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Juan Caldes leads a group through Palma’s Jewish Quarter, MajorcaLidor Levy
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‘Xuetas’ Return to Their Roots in Majorca

Bringing a hidden piece of Spain’s Jewish history back into the light

Ari Blaff
January 09, 2023
Lidor Levy
Juan Caldes leads a group through Palma’s Jewish Quarter, MajorcaLidor Levy

Dani Rotstein’s journey from New Jersey to the Spanish island of Majorca was circuitous. There was a stint in corporate America; he spent semesters abroad in Israel and Spain. He was eventually tugged to the fashion and TV commercial world: “New Zealand for America’s Next Top Model, Hong Kong and Buenos Aires for Maybelline, Chile for Kmart, New Mexico for Subaru, and South Park, Colorado, for Toyota … yes, it’s a real place,” reads the bio on his website.

But amid all the globetrotting, Spain stood out. “I fell in love with the Spanish language, life, culture, and history,” Rotstein told me. “I just kind of said to myself, ‘I’m definitely going to come back here at some point in my life to live.’” After a hiatus in Miami, Rotstein found the lifeline he was looking for when a friend told him about a production job in Majorca.

“When I got there, I was pretty sure that I was going to be the only Jewish person living on the island,” said Rotstein. A coworker recommended he check out the local synagogue. When he found it, there was no security—or rabbi.

But one thing truly confused Rotstein: The Kaddish was skipped during the service.

The synagogue had 14 men present, so why not recite the prayer if they had a minyan? That’s when a man approached telling him that many of those in attendance were not halachically Jewish: “Some of them must be Xueta,” the man noted.

“I had never heard this term before,” Rotstein told me. “It kind of shook me. I’d lived in Madrid for a year. I’d studied the Inquisition. I speak Spanish. I was very confused as to what that meant.” After the services, he stepped outside to speak with the man. “He basically explained to me this incredible fascinating history that still excites me to this day to share.”

Violent pogroms in the 14th century devastated the Majorcan Jewish community, which traced its roots back a millennium. Fearing for their survival, in 1435 the entire community underwent a mass conversion. Henceforth, no one among these “New Christians” practiced their Judaism publicly, although a smaller subgroup of crypto-Jews did in private.

Still, the conversions didn’t satisfy everyone.

The Spanish Inquisition conducted periodic autos-da-fé (public burnings) singling out New Christians thought to have remained faithful to their Judaism. Suspected crypto-Jews persecuted by the Inquisition had their names written on sanbenitos that were publicly displayed in the Church of Santo Domingo in Palma (which is no longer existent). By some estimates, the lists included hundreds of names. However, burgeoning renovation costs (alongside speculations of bribery to have one’s name removed) led authorities in the mid-1700s to preserve only 15 surnames that persisted over the coming centuries on Majorca as a sign of forbidden Jewish roots. Descendants of these families came to be known as “Xuetas,” which some believe stems from combining the Catalan words for xulla (bacon or pork) and Jueu (Jew). Although the surviving members of these Xueta families of crypto-Jews were spared the worst aspects of the Inquisition, their surnames were tainted by association.

For centuries, these 15 families were effectively barred from marrying any other Majorcans and were forced to look for spouses within their small community. Today, there are roughly 20,000 Xuetas on Majorca, although most neither identify themselves as such, are unaffiliated with the Jewish community in Palma, and wish to forget their Jewish roots.

Even the basic notion of a “Xueta community” is something which many of the people I spoke with found foreign. There are no Xueta community centers or communal gatherings to speak of. Consequently, there is no official community cooperation between present-day Majorca’s roughly 500 to 1,000 Jews and the Xuetas. For the relatively small number of Xuetas interested in reconnecting with Judaism, the journey is the same as any other convert. Returning to the faith for such Xuetas involves studying at a beit din, going to the mikvah: “the whole nine yards,” Rotstein told me.

There is a synagogue that some Xuetas attend but, Rotstein said, “there is no Xueta who has ever walked in and immediately counted as a Jew, ever.” The organizations he spearheads seek to reach out to disaffected Jews on the island and raise awareness about Xueta history. However, the vast majority of Xuetas remain content as Christians. Stigma against the community has eased in recent decades as the taboo about their history has been publicized and spoken about more openly.

This is the story Rotstein stumbled upon when he innocently walked into the synagogue that Shabbat night. Since then, Rotstein has made it a mission to raise awareness about the Xueta community in Majorca—and his contributions over the past decade have made remarkable inroads. He founded an organization, Jewish Majorca, dedicated to raising awareness about the island’s often forgotten Jewish history. Complementing his work as a local tour guide, in 2018 Rotstein created Limud Majorca, promoting Jewish cultural events and outreach.

Visitors walking down the cobblestoned Carrer del Vent (“Street of the Wind”) in Palma, the island’s capital, will notice something unusual. Passing through the alleyway beside the Church of Monti Sion, the worn sandstone foundation blocks are littered with something spectacular. Sandwiched between the cracks and creases you can find crumpled up white notes: prayers for an ill relative, a wish for world peace. To the trained eye, the church looks rather peculiar. A short way from the wall of notes is seemingly an ancient entrance sealed shut, the outline of the stone carved door frame still visible. Turning at the end of the narrow street toward the building’s front entrance another clue: An inexplicable border about 30 feet high bisects the church’s upper and lower halves.

Juan Caldes, a tour guide for Jewish Majorca, pointed out these strange features to a group of about 20 tourists (myself included) as we ambled through Palma’s Jewish Quarter one sweltering August morning. Caldes enjoyed quizzing the mostly middle-aged Anglo group. The subtle line running halfway through the church became a topic of fascination. Monti Sion’s unexplained border had a very simple answer, Caldes explained: This church used to be a synagogue. The lower half marked the building’s original dimensions when it served as the main shul for Palma’s budding Majorcan Jewish community. The notes are a recent tradition started by Jewish Majorca a few years back to pay homage to the history of Majorcan crypto-Jews.

You wouldn’t have known that by reading Majorca’s tourism website, however. There is only one passing reference to the Jewish roots of the church there. “The church of Monti Sion was built on top of the former Jewish main synagogue, by the Jesuits who came to Mallorca in 1561. The construction was started already in 1571.”

Social memory remains a work in progress. It wasn’t until 2011 that the Majorcan government formally apologized for the “bonfire of the Jews” in 1691. In 2012, the community received its first roaming rabbi in Nissim Ben-Avraham, himself a Xueta descendant splitting his time between Israel and Majorca.

Laura Miro Bonnín, a local researcher, doctoral student, and member of the Xueta community still feels as though attitudes have yet to fully change. Working on her dissertation about the Xuetas, Miro thinks “knowledge has not improved in general. People read little and in the end what we discussed on the [tour] route is forgotten. I also think that every time I discover more things doing the thesis, I have this feeling that little is known in general.” Mariano Valdés, a partner of Rotstein’s who works for Limud Majorca as well as Jewish Majorca, feels much the same. Earlier generations of Majorcans knew virtually “zero” about Xuetas, Valdés said: “If you ask someone who is under 60 years old about the Xuetas, they don’t know anything because it was taboo.”

There are 15 Majorcan surnames that mark a person of Xueta roots. If you come from Majorca and have a last name Aguiló, Bonnín, Cortès, Fortesa, Fuster, Martí, Miró (yes, like the painter), Picó, Pinya, Pomar, Segura, Tarongí, Valentí, Valleriola, or Valls you are a member of the community. There are similar last names found in mainland Spain, but none have a story quite like them.

Social consciousness about the Xuetas coincided with the arrival of tourists following WWII as outsiders started living and visiting the island. However, it wasn’t until the Franco dictatorship ended in 1975 that “a more progressive and liberal spirit in Majorca began,” Rotstein noted.

Xisca Bat Valls and Toni Pinya (“Pinchas”), a Xueta couple living in Sóller, a town in the northwestern part of Majorca, remember their early lives shrouded in Judaism. “We were not raised as Jews,” Valls told me over WhatsApp using Google Translate to bridge the Catalan-English gap. “Although the family of Pinchas did not talk about Judaism, in my family they did, especially my maternal grandfather, Magí Valls Bonnín, who was extremely Zionistic.”

Despite living under the Franco dictatorship, the families did what they could, however subtly, to instill a sense of Jewishness in Valls and Pinya. There were small gifts both families passed along to quietly remind them of their Jewish roots. Pinya’s family gave him and his brothers a Magen David when he was young. Valls remembers being given Anne Frank’s diary and Exodus by Leon Uris. Valls’ childhood house bore the familiar markings of a Jewish upbringing. Her grandparents shared with her stories of Queen Esther on Purim and the Exodus story during Easter. “My grandfather didn’t want to see seafood, rabbits, or snails,” very common foods in Majorca, “on the table—he said they disgusted him.”

A constant throughline connecting many Xuetas are memories of discrimination. Miquel Segura, a local journalist, broke the island’s Xueta taboo in the 1990s when he wrote a book in which he publicly identified himself as a member of the community. Segura retells an early playground experience when he was 14. “The other children insulted me and called me a Xueta, saying we had killed Jesus.” Bat Valls echoed Segura’s experience. Majorcans reminded her grandparents constantly they were “marginalized and insulted” because of their Xueta lineage.

For some Xuetas, the idea of “conversion” is a misnomer. They prefer instead the vocabulary of “returning” to one’s faith because they never willingly left. Those are the visibly proud ones. Many, though, have remained ensconced within their Catholic faith. Joan Manuel, a teacher in Palma and one of the few young and active Xueta members of the Jewish community thinks it’s mostly complacency: “First, because young people don’t care about religion. And secondly, I have a feeling that they don’t even know what a Xueta is.”

The younger generation has been spared the worst aspects. Manuel feels that lingering prejudice of yesteryear isn’t so prevalent these days. “I never experience any discrimination because of it [being Xueta] that I’m aware of.” Xuetas now regularly marry other Majorcans, too.

Part of that has been helped by Rotstein’s efforts in recent years to bring the story of the Xuetas out into the open. As his documentary Xueta Island showcases, there is a growing cohort of conscientious activists scattered across the island interested in bringing light to this overlooked chapter of Jewish history.

Sarah Miller is a close friend and fellow board member of the Palma synagogue alongside Rotstein. Sitting down at Mistral Coffee in Palma this summer we spoke about Rotstein’s impact. “Dani is the great beacon of Jewish hope in the Balearic Islands and in the world,” Miller said.

Mounir Arjdal, a Moroccan-born executive with Limud Majorca, echoed these sentiments: “Dani was the key to the community.” Rotstein’s work, Mounir said, had “changed everything.” The communal outreach and projects with the Xueta community were invaluable.

Whereas Rotstein focuses on the cultural and outreach aspects, Miller serves as a conduit to the religious community, pushing to incorporate a greater “sense of openness and inclusion to whatever the shul is doing.” When I asked Miller whether Rotstein had helped rejuvenate the community, Miller spoke glowingly of his contribution. “Dani has been a wonderful force in terms of programming ideas and connecting the dots. Dani is like the Jewish mayor of Majorca.”

Not all are thrilled about the new outreach efforts. A Jewish couple in Biniaraix, Yitzchak and Yael Ben Avraham, felt that the recent focus on the Xuetas painted a simplistic picture of history. They approved of Rotstein’s work but think that there are limitations on how it should be represented. While acknowledging the discrimination many Xuetas have experienced, Yitzchak told me that a full and fair accounting of their past should acknowledge that some “who converted to Christianity also took advantage of the situation and acquired the goods of those who left taking advantage of the circumstances.” Accordingly, he said, “we must bring the whole reality out into the open, the whole truth of what happened, and there is currently a lot of folklore about this.”

Yitzchak feels as though some of the current fervor around Xuetas has led to historical “revisionism” that has divided the community more than it has healed its cracks. “We cannot create reasons for separation. If there’s one thing we Jews have, it’s that we have to be united. First, we’re Jewish, not Spanish, Mizrahi, or English. The first thing is that we’re Jewish and that means studying Torah and fulfilling mitzvot, that’s all.” Consequently, there are those in the Majorcan Jewish community who feel alienated. “All this has made a lot of people in the community ... feel discriminated against,” Yitzchak said, concluding with a plea. “Please, let the historians do their work, and the rest of us make a living of Judaism, of study, of yeshivot. All Jews are equal, we come from where we come from.”

All felt equal, however, as I walked in the wrought-iron gates patrolling the threshold to the shul these days. The doors were left open before Shabbat services, catching the cool Mediterranean air. Squat on the ground floor, the synagogue, as Rotstein recalled during our conversation, “is tucked away in between an Irish bar and a Chinese healthy massage parlor.” There is no fixed mechitza in the prayer room. Men sit on the left, women on the right, within full view of one another. After the service, the women light Shabbat candles in the back of the room for all to see.

For centuries such praying was not heard so publicly and proudly in Majorca. Back in the 1970s, Anglo expats brought back an ember of Judaism to the island and built the synagogue. According to Rotstein, the expat community was “legally formed” in 1971. In 1973, the community expanded and bought a cemetery in Santa Eugenia. The current synagogue dates back to 1987. Today, however, a different tune is sung. The synagogue’s British roots have been subsumed by a hodgepodge of Jewish cultures that read like a cookbook. There is the Sephardi Argentine cantor, Rolando. A convert from Girona, Spain. American expats and French immigrants. Conversos, crypto-Jews, Marranos, Xuetas. You name it. It is a cacophony of different tunes and cultures. A house blend unique to this island off the coast of Spain anchored in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Ari David Blaff is a journalist based in Toronto and writer at Deseret. His writing has appeared in Quillette, National Review, and The Globe & Mail.