JTA: Even with freedom of religion, Portuguese Jews Miss Good Old Days

BELMONTE, Portugal, April 29 (JTA) — “Remember the songs during Ascension Thursday?” Mercedes Mendes asks her husband, Julio, as the former marranos, or secret Jews, reminisce on their front porch here.

Julio Mendes 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 door frame by the Mendes’ new, plastic mezuzah.

Ay, Senhora,” he sighs, “our holidays were much happier then.” Mercedes begins singing one of the old marrano 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.

During the Shavuot season every year, the marranos in Belmonte — which is located four hours from Lisbon — celebrated Quinta-Feira da Ascensão, or Ascension Thursday.

Ascension Thursday’s name was intentionally, deceptively Christian-sounding. But the marranos’ holiday was essentially Jewish — praising God and invoking the Promised Land.

But Ana Melia Rodrigo, like Julio and Mercedes Mendes, sometimes misses the marrano days.

With this homegrown heritage, the Mendes’ Belmonte community survived the Inquisition.

After Portugal finally embraced democracy, Jewish organizations and well-wishers around the world rushed to encourage the Belmonte community’s return to modern 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 1980s, approximately 80 people, including the Mendes family, formally converted back to Judaism. On the first night of Shavuot in the Judiaria, a dozen men gather in the new synagogue. Like other Orthodox Jews, they celebrate the traditional anniversary of receiving the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot by reading from every portion of all five Books of Moses. An old sheepskin merchant, Julio Mendes has never really learned to read, but nods approval to his fellow Jews mumbling the service in Portuguese. It is nearly 4:00 a.m. before bleary-eyed Julio and company shuffle home.

Ana Melia Rodrigo and Anton Diego Rodrigo, Mercedes Mendes’ elderly parents, were among the first in Belmonte to embrace the Jewish renaissance. Anton Diego Rodrigo had a brit milah, or circumcision, at age 79 and attended every service at the new synagogue from its opening until he died three years ago.

But Ana Melia Rodrigo, like Julio and Mercedes Mendes, sometimes misses the marrano days.

“Dozens from each family used to go to the country on Ascension Thursday and sing so many songs,” she recalls. “The rabbi came about 10 years ago 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.”

But what did Ascension Thursday mean to them? Rodrigo answers easily: “It meant that we all came together.”

These days, coming together is difficult for Belmonte’s Jews. In fact, some say the community is coming apart.

“If you visit in five years, there won’t be a community if this continues,” Joaquim Morao says. In 1984, he was among the first men in Belmonte since the Inquisition to undergo circumcision. He later became the community’s vice president.

Today, Morao wants nothing to do with the community’s leadership, and refuses to attend the town’s only synagogue. The Morao family is among a frustrated minority resolved to leave the marrano years far behind and learn more accepted Jewish rituals.

“We did not work so hard to re-establish this community in 1988 so that we could return to our old ways,” Joaquim Mendes says. “Judaism is not just about our Belmonte customs, as some here seem to believe. Ironically, for the community’s leadership now, the old, marrano way is the easy road — but no one ever said being Jewish is easy.”

Morao hopes to move his family abroad to a Jewish community that will accept his Orthodox observance level more than his home community now does. “It’s time to join the rest of world Jewry, not stay in our own secret world,” he says.

On Shavuot, Morao’s wife, Clara, cooks a kosher dairy meal, like those which observant Jews around the world eat on this holiday, using food bought at the nearest kosher store — more than six hours away, in Madrid, Spain. Yet, despite his adamancy, even Morao clings to positive aspects of the Belmonte tradition. Several wheat stalks protrude haphazardly from the lamp hanging over the Moraos’ Shavuot dinner table. “It was a tradition from Ascension Thursday,” Joaquim Morao says of the stalks. “They keep your house safe.”

Mercedes Mendes and her mother also maintain marrano traditions to preserve a feeling of safety and comfort in their new Jewish world. “Men do their prayers now from the siddurim,” Mercedes Mendes says, referring to the synagogue’s donated Sephardic prayer books, transliterated from Hebrew into Portuguese. “But we women do other prayers, our marrano prayers.”

Every morning, while Julio Mendes tends his geraniums, Mercedes Mendes and Rodrigo sit together for 15 minutes reciting from memory the marrano Prayer for the Dead, recalling Anton Diego Rodrigo and other departed relatives. It is neither Christian nor the standard Kaddish, but springs from centuries of tradition.

“This prayer is another one of our beautiful customs that may be lost as we adopt the standard liturgy,” Mendes says when they finish the prayer. “Thank God, today we are able to practice Judaism freely. The good rabbis who came taught us the Jewish way. 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, old Jewish community to bear.