Belmonte Jewish Museum reopens after $350,000 renovation
The Portuguese town of Belmonte has renovated and reopened its Jewish museum – the largest in the world about Bnei Anousim, the descendants of Jews who 500 years ago were forced into hiding or to convert to Catholicism. The project had a budget of $350,000 and was timed to be ready for the annual European Days of Jewish Culture project which takes place in September.
“You could say that this is a totally new museum and we are confident that it will become a reference point for Sephardic culture,” Belmonte’s mayor, António Dias Rocha, told the Lusa news agency earlier this month. “The aim is for visitors to understand how it was possible for our Jews to remain so many years in Belmonte.”
The museum was founded 12 years ago. In addition to new interactive exhibits, it features reconstructed murals and stories from Belmonte’s Jewish community. The aim is to attract 100,000 visitors a year.
The European Days of Jewish Culture will take place this year in 35 different countries. Spain, for example, will host a Jewish film festival; in the Netherlands, visitors will be able to gain access to the Middleburg synagogue which dates to the 18th century and is generally closed to the public.
The theme for 2017 is “Diasporas,” which is resonant for the Belmonte community, which saw an influx of Jewish refugees fleeing from Spain after 1492. Portugal was not immune from the Inquisition – when it arrived some 40 years later, many of Belmonte’s hundreds of Jewish families either fled or turned inward, practicing their Judaism in secret. They became anousim – also known as crypto-Jews or by the derogatory term Marranos.
Belmonte is the base for Shavei Israel’s activities with the Bnei Anousim in Portugal. It is where Shavei Israel’s emissary Rabbi Elisha Salas stays when he visits Portugal, and it now has its own hotel, the Har Sinai, where you can order kosher food in advance. In 2016, we reported on a special Shabbaton where 120 Hassidic Jew from New York joined the local community at the Har Sinai.
“It was a wonderful spectacle for our eyes and an elevation of our souls to see and hear so many Jews singing Shabbat songs and psalms here in Belmonte,” Rabbi Salas said at the time. “For the first time in nearly 600 years, the voices of the Jewish people returned to our town.
Trancoso, another Portuguese town with a long Jewish history, is home to the Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation. It is a train ride away from Belmonte.