The Jewish Ghosts of Africa’s Cape Verde Islands


Geography pop quiz: Can you find Cape Verde on a map? If you can’t, don’t beat yourself up–this small group of islands off the west coast of Africa, near Senegal, is not often in the news. But Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony, is one of the most stable countries in Africa, and many of its citizens have surprisingly Jewish surnames, like Levy, Cohen, and Benchimol.

How did this happen? In the mid-1800s, a group of Moroccan Jews set sail for Cape Verde in search of economic opportunities. On the islands they found success, fortune, and some undercover Jews emerging from anonymity (but not too many Jewish women to marry). Today many Cape Verdeans have Jewish ancestors, but there are virtually no practicing Jews in the country.

What they do have are four very overgrown Jewish cemeteries on three different islands. Carol Castiel, an American-born Jew who now lives in Cape Verde, is spearheading an effort to clean up and rededicate the cemeteries. She’s amassed support from Jewish communities around the world, including from one very surprising source: King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

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