An interview with Carol Castiel, President of Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, Inc. 2008
When did you first travel to Cape Verde?
In 1985 when I was program officer for Portuguese-Speaking Africa at the New York-based African-American Institute (currently called the Africa-America Institute).
What did you do in Cape Verde?
I administered scholarship programs funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), for Portuguese-speaking Africa (i.e., Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Angola). I placed students in American Universities for undergraduate and graduate programs, monitored their academic progress and sent reports to their home countries.
How did you learn about the Jews of Cape Verde?
I learned about them precisely because of my above work. Many of my students bore Jewish surnames and I asked them about that. One student from the Wahnon family told me that his ancestors hailed from Morocco. Further, conversations with some government officials confirmed the Jewish presence in Cape Verde. They informed me about the existence of Jewish cemeteries and the village of Sinagoga in the island of Santo Antao.
What was your impression of the descendants?
I was most impressed by their pride in their Jewish ancestry. No matter how remote the bloodline (say 4 or 5 generations), they were proud to be of Jewish descent. One businessman, Daniel Brigham who has since passed away, told me that he was not a religious man but that he strived to follow the 10 commandments, and that he was proud of his Jewish “rib.”
What did you learn from the descendants?
I learned about their pride in their forebears, their strong ties to the other Jewish families who immigrated to Cape Verde and their assimilation into Cape Verdean society. The Jews were few in number and mostly males in a predominantly Catholic country. Through extensive interviews which I hope to continue, I have learned about their complex genealogies that include intermingling with Catholic Cape Verdeans of both African and Portuguese descent. Many have carefully researched and outlined elaborate genealogies that date back to the original Jewish immigrants.
Is there any type of organization of descendants, and if so, what did you learn from that organization?
Yes, AMICAEL—the Cape Verde-Israel Friendship Society is essentially a nonprofit dedicated to fostering good Cape Verdean-Israeli relations. However, a subcommittee within that non-governmental organization (NGO) is dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the cemeteries and to documenting the memory and legacy of their forebears. Most of AMICAEL’s members happen to be of Jewish descent.
How did you start your organization?
The Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, Inc began as far back as 1995, but it had a different name: “Jews of Cape Verde: Preservation of Memory.” Essentially it was a subsidiary or American partner to AMICAEL, but without firm legal status. Subsequently, B’nai B’rith International based in Washington, DC provided a nonprofit, 501(C) 3 “umbrella” for the project and even set aside a line-item in the budget for contributions. However, this association was short-lived and was eventually was terminated. In 2006, I had the good fortune of meeting a benevolent lawyer, Richard Popkin, who was involved in Jewish cemetery restoration in Cuba. He generously offered to create a private foundation entitled “Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project,” and to apply for nonprofit tax exempt 501(C) 3 status from the IRS which we obtained in December 2007. However, I was constantly inspired by people along the way, notably by Mr. Isaac Bitton, a Portuguese Jew who lived in Woodstock, Illinois. He succeeded in successfully raising funds to restore the Jewish cemetery in Faro, Portugal, the site of a large, mostly Moroccan Jewish community—not unlike that of Cape Verde. He was the one who told me of the importance of creating a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization and of mobilizing the help important political figures. Thanks to his inspiration and counsel, I hope to emulate his good works. Sadly, he passed away last year.
What type of endorsements does your organization have today?
First and foremost, the government of the Republic of Cape Verde has endorsed the project at the highest levels. We have an eloquent letter from Prime Minister Jose Maria Neves. His predecessor, Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga, who is of Jewish descent, also endorsed the Project. Mr. Andre Azoulay, counselor to King Mohammed VI of Morocco, has also endorsed CVJHP. We enjoy strong support from B’nai B’rith International as well as from the American Jewish Committee and the American Sephardi Federation of New York.
What are your goals for the future of your organization?
To physically restore, preserve, and maintain the small Jewish cemeteries; to publish several articles, pamphlets, and books about the contribution of the Jews to Cape Verdean society based on the memories of the descendants and archival research; and to encourage Jewish heritage tourism to the islands.
Do you believe that through archival research you may find further links to Morocco and the Jews of the Maghreb? What type of findings to you predict?
The links to Morocco are direct and inextricable. The inscriptions on the tombstones indicate that most Jews came directly from Tangiers, Tetouan, Rabat, or Mogador (Essaouira). I predict that the factors which led to their departure will be many, varied, and complex. They will be primarily due to deteriorating economic conditions and high unemployment in Morocco during the mid-1800’s, which occurred after the Spanish-Moroccan war. But I also want to find out if other factors, such as anti-Jewish sentiment, may have been on the rise, particularly in Northern Morocco. Usually deteriorating economic conditions in the Muslim world (which, compared to the Christian Europe, provided greater protection to Jews) led some Muslims to blame Jews for their misfortunes. We will have to see what the literature says.
In what type of work did the Jews take part in Cape Verde?
They were primarily involved in international commerce, shipping, or worked as administrators for the Portuguese colonial authority.
How do the descendants identify themselves today?
It varies. Some say they are Jewish, even though they do not practice Jewish customs and rituals. Some are devout Catholics but are still proud of their Jewish ancestry. Others took the leap and engaged in full conversions to Judaism. I know of three individuals who did that.
What type of stories did the descendants tell you which included hints at Jewish tradition?
Jacinto Benros told me that he remembers his father talking about “dafina,” a traditional Moroccan Jewish dish made on the Sabbath. Evidently this culinary tradition was passed along. Others described eating oriental pastries typical of Morocco. Some said their forebears prayed, but usually inside the house. One descendant, Julieta Brigham, said when her father traveled to Lisbon, he went to synagogue. Most said that even the offspring of Jewish immigrants, who for the most part were brought up in the Catholic tradition, were not even baptized. Israel Benoliel, a dear friend and descendant who passed away last year, was not religious, but neither did he practice Christianity. He still observed Yom Kippur and ate matzo on Pesach. And he insisted on being buried according to Jewish law.
The following questions are regarding information gleaned from Carol’s interviews with Jewish Cape Verdean descendants:
How active was the Jewish population in Cape Verde?
They assimilated rather quickly due to widespread intermarriage. Since most of the Jews were male, and since Judaism is passes through the mother, affiliation with Jewish tradition and ritual were further diluted.
How would you describe the culture of the Jewish men in Cape Verde?
It is not much different from Catholics. As I said, few actively perpetuated the Jewish faith. However, even those that did not receive a strong Jewish education, feel a special bond with the Jewish people and an affinity with Jewish moral values.
How would you describe Jewish family life in Cape Verde?
It doesn’t really exist as such given the widespread assimilation. However, there is great pride, curiosity and a desire to revive the memory of the Jewish ancestors, something I hope to achieve through CVJHP.
How did the descendants preserve Jewish culture and/or traditions?
Some opted for full conversion—even one young man in Lisbon whose matrilineal line was completely Jewish. However, since he had not been circumcised, nor did he have a Jewish education, he decided to undergo official conversion. He became an active participant in the Lisbon Jewish community. Others are recreating in great detail the family trees of their Jewish “rib.” They do this out of great pride no matter how remote the bloodline. Others have written memoirs, saved and preserved precious photos and other artifacts from their Jewish forebears.
What physical remnants is there of the Jewish presence in Cape Verde?
Cemeteries are the most concrete vestiges. There is also a roadside sign for the village of Sinagoga of in Santo Antao and many residences and places of business. We hope to identify them and place plaques of remembrance on these buildings so that they, along with the burial grounds, can become part of a Jewish Heritage tour circuit.
Did the Jewish Cape Verdean population of emigrants from Morocco in the 19th century blend in with the Conversos of the Inquisition that had previously emigrated from Portugal?
That is a fascinating question that I will try to answer through archival and other research. It is very possible that some of the Moroccan Jews sought out or were naturally drawn to some of these families. For example, many members of the Benoliel family of Boa Vista married into the Carvalho family which is rumored to be Conversos. We will have to dig through interviews and other sources to substantiate this. Even though there was a lot of assimilation which eventually led to the disappearance of practicing Jews in Cape Verde today, some Jewish families did marry amongst themselves. The Levy’s with the Benoliel or with the Benros etc… This will have to be fleshed out during interviews.
What path did the Jews take to get to Morocco and why did they take that path?
Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from Spain and Portugal after 1492 and 1496 respectively, sought refuge in Muslim Morocco which absorbed them. They joined the already sizeable Jewish population which was living in Morocco since 70 CE!
At what point did the Jews begin assimilating and what contributed to their assimilation?
Some families assimilated soon after their arrival such as the Benros family from Tangiers. Others who seemed to resist this temptation, were perhaps more religious, and attempted to marry among the other Jewish families. In the end, they were too few in number compared to the large Catholic population and they were mostly males, to resist assimilation. Given these odds, after the first or second generation, their assimilation was inevitable. As the former Minister of Culture, Ondina Ferreira, said to me of the Jews of Cape Verde, “one could not tell where their Jewishness left off, and their Cape Verdeaness began.”
What type, if any, evidence existed of Jews that resisted the assimilation?
As I said, marriage trends in certain families, particularly the Benoliel family, reflected an attempt to marry among other Jews. There may be other examples, but theirs is the most striking and verifiable.