“I Sephardic”

Have you ever met a Sephardic Jew? Ever met one? I am not talking about a political Sephardi or a “wanna be,” I am talking about an authentic ethnic Sephardi that proudly identifies and lives a Sephardic life.

As a Sephardic scholar who is ending his doctoral dissertation on Sephardic Jews, I am obligated to read everything “Sephardic” that gets published, spending at least two hours every day reading newsletters, journals and articles about Sephardic Jews, their life, culture and Diaspora. Lately, the time I devote to reading has increased due in great part, to the fact that so many articles have been published about laws pending in Spain and Portugal, which will grant Spanish and/or Portuguese citizenship to Sephardic Jews.

Most of what people know and identify as being Jewish, they get from watching “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Yentl,” or by eating lox, bagels and matzo ball soup, or by dancing “Hava Naguila” in Jewish weddings or Bar Mitzvahs celebrations; those are Ashkenazi Jews, right people, wrong tribe.

Orthodox Jews from Galicia at the Karmeliterplatz in Vienna's second district Leopoldstadt. This media file is in the public domain

Orthodox Jews from Galicia at the Karmeliterplatz in Vienna’s second district Leopoldstadt. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.

You would probably know about us by our aromatic and flavorful cuisine, which brings scents and tastes from Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Syria-Lebanon, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and many other countries. Nonetheless, food does not define us; food is just one aspect of our culture.

Still, you don’t recall hearing about us?  You are not alone.

Unfortunately, many articles written by non Sephardic Jews, have been circulating all over the internet and journals, spreading misinformation and misleading the readers. About 90% of what they say about us has no real substance on Sephardic culture and life, Diaspora, knowledge of Spain and Portugal, their governments and bureaucracies, and the intricacies of the complex Sephardic mindset.

Being Sephardic can only be accurately explained by a Sephardic Jew, raised within the Sephardic tradition, and whose intrinsic linkage to Spain and Portugal cannot be severed even after 500 years.

Saadi_Levi

Painting us with a single brush and color just doesn’t work.

A recent article written by Josh Nathan-Kazis caught my attention. It was published by The Forward on January 26, 2014, under the title of “My Spanish Inquisition, A Reporter Exercises His Right of Return. Can Sephardic Jews Go Home Again 500 Years After the Inquisition?”

The article illustrates good points but also contains critical errors of understanding the Sephardic identity and the issues regarding Spanish & Portuguese citizenship to be granted to Sephardic Jews.

I was pained while reading Josh’s article. I am a proud Sephardic Jew and a community educator recognized as an advocate of the Sephardic tradition, who respects and recognizes the value of other Jewish traditions. After the release of his work, hundreds of Sephardic voices all over the world started to manifest their discontent and complaints on the approach taken by him. I received dozens of phone calls and my email inbox got flooded by people expressing their discomfort with his article that clearly reflected Josh’s limited knowledge of Sephardic identity and history.  Most importantly, my fellow Sepharadim felt that he was not prepared to be our voice and to authentically represent the Sephardic feelings of attaining a Spanish and/or Portuguese passport.

Indeed, Josh failed to express our joy, fear and trepidations as we strive to return to the Iberian countries as citizens.

To make it even worse, Josh strikes back again, and publishes on The Forward on June 2, 2014, a new article regarding the unexpected abdication of the Spanish king, Don Juan Carlos, taking on the role again, as spokesman of the Sephardic people, questioning whether the bill to grant the Spanish citizenship to the Sepharadim will continue after the king’s abdication.

In this article, Josh bases his erroneous “predictions” on nothing concrete but his apparent dislike for Spain as expressed in his first article. He suggests, that after the king’s abdication, the examination and voting of the bill will be delayed due to more important affairs like the coronation of the new King, or the people’s debate on the monarchy vs. a republican government. Josh completely overlooks the commitment to the Sephardic cause than the new king of Spain, Don Felipe de Borbon, has reiterated on several occasions.

His little knowledge about Spanish bureaucracy and monarchy comes out again, as it was proven this last Friday, June 6, 2014, when the Spanish government released new information. The bill has been definitely and unanimously approved by the Cabinet, and now, it must go to the Senate and the Congress (AKA the Parliament) for approval.

The only reliable and official information about the bill, can be found, (only in Spanish, but coming soon in English ) on the official webpage of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain http://www.fcje.org/  There, the readers would be able to find the new criteria required to prove Sephardic ancestry/background or identity, as demanded by the Spanish government.

The entire bill can be read and downloaded (only in Spanish) here. I will comment about these new requisites in the next parts of this article, as some of these requirements will generate controversy.

A quintessential element of the Sephardic identity is that quasi-mythical bond with the Iberian Peninsula. What Spain is offering is not just passports or nationalities, but the cementing of a birthright that was taken away from us 522 years ago.

Decree of Expulsion of the Jews of Spain. This image is in the public domain due to its age.

I am sure, if my grandfather were alive, he would not oppose seizing this offer. He was an Istanbul-born Jew with generations after generations of strong Sephardic identity. He never hesitated for a second to present himself as a Spanish Jew, in Ladino, “So un djudio espanyol”, filled with pride about his heritage.

That’s why for some people like me with a strong Sephardic identity, these bills –both, the Spanish and the Portuguese,– are very appealing; while for others, the bitter memories of the Expulsion combined with over 400 years of persecution by the Inquisition, are just still too strong and fresh in their memories. Few folks will recall that the Spanish Inquisition officially ended in 1823, while the expulsion decree was only recently officially rescinded on December 16, 1968.

“We the Sepharadim can never forget the horrors that happened in Spain for centuries, even though in the last century a small Jewish community has established itself in Spain, it is still a country where anti-Semitism is felt often in the public arena, where Jewish memory seems to be used for touristic proposes and not because a real integration of their Jewish historical component into the national narrative” 

Vanessa Paloma, famous musicologist, lecturer and performer of Judeo-Spanish songs. Born in Atlanta, GA, lives in Casablanca, Morocco.

The cruel treatment of Conversos, the confiscation of Jewish and Converso property and wealth, the massive expulsion and revocation of our citizenships, are precisely what Spain and Portugal are now trying to rectify. However, because a widespread ignorance regarding the Jews, Spain is not free of anti-Semitism, which often is projected as anti-Israeli feelings. As an example, a couple of weeks ago, approximately 18,000 anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli tweets and Facebook posts, were released by angry Spaniards after the Israeli team, Maccabi-Tel Aviv beat Real Madrid in a basketball game. Immediately after the incident, Spanish Jewish organizations asked prosecutors to investigate and take action against the people behind those tweets and posts, while filing official complaints. Acting fairly and without fear, the Spanish Jewish community won’t leave these anti-Semitic incidents without consequences for the perpetrators.

“Maybe the Iberian countries are finally recognizing the evil they did to us. But my opinion is that they just want more tourism and the Euros that came with it and/or Jewish investment. I particularly have not interest in getting the Spanish or Portuguese passport, but I have some friends who do want to apply for it” 

Alain Biggio.  Brazilian engineer and writer, born in Cairo, Egypt.

Prior to the expulsion from Spain, and for a while after, Sephardic Jews represented 80% of world Jewry. Today, we represent roughly 15%.  Forced conversion, expulsions, Inquisitions and wars, have taken a horrible toll on us, but we Sephardim, bear a high percentage of responsibility for the rest of world not knowing much about us and our cultures (yes, in plural.) This is mainly due to the unfortunate fact that we were not strong enough to advocate and protect our cultural and religious patrimony in addition to some alien agendas.

To our chagrin, we often discover Sephardic cultural and religious organizations, institutions and schools –especially in the US and Israel– being directed by non-Sephardic Jews, applying non-Sephardic models, and consequently loosing the Sephardic identity by assimilation to foreign ways.

More than 80% of the Sephardic youth, have a very limited knowledge about our history in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Syria and Morocco. Ironically, they do know very well Hassidic tales, the Holocaust’s impact on Ashkenazi communities (ignoring the terrible facts the Holocaust had on the Sephardic communities in Europe) and Israeli modern history.

Frequently we hear in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Deal, N.J., more and more Syrian Jewish boys and girls using Yiddish words while speaking in English amongst themselves, instead of using the Arabic words that belong to their culture.

Ladino is almost extinct in the Turkish and Greek communities of Washington, Portland, New York, California and Florida. I have found some academic programs on Ladino Language run by non-Sephardic people, who literally have the nerve to correct native Ladino speakers, just to show authority while ignoring that Ladino or Djudezmo –as some of us, call it– has several accents, influences and dialects.

Israeli Jews of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin who where Arabic speakers, have been socially and culturally coerced to simple abandon their language; as a result, the new generations simply don’t know it, while hundreds of Ashkenazi Jews  are now learning Arabic, which is very much in demand in Israeli Universities. Finally, an army of Moroccan Chabad Lubavitch rabbis are already saving the assimilated Jews all over the world.

All this is happening while some thousands of Sephardic Jews are criticized for holding on to this romantic desire to be Spanish and/or Portuguese citizens, but no one ever questions Germany for granting citizenship to Jews of German ancestry. Where is the criticism? Popular media tells us that Ashkenazi Jews get a pass for returning to Germany, but a few thousand Sephardic Jews returning to Spain & Portugal is too much to bear?

A little bit of anthropology does not hurt.  Who is a Sephardic Jew and who is not?

This is a very simple question that also has very simple answers; and they should remain SIMPLE, regardless of the recent efforts of some to make it difficult.

A Sephardic Jew is a person who is a descendant of Jews that lived in Spain before the expulsion of 1492. A Sephardic Jew is also somebody who is a descendant of Jews who lived in Portugal before AND after the mass conversion of 1497. The Spanish and Portuguese exiles and inquisition refugees present us with two very different realities; 1- Jews who remained Jews and fled, and 2- Jews who pretended to convert to Catholicism yet practiced Judaism in secrecy.  These two groups created the so-called Sephardic Diaspora, traditionally divided into four branches:

1-The Ottoman Sephardic Jews who in turn are divided into the Balkan communities (Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro) and The Middle Eastern communities (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt.)

Jews of Salonika. This image  is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Jews of Salonika. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

 

2- The Sephardic Jewish communities of North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.)

Group of Tunisian Jews 1900- This image is in the public domain because it was part of Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906). The copyrights for that book have expired and this image is in the public domain.

Groupe de juifs tunisiens vers 1900 / Group of Tunisian Jews (c. 1900). This image is in the public domain because it was part of Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906). The copyrights for that book have expired and this image is in the public domain.

3-The so called Spanish & Portuguese Diaspora also know as Western Sephardic Jews in Europe, the Caribbean and North America. These communities were established by former Marranos or Conversos that returned to the normative Sephardic practice in France, England, Germany, Italy, Holland  and Belgium. Sadly, they were largely exterminated during the Nazi Holocaust, but they also decreased in numbers due to the high assimilation rate amongst some of them.

With the exception of London, Amsterdam, and some small Italian and French communities, nothing is left of this group that used to be the most powerful and wealthy in the Jewish world. The Caribbean communities are all extinct, with two exceptions: Curacao and Jamaica, where tiny and highly assimilated communities struggle for survival. Finally, of the North American communities only the Shearith Israel congregation in New York remains, with a high rate of intermarriage with other Jewish groups but somehow vibrant.

Synagogue of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam - Author Massimo Catarinella. free: to share – to copy, distribute and transmit the work

Synagogue of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam – Author Massimo Catarinella

4- The last and most difficult group to define is the one conformed by descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Conversos, also known as Crypto-Jews, Marranos or Bene Anusim.  They live all over in Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even in Portuguese India.

Auto da Fe in Portugal - Portuguese Inquisition - This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired

Auto da Fe in Portugal – Portuguese Inquisition – This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired

These individuals or families maintained proven endogamy, (otherwise it is almost impossible to declare them halakhicly Jewish) desirable genealogical trees, Jewish practices with or without knowledge of Judaism, and family elders’ testimonials.

All these components are called Hazaqqah which means “Force of Tradition”, living memory.

These factors have a very powerful halakhic weight, often ignored by rabbinical authorities when it relates to the Converso population, however very respected when it relates to other Jewish groups. I wonder why?

Without accepting someone’s’ Hazaqqah, virtually no modern Jewish community –regardless of  origin–  would have accepted Cohanim (Priests),  Levyim (Levites) and Davidic dynasties, which credibility rests in the family’s Hazaqqah/Tradition.

In the absence of these elements, the case of Converso ancestry would not be possible to be determined. It is important to mention that just having a Spanish or Portuguese surname does not make a real case at all, since a high percentage of these last names were and are still used by non Jews.

Curiously, one of Josh’s claims about his family, is the endogamic pattern, which means marriage between cousins or relatives in his family; he calls it “elitism.”  Endogamy was a very common practice among Western Sepharadim, and it is still very commonly observed among the descendants of Crypto-Jews and among Syrian Jews. One person’s elitism is another person’s heritage –a pedigree–.

It will come as a surprise to most readers of this article, that Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian, Libyan and Balkan Jews are a mix of Sepharadim with native Jews (Maghrebi or Berber Jews in North Africa, Romaniote and Ashkenazi Jews in the Balkans, and Mustarabi or Mizrahi Jews in the Middle East.) However, the Sephardic ancestry is perfectly verifiable by experts, scholars, and by themselves! They know who is Sephardic. Among Western Sephardic Jews these mixtures also exist. In Holland, Germany, France and the US, Sephardic families intermarried with local Ashkenazi families, while in Italy, the Sepharadim intermarried with Ashkenazi and native Italian Jews, also known as Bene Roma or Italkim.

All modern day Syrian Jews have more or less, three Jewish groups in their composition, Mustarabim, Sepharadim and Franjis (term used in Syria to call Sepharadim from Italy, France and England,) making them a very unique and special group. Sometimes heavily criticized, while admired by others. The only parallel in North Africa, are the Tunisian Jews that hold a similar admixture of native Jews, Sepharadim and Italian Jews.

This image  is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

My father’s family hails from the Jewish Italian community in Istanbul and from Salonika. My mother was born in Damascus, Syria. I am Sephardic on both sides. I feel this cycle is coming to an end, and it is finally closing after 500 years of expulsions and inquisitions, and who knows, perhaps the Sephardic communities will blossom again in Spain and Portugal.  If this is matter of economic moves, so be it, I would like to open a fashion business in Barcelona” 

Monica Martinez-Cohen Anzaroth. – Fashion designer born and based in San Diego, California.

So, to Josh’s disappointment, Syrian Jews ARE STILL Sephardic, while Jews of Iraqi, (with very few exceptions like the Sasson Family) Persian, Yemenite, Ethiopian and Bukharian background are not included in the Sephardic equation.

Surprisingly, some of the Jews of India would qualify as Sepharadim depending on their community of origin. The Bene Israel and the Black and Brown Jews of Cochin are not of Sephardic origin, but the “White” Jews of Cochin also known as Paradeshis, are Sepharadim.  Some families among the Baghdadi Jews, specifically those of Syrian and Turkish origin are also of Sephardic ancestry.

While living in India several years ago, I came across a 14th century rabbi, poet and traveler, simply known as Nissim of Barcelona. On one of his poems he said:

 “I traveled from Spain,

I had heard about the city of Shingly

I longed to see an Israel king

Him I saw with my own eyes”

Shingly is a city on the Kerala region, in the southwest coast of India.

Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, India. AuthorWouter Hagens.

Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, India. Author Wouter Hagens. the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.

“I love Israel, this is my country, but my grandparents always talked about Spain, a land that they never knew, with love and nostalgia. They used to say, Israel in our soul, Spain in our hearth and India in both of them.  I miss them a lot. I believe that this law has the potential to change history”

Samy Hallegua. Jerusalem born engineer, whose four grandparents were Paradeshi (Sephardic) Jews from Cochin, India.

Lastly, among the Ashkenazic Jews, –as in Josh’s case,– having a drop of Sephardic blood, –when verifiable,– would qualify them as Sephardic enough.

It is all about the pedigree. Indeed we are ethnically based communities with cultural and emotional ties to Spain and Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Syria, etc.

While Josh’s uncle, grandfather and great grandfather were presidents of Shearit Israel,  –the oldest Jewish congregation in the US,– connecting him to a Sephardic community, we are left with the fact that Josh lacks a Sephardic identity in word and action. Technically speaking, Josh is right claiming his Sephardic ancestry and illustrious family background, but Josh’s gap in understanding the Sephardic identity is that he did not grow up in a Sephardic community as I and thousands of other Sephardic Jews did; he grew up in a Conservative community, Ashkenazi by definition. Of course, some people would argue that the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (AKA  JTS) was founded by the Sephardic Rabbis, Sabato Di Morais and Henry Pereira Mendes, as a moderate Orthodox institution. However, the modern organization, alma mater of Conservative Ashkenazi Judaism in the US, took a completely new direction under Solomon Schechter, who erased all Sephardic approach and philosophy from the seminary.

For Josh and his family, being Sephardic means to belong to America; that is a very personal approach not valid for everyone. Our Sephardic mindset is just different. For thousands of Sephardic Jews around the world, being Sephardic means to be Spanish, to belong to Spain or at least, to have Spanish and/or Portuguese culture, language, customs and approach to the Jewish religion and Halakhic interpretation, while having a innate ability to rapidly adapt to our surroundings. At once, we are Sephardic and Americans or Mexicans or French or Chinese and have no identity or cultural issues.

We are multi-lingual and multi-cultural in a Jewish world that at times appear one-dimensional to us.

“I hope that this time, Spain and Portugal are serious about it. If they are, I think they’ll find that many people are interested. But they would do well to do more to learn about our actual history and to celebrate that history, not just throw around favors in an empty act of penance. That would make the whole effort seem more genuine” 

Eli Bildirici. – Software developer from Brooklyn, N.Y. whose parents hail from Istanbul

 Part one of four

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