Did Cervantes’s family have Jewish roots?

An international conference on the medieval Jews of Zamora province in Spain challenges conventional narrative.

PROF. JESUS JAMBRINA370 (photo credit: Courtesy, Concha Jambrina)
(photo credit: Courtesy, Concha Jambrina)
ZAMORA – Spanish textbook history was challenged last week at an international conference on the medieval Jews of Zamora province.
The local daily, La Opinión de Zamora, as well as the province’s television channel gave the event serious coverage, and an opinion piece questioned the veracity of what has been taught in school all these years.
Prof. Avraham Gross of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev opened the Zamora History and Reencounters Congress with a lecture on the Yeshiva of Zamora. According to him, the city, capital of the northwestern province of the same name, was the most important center of Jewish learning in Spain during the 15th century.
The professor discussed the yeshiva’s founder, Rabbi and Gaon of Castile Isaac Campantón (1360-1463).
Gross also spoke of Avraham Saba (1440-1508), on whom he has written a book, and emphasized Zamora’s position at the peak of Jewish learning right before the Expulsion.
On Sunday, local historian, author and descendant of crypto-Jews Prof. Leandro Rodriguez of the University of Lausanne (Don Miguel, Judío de Cervantes, 1992), who spoke at the conference on Don Quixote and the Kabbala, guided a tour of a village called Cervantes. He pointed out places, foliage, distances and sounds to prove that Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra, believed to refer to the area of Spain known as La Mancha, was in fact set near Zamora and that la mancha (“the stain”) refers to his supposed converso ("forced convert from Judaism") background.
Theories of the kabbalistic origins of the great Spanish work have been surfacing in recent years.
Avraham Haim, the recently elected president of the Sephardic communities of Jerusalem, (whose paper was on Succot festivities mentioned in Don Quixote) said kiddush at a Shabbat meal, following the conference, likely the first publicly celebrated in Zamora since 1492. The meal was held in the NH Palacio del Duero hotel, located in the former Jewish ghetto.
Haim led the blessings with a medley of Sephardic tunes, assisted by Brazilian anthropologist Carlos Zarur (author of The Aleppo Connection: From Zamora to Aleppo), who organized the meal, president of Tarbut Sefarad Mario Saban and musician, ethnomusicologist and singer Judith Cohen.
Jews from birth, converts to Judaism and crypto-Jews attended, as well as Christians and those who define themselves as “I am not a Christian.”
Gloria Mound, founder of the Casa-Shalom Institute for Marrano-Anusim studies in Netanya, was singled out in the press as an example of an Orthodox Jewish woman for covering her hair during kiddush.
Genie Milgrom, author of My 15 Grandmothers and whose family originates from Fermoselle, Zamora, also spoke, saying recently she had discovered eight more grandmothers since, as a Catholic converted to Judaism, she began researching her roots.
Anun Barriuso and her husband, Jose Manuel Laureiro, were clear about their roots, both presenting papers at the conference.
Laueiro said his family had dealt with the Jewish question by blocking everything out and had had no religious affiliation.
Barriuso on the other hand, spoke of being brought up a Catholic but of a transmission of crypto-Jewish identity from grandmother to mother to her, through family recipes and customs in food preparation.
The couple consider themselves Jews (“not halachic Jews,” said Laueiro) and believe, as many others, that Israel should recognize them.
“We don’t want anything from Israel,” he said. “We are not asking for Israeli nationality. We just want to be recognized as Jews.”
Cuban-American Prof. Jesús Jambrina, of Viterbo University, Wisconsin, with roots in Zamora, was the force behind the congress that brought together experts on Sephardi history and cultures from Spain, Israel, United States, Canada and Brazil. He identifies American-Cuban-Sephardi anthropologist and author Ruth Behar (An Island Called Home) as the inspiration for the event.
Impressed by the findings of the conference, the mayor of Zamora, Rosa María Valdeón Santiago, told Jambrina, following the presentation of his documentary Zamora Sefardi, that signs would be posted in places of Sephardi historical interest to make the city aware of its links with the past.
Zamora representatives announced their pleasure in this return to the roots and offered to publish the findings of the congress during a red carpet visit by all congress participants and guests. Jambrina confirmed on Wednesday that the findings will soon be ready.