Hidden for Generations, a Community of Spanish Jews Explores Its Roots

The Chuetas, a community of forced converts from a collection of islands off the coast of Spain, are embracing their Jewish roots. Many are looking to return to the fold but are finding obstacles along the way.

The Jews of Palma de Mallorca were forced to convert to Catholicism about 600 years ago, but now several hundred of their descendants, known as the Chuetas, are trying to reconnect to their Jewish roots. Members of the Chueta community and Israeli scholars recently participated in a conference in Netanya on the anusim, or forced converts, of the Balearic Islands.

The Balearic Islands, best known for the international party destination of Ibiza, are situated off the eastern coast of Spain. Palma is the main port city in Mallorca, the capital of this archipelago under Spanish rule.

A group of 15 Chueta families have, over the centuries, maintained their Jewish lineage by marrying only among themselves, one of the distinctions of this particular community of anusim. Last year, after visiting the island and examining the family trees of these families, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, chairman of the Beit Din Tzedek, ruled that their descendents, who number about 25,000 today, are indeed part of the Jewish people.

Miguel Segura, a journalist and author who himself is a Chueta and has written a book about their history, told Haaretz that he and two other members of the community, both women, have recently “returned” to Judaism – a term used by the anusim to refer to the symbolic conversion process they undergo to be considered full-fledged Jews. Segura said that over the centuries, the Chuetas, which is considered a pejorative term – one translation is “swine” – were persecuted and ostracized in Spain.  So while he isn’t looking to trade homelands, the ruling has validated his identity and beliefs.

“I am 67 years old, so that is too old to make aliyah, but I now make a point of coming to Israel every year,” said Segura, who attended the Netanya conference.

Efforts to educate the community have been enhanced by the establishment of a new Beit Midrash. Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, a Chueta who converted many years ago and moved to Israel, has been traveling to Palma de Mallorca every month in recent years to teach classes there.

Determining unique characteristics of the community and uncovering documentation of their history was key to confirming their status as historic Jews.

“Although the 15 families married among themselves, these marriages were conducted in the church, and it was the church records that were eventually able to provide proof of the Jewish lineage of these people,” said Prof. Michael Corinaldi, an expert on Hebraic law, who heads the International Institute for Secrets Jews (Anusim) Studies at the Netanya Academic College, which organized the conference.

“Another thing that distinguished this community is that they tended to give their children Biblical names,” said Corinaldi, who has visited extensively with members of the community.  “They did not hang pictures in their homes of figures from the New Testament, they did not perform last rites on the dying, and they observed Jewish laws of burial.”

Within the next few years, Corinaldi estimates, about 100 members of the Chueta community will undergo a symbolic conversion to Judaism. He said that on a recent visit to a synagogue in Palma de Mallorca, during the holiday of Rosh Hashana, he observed that members of the Chueta community were allowed to pray in the synagogue but were not counted as part of the minyan – the 10-man quorum required by Orthodox Judaism to hold a prayer service.

However, Corinaldi said that Israeli society in general has not been welcoming of the anusim.

“They go through torture here,” he said, “both at the hands of the Interior Ministry and at the hands of the rabbinate. It’s time the government realized that not every Jew wants to be Orthodox and that anusim are not foreigners but Jews who want to return to the fold.”

There are about 50,000 Jews who live in Palma de Mallorca, mostly immigrants from the Americas and not anusim themselves.

Descendants of the anusim can also be found on Ibiza and the Balearic island of Formentera as well, said Gloria Mound, the executive director of the Casa Shalom Institute for Marrano-Anusim Studies, who spent several years conducting research on the community.

“In recent years, access to the Internet has allowed them to explore their Jewish roots more actively,” she said. “Many have also begun traveling to Israel as tourists.”

Reuters
Netanya Academic College