Shavei Israel | A girl from Brooklyn discovers her “Chueta” Jewish roots

A girl from Brooklyn discovers her “Chueta” Jewish roots

A girl from Brooklyn discovers her “Chueta” Jewish roots

Despite the diaspora, many dispersals, and other challenges – or perhaps because of it all – the Jewish people are in an era of  ever-increasing interest to restore family trees and study their ancestors’ history.

In particular, such family research is accompanied not only by curiosity but also by a feeling of genuine personal connection with the religious and cultural traditions of ones forebears. These stories confirm a well-known statement that Jewish blood ‘reminds’ itself through generations, and half-forgotten traditions that have lost all logical explanation, acquire new and profound meaning, once again proving the eternity of the covenant between G-d and His people.

Karina Barro, the heroine of this story, grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and from a young age she felt how different she was from her extremely diverse ethnic background. Accustomed to consider herself and her parents Cubans, Karina didn’t look like them, didn’t have with the a common native language, and, in general, found it difficult to view this self-identification from the point of view of nationality, not of regional affiliation. “What does Cuban even mean?” she asks, and her search only confirms the lack of a feeling of real belonging to this group – and actually it causes her longing for information as to where her family came from.

“One day my aunt called me and told me her great-aunt has a book written by Baruch Braunstein in 1936 ‘The Chuetas of Majorca,'” Karina recalls. “Within that book, my great-aunt has written the names of relatives in Mallorca and disclosed that she was a Chueta and is Jewish. That information led my search to focus primarily on my mother’s family. Also, it was easier as I had more records of relatives from my mother’s side.”

Karina succeeded in finding out that her grandmother was born in Cuba, but her mother’s maternal-grandmother was from Mallorca, Spain. She came to Cuba as a child with her sister and parents. Her name was Catalina Cortes-Pico, which seemed like a typical Spanish name. With that information and the information provided in the book, the search was actually quite easy. Karina’s great grandmother possessed two of the 15 Jewish names in the island of Mallorca. According to research on the internet, the Chuetas of Mallorca were Jewish people that inhabited the land for centuries and before Christianity.

“This information was actually quite comforting,” Karina confesses. “It was strange, because while I felt different, I felt I had ties to the Jewish people. This may be a spiritual thing or the fact I grew up in Brooklyn and had several friends that were Jewish, and my step-grandfather was a Syrian Jew. We were not religious in any form, but the Jewish holidays were beautiful to me. Another interesting thing was that my mother lit candles Friday nights and had no idea why until our recent discovery. Once I asked her why she lit the candles Friday night and she responded ‘because my mother did.'”

Excited by the tremendous success of her search, Karina decided to travel to Mallorca to see the land her family came from. In July 2017 she embarked on a journey there. Taken by the extraordinary beauty of the island, she still could not hide the disappointment from the very scant information about Chuetas at her disposal.

“It seems it that a lot was erased in history. A piece of the past was evident in the main Cathedral in Palma (Catedral de Mallorca), which had a Star of David in its center, stained glass window and is rumored to have been placed there by the Chuetas as a tribute to Judaism. There were some historical facts in the Cathedral’s garden that explained the expulsion of the Jewish people, but not much else to commemorate. Furthermore, the only synagogue on the island was closed and is only open on holidays.”

Having spoken with her distant Chueta relatives, Karina was shocked by their memories of the discrimination that Chuetas had once experienced: this applies to their Jewish origin being a taboo subject and to the ever-existing distance between their community and the country’s original Catholic population. “They made me sad,” Karina explains. “Because even after all those years and sacrifices, the Chuetas were not considered Mallorcan and were outsiders in the only land they knew. I suppose it’s similar to how I felt, being different.”

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that despite the external difficulties and restrictions, the Jewish life of the island has remained at a very high level all this time and compelled members of the community to comply with the highest religious standards. The community is also interesting from a linguistic point of view. Karina discovered that “while they are Sephardic, the Chuetas did not speak Ladino. The main language of Mallorca is Mallorquin, which is a dialect similar to Catalan and very different than Castilian. The Jews of Mallorca came to the island knowing Aramaic and later learned Mallorquin.”

For his invaluable help in her genealogical research, Karina thanks Alberto Fiol Bonnin, who is a member of Memoria del Carrel and was able to trace her family back to the 1500s. She is not going to stop there and limit herself to the knowledge she succeeded to get, wishing to reconnect with her Jewish heritage to the fullest, and transfer this aspiration to her daughter.

“I will be celebrating [Jewish holidays] in my home so that these customs will not be taken away from us again and so that unlike my ancestors we can celebrate openly and peacefully,” Karina promises.

Karina’s research resulted in building a beautiful and impressive family tree you can see by clicking this link: Genealogy

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Esther Surikova
Esther Surikova
esther@shavei.org