A 500 Year-Old Belated Spanish Citizenship


I always believed in the saying, “better late than never.”

The Spanish government recently announced that all Sephardic Jews can return to live with the rights of full citizenship. After 500 years, the Sephardim, descendents of Jews exiled in 1492 from Sepharad—the Hebrew name for Spain—have been invited to return.

Not to be outdone by Spain, Portugal immediately followed suit and made the same offer. The news didn’t trigger an avalanche of applications. At the most, only one thousand applications were submitted for Spanish Citizenship.

Who has not heard of 1492 “when Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” The year 1492 also signifies a blot on the Spanish nation for ridding themselves of all the Jews who had lived there for millennia. It was done by royal decree: convert or be exiled.

The announcement made me think; is it too late for my family to apply for the gracious invitation? Is it too late to return? As a Sephardic family, which spoke Ladino (Spanish mixed with Hebrew words) for generations, we definitely qualify.

The requirements for citizenship include speaking the language and possessing a Spanish-sounding last name. I meet the first, but not the second. My family’s name is Palombo, which is Italian. The name originates from Paloma, dove, with all its variations: Palombi, Palumbo, Palombara and so on. Additionally, my grandparents, on both sides, originated from Spain and settled in Grece and Turkey.

Years back, I asked my father why was our last name Palombo when his family spoke fluent Greek? Why does a Greek man have an Italian family name? My father had no answer. The only explanation was that my grandfather had an Italian passport, but does that mean he was Italian?

One reason could be that back in 1453 when the Ottoman Empire conquered many cities in the Byzantine Empire, many Jews who had lived there since time immemorial then became subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Before that time, the entire region was under Greek rule and Greek was spoken throughout the empire. But that doesn’t explain why our family name is Palombo?

Another reason may be that my ancestors traveled and roamed the Mediterranean for a better life on foreign shores and selected a name in tuned with that region.

At the turn of the 20th century, my grandparents saw fit to establish themselves in Egypt—then under British rule. Life under the British gave them and their children possibilities to advance with safety. During those years we still spoke the Ladino language, heard the melancholy songs in Spanish, and twirled a Flamenco dance once in a while, remembering those years in Andalusia, Spain.

To return to Spanish citizenry: if Palombo doesn’t fit the bill for that Spanish passport then perhaps, the other side of my family named Namer might be the answer.

Then I think about the Hebrews leaving Egypt in the first Exodus. My family had not learned the hard lesson that is repeated every Passover Holiday: the memory of when we had been slaves in Egypt. My grandparents and parents had returned to the land of the Pharaohs, and were exiled again in 1956.

Could this happen again? Might we be exiled again from Spain?

I asked myself, is it better to be welcomed back into Spain as long lost citizens? And better 500 years later than never?

This time, it is too late. It is too late to return to the land that disowned and exiled its Jews. It is too late.

We’re better off where we are, without looking to greener pastures or distant horizons. We’re better off in the present time, in the present land and in the present abode for richer or poorer.

Photo Credit by Dreamstime: Moses leading his flock into the Sinai

About the Author
Lilian was born in Cairo, Egypt, of a Sephardic background. Her family immigrated to Israel in 1956. They spoke Ladino at home in addition to French and Hebrew. Lilian served two years in the Israel Defense Forces then transferred to the Negev Desert where she met her husband Joel. Afterwards they moved to California to raise their two children.
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