The small, magnificent Belmonte Synagogue was built through the generosity of Salomon
Azoulay in 1997
Phoenix by Jocelyn Cooper (from http://ladina.blogspot.co.uk/)
For 500 years
In the mountains of Belmonte
Along narrow streets
Among pretty flowers,
olive trees, and apple orchards
For 500 years
They hid -
Forbidden by law
For 500 years
They prayed to their God
With tears in their eyes
Prayed to be allowed to pray
For 500 years
They lit the Sabbath candles
And drank the sacramental wine
In the cellars of their homes
Mothers passed on rituals
to daughters and grand-daughters
For 500 years they hid their belief
For 500 years they kept their faith
A knock on the door brought fear
A stranger could not be trusted
Forbidden by law
For 500 years
The flame was not extinguished
Today they walk with heads held high
To their house of worship
Magen David firmly planted in the garden
Menorah standing proudly in the garden
Outside Sinagoga Bet Eliyahu
Their voices sing the liturgy
Their voices sing
For 500 years they hid
Behind closed doors
Noah Gordon in 'The Last Jew' pp407 on tells the story of a Jewish group travelling
to Toulouse to escape the Inquisition who discover a 'secret' valley where they hope
they can 'hide' from the Inquisition. This is probably how Jews came to settle in
Belmonte, a town of about 7,500, is less than 30 miles from the Spanish frontier.
A foundation stone dated 1297 was discovered of a synagogue showing there has been
a Jewish community with a long history.
They were ‘discovered’ in 1917 by Samuel Schwartz a Galician mining engineer. Thinking
they were the only remaining Jews they only believed Schwarz was a Jew when he recited
the Shema Yisrael and they recognized the name "Adonay".
They had maintained their Jewish identity for over four hundred years by marrying
mainly among themselves and adhering to the belief in a single personal Deity who
would redeem his people at the end of days. They practiced some Jewish observances,
the Sabbath and some holidays. They often lit candles on Friday night where they
could not be seen from the outside and observed Passover and Yom Kippur a day or
two before or after the Jewish calendar date to confuse agents of the Inquisition.
They had preserved some mourning customs, like the Tahara, the washing of the corpse
and the burning of a light during the first seven days of mourning, the Shivah. They
performed their own marriage ceremony, by making a declaration in Portuguese which
"Em nome de Deus de Abrahao, Isaac e Jacob, eu vos uno. Cumpri vos a Sua bencao (In
the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I commend you to His benediction)
Keeping their existence secret also affected their diet and names. For example they
made Alheira, popular heavily seasoned sausages from rabbit and chicken, but gave
the impression that they ate pork and adopted Christian names to blend into the local
Even after the Inquisition officially ended in 1821, local Jews kept their rites
“It was a matter of tradition,” said University of California, Los Angeles’s professor
emeritus Eduardo Mayone Dias who has written about Belmonte. “That had been their
only method of survival. The fear of Inquisition and of outside influence was very
This finally changed in 1994 when a rabbi from Israel was invited to officially convert
a Belmonte group. They emerged from secrecy partly because of increased openness
across Portugal after the 1974 bloodless transition to democracy from António Salazar’s
dictatorship, and partly because they desired contact with other Jewish communities.
A French documentary called “The Last Marranos,” released in 1990, heralded the first
wave of tourists.
Distinctive Belmonte has attracted international funds, including that of a French
donor (Saloman Azoulay) to build their small magnificent synagogue in 1997.
There is a large Jewish Museum which has seen more than 14,000 visitors since its
opening in 2005. The museum guestbook shows that while Portuguese, Israeli and American
tourists are the most common there have also been visitors from many other countries
including Mozambique, Montenegro and Japan.
The Jewish museum is part of an initiative to transform the town into a major historical
center for the region. It is located in an eighteenth-century Catholic school, purchased
by the municipality and totally restored to transform it into a modern Jewish museum,
with a dramatic and original design. It is situated at the heart of the oldest neighborhood,
where many Jewish families still live in carefully preserved stone houses. It lies
just down the hill from the town’s medieval castle and the modern synagogue.
Opened in 2005 it consists of three sections.
The first is a collection of personal objects once owned by crypto-Jewish families,
some of them very old, loaned by Prof. Adriano Vasco Rodrigues and his wife’s family,
the Carquejas. These objects provide an exceptional record of daily life during and
after the Inquisition.
The second illustrates the Jewish presence in the Belmonte region from the Roman
era through the Middle Ages.
The third is an enormous black plaque with the full names and ages of victims of
the Inquisition from the Belmonte region.
The benefit the tourists have brought is evident. Where other towns in rural Portugal
are plagued with empty lots, Belmonte is ringed with new houses and construction
is still under way. The streets are clean, and the town park, lined with miniature
orange trees, is well groomed.
“People want to come because this is the only really Jewish part of Portugal,” said
Cristina Brito, director of Lisbon-based Mourisca Tours. Brito’s company is one of
a number that have sprung up to meet the demand for organized trips to visit Belmonte.
One brochure urges visitors to try “Inquisition-defeating sausage,” a local recipe
in which chicken is substituted for pork.
This is a stark change from 500 years of secrecy, and not all local Jews enjoy being
the object of scrutiny. Visitors trying to enter the synagogue during services are
often redirected to the museum. Indeed, a number of Jewish families steer clear of
both the synagogue and the tourist industry, practicing the way their ancestors did,
with women leading ceremonies at home. Belmonte has seen a cycle of rabbis from Israel
and Brazil, none of whom stays for more than a few years. Some attribute this to
the difficulty of reconciling modern Jewish practices with those of Belmonte, developed
in isolation for centuries.
“I am one of the only Jews who invites strangers into my home,” said Marão, whose
family was among the first to convert. “They are still afraid. I don’t know what
The synagogue in Belmonte, Bet Eliahu was inaugurated on the 4th of December, 1996,
500 years after the edict of expulsion proclaimed on or about December 5, 1496, but
never carried out; instead all Jews in Portugal were forcibly baptized in 1497. The
noted author, Elias Lipiner estimates that about 40 persons were given permission
to leave, including the king's physician and astrologer, Abraham Zacuto.
The Jews of Belmonte, who withstood nearly 300 years of the iron monster, the Inquisition
(1536-1821), survived. Marrying amongst each other, outwardly Catholic, they secretly
maintained the essentials of Judaism, the women transmitting prayers from mother
to daughter while the men kept track of the Jewish calender and the high holidays.
With the opening up of Portuguese society after the Carnation revolution of April
1974, and an article in the New York times in 1977 , world interest in the Marranos
of Belmonte increased .
The first written reference to Jews in Belmonte is in the town's royal charter granted
in 1199. Although the reference is not clear evidence of Jewish presence in Belmonte,
there were Jewish communities in the nearby towns of Covilhã, Guarda, Gouveia and
A stone found in 1910 by the “discoverer” of Marranos, a Polish mining engineer named
Samuel Schwartz, probably belonged to the first synagogue of Belmonte.
The Hebrew inscription dated 5057 (1297) from Habacuque 2.20 reads as follows:
“And Adonai is in his temple;Sacred, silence; Before him all the earth.”
The stone (photo from emmanuel lopes) is presently in the municipal museum of Castelo
Branco, a copy of the stone is on display in the Abraham Zacuto museum in the Tomar
The inauguration of the new temple on December 4, 1996 represented a victory over
the Inquisition, a victory of tolerance over evil, a symbol of the heroism and tenacity
of the Marranos of Belmonte who clung to their Jewish identity against all odds.
Following the approval of the municipal government, the first stone of the synagogue
was laid in January 1993, witnessed by Dan Tichon, president of the Israeli parliament
and other Jews from around the world. The guest of honour was Salomon Azoulay, whose
financial generosity made the project possible.
Canelo, Augusto David, Os Últimos CriptoJudeus em Portugal, Camara Municipal de Belmonte,,
Garcia, Maria Antonieta, Judaísmo no Feminino, Tradição popular e ortodoxis em Belmonte,
Instituto de Sociologia e Etnogia das Religiões, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Lisboa,
Rabbi Elisha Salas to be Emissary to Portugal's Crypto-Jews as Shavei Israel's delegate,
Rabbi Elisha Salas will teach Torah, Jewish culture and Jewish tradition to Bnei
Rabbi Elisha Salas will begin his work as Shavei Israel organization’s new emissary
to the Bnei Anousim, or crypto-Jews of North Portugal.
Rabbi Salas, 53, was born in Chile and made aliyah to Israel in 1999. Salas now lives
in Jerusalem and is married with four children. After graduating from Santiago University
in Chile with two degrees in accounting and religious studies, Salas spent five years
at the Beit Midrash Sepharadi in the Old City of Jerusalem. In addition to being
an ordained rabbi, Salas is certified to practice as a shochet (kosher slaughterer).
As Shavei Israel's emissary in Portugal, Rabbi Salas will teach Torah, Jewish culture
and Jewish tradition to Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory
term "Marranos"), conducting a wide range of social and educational activities in
the process. The rabbi’s work will focus mainly in the Belmonte community, where
a number of Bnei Anousim returned to Judaism in recent decades and now live as a
traditional, thriving Jewish community. Salas will also work with Bnei Anousim in
other areas and towns throughout Portugal, primarily in the north.
“We are delighted to be sending Rabbi Elisha Salas to reach out to the Bnei Anousim
of Portugal,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. “There
are tens of thousands of Bnei Anousim throughout Portugal who are conscious of their
special historical connection to the Jewish people. We owe it to them and to their
ancestors to reach out to them, embrace them and welcome them back home.”
(Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated
to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening ties between the
State of Israel and descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently
active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities
such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim in Spain,Portugal and South America,
the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, the "Hidden
Jews" of Poland from the Holocaust era and others. It is the only organization that
works with Bnei Anousim communities throughout Europe with the work of emissaries.)
BIDDING FAREWELL IN 2006 TO RABBI SALAS The Secret to Understanding the Marranos of
Portugal By Manuel Lopes Azevedo
It is six in the morning and I am at the Porto airport, bleary-eyed, waiting for
Rabbi Elisha Salas, who is on his way back to Israel. He has been in Portugal on
business overseeing kosher olive oil production which he developed while he was the
rabbi of the Marranos (his words) for more than three years. He wants to build a
Portuguese kashrut organization to promote Portuguese products in the Jewish world.
A former accountant from Chile, Salas developed an extraordinary relationship with
Portuguese small businesspeople during his stay in Portugal. He says they are all
Marranos and acknowledge their heritage. They want to work in the Jewish world.
However, they and other Marranos are fearful of assuming their identity. It’s in
the genes, he says.
During his stay in Portugal he ministered to the historic Anous community in Belmonte
and became the first rabbi of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, built by
captain Barros Basto in the 1930s as hundreds of synagogues were being destroyed
in Europe. In Portugal, Salas did not once encounter a single act of anti-Semitism
even though he constantly wore his kippa. He says the Portuguese people have respect
and carinhofor Jews; that is why a small group of Sephardic Jews could return from
North Africa in the beginning of the 19th century and establish an enduring community
in Lisbon, protected by the government even during the darkest period of Jewish history.
Salas has no problem with the term Marrano. He says it no longer carries the pejorative
connotation of the past. He uses the term to identify a group of persons with a
common past. A Marrano, according to Salas, is a Jew in his soul who is still afraid
to assume his Jewish identity in public. It is the same problem faced by Captain
Barros Basto in the 1920s and 1930s, but instead of dealing with people from the
hinterland of the northern provinces such as Beiras, Tras Montes and Minho, the Marranos
of today are to be found in cities such as Porto. They are professionals and small
businesspeople, writers, artists, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. It is because
their parents continued the Jewish precept of education, he says.
Salas made many good friends during his stint in Portugal, all Anousim. He says
it is much easier to establish communication on an individual level. Marranos are
not suddenly going to flock to yeshivas, he says. What is necessary is the cultivation
of individual relationships to establish confidence and trust so that the genetic
fear is once and forever eradicated. Then, it will be possible to create a Jewish
civil society in Portugal as existed 500 years ago.