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Bound to their Secrets

Rabbi Moshe Grylak, Belmonte, Portugal

As a child, I always harbored a secret fascination about the descendants of the Anusim. Could there possibly be some isolated communities of crypto-Jews, still clinging to their Jewish identities in secret? Or had the centuries of outside pressure and religious domination slowly eroded their double lives? I thought I’d never find my answer — until I heard the amazing story of Belmonte.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The mesirus nefesh of the Jews who maintained their Judaism under the guise of practicing Christians 500 years ago riveted me. Those who were discovered and exposed by the Church’s emissaries because they practiced Judaism underground served as a tremendous lesson in kiddush Hashem. I’d always been especially moved by the youth among them — boys and girls really — who were shown no mercy when caught, burned at the stake without a twinge of conscience. So gripped was I by this human drama that I researched the subject extensively and eventually wrote a suspense novel (under my pen name Chaim Eliav) about the Anusim of Portugal titled The Persecution. It’s a story of intrigue and escape, as readers follow the destiny ofDonCarlosCameiro, top commander of the Portuguese navy, who manages to save many Jewish lives until he is betrayed and condemned. The story ofDonCarlos is really the story of hundreds of Jews who created an underground network of Torah learning and strengthening of Judaism, which throbbed and pulsated in Lisbon more than 100 years after the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1478, and the subsequent expulsion in 1492. As a child, I always wondered about the fate of these Anusim’s descendants. From time to time, I got vague clues: stories about Christians from Spain, Portugal, and other South American countries who observe strange customs that virtually scream their Jewish origins. But were any communities still intact, still clinging to their Jewish identities? Or had five centuries of social and religious pressure slowly eroded their double lives? I thought I’d never know. Until I heard about the amazing story of Belmonte. 

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