Shiva and Rosh Hashana in Cape Verde?

I have written previously about Jews in Cape Verde and about “Nodjadu” reflecting the Jewish Shiva. Jews have been present in Cape Verde since its first settlement and undoubtedly brought their traditions with them. During the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal, Jewish families were forced to convert to Christianity or face persecution and sometimes death. Thousands of Jews were burnt alive for refusing to renounce their religion.

For those who found themselves in Cape Verde, it was possibly an opportunity to continue practicing their traditions without as great a risk as they may have faced in Portugal. Many families practiced their beliefs privately while living as Christians publicly. They observed holidays and ate kosher. They didn’t baptize their children and even practiced Rosh Hashana!

Religious synchronism is the merging of two or more belief systems. What I grew up observing is probably a very good example of the synchronicity of religions in Cape Verde. Synchronistic traditions are not solely Christian and Jewish. We have many traditions that also have African as well as other European roots. Much of the traditions of Sephardic Judaism have been lost and of those that remain, most who still practice them have no idea why they do them. Many, like I had, think its part of Roman Catholic traditions or “just the way Cape Verdeans do things”. But it seems that those rituals that have to do with the way we come into this world and how we leave it remained almost unchanged.

In many Cape Verdean families, it is traditional to name a child on the eighth day, “setima Noite” with a small celebration. This is very similar to the Jewish Bris where a child’s name remains secret until the 8th day and circumcision ceremony for boys. My great-grandmother, who was also a mid-wife, made sure to tell me before the birth of my daughter, that the first thing to touch her body should be a piece of clothing that belonged to her father. She explained that this was something that was done long ago to bring luck to the child. I have no idea whether there is any connection to Jewish tradition here but I wanted to include this because it was a very important tradition in Brava that demonstrates the role of ritual in their way of life.

Before a child is baptized, it is usual to place a “conta d’odju” on a string around the waist of a child. The conta d’odju is a black ball with white dots. The number of dots vary but they are always odd numbered. The belief is that any evil spirits or the evil eye is absorbed by the ball and wards the child from those evil spirits before baptism. When the ball has absorbed any of these evil spirits it bursts and the next time a mother goes to change the child’s diaper, she may only find the string intact and no conta d’odju! Baptisms usually happened soon after.

Christians believe that all children are born with original sin. Baptism is a way to rid humans of this original sin and welcome a child into God’s family. Jews believe all children are born pure, without the blemish of sin and are born into God’s family.

Jews do not baptize their children as this was an act of Christianity. In Cape Verde, it was not unusual for a family to go through the act of baptism. I believe this may be another example of synchronicity. There are many records of children being baptized within a week of birth and this was also when parents first named their children.

When a person dies, there is a custom in some families in Cape Verde to tear clothing which is then tied around the wrist of the immediate family members. This is very similar to the Jewish Kriah, where immediate family tore articles of clothing, on the left side (close to the heart) for immediate relatives and the right side for others. Sometimes, a black ribbon is simple tied around the arm of the relatives. Here is a picture of a family member in Brava demonstrating Kriah with the black armband.

My great-grandmother first explained to me the proper ways of Nodjadu to explain why it was improper that some of our younger family members were going out during the first 30 days after a family members death. I remember her explaining to me how she had helped tend to many people after death which included closing their eyes, washing their bodies and wrapping them in cloth. They would bury the body by sundown but where the death may have occurred later in the day, she would sit would the body through the night. It was, also, customary for the family of the deceased to wail as the body was carried from the home to the burial site

Bibi explained that the family stayed in the house and did no work for seven days after the death of a loved one. Extended relatives and friends would come to the home for “visita” – a very important act that is still very important within the Cape Verdean culture. During “visita” others would bring food for the family. During most visitas I have been to, the immediate female relatives stayed in the bedroom, never the kitchen or living room, while the men received people in the living room. Mirrors in the were supposed to be covered or turned around. Bibi explained that because people have to work, we only do this in America on the weekends  (which equals 7 days) whereas, this takes place over the first seven days in Cape Verde. It’s customary for family members to stay at the home where “visita” takes place but its acceptable for family to go home to sleep and return in the morning.

When my paternal grandfather passed away, my father observed tradition by not shaving or cutting his hair during the mourning period. It’s expected that family members wear black during the first 30 days and when making any “visitas”. The observance of wearing black extends for 6 months for immediate family and a year for parents and children of the deceased. It is not uncommon for widows and widowers to continue wearing black for a longer period of time. My great-grandmother wore black continuously for 42 years when she was widowed at the age of 24. She rarely wore bright clothes even afterwards.

The Jewish Shiva begins when the person is buried and continues for seven days. Sitting Shiva includes family members of the deceased not leaving the home during this time and receiving people who bring food as they are not allowed to cook. Mirrors are covered in the home in observance of the idea that mourners should not do anything for their comfort which includes changing clothes or other things of vanity like looking at yourself in a mirror. Sitting Shiva includes family members staying in the home but it is acceptable for them to go home to sleep. You’re not allowed to wear leather, shave or cut you hair during this time as well.

Shiva services are done in the home which includes prayer. During Nodjadu, it is common for a cape verdean priest or nun to come to the home to lead prayer services with the family.

During the first 30 days, a widow or parent of a deceased child usually does not return to work while other family members do. Once the 30 days are over, for most, people continue usual life activities but it’s frowned upon to listen to music or attend celebratory activities. The end of the first 30 days of mourning ends with a mass followed by food in the home of the deceased. People are not expected to continue “visitas” after the 30 day mass.

For Jews, this period of time is called Shloshim. The first thirty days, some activities are permitted for most people besides parents of a deceased child.

The Cape Verdean mourning period does not officially end until one year after the death of a loved one. There is a mass held for the deceased followed by “visita” or receiving of people at the home where food is served. This is also the time that it’s expected to have a gravestone placed at the burial site. There is no steadfast rule to the timing of the placement but it is definitely expected that this be done by the first anniversary of the death.

Jewish custom is to have an unveiling or dedication of the grave marker at the one year anniversary of the deceased’s burial. 

Another tradition I believe was observed at least on the island of Brava, was Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish New Year. My great-grandmother told me that when she was young, she and her family members would dress in white and go to the beach around New Year’s day. They would say prayers and throw bits of food into the water as a way to usher in the new year. I always believed this to by some synchronistic ritual with African roots as it had no elements of Catholicism that I recognized, especially after 12 years of Catholic school educations. That is, until I began to research Jewish customs and traditions and found that this is exactly the ritual followed by most Jews at Rosh Hashana!

This particular tradition of dressing in white and throwing bread in the water was usually done by the Cohanim, or members of the priestly family of Tribe of Levi, descendants of Aaron, to bring the New Year by tossing away sins from the past year and beginning anew. These people, the Cohanim/Cohens, historically, held certain responsibility during synagogue services including Tashlich – the exact ritual described by my great-grandmother!

 The origin and meaning of Tashlich comes from this verse in the Old Testament;

God will take us back in love;
God will cover up our iniquites,
You [God] will hurl all our sins
Into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19)

(This is actually one tradition I think I may start to observe. I like the idea of tossing out the sins (and mistakes) of the past year and not carrying the baggage into the new one.)

Even more interesting is the fact that my family name, Coelho, is a variation of the name Cohen or Cohanim – Priestly family. It is thought that Coelho was a name taken by conversos (Jews converted to Christianity) that had a meaning in nature, rabbit,  like da Lomba (woods), da Silva (bush) or Oliveira (Olive bush). But the actual name that would have derived from rabbit is Cunha which is a surname found in Cape Verde. Coelho is not a converso name. It is actually the Jewish name of my ancestors who either fled or were exhiled to Cape Verde during the Inquisitions. There is an Inquisition record of a Joam Coelho in Portugal. There is also record of a Joam Coelho and his brother, Ergas, who were donantarios of the island of Maio, ancestors to the Coelho’s of Brava.

My paternal ancestors would light candles on Friday nights. My father recalls that he saw his mother, aunts, and grandmother do this on Friday evenings but did not know that this was the ritual of Shabbat to usher in the day of Sabbath. Shabbat is a ritual of lighting candles, usually two, to signify “Remember the Sabbath” and “Observe the Sabbath”.  Some families use the number of children in the household to determine how many candles to light. But that number can never be reduced.

There is no question that Cape Verde’s history includes Jews who were fleeing or who were exiled solely because of their religious beliefs. And now, as more and more Cape Verdeans are more open about their memories of family prayer rituals and other Jewish traditions, we can begin to look at how these and other religious and ethnic influences have shaped Cape Verdean identity.