Religion & Jewish Life | World

In Mallorca, a year of breakthrough for descendants of Jews

PALMA, Spain (JTA) — A stone’s throw from the majestic Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma, commonly referred to as La Seu, is a dusty cobblestoned alleyway that serves as a hidden reminder of Mallorca’s complex Jewish past.

Carrer de Monti-Sion, or Mount Zion Street, has borne witness to the triumphs and tragedies of this Spanish island’s community of Chuetas, the descendants of Mallorcan Jews who kept their Judaism secret after they were converted forcibly to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. A synagogue once occupied the site that is now the Monti-Sion church, down the street from a restaurant advertising “Sefardi style” food. Legend has it that a long, thin line indented in the stone is the result of Chuetas running their fingers along it for centuries.

The Chuetas, who number an estimated 20,000 of Mallorca’s 860,000 residents, were shunned historically by the island’s Catholic majority as well as its tiny, predominantly expatriate Jewish community. Easily identifiable by their surnames, Chuetas were bullied and insulted. They were refused marriage by the wider Mallorcan community. And they were prevented from entering university.

But after centuries in which they were treated as pariahs, the Chuetas are having a banner year.

In May, the Mallorcan government issued an official apology for a 1691 “burning of the Jews,” an auto da fe that killed 37 Jews in front of an audience of about 30,000. And in September, the community secured an Israeli rabbinic ruling stating that Chuetas who can prove their Jewish lineage — often through a well-maintained family tree dating back hundreds of years — do not need to undergo a formal conversion process if they wish to return to Judaism.

The developments follow the arrival in February 2010 of the community’s first rabbinic leader in centuries: Rabbi Nissim Ben-Avraham, a Chueta himself who lives in Israel and visits Mallorca every few weeks.

Taken together, the developments may finally pave the way for this much-maligned community to find a path back into the Jewish fold.

“My hope is that these two events will demonstrate to the Chuetas that times have indeed changed and that the door is now open to them,” said Michael Freund, the executive director of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization that helps the descendants of “lost” Jews return to Judaism. “They no longer need to fear, they no longer need to be afraid to come out of the closet and embrace their Jewishness.”

Like many descendants of so-called Crypto Jews — those who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition who kept Jewish traditions alive in secret — the Chuetas generally have been loath to publicly identify as Jews, a legacy of the fear and secrecy handed down over generations.

But unlike most Crypto Jews, many Chuetas can trace an unbroken family lineage back to the Jews of the 15th century, a product of the longtime refusal of the Mallorcan Catholics to intermarry with them. As a result, the sort of formal conversion typically required of those who cannot establish a clear line of Jewish descent is not necessary, an exemption now codified by the rabbinic ruling.

“Mallorca is very specific because it is the only part of Spain where there is a community that is directly descended from Jews, which has remained distinct since others would not marry them, up until two generations ago,” Diego de Ojeda, director of the Spanish government agency Casa Sefarad-Israel, told Catholic World News in May.

Miquel Segura, a former journalist who returned to Judaism in a 2009 ceremony in New York, remembers that kind of discrimination from his childhood, when it seemed like his Chueta status only served to make his world smaller.

“In my generation, if you were born into a Chueta family, that was the determining factor for your life,” Segura said. “You couldn’t shake the question. In that society, in the ’50s and the ’60s, that question was paramount.”

In the decades since, the rigid discrimination against Chuetas — whose very name is believed to be derived from the Catalan word for “pork” — has relaxed somewhat. But Regina Forteza, 21, a social education student who proudly wears her grandmother’s Star of David, says the discrimination has merely taken on a new character, focusing less on Chueta culture and more on anti-Israel sentiment.

“It’s my identity, and I’m not scared about it,” Forteza said. “My mother and my father tell me that when you go on the streets, you’re putting yourself in danger. And I tell them that if I wear a star, and someone wants to beat me, so beat me.”

Forteza’s family was outwardly Catholic, though both her grandparents wore Star of David necklaces. Her grandfather would wear a yarmulke at home. And though she was not raised in a religious household, she has adopted a Jewish cultural identity in recent years as a way of being closer to her grandfather, who died when she was 10.

“I feel that this identity is in my blood,” she said. “I don’t believe in God, but I feel that I am a Jew.”

As an atheist, Forteza sees no reason to formally return to Judaism. Overall, only about a dozen Chuetas have, despite the comparative ease with which they can now establish their status as Jews and, potentially, qualify to make aliyah to Israel. But aliyah also appears to have little appeal for most Chuetas, even those who have returned to Judaism.

“We are Mallorcan people,” Segura said. “I love Israel, but I am Mallorcan.”

For many Chuetas, reclaiming their Judaism is less about embracing religious observance and more about proudly owning their Chueta identity, Freund says. They may be interested in events organized by Shavei Israel, or in learning more about Judaism, or in redeeming Chueta identity so it’s no longer a source of shame — but generally not in living as actual Jews.

Still, Freund remains undaunted. The very existence of Chuetas, he says, is a harsh rebuke to the Inquisition.

“The fact that we now see some Chuetas coming back to the Jewish people after all these years means that the Inquisition did not succeed,” he said. “Despite all the efforts and its brutality, it failed to utterly destroy the Jewish spirit in Palma de Mallorca.”