Africa's Jewish Heritage In Cape Verde

You may not know much about the country of Cape Verde; it's a group of islands off the coast of West Africa. But you may be surprised that many Cape Verdeans have Jewish ancestry. Host Michel Martin speaks with Carol Castiel, founder of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, about efforts to restore Jewish burial grounds in the country.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn now to another story that touches on race and heritage across borders. We turn now to Cape Verde. It is a small group of islands located off the coast of West Africa. It was colonized by the Portuguese, but has become one of the most stable nations on the continent, a fact that President Obama recently recognized when he invited the country's leader to visit him at the White House.

But there's another fact about the country that may surprise you. It's that it has a significant Jewish heritage. Now, a group is trying to preserve that heritage. The group is called the Cape Verde and Heritage Project. The group is renovating and rededicating Jewish burial grounds around the islands and that's a project that's captured the attention of people, including heads of state around the world.

Carol Castiel is the founder of the group and she's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CAROL CASTIEL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As briefly as you can, I mean, I don't think people necessarily associate either Portugal or Africa with sort of a significant Jewish presence, so how did Jewish people come to be on Cape Verde and have a significant presence there?

CASTIEL: Well, Michel, as you said, Cape Verde was a Portuguese colony for over 500 years. It's mostly a Catholic country, but indeed, Jews came here possibly with the Portuguese, but they would have been hidden Jews. But that is a very difficult heritage to identify and document. However, Jews from Morocco and Gibraltar, in the 19th century came here after the end of the inquisition, so after 1821, they settled here and they were very prominent families and they found a way to integrate themselves into society, so this is what we are commemorating and celebrating and hoping to document for the future.

MARTIN: Why did you choose to focus on preserving the burial grounds?

CASTIEL: For Jews, burial grounds are almost, or actually more important, that even creating a synagogue. They want to bury their dead according to Jewish tradition, so that is very important in the Jewish tradition, but also, the Jews who came here - because they assimilated so much into the society, intermarrying, intermingling, really, their burial grounds are the only real physical vestige of their presence.

MARTIN: Have you been able to discover very much about some of these families? I mean, who they were or what they did, anything about them as people?

CASTIEL: Absolutely, Michel. I mean, these were the pillars of the economy and society in many ways in the islands of Santo Antao, Sao Vicente and here in the capital, Praia. Families with names like Auday, Anahory, Benchimol, Benoliel, Cohen, Levy, names that would resonate among Jews around the world and particularly Sephardic Jews, Jews from Spain and Portugal, who then found refuge in Morocco and throughout North Africa.

So people in all walks of life come from these Jewish families and most particularly in commerce and business. They were the merchants and the businessmen who helped to fuel the economy of islands, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

MARTIN: Now, Carol, I understand that you are actually not Cape Verdean. You don't have Cape Verdean roots, so how did you get interested in this?

CASTIEL: No, I'm not. But, in a sense, I'm Cape Verdean in my heart, as well as Moroccan. I love both cultures and to see the convergence of these cultures in this island, it just touched me so much and I am a Jew, so you have the Jewish angle, the love of Morocco, the love of Cape Verde, the love of Africa, all sort of, you know, converging in this one project and I used to manage a scholarship program before I began working at the Voice of America, in which many of my students from Cape Verde had Jewish surnames. So I would ask them about their background.

And then I just got sucked in to trying to help the local group of descendents to try to press for the restoration of their cemeteries. I thought that I could bring something to them, particularly raising funds, raising awareness. And here we are today, having raised some money, most particularly from his majesty, the king of Morocco and many Jews around the United States and other parts of the world. But, particularly, we find it very symbolic and important that a Muslim monarch saw fit to support restoring Jewish heritage in a predominantly Catholic country. We just think this is a message that has to go out to the world.

MARTIN: Well, I understand that today is a special day because at least one of the burial grounds is being rededicated today. Is that right?

CASTIEL: That is correct. It is the first rededication ceremony. We are having the small Jewish burial plot within the Christian cemetery in the capital, Praia - is being rededicated in just a few hours. We have dignitaries, several ambassadors from Portugal, from Morocco, as well as Brazil and, of course, the United States. The U.S. ambassador here in Cape Verde is very supportive and, of course, all the descendents from the variety of families, the Levys, the Wahnons, the Benros - they will be with us, as many can attend, and other members of the government, as well as the mayor, who is basically hosting this because it was the city hall that helped implement the actual restoration that we helped to finance.

MARTIN: And I understand that there are also many Cape Verdeans from around the United States who have flown over for this event. So, Carol, thank you for bringing us up-to-date on this. I understand that you're also working on a book about the project and the families and you're hoping to, you know, recover and revive many additional stories about the Jewish citizens of Cape Verde and I hope you'll keep us posted on that.

CASTIEL: We'll be happy to do that, Michel. The physical restoration is important, but we need to document the memories and document through archival research and oral testimonies the experiences of these Jews and their contributions to the mixture of cultures that make Cape Verde so unique and so wonderful.

MARTIN: Carol Castiel is the founder and organizer of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project. One of their Jewish burial grounds is being rededicated today and she joined us by phone from Cape Verde, where she is getting ready for this important ceremony.

Carol, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CASTIEL: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Up next, Jasmine Tierra is an up and coming African-American singer. She started singing in church and then found herself singing in Hmong.

JASMINE TIERRA: I look at this as an opportunity to maybe break down some racial walls.

MARTIN: Jasmine Tierra tells us more about how she fell in love with the Hmong language, even cutting her first CD in that language. We'll tell you more about her in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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