An Interview with Dani Rotstein
By Deborah Fishman Shelby
This past week, I was privileged to participate in a special collaboration. FED – a community-building initiative that I founded to feed people body and soul through delicious dinners, inspirational talks, and the company and creative energy of fellow guests – journeyed from New York City to Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, to arrange a Shabbaton connected to Limud Mallorca (the Shabbaton was made possible by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation Grassroots Events program). I was captivated by the energy and enthusiasm of the local community – and in particular of Dani Rotstein, a community organizer who heads up the Limud Mallorca team. In this interview, Dani shares his passion for the history and people of Jewish Mallorca.
What attracted you to live in Mallorca?
Ever since studying abroad my junior year in Madrid, I’ve been yearning to come back to Spain to live here full-time. The live-work mentality really called to me. In the US, people live so they can work, while in Spain and other places in Europe, people work so they can live. They really do place an importance on food, family, and enjoying themselves, and I wanted to be a part of that culture.
What is Jewish Mallorca like?
I moved to Mallorca because I got a job as a TV producer here, yet I had certain misgivings, the most important of which was I thought I would never meet another Jewish person again. To my surprise, I learned that there was a very small and humble synagogue very close to where I was renting an apartment. In speaking with the wife of the president of the community at the time, I learned a little bit about the fascinating medieval history of the Jews of Mallorca. I had heard about the Jews of Spain, but I was shocked to learn of a rather substantial Jewish community here that was wiped out during the Inquisition on this tiny island in the Mediterranean. That began my journey to discover the Chuetas of Mallorca, the Catholic descendants of the forcibly converted Jews of medieval Mallorca.
I’m intrigued. Tell me more about the history of Jewish Mallorca!
Jewish communities have been historically recorded as living in the Balearic Islands since the year 418 CE. We know that they flourished, and Jews lived harmoniously with the Moors who ruled Mallorca until the 1200s. During the conquest of Christian Spain, the Jewish community of Palma (Mallorca’s principal city) rose to great power, with multiple synagogues in 3 different Jewish quarters. In 1391, they suffered their greatest pogrom on the community. In 1435, to avoid further deaths and massacres, the entire community converted at the same time to Christianity and became what is known as the Conversos. From 1435-1691, there is historical evidence of a crypto Jewish community living under the ever watchful eyes of the Mallorcan Inquisition. In 1688, there was a failed boat escape attempt where 37 crypto Jews tried to leave the island. They were caught and discovered by the Inquisition, and after 3 years of torture, another 200 members of the community were implicated and eventually murdered over the course of 4 different public executions in the year 1691. Three of these victims became martyrs when they chose to not renounce their Judaism publicly, and they were burned alive in front of 30,000 people. After this important event, there were no longer crypto Jews in Mallorca, but they would later be called Chuetas, who to this day share the same 15 last names. Up to as recently as the 1960s, they were treated as second-class citizens by the rest of the Mallorcan population. They were forced to live in a Chueta ghetto of Palma, they were not allowed certain privileges like serving in the army or navy or attending university, and most importantly, it was highly frowned upon to marry one of them. These Chuetas became devout Catholics, trying to prove to the rest of the population that they were no longer keeping the Jewish faith, and they always were regarded with deep-seated suspicion.
What happened to the Chuetas after that?
In the beginning of the 20th century, Mallorca opened up its doors to foreigners and tourists. The “Chueta problem” began to fade away, because the new residents to the island did not make a distinction between Chueta and non-Chueta. With the fall of Franco’s dictatorship, some Chuetas began to investigate Judaism. In 1979, a Mallorquin of Chueta descent named Nicolas Aguilo moved to Israel and converted back to Judaism. He is now named Rav Nissan Ben Avraham and lives in Shilo with his 12 children. He was the first of roughly 20 Chuetas to either convert or return back to Judaism in the last 30 years. There are roughly 20,000 Chuetas who live in Mallorca today, most of whom are Catholic with little to no interest in learning about their Jewish past. Yet whenever there is a Jewish event, there are some Chuetas who turn out to learn more about Judaism.
Have you experienced any anti-Semitism in Spain?
Ironically, in Spain, Jewish heritage and history is all the rage now. Many Catholics are starting to investigate their history and want to learn more about the Jewish past of Mallorca. Every time I mention that I’m Jewish or a member of the synagogue, I’ve found it to be enticing to whoever I spoke to. I have been present during some anti-Chueta remarks, which is fascinating to me: My co-board member is from a small town in Mallorca, and when speaking to a co-worker of mine, I spoke about the Chueta question and mentioned his name. My co-worker replied, “That guy, he’s always been Jewish. Not a true Catholic all his life.” That’s literally the one moment or situation I could attribute to anti-Semitism. I really haven’t [had other experiences of prejudice]. However, Spain in general is very pro-Palestinian and I have experienced negative comments about my being pro-Israel or showing supporting for the State of Israel.
How did you get involved as a community organizer?
When I first started attending Friday night services at the local synagogue, I learned that not all men were counted toward the minyan, as some of them were Chuetas interested in learning about Judaism. I felt the community was not very warm and inviting to outsiders, because the service was only in Spanish and most people did not know each others’ names. I come from a New Jersey Conservative background where we used to receive a directory of all members with addresses and phone numbers, and people would invite each other over to Friday night meals. My wife Carla and I would host Shabbat dinners every now and then and celebrate holidays with local Mallorquin people as well as expatriate Jews who live here. We felt there was more to a community than just praying on Friday nights, and began hosting Jewish film nights and different activities for families that would bring the community members together on a very social and cultural level. This took form in the eventual Limud Mallorca that we organized in April of 2018 (“Limud” is the Spanish way of spelling the English “Limmud”). It was met with great success, with over 85 people in attendance. Most of the speakers were members of the community sharing their knowledge and stories with other members of the community, an opportunity that had never existed before.
Why did you feel so attracted to the Limmud model?
After meeting Eli Ovits (the current CEO of Limmud) in Israel, I went to a Limmud training in Budapest to learn how to run a Limmud community, and I also went with Carla to the largest Limmud festival in London. Our minds were absolutely blown. We really believe in the Limmud values that clearly state that no matter where you are coming from, Limmud can take you one step further in your Jewish journey. Everyone can be a teacher, and everyone should be a student. In terms of leadership, the community since I’ve been here has never had a rabbi or chazzan, and has had only the one president. I really do believe that Limmud creates leadership through volunteerism. If you want to see a change happen, you should be empowered to make that change possible. We were all young volunteers in our 20s and 30s, yearning for a more vibrant Jewish life in this beautiful island we live in. A direct effect of doing Limud Mallorca last year was a change in leadership that no one ever thought that would happen. After the former president stepped down, myself, another member of our community originally from Girona, and 2 Mallorquins of Chueta descent who recently returned to Judaism were elected to the board and are now the steering committee of the Jewish community of the Balearic Islands. This is the first time in over 500 years that native Mallorquins are leaders in the local Jewish community. We really do believe that Limud Mallorca and the activities we’re doing paved the way for that to happen.
How was the most recent Limud?
First off, it was incredibly challenging to coordinate as we recently had our firstborn son! Our goal for this Limud was to double the attendance and make sure there were as many options as possible for presentations in all three languages most popular in the Balearic Islands, English, Catalan, and Spanish. We teamed up with an amazing initiative called FED out of New York, which [made possible by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation Grassroots Event program] brought in 20 international Jewish innovators. They spent a Shabbat together with our local community, and many also presented and shared knowledge with us at our Limud Mallorca event. For the first time ever, there were 3 different styles of services for Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat. Many presenters at Limud were also non-Jewish members of the Mallorquin community who wanted to share their deep knowledge and research about many different topics in Jewish culture and history. As a very symbolic gesture, we closed the event by having a Catholic choir from a small town in Mallorca whose conductor is of Chueta descent come and sing four different songs for our Limud Mallorca community, one of them being “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” and another one “Hatikva.”
What is your dream for your community moving forward?
Currently the financial situation of the synagogue is dire: no funds, no rabbi, no chazzan, no full-time faculty, and we’re very much in jeopardy of closing the shul. Our challenge is to create an open and inclusive space for all the Jewish residents of Mallorca who come from over 20 different countries around the world. The dream is to open up a Jewish cultural and community center in the heart of the old Jewish quarter of Palma. There we can have multiple minyanim, and also be a place for education, for Jews and non-Jews alike to get to learn more about Jewish culture, art, and history. My personal dream is that we will have Jewish Hebrew school so that my son can grow up with Jewish friends and learn about his family’s history, culture, and religion – and one day have a bar mitzvah in Mallorca!
What does the idea of Jewish Peoplehood mean to you and why is it important?
Whenever I travel, the first thing I look for is a synagogue or Jewish community to get to know, because I really do believe there is this immediate understanding or connection no matter where you are in the world when you say that you are Jewish. Personally, I felt this connection with the Chueta people who haven’t been Jewish for 500 years. I think there is this need and desire to connect with other Jews, especially when you are in a place where it is not a large community. Mallorca, in my opinion, can be a shining example of how Jews from around the world can connect and create community. I count among my friends a well-known Jewish Swedish novelist, a very successful French music producer, a Mexican TV producer, a Costa Rican business owner, a Columbian entrepreneur, and an Iranian shop owner – all Jews. The only reason we know each other is because one of us took the leap of faith and invited the others to a BBQ on a Saturday. We called it a “SHA-BBQ” and the name stuck! I strongly believe that I never would have met or befriended these people in NYC because I was always in my own Jewish summer camp bubble. But being some of the few Jews on this island, we somehow found each other, and we are intent on building community for us and our children, no matter what our level of observance is. Many come into this with interfaith marriages and homes. Our challenge is to raise our children in a Jewish environment, in a place that’s probably the most difficult place to do that, given that we are surrounded by as many different kinds of pork as possible, and even finding bread not cooked with lard is quite complicated!
What is your advice to others who want to get involved in their local communities?
I think the first thing when it comes to building community is opening your home. It shows a real interest and trust in someone else, and is not as common in Europe as it is in the US and Israel. There have probably been about 20 people who reached out to me and said they just moved to Mallorca and are interested in getting to know our community. Before I say “come to synagogue” or “let’s have coffee,” the first thing I do is invite them over to a Friday night meal. Once you show you’re ready to have someone in your home, you show someone you want to get to know them on a real level. On the flip side, be very wary of virtual community. I truly believe that WhatsApp and Facebook are not the way to build real and lasting relationships. We need to “l’chaim” and break bread in physical contact with one another to create the special bond of getting to know each other and connecting.
Why should people come visit the Jewish community of Mallorca?
This past year, my wife and I started an initiative to try to tell the story of Jewish Mallorca (also spelled Jewish Majorca) to residents of the island as well as visitors. Many Jewish and non-Jewish tourists come to Mallorca for the beach and fun and sun, and don’t realize there is a fascinating culture to explore with a story that is very much unknown. If you want to learn about our project of connecting the past of Mallorca to the present and future, please visit us at www.jewishmajorca.com and come experience with us the many Jewish heritage sites around the island.
Deborah Fishman Shelby is the founder of FED, a platform for ideas built into an inclusive Jewish intentional community based in Harlem, New York City. She serves as Director of Communications for The AVI CHAI Foundation. She is also an ROI Igniter in New York City.