Jews, Cape Verdeans form bonds at shared seder
Two communities find histories of liberation are intertwined
They gathered, as families and communities do during Passover, to eat and retell their story of liberation.
Before them lay the Seder plate, holding foods symbolic of the biblical exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt, and in their hands was the Haggadah, the ritual storytelling guide written in English, Hebrew, and Cape Verdean Crioulo.
They had come on this recent night — as they have for nine years now — from two communities that, upon first consideration, might seem to share little in common.
Jews and Cape Verdeans both invoke narratives of liberation — Jews from Egypt, and Cape Verdeans from Portugal. And though often unknown, their histories are intertwined, as Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony and largely Catholic country, experienced two waves of Jewish migration centuries ago.
As the 200 people in Hibernian Hall in Roxbury recited the 10 plagues God inflicted on the pharaoh’s kingdom for refusing to release the Jews from bondage, they each dipped a finger into small, clear plastic cups, where pools of dark purple wine rested in the bottom.
One drop of wine was dabbed on blue-and-white paper plates for each plague — blood, frogs, lice, flies, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, slaying of the firstborn.
Then, 10 more. “We will now dip our fingers into the wine for what Cape Verde has suffered,” Carlos Moreno, one of the Seder leaders, told the crowd.
Reading from their Haggadah, 200 voices recited the 10 plagues of Cape Verde: dengue, leprosy, locusts, vermin, east winds, drought, famine, forced labor, ignorance, deportation.
At Table 13, Ron Newman, who attends Temple B’nai Brith in Somerville, leaned over and asked Alice Gomes, “Why is an east wind a plague?”
“I believe there was a windstorm that destroyed the farms, the plantations, in Cape Verde,” Gomes responded.
This was Newman’s first Cape Verdean-Jewish Seder, and he acknowledged knowing little about the West African island nation.
“All I knew about Cape Verde was that it was a Portuguese colony that gained independence,” the 56-year-old said. “Nothing else.”
Sitting across from him was Antonio Correia, who left Cape Verde more than 30 years ago and said he knew little about Passover except that grocery stores dedicate a page of ads in their circulars to food of the holiday this time of year.
He also knew nothing of his native land’s Jewish history.
“Cape Verde is a mix of many cultures, so even if you’re right next to a person, you might not even know,” he said.
“But look,” Correia said, pointing to a piece of paper filled with a handwritten note with the names of temples on one side and the five books of the Torah on the other. “They gave me all kinds of information.”
Rocky, rugged, and volcanic, Cape Verde comprises 10 islands whose total land mass is slightly larger than Rhode Island.
For more than 500 years, the archipelago that sits about 300 miles off the coast of Senegal was under Portuguese rule, and it was once a key point in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Remnants of this colonial past permeate Cape Verde’s present, from the candy-colored architecture to the cobblestone streets to the ornate marble pillar where slaves were once shackled in Cidade Velha, the first European outpost in the tropics.
And vestiges of the country’s Jewish history remain as well.
The first wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Inquisition expelled Jews from Spain and Portugal.
Some 300 years later, another wave of Sephardic Jews, mostly traders and merchants from Morocco via Gibraltar, immigrated to the Portuguese colony, in search of economic opportunities. (Cape Verde would not win independence from Portugal until 1975.)
Today, several small Jewish cemeteries filled with tombstones bearing Hebrew inscriptions remain throughout the West African island nation, namely in Praia, the capital, and on the islands of Boa Vista and Santo Antão.
“Cape Verde has a lot of Jewish blood running through its veins,” said Carol Castiel, whose Washington, D.C., nonprofit, the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, pays for the restoration of Jewish burial grounds on the archipelago.
A recently restored cemetery was rededicated in Praia last year and work has begun to restore two cemeteries — Ponta do Sol and Penha de França — in Santo Antão, which Castiel called the capital of Jewish life in Cape Verde.
“The way you bury your dead is critical in the Jewish community,” said Castiel, who did not attend the Cape Verde-Jewish Seder in Roxbury but has in the past.
While there is no practicing Jewish community in Cape Verde, a largely Catholic country, there are Cape Verdeans descended from Jewish immigrants.
Many of them are here in New England, home to about 500,000 people of Cape Verdean ancestry, roughly the same number as in the homeland.
The Cape Verdean-Jewish Passover Seder is a chance for Cape Verdeans to explore their Jewish roots while allowing the Jewish community to learn about Cape Verdean culture and customs.
During the recent Seder, which actually happened four days before the eight-day holiday began, participants learned the story of two exoduses, the Jewish and the Cape Verdean.
“The Israelites were fertile and increased in number,” David Gladstone, one of the cochairs of the Seder's planning committee, read from the Haggadah as he began retelling the story of the Jewish exodus. “Pharaoh feared their growing power.”
Gladstone told the biblical tale of the pharaoh enslaving the Jews, ordering midwives to kill Jewish firstborn sons, and of Moses escaping that death and being raised by one of the pharaoh’s daughters.
Then Evandro Carvalho, the Democratic nominee in a special election for state representative for parts of Roxbury and Dorchester, stepped to the microphone, saying, “And Cape Verdeans, or should we say Caboverdeans, tell the story of our journey from slavery and colonialism to freedom and independence. Starting in 1460 . . .”
Carvalho described how slave traders forcibly removed men and women from mainland Africa, making them work on cotton and sugar plantations on Cape Verde, and he spoke of Portugal sending criminals and outlaws to live in the archipelago, where slavery was abolished in 1876 but colonialism continued.
This was Carvalho’s first Seder but not the first for his cousin, who said their family has Jewish heritage.
Albertino Carvalho, 43, said he was having a conversation with his mother about Cape Verde’s Jewish history after having done a tour of Jewish cemeteries on the archipelago with Joel Schwartz, who happens to be one of the founders of the Cape Verdean-Jewish Passover Seder.
“And then my mother started telling me all these things that I didn’t know,” he said, recalling the decade-old conversation. “I came to find out that I had Jewish [ancestors] in the family.”
Sixteen-year-old Aicha Tavares had a similar, yet much more recent, conversation with her mother, who has Jewish ancestors.
But even before she knew of her family’s heritage and warmed to the idea of attending the Seder, Tavares said she had always been moved by the Jewish people’s story of perseverance.
“I always went to Catholic schools, and they would make us read the Bible,” the junior at Cristo Rey Boston High School said. “The Old Testament tells way better stories.”
This was her third year attending the communal Seder, and now she is cochairwoman of the planning committee.
Here, she said, there’s a tangible connection to her heritage, both Cape Verdean and Jewish.
“My first year, my mom actually dragged me in, as moms do,” she said shortly before taking the stage to ask the four questions of Passover. “Now, I’m choosing to return.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.