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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.

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.”