Accessibility links

Breaking News

Cape Verdean Remembers Jewish Roots With Pride

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.

Levy shares his last name with one of the men buried here. Referring to an ancient tribe of Israel, Levy is a commonly recognized Jewish name.

Only a few generations earlier, Levy's family were practicing Jews. But Levy says he never saw any Jewish religious practices in his house.

"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.

"I feel very proud about having Jewish ancestors," he says. "I identify quite a lot with the Jewish history, the state of affairs, the current challenges of having a Jewish state."

Jews first reached Cape Verde in the 1400s, when Portugal colonized the then-uninhabited islands.

The island became an important trading post for Portugal. But many of the Jews came under pressure from the Spanish Inquisition. Portugal, seeking a royal alliance with Spain, followed Spain's example and declared in 1496 that all Jews must convert or be expelled.

A second wave of Jewish immigrants came to the islands from Morocco starting in the 1850s. They were mostly looking for economic opportunities. Levy's family was part of this wave. At one time, Levy's father, Abraão Levy, says, his family owned and farmed a great deal of land on Santiago, the island where Praia is located.

Abraão Levy says the descendants of the Jewish immigrants have played prominent roles in Cape Verde, including a former prime minister, and a finance minister.

But, José Levy says, today, the label "Jewish" doesn't have much meaning.

"I, and I think most of the others, we feel ourselves as Cape Verdians," he says. "Once in a while, we remember that we come from a Jewish family. We feel very proud about having this ancestry. but in our daily life, we feel like Cape Verdians."

In Cape Verde, the language, music, food and people are all a mix of the Europeans and Africans who have lived there since the 1400s.

The Levys say having Jewish ancestors is just one more facet of their country's melting pot.