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Closing the Circle in Mallorca

Avi Friedman

A short conversation about a Mallorcan street sign was all it took to turn ten-year-old Nicolás Aguilo’s life completely around. Not only did the young Catholic boy eventually become a Jew, but today he is the rabbi of Mallorca’s Chueta community. Mishpacha caught up with Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham where it all began, a sunny island off the coast of Spain.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

closing the circlePalma de Mallorca, Spain

It was a warm spring day in this Spanish port town when ten-year-old Nicolás Aguilo noticed a street sign that would change his life forever. The sign was for Jafuda Cresques Street, a street named after the famous medieval cartographer Yehuda Cresques, a Mallorcan Jew who was forced to convert to Christianity in 1391.

“Look, Ma, that guy was a Chueta,” Nicolás said with a smirk, using the local term for Marrano, or Jews like Cresques who were forced to convert to Christianity but maintained ties to the Jewish religion in secret.

Mrs. Aguilo’s reaction couldn’t have come as more of a shock. “Careful who you laugh at,” she said. “You’re also a Chueta.”

Forty years later, Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham laughs as he tells the story, but it is clear that the episode was no joke.

“I was in absolute shock,” he said on a rainy Sunday in Palma, where he now serves as rabbi. “Of course I knew the word Chueta, but in Mallorcan slang the word is no more than your standard, garden-variety put-down, like calling someone a jerk or an idiot. That’s the way the kids in school used it, but nobody really meant it in a technical sense. I certainly didn’t think it had anything to do with me.”

The revelation raised questions about every aspect of Aguilo’s identity, his place in Mallorcan society, and his role in the world. Raised in a deeply religious Catholic family and a society with a centuries-old tradition of anti-Semitism, the sudden knowledge that he actually had Jewish ties raised far deeper questions for him than simple theology. In an instant, he was swept into a whirlwind of emotional turmoil and intellectual searching that has defined the rest of his life, and carried him on a journey from Palma to the West Bank community of Shiloh, and back again.

 

 

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