Meet Some Prominent Cape Verdean Jewish Families
The Benoliel Family
David Benoliel was probably the most famous and highly esteemed of the Benoliel clan which produced many distinguished businessmen, engineers, economists and lawyers. He was the son of Abraham Benoliel and Esther Benathar, both born in Rabat, Morocco. In about 1860, they settled in the island of Boa Vista, which was an important transatlantic hub.
David owned a fleet of about 20 boats and ferried needed supplies among the islands. Through his varied commercial activities, he created jobs and fueled the economy of Boat Vista. He, like many members of the Benoliel family, married into the non-Jewish Carvalho family. Besides David, Esther and Abraham had seven other successful children. Two commercial houses founded by their offspring – Joao Benoliel de Carvalho and Sociedade Luso Africana – are still in business today.
Israel Benoliel, grandson of Esther and Abraham, was a telecommunications engineer who was very proud of his Jewish roots. Before he passed away in 2007 in Virginia, Israel meticulously documented his family tree and shared many of his memories with us. Rafael Benoliel, an architect in Lisbon, created the logo for the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, he also designed a blueprint for the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Boa Vista.
The Cohen Family
The prominent Cohen family settled in the island of Santo Antao. Patriarch David Jacob Cohen, came from Mogador (now Essasouira), Morocco. He and Maria das Dores Costa had six children. According to Maturino Cohen, a descendant of the Cohen family who resides in Lisbon, the Cohens made major contributions in the field of commerce, agriculture and industry in Cape Verde. One son, Benjamin Cohen, owned and ran a well-known general store in the town of Ponta do Sol and Cultivated many crops. Doctors, engineers, lawyers and professors are among the myriad descendants of the Cohen family.
Today, Zelinda Cohen, granddaughter of Benjamin, is the President of the Human Rights Commission in Cape Verde. Another descendant, Dr. Anibel Lopes da Silva, now deceased, was an esteemed doctor based in the island of Sao Vicente. He received awards for his service from the governments of both Cape Verde and Portugal.
The Pinto Family
Joao Monteiro, grandson of Isaac Pinto, inherited his talent for making “grogue,” the famous sugar-cane rum of Santo Antao, from his grandmother. Isaac was born in Tangier to Mena and Jacob Pinto. They, like many Moroccan Jews, ventured to Cape Verde and settled in Santo Antao. In 1904, Isaac received an award for the quality of his rum and coffee at an international trade fair in Paris. Isaac, along with his parents Jacob and Mena, are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Ponta do Sol. Isaac’s daughter, Sulamita, who is very proud of her Jewish ancestry, resides in Cocoli with her husband. Her son, Joao Monteiro, became one of the first and most successful commercial producers of “grogue” in Cape Verde. He trades under the name of Joao A. Monteiro & Filhos LDA and resides in Sao Vicente.
The Benros Family
Among the prominent descendants of the Benros family are former Minister of Education and Judge Vera Duarte; a popular singer of Cape Verdean music – Gardenia Benros; and a senior official for the Cape Verdean National Airlines (TACV) – Georgina Benros de Melo. Born in Tangier, the patriarch Moyses Benros was married to Mazaltob Cohen. They had two sons, Abraham and Isaac, and initially landed in the island of SaoTiago. Abraham succumbed to disease and the family moved to the island of Santo Antao where they and their descendants prospered in agriculture, commerce and administration.
The Benros clan intermarried early on. One of Isaac’s sons, Afonso, had many children, one of whom, Emilio, was a well-regarded administrator for the colonial Portuguese in the island of Sao Nicolau. His son, Jacinto Benros, lives in Central Falls, Rhode Island. He and his wife, Carmen, have given generously of their time, money, and memories to support the project.
The Wahnon Family
Yonah and his son Isaac were the first among the Wahnon clan to go to Cape Verde in the 1800′s. Both came from Gibraltar but also lived in Portugal. Both formed large families in Cape Verde and left a distinguished legacy. Their many offspring have contributed greatly to Cape Verde’s economic and social development, whether in the public or private sectors. The most famous descendant of the Wahnon family is Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga, the first democratically elected prime minister of Cape Verde. He governed for 10 years from 1991 to 2001 and was the architect of the transformation of the political system of the islands from a single party system to the pluralist democratic regime it has today.
Common Threads In The Jewish Tapestry Of Cape Verde
ORIGINS - Almost all Jews who settled in Cape Verde were Sephardim from Morocco or Gibraltar. In the 19th century, they immigrated to Cape Verde – then a Portuguese colony – seeking economic opportunities, as the archipelago was an important transatlantic commercial hub.
ASSIMILATION - Most Jews were single males. Because they were few in number, they quickly assimilated into the larger Catholic society through intermarriage.
PATRILINEAL DESCENT – “The names remained but the rituals disappeared.” So says Nuno Wahnon, a young descendent of the Wahnon and Cohen families, referring to the fact that most Cape Verdeans trace Jewish ancestry to their fathers. Nuno is a rare example of a Cape Verdean who is Jewish through his mother.
MARRIAGES AMONG JEWISH FAMILIES – Despite the overwhelming trend toward assimilation, many Jewish families did marry among themselves, most notably the Wahnons, the Cohens and the Benoliels.
JEWISH BURIAL GROUNDS V. SYNAGOGUE. In the Jewish tradition, providing proper burial according to Jewish law (Halacha) takes precedence over building a house of worship. Since the Jewish community in Cape Verde was small, it was probably deemed more important to create Jewish burial grounds than to build a house of worship.
MOROCCAN DIASPORA. The story of the Jews of Cape Verde is a continuation of the larger Sephardic/Moroccan Jewish Diaspora. Sephardim in general and Moroccan Jews in particular tend to be accepting and tolerant of people from different religions and backgrounds. Throughout history, they have displayed a knack for blending into other societies. The former Minister of Culture of Cape Verde, Ondina Ferreira, said of the Jews of Cape Verde “One does not know where their Jewish identify leaves off and their Cape Verdean identity begins.”
TOLERANCE – TEACHING – TOURISM – Ultimately the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project plans to take this story of mutual tolerance – by both the Jews and the Cape Verdeans who welcomed them – and transform it into a teaching tool that can be used to educate as well as to attract tourists and investors, and therefore economic growth, to Cape Verde.