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May 16, 2022 11:21 am

‘Xueta Island’: The Untold Story of a Resurrection of Judaism

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avatar by Bernard Starr


Photo: Provided.

Six hundred years after Judaism was crushed and vanished from Majorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean, a Jewish boy originally from Englewood, New Jersey, discovered its tragic history of persecution and destruction, and then dedicated himself to resurrecting Judaism there.

How did this happen?

I posed that question to Dani Rotstein after watching “Xueta Island,” the remarkable documentary film that he produced and co-directed.

Rotstein told me that his journey began in 2014, when he accepted a video production job in Majorca, Spain. He had fallen in love with Spanish culture in 2000, during a year in Madrid on a student exchange program. He thought he would be the only Jew on the island. Little did he suspect that his experience would make Judaism the centerpiece of his life.

Rotstein was surprised to stumble across a synagogue, where he was able to join a prayer service with a scant number of Jews. Some participants who called themselves Jews could not be counted for the purposes of a minyan. That’s when Rotstein first heard the word “Xueta,” (pronounced cheweta), which is the name given to descendants of Jews murdered during the Spanish Inquisition. Eager to learn more, he began to research Majorca’s tragic history.

Rotstein learned that in 1435, after the earlier massacre of 300 Jews, Majorca’s entire Jewish community was forced to convert to Catholicism or face public trials and execution. The Inquisitors subjected any Jew suspected of being a pretend Christian to imprisonment, torture, and even execution.

In 1688, the Spanish Inquisition on Majorca conducted sweeping arrests of “fake” Christians. Forty attempted to escape on a British ship, but a raging storm prevented the vessel from leaving port. They returned and, along with other “false” Christians, were imprisoned and tortured for three years. In 1691, 88 were convicted and 37 were sentenced to death. Three who refused to renounce Judaism were burned alive — to the cheers of 30,000 spectators.

As further punishment, the family names of Jews executed during the Inquisition, from 1645 onward, were posted in a prominent church (the Santo Domingo Convent). Thus Xuetes — descendants with the same family names — would be demonized, shamed, and shunned for generations. Most were then only able to marry within the Xueta community.

After the forced conversions and executions, Judaism appeared to be gone from Majorca forever. But miraculously, as with other attempted genocides of Jews throughout history, the obituary of Judaism in Majorca proved to be premature. Ironically, the very posting of the family names of the murdered Jews became the vehicle for the revival of Judaism by modern-day descendants. A surprising number have acknowledged their connection to Judaism, and some have converted (or returned) to fully embrace Judaism.

That resurrection is powerfully depicted in “Xueta Island.” The returning Jews tell inspiring stories. Elderly chef Toni Pinya not only returned to Judaism, but also sought Jewish identity in traditional Jewish cuisine, which he found described in the Torah.

Pinya says: “The world’s biggest cookbook is the Torah. All the recipes are in there.” Xueta septuagenarian Miquel Segura describes how he traveled to New York, where he received instruction and certification as a returned Jew from a Sephardic rabbi, Marc Angel.

In the film, narrator Rotstein takes viewers on a ghostly tour through the medieval Jewish ghetto of Palma, the capital of Majorca. He shows a wall of the monumental church of Montesion, built on the site of the Sinagoga Major (Great Synagogue), which was confiscated and destroyed in the 14th century. Rotstein told me: “Along that wall there is a rivet that legend says many Xueta families would run their hands alongside lovingly as a way of connecting to their Jewish past.” The site is now called Majorca’s “wailing wall.”

The film offers other evidence of the Jewish past. A baker displays a traditional Majorcan gastronomic delight, an empanada, which was a favorite Jewish Shabbat dish — and a braided Majorca bread called “ensaimada,” which looks like a clone of Jewish challah.

The community now has a Xueta rabbi, Nissan Ben-Avraham, who lives in Israel, and became the official rabbi of Majorca in June 2021. He comes to Majorca to officiate at all of the major Jewish holidays, as well as 10 days each month for Sabbath services — and he is available full time on social media for consultations.

What is Rotstein’s vision for the future of the nascent Jewish community there? He envisions “a robust Jewish community center that can have different spaces to include all levels of Jewish practices and commitment — and can also be a cultural center open to non-Jews.” He hopes to draw interest from young Xuetes as they learn more about the history of their ancestors.

He believes that accepting diverse practices is important, since Majorca is a destination for Jews from around the world with different traditions, practices, and varying degrees of commitment.

As an antidote to the pain of the barbaric past, “tolerance” is the word that best expresses Dani Rotstein’s vision.

You can find more information about the film, and the trailer, here.

Bernard Starr, PhD, is professor emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art.”

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