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Belmonte, Portugal

BELMONTE, town in northern Portugal near the Spanish frontier. Its medieval community is seldom mentioned in the contemporary records, but there is preserved a Hebrew synagogal inscription of 1296–97, probably originally intended to be placed above the synagogue Ark. After the forced conversion of the Jews in Portugal at the end of the 15th century, Belmonte became a major center of New Christian life. A number of well-known families of the Crypto-Jewish Diaspora bearing this name originally derive from this place. It was here that S. Schwarz first established contact with the surviving Crypto-Jews in 1917. The Crypto-Jewish traditions have been more faithfully preserved here than in any other place in Portugal. Reforms that were introduced by Pombal may have caused paradoxically a decline in Crypto-Jewish practices, although prejudice against the descendants of the New Christians persisted in Portugal. In Belmonte, Crypto-Jewish identity remained very strong. During the 19th century there is evidence that some Jews were aware of the existence of New Christians who considered themselves Jewish or felt a certain affinity towards Jews and Judaism. Some scholars at that time, such as M. Kayserling and J. Latouche, drew attention to this fact. The newly established Jewish community in Lisbon showed little interest in New Christians who visited their synagogue. Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto, a New Christian who was a high-ranking officer in the army, found no warmth there. In 1912, after his visit in Portugal, Nahum Slousch reported that many in Portugal led Jewish lives in secret. It was Schwarz, however, who discovered the Crypto-Jews of Portugal, and especially those of Belmonte. He wrote a full and emotional account of his encounter with the Belmonte Crypto-Jews in his book, published in 1925. Schwarz made efforts to have the Crypto-Jews of Belmonte and others return officially to Judaism. Several Jewish organizations, such as the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and individual Jews like Cecil Roth and Lucien Wolf, joined these efforts with enthusiasm. Barros Basto, who returned to Judaism, and Schwarz at first cooperated but finally ended up as bitter rivals. In 1989 the Jewish Community of Belmonte was officially established. In 1996 the Bet Eliahu synagogue was inaugurated. The return of some Crypto-Jews to normative Judaism was no simple matter, since the rabbis who came to instruct and guide them brought normative Judaism as a definitive alternative to the entire body of practices, prayers, and beliefs that had been considered as authentic Judaism practiced in secret.


Roth, Marranos, index; A. Novinsky and A. Paulo, in: Commentary (May, 1967), 76–81; S. Schwarz, Os Christãos-Novos em Portugal no século XX (1925), 9–12 (Heb. trans. with intro. and notes by D. Stuczynski, 2005); idem, Inscrições hebráicas em Portugal (1923), 23–28; N. Slouschz, Ha-Anusim be-Portugal (1932), 94–99; ESN, 1 (1949), 59. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: F.A.A. Mourâo, "Um caso de persistência socio-cultural," Revista de História (São Paulo), 56 (1977), 589–96; A. Paulo, I. Steinhardt, and A. Kasselman, "The Hidden Jews of Belmonte," in: Jewish Chronicle Colour Magazine (March 17, 1978), 6–19; D.A. Canelo, The Last Crypto-Jews of Portugal, trans. W. Talmon-l'Armee, (1990); J. Adler, "The Road Back," in: Jewish Chronicle Magazine (March 22, 1991), 26–30.

[Cecil Roth /

Yom Tov Assis (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.