Fundamentally Freund: A 500-year journey back

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December 23, 2009 21:17

For Miquel Segura of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, the journey home took more than 500 years. Last week, at a moving ceremony in Manhattan, the 65-year-old journalist and political commentator completed his return to the Jewish people, closing a circle dating back to the 14th century. Segura is from the Chueta community, as descendants of Mallorcan Jews forcibly converted to Christianity more than five centuries ago are known. Though the term is derogatory, with some historians suggesting it comes from the Catalan word for "pig," Segura has long worn it with unadorned pride. "I first learned about my identity in school when I was 14," he told me. "The other children insulted me and called me a Chueta, saying we had killed Jesus," he says. When Segura asked his father about their Chueta identity, "he answered me with elaborate arguments," which only served to pique the young boy's curiosity about his ancestors. This led him to uncover a fascinating story, one that serves as a compelling example of the power of Jewish memory. No one knows precisely when the first Jews arrived in Mallorca, but the Jewish presence on the island is said to date back as far as the fifth century CE. At the turn of the 14th century, the Jews' situation began to deteriorate sharply. In 1305, anti-Jewish rioting erupted, and the island's first blood libel occurred in 1309, when several Jews were falsely accused of murdering a Catholic child. The turning point, however, came in 1391, when anti-Jewish pogroms swept across Spain. Many Mallorcan Jews were massacred, while others were forcibly converted, possibly including Segura's forebears. In 1435, the remaining Jews were either murdered or dragged to the baptismal font. Nonetheless, the native Mallorcans never accepted the converts, and began referring to them as Chuetas. Many, such as Segura's ancestors, continued to practice Judaism in secret, thereby risking their lives and well-being to remain faithful to the ways of their forefathers. Subsequently, the Inquisition became particularly active in the area, ruthlessly hunting down those suspected of secret Judaism. In 1641, more than 200 years after the forcible conversions, one of Miquel's ancestors was tortured and burned at the stake for the "sin" of "relapsing." Miquel learned this after years of painstaking research, during which he was able to construct a family tree dating back more than 400 years, which proves that his Chueta ancestors married only among themselves. FROM THE start, the Chuetas faced hostility from their Catholic neighbors, who never truly accepted them as Christians and refused to marry them - a phenomenon that continued well into the modern era. Indeed, it was not until the French captured Mallorca in the early 19th century that the Inquisition was formally abolished in the area, though even that did not spell the end of anti-Chueta discrimination. Writers such as the Frenchwoman George Sand in the 19th century and Englishman Robert Graves in the 20th wrote about the Chuetas with much sympathy, bemoaning the hatred to which they continued to be subjected by their fellow Mallorcans. Legal restrictions against Chuetas were ended only in 1931, when the Spanish Republic was incorporated, and it is only in the past 40 to 50 years that "intermarriages" between Chuetas and Mallorcan Catholics have begun to take place. The very subject of the Chuetas was considered largely taboo, until Segura himself heroically broke the societal silence on the subject in 1994 with the publication of his book in Catalan entitled Memoria Xueta, in which he openly declared his Chueta identity. The book caused a sensation in Mallorca, and even resulted in Segura receiving threats on his life. While acknowledging that "discrimination against Chuetas has diminished in Majorca," Segura tells me it remains alive and well as a phenomenon. As a columnist for Ultima Hora, Mallorca's leading newspaper, he often writes sympathetically about Israel - "the land of my ancestors" - and people often attribute his political position to his being a Chueta, as if to say: what else can you expect from a Jew? WHEN I first met Segura more than six years ago, he was in a sense stuck between worlds. Catholics viewed him as a Jew, yet the Jewish community did not view him as one of their own. "I feel an enormous sense of pride, but also a type of emptiness inside," he told me at the time. "I sense that my destiny will be that of not belonging to anyone, of being considered a stranger or a renegade by both sides." But all that came to a delightful end last week on Manhattan's Upper West Side. When I brought Miquel's case to Rabbi Marc Angel of New York's Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, he ruled that a return ceremony would suffice. "Miquel Segura is Jewish according to Halacha," Rabbi Angel told me, adding, "He does not need to convert because he is already Jewish, and he can prove it." And so, in front of witnesses, Segura immersed himself in the waters of a mikve, and Rabbi Angel gave him a "certificate of return" underlining the significance of the act. Asked how he felt after the ceremony, Segura said simply: "I feel a relief, like I'm free, clean, purified." In a particularly fitting twist, the event took place on a day that coincided with Hanukka and rosh hodesh (the start of a new Hebrew month), with their themes of renewal and determination. Various estimates suggest there may be as many as 20,000 Chuetas in Mallorca. It is time for Israel and the Jewish people to reach out to them, embrace them and welcome them back. The Chuetas are our brothers and sisters in every respect, and we owe it to them and to their ancestors to right the historical wrong that was done to them. The Inquisition cruelly sought to tear them from us, and there can be no more fitting revenge than to bring back as many as possible. Welcome home, Miquel, and may your return herald the homecoming of many, many more. The writer serves as Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org) which reaches out and assists "lost Jews" - including the Chuetas of Palma de Mallorca - who are seeking to return to the Jewish people.


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