An Unusual Society in Cape Verde

The author, director of Sephardic Community Programs at Yeshiva University, visited the Cape Verde Islands for 10 days this past winter, researching gravesites and lecturing about Jewish history

In the wake of the Oslo Peace Process between Israel and her Arab adversaries, the descendants of Jews in the Republic of Cape Verde have openly reclaimed their identity. An archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde has had two epics of Jewish settlement.

From 1460 to 1497 Portuguese Jews settled these barren islands as part of the colonization by Portugal. Their descendants — Lima, Carvalho, Rodrigues and others — hid their Jewish ancestry behind a facade of Catholic conversion. The only open sign of their Jewish heritage remains as a village called Sinagoga on the island of Santo Antão. Mixed with slaves and slave traders, their clear identity was lost.

In the 1850-1880 period Moroccan Jews, mainly males from Tangier, arrived. Ruth Marcal de Cohen’s husband was a descendant of these Jews. His family settled in Ribeira Grande, Santo Antão, and opened a merchandising firm. Ruth Cohen, white in complexion, is the grandame of the island. She remains in the large, green, family mansion adjacent to the store. She entertains guests in a European style.

In the town of Paul, Ildo Benros owns a centuries-old sugar cane press for the production of Grogue, just as the pirates drank. Aware of his Judaic past, he knows few details. His mother, now in her 90s, is no longer able to transmit her knowledge.

In the capital of Praia on Santiago Island, some of these Jews have banded together to form the Cape Verde-Israel Friendship Society. The country has now accepted democracy as a way of life. The first democratically elected prime minister is Carlos Wahnon de Carvalho Viega, of Jewish ancestry. The pro-Cuban, communist government has been replaced. Although the Chinese and Russian embassies face the parliament building, their influence is lessening, as is the oil money used to insure the former pro-Arab stand of the Cape Verde government.

The Friendship Society is headed by Dr. Januario Nascimento, of the Auday family of Tangier, founders of the first synagogue there. Often sent on diplomatic missions for his home country, Nascimento is also vice president of the country’s Olympic committee which, this year, sent its first athlete to those games. Abrão Levy is the secretary of the organizations which includes Policario Anahory, brother of the national poet.

I was able to speak at a public meeting organized by the Cape Verde-Israel Friendship Society. Eighty-five people crammed into a room designed to hold 70. One young woman, during the question-answer period, spoke of her family’s aversion to pork and wanted to know of other practices which could link her to Judaism.

Among the various objectives of the Friendship Society is the restoration of the three Jewish cemeteries, particularly that of Penha de França on Santo Antão. Although Antonio Julio Rodrigues carefully keeps the debris off the graves, there is a need for funds to put up a wall around the graves and to properly protect the site.