Professor Alma Gottlieb at ISCSP in Lisbon on June 5, 2007.


Cape Verdeans of Jewish Heritage, Some Preliminary Thoughts on Two Intersecting Diasporas, was the title of a recent talk in Lisbon by Dr. Alma Gottlieb, professor of Anthropology, African Studies & Women’s Studies, University of Illinois, and associate researcher at ISCSP in Lisbon. Dr. Gottlieb is at the start of her project and hence the preliminary nature of her presentation. She has interviewed subjects both in Cape Verde and Lisbon but has yet not conducted archival research.

The professor noted the paucity of research in this area. She detects a surging interest of a “significant minority” of Cape Verdeans in their “remote” Jewish roots, similar to the relatively recent phenomena in Iberia. Today, people are increasingly using the Internet to research their roots and learn about the significance of sometimes-strange family practices and stories.

In broad terms, there were at least two distinct waves of Jewish immigration to the previously uninhabited islands, the first in the 16th century by Portuguese Jewish traders before the forced baptism of 1497 (the islands were discovered in 1444) and the second in the 19th century by Moroccan Jews via Gibraltar and Portugal. Both waves were mostly of men, some of who took on African wives or mistresses. Both waves have been absorbed by the dominant Catholic culture, although descendants of the latter are much closer in memory and time, often with vivid memories of Jewish grandparents. While the former have been completely assimilated, there are vestiges or ‘flimsy memories’. Dr. Gottlieb related how one interviewee told her of a 17th century family story of a granddaughter braving a fierce storm to bring food to her grandmother on a Saturday. For some strange reason, the grandmother did not cook on Saturdays! The grandmother was so thankful that she blessed her granddaughter and all future generations of the family. Another subject kept two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for dairy but was unaware of the reason for the family tradition.

Dr. Gottlieb noted that in 1995 seventeen Cape Verdeans witnessed the founding document of the Cape Verde-Israel Friendship society. In Lisbon, some descendants of the second wave have started attending synagogue and are hoping to start a newsletter. On the island, there is a movement to restore the gravestones of Jewish immigrants. Her research continues.