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The People of the Street


by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer


            There may be more beautiful places on earth than Mallorca, the Balearic island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain.  But driving through the countryside on a January afternoon when the light is violet-blue and the hillsides shimmer from the fragile pink blossoms of almond trees, when down the steep-terraced valley white doves flutter on the red tile roofs, and all along the narrow roads leading to the sea yellow wildflowers tumble over the low stone walls beyond which pale sheep alternately graze and gaze in silent contentment, that does not seem possible.     

            Mallorca's charms have been drawing the multitudes since industrial tourism began after World War II.  Today great modern hotels stretch along the coast of Palma, the island's capital city, and among them is the Sol Palas Atenea which overlooks the harbor from the apex of a deep court lined with shops.  Close by the hotel's entrance is a ladies' boutique whose window displays the usual sportswear and accessories. But what catches the eye is the unlikely presence amidst the resort wear of a pair of stone slabs with Hebrew-lettering -- a model of the ten commandments.   When asked what that sacred-looking object is doing in a shop window, the store-keeper responds in the precise articulation that betrays an English public school education: "I'm Jewish.  It's a symbol of my faith."     

            This woman is part of Mallorca's sizeable community of British ex-patriots.  She is also part of its Jewish community which was begun in the 1940s by Ashkenazi refugees and was officially recognized by the Spanish government in 1972. "It's a community that has been growing since the end of the war," says Elaine Kerrigan, the American writer and translator who has lived in Palma since the 1960s.  "The opportunities of the post-war resort economy attracted people from all over, including Jews who became welcome in Spain. These days it's become an active international group.  They have a synagogue just up the hill from the Sol Palas Atenea and a cemetery outside of the city.  

               "But ask any native-born Mallorcan where the Jewish section of Palma is," she continues,  "and he will probably direct you away from the harbor area to the Calle de Plateria (Street of Silver Shops) in the old part of town.  That's the neighborhood of the 'Xuetas.'  These people in all likelihood have nothing to do with the new Jewish community. In fact, their ancestors converted to Catholicism centuries ago but curiously enough, they are still are thought of as Jews."     

            The Street of Silver Shops is a narrow byway lined with small jewelry stores in an area whose cobblestone walkways and looming Gothic structures transport the visitor back to the middle ages.  There shopkeepers, when not occupied with customers, are wont to stand in their doorways and greet passerby’s.    

            On a mild January night, Joan Bonnim stands before his shop watching the evening shoppers stroll by.  A genial and courteous man of late middle age, he smiles but demurs when asked if this is the Jewish section.  "We are not Jewish," he said.  "The people in this neighborhood are descended from Jews, but we are Catholic.  Over and over again, Americans, English, Israelis visit our jewelry shops and ask if we are Jewish.  And I tell them all the same thing I have told you.  We are Catholics.  There on the corner is St. Eulalia, our church. Yes, we have a Jewish history, and I suppose it is very interesting, but it is from very long ago."     

            Inviting us into his small but tidy store, he introduces his son, an affable young man also named Joan Bonnim. The conversation turns to the many jewelry shops in the area. "These have always been owned by the Jewish families," the younger Bonnim says.  And the father nods in agreement.     

            Here lies Mallorca's paradox, its oxymoron: Jews who are not Jews, Catholic-Jews.  It is a community that follows no Jewish rituals and observes no Mosaic law; yet its members are perceived to be Jewish -- even, unwittingly, by themselves.     

            The surname Bonnim is one of fifteen shared by descendants of conversos who were punished for relapsing into Judaism over 300 years ago.  Forced to finally surrender their faith in the late seventeenth century, they nevertheless did not assimilate into the larger society. Instead they remained a sub culture, sustained by generations of intra-marriage and powerful ties of kinship.  And although attitudes are changing quickly in the early decades of the twenty-first century, there are still those in the general population who regard them with a combination of rueful admiration and scorn.    

             "There's always been some resentment of us from the others," Joan Bonnim, Jr. admits.  "When they call us Jews, it's not meant as a compliment.  But we are proud of our accomplishments.  Our children do well in school and go on to the university; we succeed in business.  And in the last generations, many of us have moved on to professions, becoming doctors, lawyers, professors.  Also we take care of each other.  If someone is in need, the whole community will help him out."     

            He laughs at the apparent contradiction: "Yes, we're still called Jews.  But they also call us the 'People of the Street' because so many of us have lived on this Street of Silver Shops."     

            How about "Xuetas" (chwa'-ters), he is asked.  "That too," he says with some embarrassment.  "It means bacon, and it comes from the time of conversion, when our forefathers used to eat bacon in the doorways of their shops to prove they had truly converted."     

            In his book Those of the Street, anthropologist Kenneth Moore notes the essential difference between the Mallorcan Jewish community and those on the Spanish mainland: the persistence of the Mallorcan Jews in maintaining their identity, albeit clandestinely, for nearly two hundred years after the expulsion.  It was not until an Italian-Jewish trader carelessly alluded to the existence of Mallorca's crypto- Jews in the late seventeenth century that the Inquisition finally broke the will of these converso holdouts, forcing the last of them to abandon their faith.     

            Yet, as Moore points out and as the example of the Bonnims demonstrates, Jewish identity continued even afterward.  Unlike the New Christians on the Spanish mainland, those in Mallorca did not assimilate into the general population because the Old Christians kept them apart.  Moore speculates this attitude resulted from the typical Mallorcan resistance to change, a consequence of the island's isolated situation and centuries-old poor economy which forced the former Jews to retain their collective identity.  They had surrendered their Jewish spirituality, but by remaining a cohesive community, they preserved their Jewish values.  And they continued to be perceived as Jews.     

            Allusions to this perceived identity kept surfacing.  In her book Winter in Mallorca, which describes life on the island some 150 years after the last Jew had converted, George Sand speaks of Mallorcan Jews. In hardly flattering terms, she likens them to the Jews of France, comments on their appearance and dress, their occupations, their skillful negotiation in purchasing valuable possessions of the impoverished aristocracy.  A century later, in her novel School of the Sun, about a young girl forced to spend the years of Spain's Civil War in Mallorca, the Spanish novelist Ana Maria Matute, frequently refers to the island's Jews. In the 1940s, Nazi sympathizers included the Xuetas in their anti-Semitic proclamations.  And Elaine Kerrigan, who translated Matute’s book into English, notes that even today, people jokingly refer to St. Eulalia as "the synagogue of the Xuetas." 

             But the massive tourism of the post-war years brought a new cosmopolitanism to the island and shattered the provincialism that had for so long sustained the status quo. Kenneth Moore says that visiting peninsula Spaniards could see no difference between the Xuetas and the rest.  Their common expression was that all Mallorcans are Jews.  To which the Mallorcans began to reply: "Maybe we are."     

            Under these changed circumstances, the Xueta phenomenon became Mallorca's shameful little secret, dirty laundry best kept within the family.  Today visitors find Mallorcans reluctant to talk about the Xuetas.  A tourist guide named Bernardo at first feigned ignorance when we asked about them. But moments later, driving around the old town, he pointed out jewelry stores and said "These are owned by Xuetas."  Later still, he recalled a young woman who works in Palma's television station who he said, "is not ashamed of being Xueta.  Maybe I can arrange an interview."     

            After lunch and several glasses of wine, Bernardo turned confidential.  His wife's sister's husband is a Xueta, he revealed, adding, "At the wedding many years ago, my father- in-law said he'd rather be at the cemetery than the church." Following this confession, he fell silent.  The meeting with the television personality never came off.                  In the Hagan-Moda Hombre, a fashionable men's shop close by the Street of Silver Shops, the young and poised owner blushed when the subject of the Xuetas was raised.     "Nobody cares about that any more," he said.  But moments later, he turned to us with a bright smile: "Look, I am engaged to be married, and my fiancée is a Xueta.  Years ago, this would have been a big problem.  If either of my parents had married a Xueta, their parents would have gone crazy.  But now it is all right.  Things have changed."    

             One of the ways things have changed throughout the Iberian peninsula is that there is a new-found fascination with the possiblity of having Jewish roots.  People are examining their genealogies, searching for clues that will reveal a long-buried Jewish identity.  But in Mallorca, there is no need to search.  The descendants of Jews know exactly who they are.     

            Another way things have changed on the Iberian peninsula is that Sephardim from Europe, North Africa and South America have taken advantage of Spain's offer of citizenship to descendants of Spanish Jews.  They have returned to their ancestors' homeland and, in cities like Barcelona and Madrid, established new communities, built new synagogues. 

            But in Mallorca, the descendants have never left; their community has remained intact.  However, there is no significant move to re-assert Judaic identity.  Kenneth Moore describes a few Xuetas who contacted rabbis with thoughts of converting.  Some went to Israel, but most returned to the Mallorcan community.  Yet he claims the Xuetas are very interested in Israel, a fact the elder Joan Bonnim confirms. 

            "We are most supportive of Israel," he says.  "We follow all the news about what happens there.  After the 1967 war, there was great enthusiasm among us."  But that is as far as he will go.  "As for our becoming Jewish again, it is from too long ago.  The possibility no longer interests us."     

            The son disagrees.  "I'm fascinated by my Jewish heritage," he says.  "I don't know much about it except for the stories in the Bible.  But I would like to learn.  I pay attention to the news from Israel.  I've studied the Holocaust. 

            “My heart is Jewish,” he says with some passion.  "My blood is Jewish.  But my religion is Catholic."     

            Several years ago Joan Bonnim Jr. married a non-Xueta. His little son will grow up without the stigma and correspondingly without the identity.  "I guess I am typical of my generation.  So many of us are marrying non-Xuetas.  It doesn't seem to matter anymore.  Also, many of us are moving out of the area around the Street of Silver Shops to newer sections of town.

            “This is a good thing, I believe.  I'm glad the old divisions are disappearing," he adds.  "But on the other hand, I want to hold on to what I am, to where I came from. I want to pass my history and traditions on to my son."      

            When we leave the Bonnim jewelry shop, it is after 9pm. Stores have closed.  Shutters are down.  Suddenly the old darkened streets seem menacing, the terrors of the Inquisition close at hand.  One can imagine a Joan Bonnim of the seventeenth century eating bacon in the doorway of his shop, not with the warm smile we saw but with one born of humiliation.  How many generations did it take for the pain to ease, for grief to be erased by collective forgetting?     

            By the next morning, however, such heavy-hearted reflections seem out of place.  The sun shines bright.  A new tourist ship has docked in port.  Mallorca is, after all, a place for vacation, for holiday.  Its new Jewish community is burgeoning with people from all over the world lured by economic opportunity, wonderful climate, and exquisite scenery.   

             Yet, unavoidably, a sadness lingers.  One cannot help but mourn the passing of the People of the Street who put such a curious spin on the enigmatic question: what is a Jew.  Their eventful story is about to end. No longer apart, they stand on the cusp of history, about to move out into the larger population -- and oblivion.

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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