July 28, 2011
Michael Freund welcomes back crypto-Jews
They officially converted to Catholicism a half millennium ago, but a combination of discrimination, geographic isolation, and persistence kept the approximately 18,000 Xuetas of Mallorca as a distinct ethnic community, Jewish by ancestry, but not in practice. On July 11, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, a leading halachic authority in Israel, recognized the Xuetas as Jewish, in no need of conversion.
“Since it has become clear… that throughout the generations most of them married among themselves, then all those who are related to the former generations are Jews, from our brethren the children of Israel,” Rabbi Karelitz wrote. According to their history, the Xuetas are descendants of local Jews who were forcibly converted in 1435. But Inquisition authorities on the Spanish-ruled eastern Mediterranean island continued to accuse them of secretly practicing Judaism, as crypto-Jews.
Branded as outcasts, the converts married amongst each other, retaining their Jewish ethnicity. “There are 15 distinct Xueta family names. Because of the historical circumstances and endogamy, it is relatively easy to document and prove their ancestry,” Freund said. Within the families, vestiges of Jewish customs remained. “At home, we have never eaten pork. We didn’t know why, but it was a custom in the family. And we don’t mix food like milk and meat,” said Palma de Mallorca resident Miyella Madraigal, in a 2008 promotional film by Shavei Israel.
The celebrated halachic ruling comes after years of efforts by Westchester-born oleh Michael Freund, whose Shavei Israel organization has traveled the world, documenting descendants of Jews, claimants of lost tribe membership, and others with Jewish roots, interested in returning to the fold.
“There was a particular sense of urgency as in the past two generations, intermarriages have begun and most of them could simply disappear,” Freund said. “We are not looking to compel them to wear yarmulkes, but simply the opportunity to return to their roots.” Freund’s own activism began in his youth, inspired by his grandmother, an “old-time Zionist,” in his words, who served as president of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization.