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
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
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
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
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
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 --
# # #
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights