We arrived in the small village of Belmonte, Portugal, on a freezing morning in early November 1965. The village stands facing the Serra da Estrela, in the province of Beira Baixa, to the south of the city of Guarda; it has a population of about four thousand, and approximately fourteen-hundred dwellings. Belmonte is quite old; in the first years of the Portuguese monarchy, it was entirely surrounded by walls, and, like all such villages, had a small central square where the market was held and justice dispensed by the court. The narrow streets feeding into the square were inhabited by the gentry, clerics, Jews, merchants, common people, and villeins. In the Rua das Lages stood the “Sinagogue.”
The Jewish population of Belmonte increased sharply at the end of the 15th century when the expulsion edict signed by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain forced a large number of Spanish Jews to seek refuge among their Portuguese brethren. Within a short period of time a compact nucleus of New Christians was formed—Jews who were constrained from practicing their religion by the persecution of the Tribunal of the Holy Office. These crypto-Jews, or Marranos, lived outwardly in accordance with the precepts of Catholicism, but among themselves, in the most absolute secrecy, they carried on the traditions of their forebears.
This state of affairs continued for nearly three hundred years. By the time the Inquisition was finally abolished, however, at the beginning of the 19th century, so many Marranos had been killed, or had emigrated, or had been assimilated, that they were spoken of as a curiosity, a forgotten element of Portugal’s past. It was not until the end of the first quarter of the 20th century that Jewish historians and ethnologists in general became interested in the phenomenon of crypto-Judaism in Portugal; several communities of New Christians were discovered, whose members still lived and behaved exactly as they had under the Inquisition. One of the last known communities is Belmonte.1
We came to Belmonte with nothing but a name that was to serve as a point of contact. For some time, our efforts to enter the crypto-Jewish community were stymied. The New Christians, we were told, were “diffident.” “They shut themselves up in almost ferocious silence.” We were constantly being told that the person we were looking for was not available. “He leaves very early every morning, to go to market,” some said, “and even if you found him he would not give you any information.” Finally, through sheer accident, we met an inhabitant of Belmonte who revealed to us his Jewish origin and agreed to help us.
It was Friday afternoon. We were led along a narrow, unpaved road lined by old houses with warped doors and well-worn steps. We stopped at one of these houses, climbed a long and narrow flight of stairs, and entered a room that looked quite poor. A middle-aged woman came to meet us, eyeing us mistrustfully as we explained who we were. When our guide said, “They are one of us,” her expression changed abruptly: her small, watchful eyes lit up, and, drying her hands on her apron, she begged our pardon for having received us in such a disheveled manner. It was the eve of the Sabbath, and she had had many things to prepare. She offered us a chair, and while she talked, the house began to fill up with people. Then she covered her head with a scarf, lit a lamp—they called this “the Lord’s lamp”—and placing her hands over her eyes, said a prayer in a low voice. At that point, a very old woman, dressed in black and wrapped in a black shawl that covered her head, entered the room and approached us. When our presence was explained to her, she sat down and subjected us to a test. She asked us about the most diverse Jewish practices, and as we responded, she glanced furtively in the direction of her companions, making approving signs with her head. Finally she ordered us, rather peremptorily, to pray. This was to be final proof of our identity. Then, having at last recognized us, they embraced us and kissed us on our cheeks.
How many New Christians are there in Belmonte? We were unable to ascertain the figure, although they themselves declared that there was a New Christian living in “every other house.” The surnames we found most common were Henriques, Vas Morao, Nunes, Diogo, and Caetano, while among given names Moises, Ester, Sara, and Daniel predominated. We also came across a number of New Christians with names like Maria da Conceiçao, Antonio, or Abilio—obvious examples of Christian influence.
Although most New Christians are poor, there are no beggars in the crypto-Judaic community of Belmonte. The aged, of whom there are many, and the sick, live off the charity of their brethren. “A Jew,” they told us proudly, “does not beg.” Most of the New Christians are wandering tradesmen who deal in corn, oil, wool, fur, tanned leather, and fabrics, which they take to the fairs and markets of Northern Portugal. A few, formerly hawkers, have managed to become rich. The shops which they have opened in the village are generally well stocked with merchandise, which they sell to their poorer co-religionists on credit (the latter often resell such goods in the markets, and pay up whenever they can). Wealthier New Christians own their own houses, and even cars; they live at a certain distance from their former brethren, and some, through marriage to Christian women, have ascended to a higher social class. Their ascent is often accompanied by an abandonment of Jewish traditions, and though some of them continue to help their poorer relatives, in general they hold themselves aloof. The others, for their part, consider those who have departed the group as altogether lost to Judaism. They often speak of “we” and “they.”
Among the small group of Belmonte New Christians whom we met were some whose appearance struck us as particularly strange and sickly. A New Christian who no longer lives with the group explained that the desire to retain their old religion and the fear of alien infiltration and denunciation have led these crypto-Jews over the years to intermarry to an extent which is now proving dangerous to their own survival. The human cost of this constant and vigilant endogamy has reached almost tragic proportions: the men and women are thin and weak, many of them are blind, feebleminded, or suffer from severe respiratory diseases. We saw ten-year-olds whose legs were not strong enough to carry them. So powerful is the tradition of closeness that the New Christians seem to have ignored altogether the dangers of consanguine marriages; they told us proudly, “We are pure, we marry only our cousins. . . .”
One New Christian who suffered obviously from the effects of intermarriage was a little man of delicate, almost beardless features, who was always to be seen in the company of his son, a boy of about fourteen. They were both almost blind, and led each other about with linked arms. Both father and son were inordinately shy and humble; the boy shrank into himself when we touched his cheeks. Like some sad youngster from the stifling ghettos of Eastern Europe, he seemed to live by himself in a little corner, completely oblivious to the world, bent on the practice of his ancient religion. When we saw the two of them again one night, at the house of one of their relatives, the father would not stop praying. Covering his eyes with his hands, he rocked back and forth, shaking his thin body as he intoned a holy melody.
We were also struck by a young girl whose delicate features were pale and colorless. Her eyes were a deep, transparent blue. She had difficulty breathing, and after each sentence had to stop to regain her breath. She had a child in her arms, whom she called “my little Daniel”; she asked us to send “a star of our people” for her child. Standing him on her lap, she kept pushing him toward us as we spoke to others in the room, asking over and over: “Doesn’t he look like little Moses saved from the waters?”
One of the more curious aspects of crypto-Judaism in Belmonte is the evidence of religious syncretism in the lives of the New Christians. Despite the Church’s long-standing prohibition against contact between crypto-Jews and Christians, and despite the habits of discrimination which the Holy Office fostered for centuries among the Portuguese population, relations between the two groups were never completely severed. The poorer classes, of course, living in a climate of ignorance, superstition, and fanaticism, always regarded the New-Christian group as strange and different and unknown. But even this mistrust was overcome by the need for day-to-day human contact, or for mutual help in times of difficulty. And the effect of such prolonged daily contact has left its imprint on both religions, especially since crypto-Judaism developed in a period when every human action was regulated by religious considerations. Thus, for all the tenacity with which Jews held onto their faith, certain Christian influences did make themselves felt, at first individually, then later in ways which affected the general pattern of behavior in the entire group. Many traditions and customs which are typically Christian in character are also, we found, practiced by New Christians as well, just as some Jewish habits have been similarly incorporated into Christian practice.
One of the most striking examples of this phenomenon of religious syncretism is the love and veneration New Christians feel for “Holy Little Moses” (Santo Moisesinho) and “Holy Queen Esther.” Every. New Christian in Belmonte has a picture of one or the other hanging in his home. It is to the “Holy Little Moses” that New Christians address their prayers, of him. that they ask favors, and to him that they speak of their miseries. His picture reminded us strongly of the common image one has of Moses as a man no longer young, with a very dignified posture and a long white beard, and holding in his arms the “Tablets of the Law.” Some have his picture hanging in their sitting-rooms, some in their bedrooms. A woman who said she herself was “old Christian”—as her family had been for generations—but who, for a reason unknown to herself, was called Sara, told us that she and her Jewish husband got along perfectly: at her bedside was an image of “Our Lady,” and at his, one of “Holy Little Moses.”
In some houses we also found a picture of the “Guardian Angel,” with his white wings spread wide—decidedly a sign of Christian influence. Even the prayer addressed to the “Guardian Angel” is based on the Catholic cult:
Holy Angel of the Lord,
My careful keeper,
With you do I entrust myself to divine mercy
Who guards me always, reigns over me,
governs and illuminates me
Angel of my soul, angel good and true
I beg you, divine angel, be my loyal
Despite the effects of syncretism, however, New Christians are in general fiercely aware of their unique historical traditions. They know to the smallest detail, for instance, such central biblical stories as the Exodus from Egypt. Although they refer to the patriarchs and prophets as Saint Abraham, Saint Daniel, and so forth, they are nevertheless keenly cognizant of their own religious separateness, and of the experience of suffering and persecution which binds them to a unique Jewish past. “Our people were persecuted, much persecuted. . . .”
In general it is the old women who keep up the traditions, who know all the prayers and recite them to the assembled congregation at certain religious festivities. These prayers are all in Portuguese, and have been transmitted orally, from generation to generation, for the last four centuries. Since the community possesses no prayer-book, many prayers have been lost, and others have become incomprehensible. We observed that while they were reciting them to us, their memories occasionally failed them: they would repeat some passages over and over, having forgotten how to go on, and then they would start all over again. But they also noticed immediately when one of them made a mistake. Someone would correct the person reciting, another would interrupt, contradicting them both, voices would rise, and a quarrel would break out. (During one of these quarrels we were forced to intervene, when it appeared they would start to fight.) A young girl, of healthy Portuguese looks and rosy cheeks, full of enthusiasm, intoned for us one of the Psalms of David. We have translated it literally, as we recorded it, including those passages which are unintelligible even in Portuguese:
Psalm of David, sons of the Highest
Give glory and power unto Adonai
As he is seated then
As a king forever.
Adonai, strengthen your people
Your people, your people
With the peace of the dearly, dearly beloved
In the presence of your bride
Go to the Sabbath, to receive you
You have dwelled in the valley of tears
The Lord is my prior.
May we lie down in peace
May we get up full of life
To our king extend the peace
Blessed art thou, Adonai
Adonai makes altar, calves
Like liorne, like criones
Like ceriones, like ceriones
Like ceriones, like ceriones
The voice of Adonai is in the sanctuary
The Holy city in Jerusalem
Well thy dress
Thou hast dwelled in the valley of tears
The Lord is my Creator
Peace to our God, may we lie down in peace
May we rise full of life
To our king extend peace
Blessed art thou Adonai
Long live the great God Adonai
Long live the great God Adonai
Long live the great God Adonai
Certain habits traditional among Jews are no longer practiced in Belmonte. Dietary laws, for instance, are almost unknown among the Belmonte New Christians; they have never heard of the prohibition against eating scaleless fish, and although they are aware that pork was forbidden to the Jewish people, today only the older people abstain from this food. No one, on the other hand, eats murcela, a blood-sausage common in the region.
One of the first Jewish precepts to disappear in Portugal was circumcision. As far back as the Inquisition, circumcision was observed only among the most religious and fanatical crypto-Jews, those who were not afraid to die for their faith. That all others gave the practice up is easy to understand: when arrested and submitted to questioning, one could always deny having fasted or lit candles at the coming of the Sabbath, or having worn clean clothes on Friday, or having performed any other similarly clandestine activity—but circumcision was undeniable proof of Judaism, and to this day it has not been reintroduced. When we questioned the New Christians of Belmonte about it, they seemed to understand what we were talking about, but only very vaguely, and it seemed to us that they preferred to avoid answering directly. Some said they had heard about the practice, but that it was not done there. We do not know, however, how closely this information corresponds to the actual truth, for we were also told by an Old Christian about a Christian young man, who, in order to marry a Jewish girl of the village, had been obliged to submit to an “operation.”
With regard to their own rites and customs, however, the New Christians are strictly observant. A child is initiated into the practice of the Law at a very early age, and by the time he is seven is already required to fast on Yom Kippur. When we expressed our astonishment at this custom, they simply replied: “We too had to fast when we were seven, and it did not do us any harm. It is good for them to start getting used to following our Law. . . .”
Despite their deep aversion to the Church, the New Christians do frequent the local church for christenings and weddings, although the religious ceremonies performed there mean nothing to them; rather, they go exclusively to “keep the people from talking.” The village is small, everybody knows everybody else, and it is easy for gossip to spread. Therefore, while they no longer fear saying they are Jews, they nevertheless marry in church so that no one might say of a couple that they are living together in sin. Still, the general custom is for the couple to be married first according to the Jewish Law. The ritual, which is of archaic simplicity, takes place at home. Both the bride and the groom fast on the wedding day, as do two friends of the groom and two unmarried girlfriends of the bride. At the end of the period of fasting, the prayers pertaining to the wedding ceremony are recited, and then a rezadeira (a woman whose function it is to say the prayers) ties the right hands of the couple together with a linen cloth, and intones the sacramental words: “In the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I unite you—fulfill your blessing.” A table is then set, with a glass of wine, salt, and the “little holy bread,” which is unleavened; the table faces an open window through which one can see the sky. At night a banquet is held with dancing, and the young couple eat and drink from the same utensils.
At wedding parties, as at other celebrations, the New Christians keep the doors and windows of their houses well closed, and take the greatest care that none of their neighbors see what is going on inside. No matter how friendly their relations with Christians, they will never reveal the manner in which they perform their ceremonies.
Burial ceremonies are very simple among the Belmonte New Christians. Immediately after death, the body is washed with spring water, which is fetched in a new clay pot at any time of day or night. The body is dressed in clothes that have not been worn before, and a silver coin is passed over the corpse’s mouth and then given to a beggar. As the coin is passed over the mouth, the following prayer is recited three times:
You shall go to the valley of Josafath
And you shall meet a lion;
If he asks you for meat, give him bread;
If he asks you for the password,
give him money;
If he asks you of what Law you are,
Answer, of Moses’s Law.
May he let you pass
Free and unharmed,
Wherever God lets you,
Wherever God sends you.
If he asks you who made you,
Tell him it was a Hebrew woman,
Who stays on in this world.
Who did for you what she knew,
Who did not for you what she should have.
On the way to the cemetery, the dead person’s family disburses alms at every corner. One New Christian woman—one of the most strictly observant Jewesses we met—said to us, with sadness in her voice: “You have a cemetery for Jews only, but we don’t.” The New Christians of Belmonte finally come to rest under the cross.
Immediately following death, members of the bereaved family throw away all the water in the house, and cover all the mirrors with cloth—a custom that was even practiced, at considerable risk, during the centuries of the Inquisition. The house of the dead then becomes trefle (modification of the Hebrew trepha: impure), and until the following Sabbath its inhabitants are forbidden to eat any food remaining in it from before the death.
For the first eight days of mourning, the family of the dead person abstains from meat, and on the eighth and thirtieth days after the death they fast. Three months later, a third fast is held which is repeated every three months up to the end of the first year. On the seventh day of mourning, an abundant and carefully prepared meal, which omits meat and seasoning, is served to the poor; further such meals are served at the end of six and eleven months, and at the end of the first year. These are called “weal of the soul,” and are served in crockery which is new or has been washed in ashes beforehand. At the end of the meal, the following prayer is recited three times:
The blessing that the Lord bestowed unto Zion, Zion bestowed unto Abraham, Abraham bestowed unto Israel, Israel bestowed unto his children, bestow now, O Lord, unto this table, this bread, unto all here present, who eat in abundance and among blessings. May it all be in honor of—’s soul, and if he does not need it, may he share it with the needier souls, who stand close to him, in his duty. May the Lord have him in His glory, calm and light, and some place where he can beseech and implore the Lord for all his family. May the Lord free him of windy trees, burning olive trees, door hinges, shadows of walls, and bad people’s tongues, of all troubles and perils the Lord should wish to free him of. Amen.
On the day one of their number dies, all the crypto-Jews of Belmonte abstain from meat. If dinner is being prepared when the news arrives, the entire meal is immediately thrown away, and something else substituted. On certain days, one extra plate is placed on the table, and everyone puts a spoonful of food on it before eating. The extra dish of food is then given to a beggar.
As might be expected, Yom Kippur is the most important of the holy days celebrated by the New Christians of Belmonte. Fasting begins at sunset the day before, in accordance with Jewish law, and ends the next evening, when the first stars appear. The ceremony starts with the lighting of the “Lord’s lamp,” which burns olive oil, and has a wick made of linen. Upon lighting the lamp, they say the following prayer:
Blessed art Thou, my God, my Lord, my Adonai, that gavest and ordered us to holy orders, blessed and holy, that we light this wick to light up and celebrate this, the Lord’s holy night, so the Lord will light our souls, and free us from sin and guilt. Amen, O Lord. May it rise to Heaven.
When we told the group that Jews in other countries no longer used lamps, but had candles instead, the women looked at us in great astonishment, and one little old lady made a gesture of disapproval. “Candles are for Christians,” they explained. “We, the New Christians, do not use them.” One woman, sympathizing with our plight, informed the group: “I know, they use candles because where they live they have no good oil or linen wicks.”
The rituals of the “great day,” or the “Lord’s Day,” as they call Yom Kippur, have been followed with rigorous severity ever since the days of the Inquisition. Even today, those New Christians who have married old Christians, live outside the restricted crypto-Jewish community, and have abandoned all Jewish traditions, still close the doors of their shops on Yom Kippur, and observe the fast.
Second in importance among New-Christian holidays is Passover, or the “Holy Feast,” which is observed in Belmonte for seven days. During this time, the New Christians refrain from work and eat only unleavened bread, except on the first, fourth, and seventh days, which are full fast-days. The unleavened bread is made as follows: white sheets are spread out on the ground, on which are placed bowls containing flour and water for the dough. While the dough is being prepared, the “prayer of the Lord” is recited by the “prayer woman” and nine young girls. Then the dough is shaped into a single long cake, put on a new tile, and placed in the oven. After it has been baked, it is wrapped in a clean towel.
Passover is to this day observed in the most absolute secrecy. The unleavened bread is prepared in a house which is fairly isolated, where the New Christians feel safe from the eyes of their Christian neighbors. The eating of this bread is one of the customs that was observed even under the Inquisition, when persecutions were most ferocious, and the story is frequently told of a New Christian who once let it be known that leavened bread did not agree with him; he ate unleavened bread all year round so as not to be suspected of crypto-Judaism during the Passover season. In Belmonte today, the eating of unleavened bread is connected with a number of superstitions. When a New-Christian girl gets married, for instance, a special cake of this “holy bread” is prepared for her, which she keeps in a little box to the end of her life, for good luck.
During Passover the “Water Prayer” is recited daily:
On the fourteenth of the moon
Of the first month of the year,
The people of Egypt departed
With Israel their brother.
They sang songs
And praised the Lord
With all their hearts.
Where do you take us, Moses?
To this desert,
Where there is neither bread nor wine
Nor shepherds with their cattle?
Ask the Lord on high
That He take us to our homes.
Moses, with his rod held high,
Beat on the salty sea;
Twelve roads opened,
To let his people pass.
They passed, safe and sound,
For the Lord ordered it so
They passed through the Red Sea,
Toward the promised land.
The people, afflicted by thirst,
Cried to heaven for water;
Moses goes ahead,
His holy rod held high.
As the Lord ordered him
He beat on a bitter stone,
And the clear water flowed.
Blessed be the Lord,
And forever praised;
From a stone He made water flow
For the greatly afflicted people.
Moses, holy prophet,
Liked and loved, by the Lord,
Emperor of the nation,
Destroyer of Egypt,
Ask for mercy
Of that infinite God
May His weal reach us,
And may He take us to His Kingdom
And free us from captivity;
Know, brethren of this brotherhood,
The Lord created the four elements:
Dust, wind, water, the shadow of walls;
As He freed us
From such great perils,
May he free us from our enemies.
May the Lord keep from us
Troubles and perils
And when under attack
May we be victorious
And our enemies defeated. May God
allow this to be so,
And the angels say Amen.
Amen, O Lord. May it rise to heaven
and to heaven return.
During this holiday, the New Christians often go out on picnics where they pray and dance. On the last day of Passover, the whole community gathers at a stream, and chants in unison:
Let us praise and exalt the high God
May He free us from the great sea,
And take us to the Promised Land.
Each person carries an olive branch in his hand, and as he beats the water with it, in celebration of the crossing of the Red Sea, he recites:
The sea opened itself, the people passed
The God of Israel had commanded it to
On the way home they pray:
Let us praise and exalt the High God of
Who freed us from the high sea and that
Another holiday kept by the New Christians is “The Feast of Queen Esther,” or Purim. Their observance consists of fasting for one day, and reciting the “Prayer of the Lord” three times before a lit lamp. As they pray, they turn to the picture they have hanging on the wall, which they take to be of the Holy Queen Esther.
One woman told us she still remembered her mother-in-law celebrating the Festa das Cabanas. (Hut Feast, Sukkot). “My man always asks me,” she said, “‘Say, woman, why don’t you celebrate the “hut feast”?’” But neither she nor the other Belmonte New Christians knew when, or how, it is observed.
As we have already pointed out, New and old Christians live together in friendship. They visit one another, exchange gifts, and help each other in times of need. But in matters of religion they keep completely apart. One New-Christian woman, who had already been married by the Jewish ritual, told us that she intended to invite one of her Christian neighbors to be her bridesmaid at her “second” wedding in the Church; she said she loved her neighbor like a sister, but would not think of letting a Christian woman be present at a Jewish wedding. Some members of the group, particularly the elderly, remain fearful of contact with Christians. Understandably, they are most afraid of losing the younger generation through intermarriage. One woman told us that her son, who had finished his eighth year in school, now had “foolish ideas in his head,” for he wanted to marry a girl who was not of their people.
Thus, despite the friendship which prevails between the New-Christian group and the rest of the local population, the New Christians are still wary, still nourish a certain fear of being betrayed. When we told them about the freedom that Jews now enjoy, and about the State of Israel, they accused us of being naive. How could we say things like that, they wanted to know, when only a very short time ago a man had had spies infiltrate the Jews, to discover their origin, and then had had them all arrested, and their children burnt in an oven? The woman who told this story spoke in a loud voice, her eyes flashing, her fists clenched. “Who told you that?” we asked. “Our cousin, who knows all those stories, who has already been to Porto, and seen a ‘synagogue’ from close by!”
Clearly, the New Christians of Belmonte take inordinate pride in their Jewish past, and in their unique historic consciousness. “Our people,” they relate, “came from very far away, a very long time ago, from a place called Palestine. . . .” Indeed, their pride has even led them, to reject the new way of life practiced by their coreligionists elsewhere in the world, as well as elsewhere in Portugal itself. They consider themselves purer than the Jews from Porto or Lisbon, who, according to what they have heard, practice the religion of Moses in a “falsified” manner. They alone remain pure, and follow their religious teachings properly. “Our Law is the most beautiful in the world; we will not change it, not even if we have to die for it.”
1 Some of the earliest material published on Belmonte is to be found in Samuel Schwarz, Os Cristaos Novos no Século XX, Lisbon, 1925.