PALMA DE MALLORCA, Spain — Miguel Segura prefers not to use the word “conversion.” Instead he says he has “returned” to the religion his ancestors were forced to renounce almost 600 years ago.
“It was like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders,” Segura said of being accepted into the Jewish faith. “I felt a great inner joy.”
Segura comes from a family of Xuetes — descendents of the last group of Jews on the island of Mallorca to face trial and execution for their faith by the Spanish Inquisition in the 17th century.
Although the Xuetes have lived as Catholics among the island majority for centuries, they long faced discrimination. Now, many are rediscovering and promoting the Jewish heritage that their families long tried to hide. A few, like Segura, take it further and return to the religion of their forebears.
“I started out just studying my origins, but I thought that there was something missing, beyond the culture and the history. As I drew closer to my past, I saw a possibility for a more complete return to Judaism,” said the 67-year-old jeweler and journalist.
“I had to go further, because when my generation disappears, the next may well forget about their roots and if that memory does not exist, it will be the end for us,” he said during an interview not far from the old ghetto in the medieval heart of the island’s capital.
Historical records show that Jews have lived on Mallorca since at least the fifth century.
After centuries of relative tolerance, a wave of pogroms in the late 14th century forced the island’s Jews to flee or accept conversion to Catholicism. Many of the so-called “new Christians” continued to practice their old religion in secret, so when the Spanish Inquisition was established in Mallorca in 1488, the community faced a new wave of persecution that saw dozens burned at the stake and hundreds more forced to flee.
The late 17th century saw a renewed crackdown on crypto-Jews on the island with dozens more executed, tortured or forced to escape.
The Inquisition’s punishments extended to the offspring of those condemned, forbidding them from holding public office, joining the clergy or marrying outsiders for two generations, even if they became practicing Catholics. In the decades and centuries that followed, the descendents of those bearing the 15 surnames of the Jews condemned in those last trials became known as Xuetes (a Catalan word; Chuetas in Spanish). The word is said to be an insult with its origins in the Catalan word for pork. These days, they prefer the term “persones del carrer” or people of the street, referring to the main street running through the old ghetto, where many Xuetes still live.
While the descendents of hundreds of other once-Jewish families were fully integrated into mainstream Catholic society, holders of the Segura, Miro, Fuster, Valenti, Aguilo, Bonnin, Cortes, Fortesa, Marti, Pico, Pinya, Pomar, Tarongi, Valleriola and Valls surnames continued to face some form of social ostracism from the island’s mainstream society into the 20th century, Segura explained.
“It was a stigma. They were pariahs in society, none of the other families would marry them,” he said.
Gradually the official restrictions were lifted and Xuetes were allowed to join the army, hold political office and join the priesthood. Many became fervent Catholics, but discrimination against them continued.
“My father would say, it’s not enough just to go to mass, you have to really show that you’re a good Catholic,” Segura recalled. “I can still remember, people would point and say ‘look over there, that’s a Xueta’ — a residue of prejudice remained, like the grounds at the bottom of a coffee cup.”
In recent years, things have changed. Xuetas have been elected as mayors of Palma and to other high offices; associations have been formed to promote the island’s Jewish heritage; Xuetes like Miguel Segura have married outside the 15 extended families; travel agencies offer tours of the old Jewish quarter.
In the 1970s, a young Xueta named Nicolau Aguilo traveled to Israel and converted to Judaism. Now, as Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, he has been appointed as an emissary to Spain by the Shavei Israel organization, which seeks to reach out to communities with Jewish roots.
While the descendants of most of those converted by force in Spain, Portugal or Latin America at the time of the Inquisition are now practicing Catholics with little knowledge of their Jewish background, some small communities like that in the Portuguese hill village of Belmonte continued to practice a form of Judaism in secret for centuries and have recently come back into the open as Jews.
Segura finally rejoined his ancestors’ faith in December in a ceremony at the Shearith Israel Synagogue in Manhattan after seven years of preparations and with the support of his wife, a Catholic who is not of Xueta origin. But it took him seven years to complete the process in the face of opposition from some Jews who are wary about relaxing the rules on conversion for the "bnei anusim" — the Hebrew term for the descendents of those forcibly converted.
Segura says it’s time for the Jewish religious authorities to make it easier for the descendents of Spanish Jews to return by recognizing their embrace of their ancestors' faith without obliging them to go through the lengthy and arduous conversion process.
“There are about a dozen (Xuetes) who want to convert. There were more, as many as 30, but they were put off by the intransigence of the Jewish community,” he said. “It’s very sad that after 500 years of marginalization and insults that when you come back to your origins they say they don’t want you. They have to make easier to convert.”