The New Yorker reviving Jewish life on a holiday island

By Miriam Annenberg
BBC Stories

  • Published
Dani Rotstein in the Jewish quarter of PalmaImage source, Dani Rotstein

An American who landed in Majorca five years ago soon found himself working to revive the Mediterranean island's Jewish community - with the help of families forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity 500 years ago.

When Dani Rotstein arrived in Palma in 2014, he was planning only a short break from the crowds and chaos of New York City. But when he fell in love with a Catalan woman he decided to stay; the pair got married in May 2017. Dani was very happy, but something was missing. If Majorca was to become his permanent home, he needed to find a Jewish community - and Majorca's Jews had been burned, exiled or forcibly converted during the Spanish Inquisition.

"I literally came to Majorca thinking I would never find anyone Jewish or anything Jewish," Dani says.

By the time he got married, he already knew there was Jewish life on Majorca. There was a synagogue, anyway, though it came to life only for Friday-evening prayers, and even then struggled to attract the necessary 10 men.

Jewish families on the island rarely came together for Shabbat dinners or other Jewish holidays. It was hard for Dani to imagine raising his family under conditions so different from those of his own New Jersey childhood. So he began searching for solutions.

Image source, Alamy

Around the same time, Toni Pinya found himself on a journey of a different kind. Unlike Dani, a lifelong Jew new to Majorca, Toni was a lifelong Majorcan new to Judaism.

Toni is a Chueta, one of roughly 20,000 descendants of the Jews forcibly converted during the Inquisition. Like most Chuetas, Toni grew up Christian, but although his family had been Catholic for generations, Majorcans still treated him differently - his Chueta surname set him apart. His classmates bullied him and made fun of his heritage. "If a girl were to date a Chueta, her parents would say, 'He's the one who killed Jesus Christ,'" he says.

At the age of 12, Toni gave up on religion altogether. But in middle age he grew interested in exploring his Jewish roots.

Image source, Dani Rotstein
Image caption,
Toni Pinya holding Dani's baby son, Oren

As Dani settled into life in Majorca, he began learning about its hidden Jewish history. He'd never heard of the Chuetas, even though his mother taught Jewish education. "I take it personally," he says. "I'm like, 'How has this incredible story not made it out of the island, or to Spain for that matter?'"

The first attack on Palma's Jewish quarter, in 1391, killed between 100 and 300 Jews. Later, as the Inquisition gathered momentum, the majority of Jewish Majorcans converted under duress, though many continued practising Judaism in secret.

Hundreds of these converts were tortured and killed throughout the 1400s and 1500s. When 37 Jews tried to escape by boat in 1688, they were captured. After three years of torture, Inquisitors killed them in 1691, burning three alive at the stake. They hung a list of their surnames in the Santo Domingo Convent for all to see (which stayed up until 1820). Their descendants became known as the Chuetas - from the Catalan word meaning bacon.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The harbour in Palma, in the last century

In addition to learning about the Chuetas, Dani discovered that the existing Jewish community in Majorca was fractured. Over the years, control of the synagogue had changed hands. British expats had given way to Orthodox Jews, and then to Sephardic Jews, each with their own style of prayer. Among the worshippers were Sephardim and Ashkenazi, Orthodox and Reform, with their various different traditions. There was no consensus about which prayers to include, the participation of women, or the role of the synagogue in organising social events - and no rabbi to resolve tensions. People attended weekly services, but that was it.

Dani also learned that not long previously Palma had held a half-day Limud - a Jewish learning conference open to all, encompassing religion, culture and tradition. He thought more of this could be what Majorca needed. He contacted organiser Karen Kochmann with a proposition: how did she feel about putting on a full, weekend-long event with him in 2018, in order to bring everyone together, Chuetas included? "I said, 'We're going to do Limud,'" Dani says. "We just did it - somehow, someway."

So Majorca's diverse Jewish community came together for a weekend. And a number of Chuetas told their stories, including Toni, who talked about his own unusual journey to Judaism.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The church of Saint Eulalia in Palma, said to have been used by the families of Jewish converts

As a professional chef, Toni enjoys learning the history behind the things he cooks. He can trace the origins of popular Majorcan dishes back to the eras of Roman and Muslim rule on the island. Since there is evidence of Jews on Majorca as early as the Fourth Century, he knew Jewish food must have existed, too. But when he went looking for these recipes, he failed. "There was nothing there," he says. "Everything was erased."

His quest to understand Jewish cuisine led him to the Torah, and he was surprised to find that some of his grandmother's cooking habits - the distinctive way she killed animals, her avoidance of pork or pork fat, and the words she uttered over certain foods before eating - all were echoed in the traditional rules of cooking found in the Torah and other religious texts. He believes his family had kept these traditions alive for generations without remembering where they came from.

Image source, Dani Rotstein
Image caption,
Toni, left, and Dani, making challah

This wasn't the case in all Chueta families. Some not only cooked pork, but cooked it outside, so that everyone could see. It was one of many ways they worked hard to prove their devotion to Christianity, even centuries after their families had converted. Some also opened their windows wide as they performed housework on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. In Catalan, the phrase "to work on Saturday" is an idiomatic way of referring to housework, which some suspect has its origins in this practice. Toni's own family showed its commitment by rarely missing a church service. "As I grew up, I got so tired of it," he says, "tired of having to prove myself."

As Spain evolved after the death in 1975 of the dictator, Gen Francisco Franco, foreign tourists began flocking to Majorca. In time, German and British Jews put down roots, raised money and opened a synagogue - watched carefully by some Chuetas. "It sparked their curiosity," Toni says.

He was one of them. Eventually he joined about a dozen other Chuetas in returning to Judaism and officially converted in Israel in 2013. He went back there five years later to marry another Chueta convert, Francisca Maria Oliver Valls under a traditional wedding canopy, a chuppah, in the West Bank town of Migdal Oz.

Dani felt strongly that the Chuetas should be embraced as part of the island's wider Jewish family, even if they were not practising Jews. Others weren't so sure.

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
Palma's Mont Zion church was once a synagogue

Converted Chuetas like Toni were already becoming stalwarts of the Palma synagogue and some of the most devout Jews on the island. But how far the synagogue should welcome those who have not converted is an issue that continues to divide opinion. A respected Israeli Orthodox rabbi ruled in 2011 that all Chuetas were Jewish by virtue of their family history; one side-effect of the years of discrimination is that marriages with non-Chuetas remained rare. But some of the more observant of Majorca's Jews feel uncomfortable counting Chuetas who have not officially converted in their minyan - the minimum number of 10 Jewish men required to pray.

"It's a big culture shock, I guess," says Karen. "Because in the UK or in Germany or even in Israel you don't have people who pop out of nowhere who are like, 'Oh yeah, my great-great-grandfather is now Jewish and now, out of the blue, I'm interested."

Image source, Dani Rotstein
Image caption,
Dani, right, and Toni (in chef's jacket) celebrating Hanukkah with other members of the Jewish community

But the return of Chuetas to Judaism has also created some frictions within the Chueta community itself.

Like others in his community, Toni was raised to keep his background to himself. By openly becoming a Jew, he drew direct attention to his heritage and, some thought, increased the risk of the Chueta having to bear the brunt of anti-Semitism, as well as anti-Chueta prejudice.

It's not such a far-fetched idea. In the 1970s, Chuetas who owned the jewellery shops along Carrer de l'Argenteria in Palma, also known as Jeweller's Row, found swastikas spray-painted across their storefronts after a local television station broadcast a series on the Holocaust. Even today, kids use "Chueta" as an insult meaning "stingy" (a common anti-Semitic trope). And it's no secret that anti-Semitism has been on the rise across Europe.

The revival of Jewish life on Majorca, thanks partly to Dani and Toni, has taken place regardless. A Hanukkah celebration attracted 150 people, including 40 children, while 40 attended a recent Shabbat dinner. "Everyone kind of looked around saying, 'Where did all these Jews come from?'" Dani says.

In recent years a tiny Jewish history museum has opened in the old Jewish quarter, a labyrinthine collection of winding roads and forked intersections east of the cathedral. Dani, meanwhile, has opened a Jewish tourism company.

Among other things, he points out to visitors the groove running along the alley-side wall of Mont Zion Church that once housed a synagogue; rumour has it that generations of Chuetas ran their hands along the stones as they passed by in recognition of the building's Jewish roots, wearing down the stone.

Image source, Dani Rotstein

Toni recently made a historical discovery of his own. While looking through old documents, he learned that a man with his name, Antonio Pinya, married a woman with his wife's name, Francisca, in Palma centuries ago. They were both killed in the Inquisition. "It feels like reincarnation," he says. "Here they are, hundreds of years later, they found each other again."

Last year, when Majorca's Jewish community held board elections, they elected an entirely new slate, including Dani and Toni and a second Chueta, the journalist and writer Miguel Segura. So two of the four board members are now of Chueta descent.

For Dani and Toni, this is an opportunity to forge a more inclusive community - but there is also a danger of deepening existing rifts.

"We don't have the answer of what Majorca Judaism is going to look like in five years, 10 years," Dani says. "I think our challenge, if we wish to accept it, and I think we do, is trying to find the shared values that connect all these Jews."

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