Dani Rotstein has set up Jewish Majorca tours in Palma with his wife Carla. | Humphrey Carter
New Yorker Dani Rotstein is a tour de force who, as a freelance film producer and filmmaker, landed in Mallorca in 2014 to work as a producer for Palma Pictures, expecting to be the only Jew on the island.
“To be honest. I knew nothing about this place. I had spent a year studying in Madrid while I was at college but had never really heard of the island, never mind its rich history in which the Jews, or rather the Xuetes, featured a great deal,” Dani told the Bulletin while seated at a cafe right opposite his Jewish Majorca tour agency in Calle Argenteria, one of the most famous streets in one of Palma’s two Jewish quarters.
In fact, as he was quick to point out, we were seated just a stone’s throw away from the Plaza Mayor, the location for La Casa Negra (the Black House) where the Mallorquin Inquisition had its headquarters and secret prisons and administered terrible torture for almost 400 years. On the Borne, the autos de fe used to be carried out where “New Christians” or “Crypto-Jews” would be tortured and burnt alive in public.
To explain, the Xuetes are unique to Mallorca and they are descendants of Mallorcan Jews who were either conversos (forcible converts to Christianity) or were Crypto-Jews, forced to keep their religion hidden. They practised strict endogamy by marrying only within their own group. Many of their descendants observe a syncretist form of Christian worship known as Xueta Christianity.
The Xuetes were stigmatised up until the first half of the 20th century. The term derives from the word xulla, which means a type of salted bacon and, by extension, pork. According to popular belief, it refers to Xuetes who were seen eating pork to show that they did not practise Judaism.
“But I had no idea. I guess Mallorca being an island and after 400 years of the Inquisition I just didn’t expect to find many Jews, if any,” he said.
Dani said that there are only 15 Xueta surnames remaining in Mallorca and that, while for example there are 400,000 Jews in France, there are only around 40,000 in Spain. The plight and the history of the Xuetes is what Dani and his wife Carla, who is originally from Barcelona and last year converted to Judaism, have been and are working on reviving, keeping alive by telling the story to Mallorca and the world.
Part of that process has been a documentary he has made called Xueta Island which explores Inquisition history, Jewish revival, and identity. It was released last year after having been shot on the eve of the pandemic and edited in Mallorca and Israel via Zoom during the lockdown.
“In an ideal world, I would love to see the documentary being shown in schools, even part of the local curriculum so new generations learn more about the island’s history. Education, learning and knowledge help of course to break down stigmas, racism and hatred. None of us are born that way, they are attitudes we adopt and they don’t help, so that needs to be counteracted and the best way is education,” Dani said.
But while he personally has never really encountered anti-Semitism, his parents and grandparents, on his mother’s side in particular, did.
“My grandfather was German but managed to escape Nazi Germany in 1941, aged 14. He managed to make his way through France and over the Pyrenees to Barcelona where he boarded a ship to New York. When I met Carla at a party in Barcelona, just three weeks after having landed in Mallorca, and we eventually got engaged, I thought my grandparents would not approve of me marrying a woman who was not Jewish. But my grandfather was over the moon. ‘She’s from Barcelona, that’s my favourite city in the world,’ he said. He felt that connection. Barcelona saved his life, having fled Germany so late in the war. And as a result I guess I’m also lucky to be alive,” Dani said.
Thanks to his grandfather having been German, despite having been stripped of his nationality when fleeing Germany and finding safety in the States, when Dani wanted to move to and work in Mallorca, he was able to get a German passport.
“After having worked on commercials and film in Miami for seven years and then another seven in New York, I was a little burnt out. I was flying all over the world producing TV commercials. I was overworked and the rents were high. I needed to escape the rat race, so I came to Mallorca having been hired by Palma Pictures.
“However, paperwork initially looked like it was going to take forever. But it transpired that the German government had granted any former German Jews who had lived in Germany but had fled the country due to persecution and lost their nationality between 1930 and 1945, the right to recoup their German passport, along with their descendants. So I managed to get the necessary paperwork together, applied and was able to recoup German citizenship, which made moving to and working in Mallorca and Europe much easier,” he explained.
Dani’s father was born in the beach town of Netanya to the north of Tel Aviv in Israel. His mother, Dani says, has always kept the Jewish influence and traditions in the family. He himself is a Jewish American from New York, who had only been in Mallorca a few weeks when he got talking to a colleague at work who said he should go to the synagogue in Palma.
“I was like - what synagogue? Are we talking about some ruins underground or something but he said no, for real. So I started asking around. There was nothing online or anything but I found the place near Santa Catalina.
“The synagogue, which I think was a renovated garage, had been started by a couple of British expats who had retired here in the early 1970s along with other French and German expat Jews also living on the island. They initially met at the Hotel Del Mar in Bendinat where they also established a kosher restaurant and is also where they held events to mark the Jewish holiday celebrations and thus the hotel functioned as a pop-up synagogue. Later they used an Anglican Church in Palma before getting some money from the local government and privater donations to officially open the current synagogue in Palma in 1987. But, one of the first things they had done prior to that was purchase a plot of land in Santa Eugenia to set up a Jewish cemetery.
“So, back in 2014, I went to the synagogue for the first time and it was an interesting experience. It was very orthodox, so the men were on one side and the women the other. But there was no Rabbi or cantor, just a volunteer from Argentina and the president originally from Melilla. There was a moment I will never forget. We were told that one of the prayers, the Kaddish, was going to be skipped because there were not the necessary ten Jews required to say the prayer. But I looked around and counted 14 men. I didn’t understand the problem so I asked the gentleman sitting next to me what was going on and, as clear as day, he told me that not all of the 14 men were Jewish. Some were Xueta and that was the first time I had ever heard the word Xueta and it spiked my interest.
“To this day, Xuetes are not considered Jewish unless they’ve gone through a process of conversion or return. I have to say that as a New York Jew where being a Jew is easy/normal, I couldn’t understand why every Friday night, Catholics, who didn’t count as a Jew, were turning up at the synagogue while in the States we have a problem getting Jews to come to the synagogue,” Dani laughed. “It was really phenomenal.”
“So, it piqued my interest. I’ve always been interested in Sephardic Jewish history - Jews originally coming from Spain and Portugal after their expulsion in 1492. I don’t really know why, I’m not an orthodox Jew and my roots are originally from Germany and Poland. On my father’s side, my grandfather was born in Warsaw and my grandmother in Moldova. They escaped the Holocaust just before it happened and went to British Palestine, which is why my father was born and raised in Israel. But I was never really close to my father’s side of the family due to distance and language barriers.
“Anyway, so here I am in Mallorca and I’ve just discovered the Xuetes and I’m intrigued, especially because they only existed here in Mallorca, nowhere else in the world, and they were always trying to prove how Catholic they were to the rest of society. They were trying to fit in with the rest of society but the Catholic church never allowed them to fit in. There was always this reminder that they came from the Hebrews, which is why there are 15 family names here. They have always been marrying within the same 15 families and right now we are sitting on silver maker street. Each one of these stores, there are still a few here, were and are still owned by Xuetes. There used to be a jewellery store because the one guild that the Xuetes were allowed to establish was the silver and gold making guild, which later evolved into making jewellery.
“And Santa Eulalia was their church - I mean they were really Catholic. It’s nickname was ‘the church of the conversos’ and that’s where the mass conversion took place in 1435. That’s when the Jews were about to be wiped out again here in Mallorca because, in 1391, there had been the first major attack. In 1435 there was about to be another attack but this time they said you could either convert or die. Those were the options, which one would you take? But I wonder if the priests really took the converted into their church. Hence why we had the Inquisition, to find out who was a true Catholic, a Christian or not. That’s the religious side of it. I think it was created as a means to get the money, real estate and property etc., from the conversos. After all, it was connected to the Catholic church and the monarchy. It was to find people who weren’t falling into line with the fact that everyone had to be Catholic. It wasn’t only secret Jews who were killed during the Inquisition, it was anyone who was not a Catholic,” Dani stressed. So, Dani began investigating.
He tells of how a group of 40 Xuetes tried to flee Mallorca by sea during the Inquisition of 1691.
“They were on a boat with a British skipper. They set sail from Porto Pi, straight into a storm which forced them back to land only to be captured. Initially, they were to be tortured and burnt on the Borne, but the noble class that lived there complained about the potential smell, so they were killed in Plaza Gomilla where a plaque was erected in 2018 in memory of those who died.”
His journey of discovery in Mallorca led to the creation of Jewish Majorca in 2018 with Carla and which shares entrances with Calle Argenteria and Calle Vidrieria just behind Santa Eulalia. They offer an interactive learning experience that engages both visitors and residents alike and sparks further curiosity.
Jewish Cultural Centre
They also create space for dialogue between people from any background to learn together about the richness and diversity of Jewish history and culture.
By offering a walk-and-talk experience with members and friends of the local active Jewish community today, visitors get to see the past, present and hopefully the future from another point of view.
Dani also offers an audio tour in English and Spanish plus a virtual tour for people based overseas via their excellent website jewishmajorca.com. His film can be watched at xuetaislandthemovie.com. Dani’s next project is to open a Jewish Cultural Centre in Mallorca, in the meantime book a tour.
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Re my previous comment, I omitted to include Portugal as another safe haven. On the other hand, strange as it may seem, Freemasons were persecuted and encarcerated by Franco, many emigrating to avoid serious jail times or even death.
Three things. Firstly, he should talk to Miguel Segura, who has a daily column in the Bulletin’s sister paper Última Hora. Sr Segura, a born and bred Mallorquin, considers himself to be just as much Jewish as Spanish and obviously has a wealth of knowledge about this subject. Secondly, and this is my personal opinion, I would guesstimate that over 30% of the inhabitants of the island who have Mallorquin/Catalan surnames have over 50 % Jewish blood in them. Most though, if asked, wouldn’t agree to this, even those with xueta surnames. Thirdly, he proves once again that the much maligned Franco’s Spain was one of, if not the, only safe haven for Jews during WWII. It’s about time that certain British “historians” recognised this fact.