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Some Spaniards return to Judaism

The ancestors of Mallorca's Xuetes were forced to convert to Catholicism. Now some of their descendants are returning to the Jewish faith.

The Carrer Argenteria, or Silversmith's Street, in heart of the old Jewish quarter of Palma de Mallorca in February 2010. (Paul Ames/GlobalPost)

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.