20 April 2007

Cape Verde: Jewish presence

YNet recently posted a story about Israel's ambassador to Senegal, Gideon Bachar, who visited the island nation of Cape Verde to present his credentials and was astonished to discover the Jewish heritage of a local young woman.

I guess Bachar missed the IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Washington, DC in 2003, when we listened to a fascinating program on the history of the island and its Jewish roots by Carol Castiel of the Jews of Cape Verde Project.

Castiel spoke about two major waves of immigration. In the late 15th century, Jews and New Christians fled to Cape Verde to escape the Inquisition. In the mid-19th century, Jews from Morocco and Gibraltar arrived. Gravestone inscriptions reflect this wave, found in cemeteries on the islands of Sao Tiago, Santo Antao, Boa Vista and Sao Nicolau. Common names, said Castiel at the conference, are AUDAY, COHEN, LEVI, BENROS, BENOLIEL, WAHNON, PINTO, FERRERA and SERUYA.

In 1994, a group of descendants of those Jews created a committee within the Cape Verde-Israel Friendship Society (AMICAEL) to press for the restoration of cemeteries throughout the islands and create a permanent archive documenting their ancestors. In 2003, the president of AMICAEL was Januario Auday Nascimento, who was then a Member of Parliament. Castiel was AMICAEL's U.S. representative.

The YNet story is about the meeting between the ambassador and Katya Ben Shimol, 17, on Cape Verde, which is off Africa's west coast. Her ancestor - Shlomo Ben Shimol - immigrated from Morocco in the 19th century, part of a group seeking economic opportunities. Many were bachelors; they married into the island's local population. There are Jewish cemeteries, and a village named Synagoga.

Their descendants are aware of their heritage although they've been Christians for generations.

While the ambassador was in Cape Verde, a Spanish-Jewish doctor, Dr. Jose Tristan, was there to operate on 20 local children born with cleft palates. During his visit, Bachar met Katya:

The girl displayed curiosity about Judaism and proudly showed the ambassador a small notebook, written in Portuguese, in which she recorded her genealogy along with copies of photographs of her ancestors.

One of the photos shows the gravestone of the Jewish founder of her family, Shlomo Ben Shimol, who came to Cape Verde from Tetouan in Morocco and passed away in 1904.
Moved by the surprising meeting with the young woman, the ambassador and the doctor decided to set out to find Ben Shimol's grave.

Between soaring basalt mountains in the center of the island of Santiagu, the two located the lone grave. Ambassador Bachar said Kaddish over the grave. "The man probably never got to have Kaddish said over him," Dr. Tristan said.

For more on Cape Verde Jews, click here, here, and here .

Here is a listing of more sources on the subject.

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