25 September 2008

Cape Verde: Jewish memories

Cape Verde's Jewish roots are discussed in Naomi Seck's Voice of America broadcast. Here is the text and the broadcast itself is available as well.

In Cape Verde, a small stretch of islands just off the coast of West Africa, nearly everyone is Catholic. But as Naomi Seck reports for VOA from the capital, Praia, some residents talk about what it means to them to be the heirs of the islands' Jewish past.

At the main cemetery in Praia, white crosses stretch in every direction.

But a quick question to the guard, and he leads visitors sure-footedly up the hill to the left.

Here, a few stone tombs lie flat in the ground, and there are no crosses.

Jose Levy describes what he sees.

"Some of the graves have descriptions in Hebraic, others have descriptions in both Hebraic and Portuguese," he explains.

These are the graves of some of Cape Verde's former Jewish population. There are about half a dozen here. They mostly come from the late 1800s.

He shares his name with a man buried here. Only a few generations ago, the family were practicing Jews.

The island's Jews arrived in the 1400s, when Portugal colonized the uninhabited islands and it became an important trading post. The Portuguese Jews came under pressure when Portugal, following Spain's earlier example in in 1492, required all Jews to convert or be expelled.

The second wave of Jews came from Morocco in the 1850s, looking for economic opportunities. Levy's family descends from this group. At one time, says his father, Abraão Levy, his family owned and farmed a lot of land on Santiago, where Praia is located. Abraão also says the descendants of the Jewish immigrants have played prominent roles in Cape Verde, including a former prime minister and a finance minister.

"My grandfather and my great-grandfather came from Portugal and they married Catholic women, and I think the Catholic aspect was much stronger, because I never saw anything, my father told me he has never seen any practicing any rites in the house," Levy says.

Yet a gold Star of David, a symbol of the Jewish faith, dangles from a bracelet on his wrist.

Levy says he wears it to quietly remind himself of his Jewish heritage.

Read the complete article and listen to the program at the link above.

Tracing the Tribe has previously written about Cape Verde here and here.

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