Belmonte, Portugal

Mountain Marranos Out of Hiding

On their front porch in the village of Belmonte, four hours' drive from Lisbon into Portugal's northeastern foothills, Julio and Mercedes Mendes reminisce about the songs they used to sing as Marranos (secret Jews).

Julio steps away from the terra cotta pots of bright, pink geraniums he has been watering and gazes out on the narrow, granite cobblestone lanes of Belmonte's 700 year old Judiaria, or Jewish quarter. He leans against the stucco doorframe by the Mendes' new, plastic mezuzah. 

"Ay, Senhora," he sighs, "our holidays were much happier then." 

Mercedes begins singing one of the songs she learned from her mother and grandmother, in Portuguese: "Our hope is not lost, to return to the Promised Land..." 

Powerful Jewish communities thrived on the Iberian Peninsula before Spain and Portugal began their Inquisitions in the late 15th Century. During the ensuing centuries of Church and State sponsored persecution, the Mendes' ancestors and other Marranos formally converted to Christianity, but developed a host of unique traditions to keep their Judaism alive in isolated secrecy. 

For example, they gave their Marrano holidays intentionally, deceptively Christian sounding names, though their celebrations remained essentially Jewish – praising G d and invoking the Promised Land. For example, Passover became Santa Festa, the Holy Festival, and Shavuot became, Quinta Feira da Asencão, or Ascension Thursday. 

With this homegrown heritage, the Mendes' Belmonte community survived the Inquisition – the only Iberian Jewish community to do so. After Portugal finally embraced democracy, Jewish organizations and well wishers around the world rushed to encourage the Belmonte community's return to Orthodox Judaism. Between 200 and 300 Marranos were identified among Belmonte's several thousand residents. Donors built a synagogue on the finest land in the ancient Judiaria. In the late 1980's, approximately 80 people, including the Mendes', formally converted back to Judaism. 

Ana Melia and Anton Diego Rodrigo, Mercedes Mendes' elderly parents, were among the first in Belmonte to embrace the Jewish renaissance. Anton Diego had a Brit Milah (circumcision) at age 79 and attended every service at the new synagogue from its opening until he died many years later.

But Ana Melia, like Julio and Mercedes, sometimes misses the Marrano days. 

"Dozens from each family used to go to the country on holidays and sing so many songs," recalls Ana Melia. "The rabbi came [in the 1990’s] and said it was bad. We lost everything. People are learning the new Jewish ways, not our old ones – and those Marrano songs were so ancient, so beautiful." 

Mercedes and Ana Melia still sit together for fifteen minutes every morning reciting from memory the Marrano "Prayer for the Dead," recalling Anton Diego Rodrigo and other departed relatives. It is neither Christian nor the standard Jewish "Kaddish," but springs from centuries of tradition. "Thank G d, today we are able to practice Judaism freely,” Mercedes says. “But it hurts me greatly to know our old practices will disappear." 

Time will tell if the pain is too much for Belmonte's new, ancient Jewish community to bear.

Bryan Schwartz visited the Belmonte community in 2001 and presents its members in vivid text and photographs in his book with Jay Sand and Sandy Carter, Scattered Among the Nations.


Back at their home one row of stone houses above the synagogue, Mercedes Mendes is ready to share something special. She leads the way huffing up three flights of stairs to the attic, with two year-old grand-nephew Isaac in tow. Beams of light filter through a dusty skylight in the low, sloping roof and illuminate stacks of cardboard boxes and a pile of rusted iron and red and white clay and ceramic bowls, roof tiles and jugs in the corner.  Mercedes plants herself in a chair, catches her breath rearranging the Jewish charms on her necklace, and begins assembling one clay bowl with systematic punctures (like a colander) into an oxidized iron frame. Mercedes wards off energetic Isaac as she carefully lays two curving, red roof tiles on top of the clay bowl. She explains, “This big bowl is the fugareira, where we used to put the coals. On these roof tiles, we would bake the Pao Azumo, the bread of poverty, on Santa Festa – Passover.” After explaining each item, with stories of younger days spent with fellow Marranos singing, dancing and making their special bread in the countryside, Mercedes marvels, “I’ve never shown this to anyone before. You’re lucky.”  “Today we get kosher matzah from Madrid. It’s been [many] years since we made our Pao Azumo. Isaac here,” Mercedes says, grabbing the toddler by the back of his shirt, “will never know our Marrano traditions.”

Back at their home one row of stone houses above the synagogue, Mercedes Mendes is ready to share something special. She leads the way huffing up three flights of stairs to the attic, with two year-old grand-nephew Isaac in tow. Beams of light filter through a dusty skylight in the low, sloping roof and illuminate stacks of cardboard boxes and a pile of rusted iron and red and white clay and ceramic bowls, roof tiles and jugs in the corner. 

Mercedes plants herself in a chair, catches her breath rearranging the Jewish charms on her necklace, and begins assembling one clay bowl with systematic punctures (like a colander) into an oxidized iron frame. Mercedes wards off energetic Isaac as she carefully lays two curving, red roof tiles on top of the clay bowl. She explains, “This big bowl is the fugareira, where we used to put the coals. On these roof tiles, we would bake the Pao Azumo, the bread of poverty, on Santa Festa – Passover.” After explaining each item, with stories of younger days spent with fellow Marranos singing, dancing and making their special bread in the countryside, Mercedes marvels, “I’ve never shown this to anyone before. You’re lucky.” 

“Today we get kosher matzah from Madrid. It’s been [many] years since we made our Pao Azumo. Isaac here,” Mercedes says, grabbing the toddler by the back of his shirt, “will never know our Marrano traditions.”

During the Inquisition, "New Christians" etched crosses on their doorposts to prove to their neighbors their commitment to Christianity – though many continued to practice Judaism covertly. Before Portugal's Jewish expulsion edict of 1496, as much as one-fourth of the country's population was Jewish. In Belmonte, the centuries-old Jewish community went into hiding before 1500. However, unlike most hidden Jewish communities throughout Portugal and the New World, Belmonte's isolated community maintained its Marrano identity for 500 years. Belmonte has the only significant Jewish community on the Iberian Peninsula that survived the Inquisition. At the dawn of the 21st Century in Belmonte, approximately 80 former Marranos live among the narrow, cobblestone lanes of the medieval Jewish quarter, where the many carved doorpost crosses remind them of their ancestors' struggles. These days, Jews fasten mezuzot on their doorposts instead, reconnecting with their ancient faith.

During the Inquisition, "New Christians" etched crosses on their doorposts to prove to their neighbors their commitment to Christianity – though many continued to practice Judaism covertly. Before Portugal's Jewish expulsion edict of 1496, as much as one-fourth of the country's population was Jewish. In Belmonte, the centuries-old Jewish community went into hiding before 1500. However, unlike most hidden Jewish communities throughout Portugal and the New World, Belmonte's isolated community maintained its Marrano identity for 500 years. Belmonte has the only significant Jewish community on the Iberian Peninsula that survived the Inquisition. At the dawn of the 21st Century in Belmonte, approximately 80 former Marranos live among the narrow, cobblestone lanes of the medieval Jewish quarter, where the many carved doorpost crosses remind them of their ancestors' struggles. These days, Jews fasten mezuzot on their doorposts instead, reconnecting with their ancient faith.

Ana Melia Rodrigo (left) and her daughter, Mercedes Rodrigo Mendes, tell stories and sing songs from the Marrano days. After a lifetime of practicing their family traditions in secret, it was not easy to adjust to open, modern Jewish practice.

Since the community lost its rabbi, it has been sharply divided between those wishing to rush ahead with modern Jewish practice and those clinging to vestiges of their former, Marrano existence.

Since the community lost its rabbi, it has been sharply divided between those wishing to rush ahead with modern Jewish practice and those clinging to vestiges of their former, Marrano existence.

His whole life, Julio Mendes has sold goat, lamb and sheep skins in Belmonte -- a village four hours’ drive from Lisbon, in the foothills of northeastern Portugal. Anyone might have said Julio was just another Belmonte villager brushing the wool off his shirt at the end of each workday. But in 1988, Julio came out of hiding with approximately 80 other Belmonte residents and formally returned to Judaism, undergoing conversion. They had grown up as Marranos – a derogatory term meaning “pigs,” used to refer to Portugal’s Jews who adopted the appearance of Christianity and secretly maintained Jewish rituals during centuries of Inquisition. Now they were ready to be known as Jews again.

His whole life, Julio Mendes has sold goat, lamb and sheep skins in Belmonte -- a village four hours’ drive from Lisbon, in the foothills of northeastern Portugal. Anyone might have said Julio was just another Belmonte villager brushing the wool off his shirt at the end of each workday. But in 1988, Julio came out of hiding with approximately 80 other Belmonte residents and formally returned to Judaism, undergoing conversion. They had grown up as Marranos – a derogatory term meaning “pigs,” used to refer to Portugal’s Jews who adopted the appearance of Christianity and secretly maintained Jewish rituals during centuries of Inquisition. Now they were ready to be known as Jews again.