TRAVELOGUE #3 (Portugal)
March 20, 2003
Ruth at the keyboard
We spent Purim in Belmonte, a town which has a Jewish community which came out of the closet after 1974 when Salazar was removed from power. Since the Inquisition and until 1974, these people were crypto-Jews (marranos) whose Jewish traditions passed on from woman to woman, lighting candles, performing rituals, behind closed doors, and, after many years, forgetting the reasons for these rites.
The synagogue is a new small building in the Judaria of Belmonte, nicely set into the hillside of this hillside town.
There were about 12 people in each of the men’s sections and the women’s gallery. From the women’s gallery you had to bend over the gate to see anything, though there wasn’t much to see. The women ( as well as the men) looked and dressed just like the other small town folks we were seeing. They were plainly dressed, many of the women were overweight, and a number of them had missing teeth. There were simple folks. Prayer books were in scarce supply, and among the women, none were reading in Hebrew. All the women took the task of blotting out Haman’s name with noisemakers very seriously. One woman, Anna, befriended me, though we had no common language. She told me a bit about herself and the community, but I must admit that I understood only a portion. There was one younger man who spoke some English~~ he was the prayer leader (baal criya) and he said that there is a rabbi who comes by every 2 months to lead prayers and to teach. The service was quick and as we left the synagogue on Monday night, people were in a hurry to get home since they had been fasting all day.
In addition to going to Belmonte which has a live Jewish community, we also visited a few towns with a history of a Jewish community prior to the expulsion. I keep thinking how eerie it is that there is so much fascination in the world with Jewish communities of the past. We peered at doorways, looking for traces of old mezzuzas, but after a while the quest lost it’s fascination.
Avi taking over
The quest for lost & found Jews has been very strange. It has taken us into the hilltop villages of interior Portugal. Each town has some old castle and the Judaria was usually situated somewhere below it on the shady side of the hill (Christians got the sunny locations). So we’ve climbed castle walls, peered at eroded store doorways, and wondered which time zone we’re living. Being with the menfolk in Belmonte was also strange. The sat there that night, silent and listless, wearing their cloth caps and heavy jackets, largely unshaven. That’s funny, they don’t look Jewish! It looked like a meeting of local olive growers come to learn about problems with the collective tractor.
We came back the following morning and they were in kippot, tallit & tfillin and I felt I could have been in any Orthodox synagogue anywhere. The guys, like the women, really came alive when the megilla was read and the name of Áman (H is silent in Portuguese) was called - stamping their feet and banging away at those plastic horns and hammers. I wonder if they got those from Israel, along with the half dozen siddurim, Nusach Sefardi, printed under the direction of Harav Hagaon Ovadia Yosef