Island life helps Dani give up pork to rediscover religion

CELEBRATIONS: Dani Rotstein and the Majorca Jewish community celebrate Chanucah in December

THERE was a Jewish presence on Majorca from 418 CE, but prior to and during the Spanish Inquisition the community were forced to convert to Christianity. ILANIT CHERNICK discovers a man helping to restore Jewish life in Majorca

OVER the last four years, New Yorker Dani Rotstein has been working to rebuild the Jewish community in the Spanish holiday island’s capital Palma, which was forced to accept Catholicism in a series of persecutions from 1391 to 1492.

Rotstein said that when he moved to Majorca, he thought he was coming for a year to take a break, and took a job with a production service company on the island.

However, he met his wife-to-be in Barcelona three weeks after his arrival and ended up becoming one of the leaders rebuilding this ancient community of crypto-Jews, known as Chuetas.

“Upon arriving here, I was sure I wouldn’t find anyone Jewish,” he explained. “I found out there was a shul that had been operating since the 1980s and started going there, [and] that’s when I learned of the Chuetas.”

According to Rotstein, there are about 1,000 Jews on the island, including 80 Israeli families. Rotstein sits on the synagogue board, together with three others, including two Chuetas.

One Friday night, he noticed the synagogue had “skipped over some of the prayers that are usually done only when there is a minyan”.

He counted 14 men and inquired, discovering that some of the congregants were still converting to Judaism.

“I felt closer to these returned Jews than to some of the Sephardi community,” he said.

“I come from a Conservative, American, Ashkenazi background and to see them so excited about being Jewish got me so excited about my Judaism.”

With his new-found fervour, Rotstein stopped eating pork.

“There is no rabbi and chazan, but people volunteer to lead the services,” he said. “We sometimes struggle to get a minyan on Shabbat.

“Four years ago, synagogue life was the only life going on here . . . but Jewish identity is not just about the synagogue and prayer.”

Rotstein said that growing up in America, his connection to Judaism was based on culture, history and the social side of things, not just prayer, and it was these aspects that he wants to work hard to incorporate into Jewish life on the island.

He, his wife and other members of the community have been working hard to change this, despite it being quite a challenge with such a diverse community.

“I feel like perhaps in Europe [and specifically] Spain, Jewish community life is centred around the synagogue,” he said.

“There was no idea or sense of community; we would go and pray, have a quick Coca-Cola and snacks in the next room, but I didn’t know the names of people.

“There was no talking or connections. People weren’t inviting each other to Shabbat meals,” and no one getting together for hikes or to attend films together with a Jewish thread.

Slowly, Rotstein and his wife started organising Shabbat dinners.

“We do them at restaurants once a month,” he explained. “We strove to make connections, invited people, and the small group got larger and larger. We met Jews from Mexico, Iran, Costa Rica and Turkey.

“So, we got this idea of ‘how cool would it be to have a multicultural Jewish community living on a Mediterranean island’ from different backgrounds,” he said, adding that there are many interfaith couples, and Jews with different levels of observance.

They then started organising Limmud events as a vehicle to bring everyone from all Jewish backgrounds and levels of observance together.

“Limmud’s motto is everyone can be a teacher and everyone should be a student,” he said.

The island’s first Limmud event took place in May, 2018. Some 85 people attended to learn about Majorca’s Jewish history or to take classes by the Chuetas on law, art and culture.

The couple also organise celebrations for the Jewish holidays, including Chanucah and Purim. They are trying to institute more activities for children, and have hosted challa bakes for them and matzo bakes before Passover.

Rotstein explained that Majorca’s Jewish history can be traced back to 418 CE. In the Middle Ages, the large Jewish community was spread out in three barrios or juderias (Jewish quarters). But in 1391, the community was devastated by a pogrom.

“The Jews were scapegoats because they were involved in money lending,” he said.

Christians weren’t allowed to lend money, so “this role went to the Jews. They were castigated and punished by the people not wanting to pay their debts,” he said.

In 1435, the remaining Jews were compelled to convert.

There were no options either to leave the island or be exiled from it.

“The options were to die or convert,” he said, explaining that the entire community was forcibly converted at a church that is still standing today.

Driven underground, Majorca’s crypto-Jews were hounded by the Spanish Inquisition, which suspected some conversos of secretly practicing Judaism.

In 1688, 40 crypto-Jews tried to flee the island. Driven back to Palma by a storm, they were tortured by the Inquisition.

Three years later, 37 Chuetas were burned at the stake in front of 30,000 people. Three of those condemned to die refused to accept Jesus, “and said they were born Jewish and they will die Jewish,” Rotstein noted, adding that this “story is not known in the Jewish world”.

He added: “These stories need to be shared. People have no clue of the island’s Jewish history and that there is a Jewish quarter to visit.

“The more awareness we can create, the more tolerance that can come from it. We’re working with the local non-Jewish community and hope to go into schools and educate about the Jewish converso and Chueta history of Majorca.”

He also said that he hopes Majorca’s story of revival will inspire other people’s Jewish journeys.

“I hope to create a better future for the children, for my seven-month-old son, Oren. I hope he can grow up with Jewish friends, go to a Jewish Sunday school and have a barmitzvah here,” he said, adding that the community is still fragmented.

“The dream is to open up a Jewish community centre for Jews and non-Jews to learn about Jewish history and culture. They can take Hebrew classes and people who are Jewish can learn more about their Judaism. Those interested in finding their roots or converting can come here to learn.”

Rotstein hopes that once this dream is actualised, different minyanim can be held in the building.

He said some want Chabad to come, so that there can be a rabbi who is well versed in Jewish law to help make decisions for the community.

“We have a big challenge ahead of us,” he added. “But we’re excited to do the work.”

(Jerusalem Post)

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