I am a trained ethnomusicologist, and began to go to Belmonte to investigate the role of music in their lives. I continue to go, partly because I rarely consider any project “finished”, and also because there are many people I have come to love dearly, especially the family I always stay with when there. I miss them if I don’t see them, and would also hate to think they thought I was only interested in them as interview subjects for my studies. The more I go, the more concerned I am that their own ideas, thoughts, concerns and voices be heard.

Rather than Crypto-Jews, Conversos, Marranos, etc, I will call the people we are discussing simply Judeus, as that’s what they call themselves. As far as I can tell, if any one thing unites them, it is the knowledge and the conviction that they are just that: Judeus, Jews. HOW they are Jews, however, is another question. Since I have known them, fifteen years now, they have become increasingly divided about this. I don’t think it’s especially useful to toss blame around, but to figure this out WITH them rather than FOR them. I think even the most well-meant efforts have resulted in some successes but also some real problems. There are many reasons for this. The fact that the resident rabbis in Belmonte have been orthodox, and sometimes rigidly so, may be one. None of these rabbis was a resident for more than a couple of years, and the last one was there with no family as a role model for Jewish family life.

The fact that people have not spent serious time living with the Judeus, speaking with them in their language, etc., probably is another factor. Decisions have been made, such as whom to send to study in Israel, and presented as “the will of the Belmonte Jews” when in fact they were not the will of the community as a whole, but only of certain members. In fact, the “community as a whole” is an almost oxymoronic concept in Belmonte.

Meanwhile, the question remains, “what is a Jewish education?” I agree with David Ramírez that the Belmonte Judeus are already Jewish. But what do they need to learn about being Jewish, in order to really feel part of the worldwide mishpakhah of Jews, with all its varieties and contradictions? How are they going to learn it?

For quite a while, they have had no resident rabbi. They have no Jewish education teacher (at least, as I write this). Should they have only an orthodox rabbi and/or teacher?

They have been conditioned to reject all non-orthodox Jews as “liberal” – not as a compliment – but is this perception really helpful for them? People in, say Barcelona or Palma de Mallorca or Lisbon, who know they are of Jewish descent have more resources to learn about different aspects of Judaism, and often choose reform Judaism, for example, but the Judeus of Belmonte have not been given much of a choice or the knowledge to make it. Historically, women have kept the prayers and many practices of their religion alive, but in orthodox Judaism, the women here have been relegated to peripheral roles, and many were shocked the day the synagogue opened in December of 1996 (I was there) to realize they had to climb the stairs and watch from the balcony. Why could they not have been told that, except in orthodox Judaism, women rabbis are now accepted? Would a woman rabbi not be helpful for them?

Their world is changing rapidly – when I began to spend time there, no one had internet or cell phones, and now there is a free internet centre in the town, most people have cell phones, there is a stream of cultural tourism, a synagogue built in late 1996 – which a couple of years ago acquired locked bars across the seats so no one can sit down except the people who have bought those seats.

The traditional occupation practiced by perhaps most of the community – selling goods in itinerant markets – is disappearing as people buy these goods in the new large discount stores. More of the youth are finishing high school, some going on to university, instead of leaving school early to help their parents at work. Change after change after change – but what IS best for them? Who gets to decide? Certainly, not I. And, I would hope, not anyone else who spends a short time there and thinks they know what’s best.

One family left Belmonte and Portugal several years ago, explaining to me that they were leaving because they were tired of being visited like zoo specimens, and wanted their children to have an “ordinary Jewish life.” Not necessarily an orthodox one, just a regular Jewish life, friends, activities, not consciously Jewish every second of one’s existence, but the knowledge that that’s who one is, and a sense of community and belonging. I visited them in their new European home, and in that small Jewish community there were Jews from various countries, some secular, some very religious, some friendly with each other, some arguing (what are Jews with no arguments?) – but at the Lag ba’Omer picnic where I joined them, they seemed to be doing just what this family had wanted – living an ordinary Jewish life. It’s not clear to me what the Belmonte Judeus need to do in order to have that, if that is what they want (and they seem to), but treating them as a sort of intellectual and/or religious fiefdom or disputed territory is not likely to achieve it.

Dr Judith Cohen is an ethnomusicologist and medievalist specializing in Sephardic and related music. She teaches in the music department of York University (Toronto) and gives frequent lectures, workshops and concerts in Spain, Canada and elsewhere.