Belmonte Jewish Museum: The Story of a Jewish Community’s Resistance

Belmonte Jewish Museum: The Story of a Jewish Community’s Resistance

Since 17 April 2005, Portugal has had a Jewish museum. It is owned by Belmonte City Council and housed in what was originally the first school in Belmonte, having been acquired and restored by the local authority to perpetuate the multi-secular story of the community, initially Jewish, then Marrano, and then again Jewish, following the conversions to Judaism in the 1990s.

Set out on three floors, the museum illustrates the biography of the region’s Jewish community, which resisted the religious persecution that followed the Edict of King D. Manuel.
There is a memorial with names, evoking the victims of the Inquisitions, some of them from Belmonte. These include young Inês Nunes, aged 14, who was born in Murcia, Spain, and lived in Belmonte. The daughter of New Christians Jerónimo Nunes and Beatriz Rodrigues, she was arrested on 2 February 1619 and sentenced by auto-de-fé of 5 March 1620; seized assets, formal abjuration, penitent’s habit and imprisonment at the discretion of the inquisitors, instruction in the faith, spiritual penances. By order of  5/6/1620, the plaintiff served her time in Lisbon.

The first Jewish museum of Portugal contains authentic items from the Middle Ages to the 20thcentury. These were once used by the Jews in their daily life and their religious observance. The first floor recounts Jewish inclusion in society and their vast contribution in many areas: art, literature, trade and crafts. The second floor houses the temporary exhibitions. While focusing on the Shabbat and the main Jewish feasts: Pesach, Purim, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, it also presents the ceremonies that are linked to the cycle of life, such as brit milah, bar mitzvah, marriage, death. A collection of hanukiot and menorot can also be viewed. The items provided by the eminent historian Adriano Vasco Rodrigues, and by the Carqueja Rodrigues, Matos Domingos, Morão and Henriques families, as well as the Jewish Community of Belmonte include the first Sefer Torah of  Belmonte, believed to be between sixty-seven and one hundred years old.

There is also a collection of Jewish coins from Mértola, dating back to the 1st century, which were found in 1968 when an old wall was demolished, and a hanukkiah dating from the 15th century. Also note a replica of a Hebrew inscription on granite from the old Belmonte synagogue, dated 1297.

In 2017, the museum underwent requalification works and now has a 70-seat auditorium and a Centre of Hebrew Studies, a library and a multimedia centre. The phrase Belmonte Terra de Tolerância (Belmonte Land of Tolerance) on an inside wall of the museum is the stamp of full reconciliation.