After 500 Years, A Return To Judaism
After emerging from the warm waters of the West Side Mikvah last week, Miquel Seguara, above, said, “I feel a relief, like I’m free, clean, purified.”
More than five centuries after his ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism, and more than 300 years after a relative was burned at the stake for secretly practicing Judaism, Miquel Segura of Mallorca, Spain, returned to the Jewish people.
In a ceremony last week that began with Shachrit prayers at Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City, and continued with a double dunk into the warm waters of the West Side Mikvah, Segura reaffirmed his connection to his Jewish ancestors. The 65-year-old journalist can trace his family history back, in precise detail, for centuries.
Segura is a Chueta, as descendants of Mallorcan Jews who were forcibly converted, are known. Over generations, the Chuetas were persecuted, often tortured and discriminated against. Even the name, Chueta (Xueta in Catalan) is offensive, as it’s derived from the word for pig in the Catalan language. Since other Christians wouldn’t marry Chuetas, even as these “New Christians” lived in accordance with the Church, the Chuetas have remained as enclosed community. Today, there are an estimated 20,000 Chuetas, most in Mallorca, Spain’s largest island, located in the Mediterranean Sea.
The ceremony, held on the morning of the sixth day of Chanukah, Rosh Hodesh Tevet, was not a conversion, but a return. The timing was fitting, as the sacred moments symbolized renewal, faith and determination.
Rabbi Marc D. Angel, rabbi emeritus of Shearith Israel and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, who officiated at the ceremony, cited an opinion of the Rama, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century) that when a person wishes to return to Judaism, he needs to go to the mikveh, for purification. No bet din is required, as at a conversion. Since Segura’s family had married only other Chuetas for generations, as he found through his genealogical research, he is still a Jew.
Rabbi Angel receives calls almost weekly from people who want to consult with him about their Jewish roots and possible paths to conversion or return. “Every story is a novel,” he says. He has officiated at other return ceremonies, but this was the first time he has done such a ceremony for someone from the Chueta community.
When Segura, known in Hebrew as Michael ben Hayyim, emerged from the waters, dressed again in his pinstripe suit, he was beaming, “I feel a relief, like I’m free, clean, purified.” He greeted his wife and other guests, who showered him with calls of “Mazel tov” back in the waiting room. “I think this is the most happy day of my life.”
Graciously, he thanked his wife, who is not a Chueta, and said that without her encouragement and support, the moment would not have been possible. He showed the assembled group a family tree and was presented with a Hebrew/Spanish document that stated, “After five centuries, Miquel Segura of Palma de Mallorca returned to his people.”
Segura, who has written more than 20 books including “Raices Chuetas, Alas Judias,” (Chuetas Roots, Jewish Wings), first learned of his Chueta background when he was 15 and was taunted in school. Previously, his parents avoided the topic. Soon after, when he heard a procession on the street saying that the Chuetas killed Jesus Christ, he began, along with a cousin, to read about their history. Members of the community are easy to identify, as they have one of the 15 family names that have lasted over the centuries, including Aguilo, Forteza, Marti and Valleriola.
In Mallorca, persecution of the Jews began in the 1300s, with a wave of violent pogroms in 1391. The Jewish community on the island dates back to the fifth century. Jews in Mallorca were forced to convert, even before the edict of Expulsion in 1492. The Inquisition was formally abolished in 1808, but social, economic and religious discrimination against the Chuetas has continued into the modern era. Only in the past 40 years or so, as the society has opened up more, Chuetas have begun to intermarry. Segura, whose wife is a Catholic, is the first in his family line to marry outside of the group.
When asked about any traces of Jewish practices in their home while growing up, he recalls, “My father didn’t want to cut cheese and meat with same knife, and no one else could touch this knife. But we really lived as Catholics.”
In 1994, the publication of his first book on the subject of the history of the Chuetas, “Memoria Xueta” was a sort of coming out, stating publicly that he was a Chueta. A prominent figure in Mallorcan society, Segura was met with debate and personal attacks. He then began thinking about returning to Judaism, to remove the stigma of being a Chueta. Over the last few years, he has traveled to South America, speaking about his books and his own story, and has received much support.
Six years ago, at a conference in Barcelona for “Bnei Anousim,” the sons and daughters of Jews forcibly converted, Segura met Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, an Israeli organization that reaches out to descendants of Jews around the world and fosters their connection to Judaism and the State of Israel. Freund, who brought Segura’s story to Rabbi Angel’s attention, came to New York for the ceremony.
“This is proof of the power of Jewish memory and is the best possible revenge for what the Inquisition did to his ancestors,” Freund said. To Segura, he said, “I hope that you open the doors to many in Palmas de Mallorca to return to the Jewish people.”
Another man from the Chueta community has moved to Israel, undergone a formal conversion and was ordained by the chief rabbinate. Rabbi Rabbi Nissan ben Avraham travels frequently to Mallorca and Barcelona to lecture and teach.
Segura says that others in the community are also very interested in their Jewish roots and in Jewish culture, but many cannot trace their family trees as he did. He plans to encourage others in the community to reclaim their Judaism.
A columnist for the newspaper Ultima Hora, Segura, who has a photograph of a mezuzah on his Web site, says that he longer eats pork and shellfish, won’t mix meat and milk, but is “not exactly kosher.” He prays the Shema by heart and says that “this prayer makes my identity. Most Friday evenings, he goes to services at the one synagogue in Palma, the capital, established by German and English Jews who’ve resettled on the island. As Segura explains, members of the shul “do not open their arms” to the Chuetas, and the shul does not count them as part of the minyan.
“He is a Jew in every respect, in the eyes of heaven. I hope that he’ll also be seen as a Jew in the eyes of other Jews,” Freund remarks.
The American-born Freund, whose organization has been involved with communities in India, China, Poland and the former Soviet Union, asserts, “I think that the Jewish people have a responsibility toward the Chuetas. We should be embracing them.”
“Ironically, it was the ongoing exclusion of Mallorca’s ‘Old Christians’ that allowed the Chuetas to preserve their identity well into the 20th century,” Freund says.
Segura may may be the last Jew in his line, or maybe not. His wife is Catholic, and their two children, a daughter who lives in Mallorca and a son who’s a diplomat in Madrid, are not Jewish. But his son is married to a Chueta, and their young son speaks of being Jewish like his grandfather.
(Tags: Chueta, Conversion, Jewish)