Portuguese Judaism today: Belmonte, the Jewish nation

Belmonte is, perhaps, the Portuguese town with the strongest Jewish presence and it stands out because it was a unique case, within the Iberian Peninsula, where Hebrew culture and tradition have lasted since the early 16th century until today.

Belmonte is, perhaps, the Portuguese town with the strongest Jewish presence and it stands out because it was a unique case, within the Iberian Peninsula, where Hebrew culture and tradition have lasted since the early 16th century until today. The Jewish community settled here during the Middle Ages and the Jewry was located between the streets of Fonte da Rosa and Direita. It is possible that the town’s first synagogue might have been founded in 1297 and was then adapted to Christian cult. After King Manuel published the edict which expelled all Jews from Portugal, a group of Crypto-Jews remained in Belmonte and it has survived until today.

Although they were often persecuted, these sons of Israel kept their basic Jewish rituals until today. They were a closed community where tradition passed on orally from fathers to sons. Because of their isolation, the common use of Hebrew and many of their religious rites were lost, but it also allowed them to keep their Jewish roots. It was only in 1989 that the Sephardic Jews in Belmonte returned effectively to Judaism and founded the Jewish Community of Belmonte.

When you enter Belmonte, go up to the castle and, starting from the lake, go down the Roman Sidewalk and enter the old Jewry. Stroll through the houses at Direita and Fonte da Rosa streets where you will be able to see stone engravings in the threshold of the small granite houses, an evidence of the history of these Jews who were forced to live in secret. Head to the Bet Eliahu Synagogue, built upon a promontory at the far end of town, opening up to the valley. It was designed by architect Neves Dias and consecrated in 1996. At Portela Street you can also visit the Belmonte Jewish Museum which shows the History of the Portuguese Jews, their inclusion into Portuguese medieval society, their public and private habits and the History of persecution and determination of the New Christians.

Come and discover this overwhelming Hebrew heritage kept at the heart of Beira!

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