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The Last Marranos



At the end of the 15th century, tens of thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabelle, the 'Catholic Monarchs', who had brought the Inquisition to Spain and were rooting out any deviant Christian movements as well as ridding the country of its Muslim and Jewish population. Many fled to neighbouring Portugal where they found temporary refuge until 1497 when King Manuel I of Portugal was pressured into issuing a similar decree, telling Jews to either convert or be expelled without their children. Many converted and gradually shed their jewish heritage. Yet small numbers continued to practice their Judaism in secret while living Christian lives in public. The people became known as 'marranos', a word which means 'pig' in Spanish and has connotations of dirt, and referred to the prohibition against pork in the Jewish faith.
One community of marranos who continued to live their double lives after the latest expulsion were the Jews of Belmonte, a small hillside town of around 7,000 inhabitants northeast of Lisbon. According to the earliest relics of Jewish life in the town - a granite reliquary dated to 1297 from the town's first synagogue, there had been a jewish presence here for generations. Following the persecution of the Inquisition, however, the community went underground and remained 'dormant' until 1917 when a Jewish Polish mining engineer by the name of Samuel Schwarz visited the town and noticed some of the Jews using ancient Hebrew words that he knew. Until this point the local community hadn't had any contact with other Jews and were observing a form of Judaism that predated the formalised Orthodox Judaism that had developed in communities in other parts of Europe.

Since their Jewish identity had to be kept a secret for such a long time, living in fear of the Inquisition which formally ended in 1821, the communal religious functions were wholly folded into the nuclear family since there was no formal meeting place. Families would meet in the market place and exchange stories and goods under the guise of trading with each other. It took more than half a century longer before some of the marranos of Belmonte formally re-entered the jewish communion following the end of the Salazar regime in Portugal which led to greater openness. It was not until 1996 that they opened a synagogue for the first time in almost exactly 500 years and in April 2005 a Jewish Museum (Museu Judaico de Belmonte) was opened which has been drawing ever larger crowds of tourists to the tiny town.

The growth in tourism to this part of rural Portugal has been a boon to the town's inhabitants, some of whom are now employed in businesses connected with the revival of Belmonte's Jewish heritage such as a sewing collective which makes embroidered sachets with the word 'Shalom' (Peace) written on them. And while many of the Jewish residents are benefitting from their new found prominence, not all welcome the public scrutiny and prefer to maintain their ancient practices in private. No Rabbi invited to lead the congregation has lasted for more than a few years, possibly due to the stark difference between modern Judaism and that which developed in complete isolation over 500 years in Belmonte, the last community of 'crypto-Jews' to be discovered on earth.
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