The world is full of fascinating Jewish history and sites. Even today, many scholars are deciphering the meanings of ancient texts and scrolls that have been unearthed recently. Certain Synagogues also carry rich history and amazing back stories, dating centuries ago.
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Jews in Belmonte, Portugal
Belmonte is a small and secluded municipality in Portugal. Today, it has a population of approximately 7,000 to 8,000. In 1497 however, the Jewish community that lived here were overwhelmed and later destroyed, and those who survived were mass converted by Portuguese authorities. These events were just a follow up from the Spanish inquisition who swelled the population of Jews in Portugal, which was later followed up by the Portuguese inquisition who were much worse.
The Jewish community, during this time, went underground and outwardly portrayed themselves as catholics. They are what you would call Cryptojews – Secretly practicing Judaism while publicly appearing as Catholics. This was done for a long time, more specifically 5 Centuries! The amazing feat that they had achieved was keeping their traditions and customs strong for years under lockdown. Without having proper access to Rabbis or attaining newer Jewish books, all of their knowledge and customs were effectively passed down from one generation to the other.
In the 20th century, they were discovered by a man named Samuel Schwartz, who was a Polish Jew working in the region as an engineer. During his visit to Portugal, he was advised to not do business in Belmonte as most of the population are Jews. Assuming that they had all been wiped out during the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions, he was notably surprised to hear there had been any Jews there at all. He was intrigued so he visited Belmonte. During his visit, the Jews were wary of him and later started asking him difficult questions to prove his Jewish heritage. Although they were suspicious, they brought him to the village Elder who was a woman. After reciting a few prayers, Samuel Schwartz was able to establish the authenticity of his Jewish background.
This wonderful Synagogue is a late 20th century addition to the Jewish community in Belmonte. Still, there are a lot of features, specifically and subtly designed to allude to the unusual history of the community. As expected of the Synagogue, it has a Mikvah and an Aron Kodesh with the 10 commandments standing on either side. However, the most fascinating thing about the architecture of this Synagogue is the Ner Tamid, or the Eternal Light. Usually, they are designed to be evocative of the pertinences of the Temple, the original sanctuary in Jerusalem.
Most modern Synagogues use an electric light, sometimes intricately designed to illuminate the Ner Tamid, but this is not the case here. The Ner Tamid in Bet Eliahu is but a simple, traditional lamp used by the Portuguese people before the area was electrified.The reason this lamp is so important is because of the symbolism it carries. For 500 years, the Jews had to keep their identity and worship a secret, using this lamp as a means to conduct their rituals, the sacred tradition carried over until modern times. The lamp symbolizes their identity, resilience and their readiness for renewal once again.
Featured Image: Portuguese Synagogue | Photo Credit: amsterdamtips.com/portuguese-synagogue