Sitting amid a sea of Hebrew books last week at a rabbinical court near Jerusalem, Tony Pina of Palma de Majorca, Spain, defied history and logic and achieved the impossible.
More than 500 years ago his Jewish ancestors had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. By any stretch of the imagination, their Jewish identity should have been lost long ago, swept away over the centuries through attrition, anti-Semitism or some combination of the two. Nonetheless, they held on, longing for the day when redemption would come.
Last Thursday, it finally arrived. After an emotional and moving exchange with the rabbinical judges, Pina declared victory over the Inquisition and all those who had tormented his forefathers down through the generations.
Amid an outburst of tears and pride, he joyfully reclaimed his roots and formally returned to the Jewish people, unabashedly declaring, "I wish to live my life as a Jew, with all my body and all my heart, for the rest of my days on earth."
What makes this story all the more remarkable is its historical context, which serves as a microcosm of Jewish despair, defiance and, ultimately, joy.
Pina hails from the Chueta community, as the descendants of converted Majorcan Jews are known.
No one knows precisely when the first Jews arrived in Majorca, but the Jewish presence on the island is said to date back as far as the fifth century CE.
At the turn of the 14th century, the Jews' situation began to deteriorate. In 1305, anti-Jewish rioting erupted, and the island's first blood libel occurred in 1309, when several Jews were falsely accused of murdering a Catholic child.
The turning point, however, came in 1391, when anti-Jewish pogroms swept across Spain. Many Majorcan Jews were massacred, while others were forcibly converted. In 1435, the remaining Jews were either murdered or dragged to the baptismal font, and the Jewish community on the island was destroyed.
Nonetheless, the native Majorcans never accepted the converts, and began referring to them as Chuetas (the Catalan equivalent of the derogatory Spanish term Marrano).
Many, such as Pina's ancestors, continued to practice Judaism in secret, thereby risking their lives and well-being to remain faithful to the ways of their forefathers.
Subsequently, the Inquisition became particularly active in the area, ruthlessly hunting down those suspected of secret Judaism.
In the late 17th century, more than 250 years after the forced conversions, Rafael Diego Fortesa Aguilo, one of Pina's ancestors, was tried by the Inquisition for his continued fidelity to Judaism.
His name, along with that of more than a dozen others who faced Inquisitorial tribunals, appears on Pina's family tree, which stretches back more than five hundred years.
From the beginning, the Chuetas faced hostility from their Catholic neighbors, who never truly accepted them as Christians and refused to marry them – a phenomenon that continued well into the modern era.
Indeed, it was not until the French captured Majorca in the early 19th century that the Inquisition was formally abolished in the area, though even that did not spell the end of anti-Chueta discrimination.
Writers such as Frenchwoman George Sand in the 19th century and Englishman Robert Graves in the 20th wrote about the Chuetas with much sympathy, bemoaning the hatred to which they continued to be subjected by their fellow Majorcans.
Legal restrictions against Chuetas were ended only in 1931, when the Spanish Republic was incorporated, and it is only in the past 50 to 60 years or so that "intermarriages" between Chuetas and Majorcan Catholics have begun to take place. Estimates suggest there may be as many as 20,000 Chuetas currently living in Majorca.
When I first met Pina several years ago, he told me of the taunting he had suffered as a child from his classmates.
At the age of eight, they mocked him, singing a popular song: Xueta xueta! Cames tortes i cul rodó! (Chueta, Chueta! Twisted legs and round ass!) When he asked his father what it meant, he explained to him that they were descendants of Jews. His mother, who was not from a Chueta background, then gave Tony a gift he came to cherish, a necklace with a Star of David.
AS HE grew older, Tony went on to become one of the most well known experts on Majorcan cuisine, writing an award-winning book and serving as a professor of culinary arts.
His curiosity about the origins of Mediterranean gastronomy prompted him to delve into research, and he was surprised when he discovered the great influence that Sephardi Jewish cooking had on the region.
As he learned more about Jewish practices in the kitchen, he found himself drawn inexorably to his Chueta and Jewish roots. "My return to Judaism began through the frying pan," he jokes.
Pina began attending classes given by Rabbi Nissan ben Avraham, Shavei Israel's emissary to Palma de Majorca, and programs run by the Arachim organization, and started living an observant Jewish life. Doing so wasn't easy, especially since pork products are such a central part of the Majorcan menu.
But Pina was determined, so despite the challenge that it posed to his career, he gave up pork, to the astonishment of his colleagues.
On one of my visits with him, Pina took out a beaten- up old cloth and unwrapped it, revealing a sharpened knife that his family had surreptitiously used for shechita (kosher slaughter) over the centuries under the nose of the Inquisition.
It was a tangible sign of his forefathers' past connection with Judaism, but it also would portend his own renewed bond.
For now that he has returned to the Jewish people, Pina plans to return to Israel in a few months and train to become a shochet (ritual slaughterer), so that he can put that knife to good use.
As I watched Pina rejoice at the rabbinical court, I marveled at the power of Jewish memory. For centuries, the Inquisition had sought to erase the hidden Jewish presence in Majorca, but the Chuetas had stubbornly clung to their identity.
We owe it to them and their ancestors to restore them to our people and right the historical wrong that was perpetrated against them.
Welcome back, master chef Tony Pina, and may your return signal the homecoming of many more Chuetas to follow.