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.