomon Azoulay, and its inauguration in 1996 was attended by Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio. Sitting on Bet Eliahu’s doorstep after evening prayers, Salas says he’s come to experience what it’s like to be a Jew in Belmonte. And, he says, “My intention is to conserve what can be conserved and what makes sense for each person,” he says. That’s no easy task. Belmonte’s Jews in many ways are still isolated and mistrustful. Centuries of endogamy have left many suffering from hereditary diseases. And while they are friendly to Jewish visitors, they are zealously secretive when asked about their religious practices. Neighbors say there’s no need for secrecy — or fear. Marcos Alvez, 67, a non-Jew who lives near the synagogue, says everyone in Belmonte has long known about the Jews — and liked them anyway. “They are our friends,” Alvez says. “Now that they’ve built a synagogue they are more separate, but our good relations haven’t changed a bit.” Along with the construction of the synagogue, one of the most noteworthy Jewish events in Belmonte’s recent Jewish history was a mass Orthodox conversion to Judaism of about 80 people in 1991. Amishav founder Eliyahu Avichail was on the panel of rabbis, sent by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu, to oversee the conversions. Freund, Amishav’s president, says the conversion ceremony was done “just to be on the safe side” because too much time had passed to be absolutely certain about every individual’s Jewish lineage. Despite the developments in Belmonte in recent years, many Jews still cling to their centuries-old traditions of secrecy and unique religious practices. Salas says he’s not surprised by community members’ resistance to change and their hesitancy about his brand of Judaism. “They say, ‘I’m Jewish, all my life I’ve been Jewish, my mother and father were Jewish and died as Jews — why do I have to do something to be Jewish?’ ” Salas says. “They call the synagogue and our Judaism the ‘new religion’ because their religion is the Judaism of old,” he says. “And I can’t say they’re wrong. I have to understand that mentality, because that’s the Judaism they’ve received and which kept them going for 500 years.” Cohen, the ethnomusicologist, says that while she appreciates Salas’ cultural sensitivity, Belmonte’s Jews aren’t being exposed to other varieties of Jewish life. “If you live in Barcelona or Madrid and you’re in a big city, you understand that even if you’ve only seen an Orthodox rabbi, there might be other ways of doing things,” she says in a telephone interview from her home in Canada. Cohen also says the work of Orthodox rabbis in Belmonte before Salas came destroyed much of what was unique to Belmonte Judaism, such as the leading role given to women. For example, after couples were married in the local church, the bride and bridegroom would come home and a female rezadeira would perform what was deemed to be the binding Jewish ceremony. “They didn’t consider you married until one of the prayer women, the rezadeira, married you secretly,” Cohen says. When the new synagogue first opened, Cohen says, the women were very excited but were told by the rabbis that they couldn’t pray in the sanctuary’s ground floor, which was reserved for men. Women had to go to the balcony. She says the women were very upset by it, and many never returned to the synagogue. Cohen says a more liberal brand of Judaism would suit Belmonte’s Jews better than Orthodoxy. Perhaps a woman rabbi would be appropriate, she says. Salas says he does everything he can within the bounds of halachah, Jewish law, to accommodate the “old religion” of Belmonte’s Jews. He even went to a funeral at a Christian cemetery because the deceased wanted to be buried alongside her spouse. At the service, he refrained from uttering a Hebrew prayer. “My vision is not that they should forget everything that has helped them survive until now,” Salas says. “My intention is to help them grow and develop and have a much broader worldview — that Judaism is not only Belmonte.”

NEXT STORY