'The Inquisition is still a dirty and painful secret here'

In Mallorca, descendants of persecuted crypto-Jews now run the community

The Spanish island’s chueta, whose ancestors were forced to convert during the Inquisition, were spurned by locals despite practicing Catholicism. Now they’re returning to Judaism

Cnaan Liphshiz is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Toni Pinya enters the synagogue of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, February 11, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz)
Toni Pinya enters the synagogue of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, February 11, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

PALMA DE MALLORCA, Spain (JTA) — Like countless Jewish children in Europe, Toni Pinya was routinely subjected at school to anti-Semitic bullying.

Growing up in the 1960s on this island south of Barcelona, Pinya would be beaten up and called “Christ killer” and “dirty Jew” at least once a month, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a recent interview.

But unlike most other victims of such abuse, Pinya was sure at the time that he was Catholic.

“I asked my grandfather why the other children were calling me a Jew,” Pinya said. “It made more sense after he explained.”

The explanation was that Pinya is a chueta, the name in Mallorca for about 20,000 people whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity centuries ago during the Spanish Inquisition. Devoutly Catholic but widely distrusted by fellow Christians, chuetas ironically retained their distinct identity because hostility to them forced them to marry mostly among themselves.

Mallorca’s tiny Jewish community is now stronger for this turn of events.

Last year Pinya, a chef, and Miquel Segura became the first two chuetas elected to the four-person executive board of the Jewish Community of Mallorca, finally giving representatives from that minority a place at the communal table.

This development “means the world to us, it gives us pride, a sense of belonging and, I guess, also closure,” said Iska bat Valls, Pinya’s wife, who is also chueta.

The town of Valldemossa, on the island of Mallorca, Spain seen on May 4, 2003. (CC BY-SA Wikimedia commons)

The couple are among several dozen people from that group who have returned to Judaism in recent years. Most chuetas today do not consider themselves Jews.

Pinya, whose parents were forced to marry in secrecy because his non-chueta grandparents opposed the union, and bat Valls underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism about five years ago. Other chuetas, like the sculptor Ferran Aguilo, had a Reform conversion.

The conversions and the election of chuetas to the community’s board are part of a growing recognition of the tragic Jewish history of Mallorca, a mountainous mass of land in the Mediterranean about the size of Rhode Island.

Last year, local authorities unveiled a memorial plaque at the Palma square where 37 people were publicly burned alive in 1691 for being Jewish in what is locally known as “the bonfire of the Jews.” Following resistance to the plaque by some residents and municipal leaders, the unveiling was the first recognition of its sort of the murders that transpired here.

In 2015, the city helped build a tiny Jewish museum in what used to be the Jewish quarter. Located on a cobbled street inside the sandstone labyrinth that is the old city center, the surrounding alleys are so quiet and well preserved that it is easy to imagine life here centuries ago, when crypto-Jews ran virtually all of the tanneries, shoe shops and butcher shops here.

This leather shop used to be a synagogue in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

The Jews are gone, but the buildings that once housed their three synagogues in Palma are still around and in good condition. One of them, a small space with two entrances for security reasons, used to be a bakery. Another is a church.

Last month, the city for the first time sponsored a memorial ceremony for Jews who in 1688 tried to escape the island on a ship but were caught and tortured.

A large metal anchoring ring stands today outside the Bahía Mediterráneo restaurant near the marina, where many chuetas believe the ship used to stand. The ring is smooth because chuetas touch it whenever they walk past, as many Catholics in Europe do to statues of saints.

“I think that in the past few years we finally and suddenly reached the point where Mallorca is ready to remember,” said Dolores Forteza Rei, a member of the Memoria de la Carrer association that is dedicated to the preservation of chueta heritage.

Dolores Forteza Rei presenting her personal archive of the chuetas of Mallorca, Spain, February 10, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

“The Inquisition is still a dirty and painful secret here,” said Dani Rotstein, a New Jersey native who settled here in 2011 and now gives tours about the island’s Jewish history. But it’s alive in people’s minds today also because it was especially brutal in Mallorca, Rotstein suggested.

Elsewhere in Spain and Portugal, municipal administrators often would drive out their Jews and steal their property. It was faster, cleaner and easier than holding trials and gruesome executions.

But in Mallorca, “going away wasn’t an option because it’s a small island,” said Rotstein, who last year helped launch Mallorca’s popular Limmud Jewish learning conference.

Today, Palma de Mallorca, a coastal city of about 400,000 residents, is one of Spain’s most cosmopolitan places. Discovered in the 1970s by sun lovers from colder climates, Mallorca now receives more than 10 million tourists annually. Tourism changed Mallorcan society, which for centuries had been rural with strong isolationist tendencies.

“Suddenly we were not the foreigners anymore. Being chueta became irrelevant, an anecdote,” Forteza Rei said.

Some foreigners contribute directly to the preservation of Jewish heritage sites.

Dani Rotstein, pointing, explains to German tourists about a church that used to be a synagogue in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, February 11, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

In Inca, Mallorca’s second city, a former synagogue and mikvah, or ritual bath, was discovered and partially preserved by the British designer Robert Lopez Hinton and his French life partner, Marie-Noelle Ginard Feron.

The couple, neither of them Jewish, bought a dilapidated building in Inca’s former Jewish quarter a decade ago. It was only during renovations that the structure betrayed its secrets.

“The penny dropped when we noticed that narrow window, which we always found strange, transports a shaft of light into the interior twice a year: on the equinox and the solstice,” Lopez Hinton recalled, adding that this design is a hallmark of synagogues and churches in Spain. “When we unearthed the ritual bath,” with its elaborate system for collecting rainwater, “we knew this was no church.”

The couple open their home to visitors for one day each week and host cultural events, including about the Inquisition and crypto-Jews, known also as bnei anusim.

“I feel there is, of late, a growing interest in the subject, or at least an openness to it,” he said.

Members of the Jewish community of Mallorca, Spain, attend a Tu b’Shvat picnic, February 10, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Yet 600 years ago, the islanders were among the first in the Iberian Peninsula to embrace persecution of Jews.

Members of that minority were slaughtered here a century before the official implementation of the Inquisition in 1492. Mallorca was one of four Spanish regions where Jews were murdered on the street in the 1391 pogroms, and the slaughter was accompanied by anti-Jewish measures that would culminate in the Inquisition.

Against such radical persecution, many chuetas were determined to demonstrate their detachment from Judaism. They would make a point of working on the Sabbath in violation of Jewish law, to the point that the phrase for doing chores in Mallorcan dialect to this day is “doing Sabbath.”

And they turned their kosher challah breads into what is now known as ensaimada – a dessert that, bizarrely, is made of pork lard, according to ensaimada connoisseur Tomeu Arbona. Last year Arbona, who is not Jewish, began selling in his Fornet de Sa Soca bakery a kosher variant of this circular national food in what he called a “literally closing of a circle.”

Indeed, closing circles is to many chuetas the main motivation for converting back to Judaism.

Pinya and his wife are now regulars at Mallorca’s only synagogue – a small but inviting space downtown located next to an Asian massage parlor and boasting a Star of David on its metal gate.

Arie Girondi, left, the president of the Jewish Community of Mallorca, Spain, plants a tree on Tu b’Shvat with other local Jews, February 10, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

On Friday nights, about 50 locals from all walks of life, including some Americans, Brits and Israelis, gather here for Sephardic-style prayers punctuated by singing and clapping. The community is currently without a rabbi following the return to Israel two years ago of Nissan Ben-Avraham, a Mallorca native from a family of chuetas who used to work here as the local emissary of the Shavei Israel group.

Pinya is the local kosher chef, a role that echoes how he deepened his knowledge of Judaism through studying the origins of Mallorca’s Jewish cuisine.

Some chuetas, including Rafael Aedo Pons, a father of one and an executive at a local energy firm, say they don’t need to convert at all to be a part of the Jewish community because their “roots are as Jewish as any other Jew,” as he put it during a communal event in February.

That vision is not unique to chuetas like Aedo Pons.

Nissim Karelitz, an Ashkenazi haredi Orthodox rabbi from Bnei Brak, Israel, ruled in 2011 that chuetas need not convert to Judaism because they are already Jewish – a rare concession. (Karelitz’s ruling would not be upheld by the Israeli state rabbinate, however, which is officially tasked with all life-cycle events in the Jewish state. Likewise, conversions conducted in his court are not always recognized by the rabbinate.)

But Karelitz’s ruling was a good call, according to Rabbi Joseph Walles, a descendant of Rabbi Rafael Valls, the last Jew burned at the stake in Mallorca in 1691. Walles, who runs the Bnei Brak-based Arachim group devoted to increasing unity among Jews, visited Mallorca in February to meet with members of its Jewish community.

“Laced into the history of this island is the determination of its Jews to stay Jewish at the face of one of history’s most brutal attempts to eradicate Judaism,” Walles said. And that, he added, “is a testament to the resolve of Jews everywhere to remain that.”

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