Destination: Trancoso and Belmonte, Portugal

In our ongoing travels though Portugal with the Center for Latino-Jewish relations we visit the country’s “northern inland.” We visited such cities as Trancoso and Belmonte, the “heart” of Jewish Portugal.

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Perhaps no European country, with the exception of Germany, has accepted and embraced its responsibility for the past suffering of its Jewish population more than Portugal. Throughout the nation there are interpretative centers dedicated to Jewish life and culture and new Jewish communities are arising from the ashes of the past. In reality, there are many places like Belmonte throughout the nation. One such location is Castelo de Vide whose mayor of 15 years was Jewish and during his administration created his term of office and created multiple centers for the study of Portuguese-Jewish history. It was in Castelo de vide that the government of Portugal in 1992 formally expressed its profound sorrow and regrets for the past sufferings of its Jewish community.

For the most part, the Portuguese have not run away from past prejudices and tragedies, but actively teach about them. The constant reminder of the sins of the past are tools not only to remember but also to assure that they never occur again. Portugal both embraces its Jewish past and strives to assure a bright and successful Jewish renaissance.

Modern Portugal is proud of its growing Jewish population, of its population of “anusim” (people who were forced converts and who now after 500 years are returning to their Jewish roots), and of its growing economic ties with Israel, best symbolized perhaps by regular flights between Lisbon and Tel Aviv.

Unlike many other European cities, and almost all of the Middle East, Portugal truly practices freedom of religion. People can walk the streets of Portuguese cities without fear. Thugs do not beat people up for wearing a skull cap or a Muslim head covering or for using Hebrew or Arabic on the streets. For the most part, Portuguese society is a “live-and-let-live” society. No one seems to care about who one is, but rather people seem to care about what one does.

Friday night I attended Shabbat services at the local synagogue. Like Portugal itself, the service is a blend of east and west, liberal and orthodox; it was a revolving door between the 15th and 21st centuries. There were vestiges of the past – at least some men made it clear that women were merely tolerated and clearly were second class citizens. The men’s service was joyful and seemed to mix ancient Sephardic customs with joyful music that seemed not only to spill into the city’s soul but must also have reached the gates of Heaven. It was more of a musical interaction with God than a formal service and reflected a sense of freedom after 5 centuries of religious bigotry.

These “northern internal” regions of Portugal are also a world of beautiful landscapes, formal gardens, and mystical manor houses. These lands are a part of Portugal’s wine country. Here, the internationally-recognized local wines are plentiful and pleasing to all of the senses, and the mountains provide a cornucopia of visual experiences.

Belmonte has a history that is a world apart from other places. It seems to defy the laws of history. Isolated in 1496 from the rest of the Jewish world, the people of Belmonte believed that they were the world’s only Jews. They held this belief for 5 centuries, until the early twentieth century.  It was only after a Polish engineer “discovered” them that they came to realize that the Inquisition had finally ended, that it was safe to come into the daylight of freedom, and that there was a wider Jewish world to which they belonged and in which they could participate. Once they accepted this new reality, and change of historical paradigm, they emerged from centuries of fear.

Today, Belmonte not only has a fully functioning Jewish community, but the Israeli flag flies proudly next to the Portuguese flag, and the Hebrew language appears on buildings alongside Portuguese. Belmonte’s embracing of its past has meant new products, a religious and spiritual revival, and new economic opportunities. For example, the region now produces excellent kosher wine, and visitors flock to this village, almost as a pilgrimage point, from around the world.

In a world that too often that is in a rush to leave its past and culture behind, Belmonte reminds us to embrace who we are, to celebrate our own culture, to learn from others, and to smile more. Now that’s a destination worth reaching.

Destination: Trancoso and Belmonte, Portugal Destination: Trancoso and Belmonte, Portugal