Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Sunday evening for a trip to Latin America where he is meeting with the leaders of Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia and Mexico, marking the first time that an Israeli prime minister has visited South America.
It is a part of the world that many Israelis feel is geographically distant, and unfortunately, very little attention is paid to what is one of the most important regions of the world.
When most Jews think of Latin Americans, they think of a people with a very different tradition and past. However, unbeknown to most Latinos and Jews, we have very similar cultures, histories and languages based on common and shared roots.
It is little known that during the first centuries of the last millennium, 90% of the Jewish people spoke Spanish as their language, while they lived in the Iberian Peninsula. Beginning in the 14th century, Spanish leaders and clergy began forcing the Jewish people into two groups. A large part was forcibly converted to Catholicism and disconnected from the Jewish community, while the other part was forcibly expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.
Among those who were expelled, most fled to places such as Italy, Greece, Morocco and Turkey, while some traveled back to the Land of Israel, their ancestral and indigenous homeland. These Hispanic, or Sephardi Jews as they are known in Hebrew, took with them their Hispanic culture, dress, food and language, which became known as Judeo-Spanish or Ladino.
Unfortunately, around 90% of all Ladino-speakers were wiped out during the Holocaust. However, there is currently a renaissance in Ladino and Judeo-Spanish culture around the Jewish world and in Israel, where it has been given a special status and new cultural events, centers and institutions have been created in recent years.
One of Israel’s presidents, Yitzhak Navon, grew up in Jerusalem, but his mother-tongue was Ladino and his family’s food and music would be recognizable to any Hispanic or Latino person.
Although today only a few thousand Jews speak Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, there are millions of Jews whose culture is still rooted in a Jewish Hispanic tradition and culture.
We, members of the Spanish and Portuguese, Western and Mediterranean Sephardi, Jewish community, still retain a strong Hispanic and Latin flavor to our traditions. Our music and liturgy strongly resembles the musical tradition that forms much of the basis of modern Latin-American music. There are songs like “Bendigamos Al Altisimo,” which is traditionally sung after Grace After Meals, love songs like “Adio Qerida” and “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Hanukka song.
Nevertheless, perhaps even more numerous than the Jews who have Hispanic and Latino roots are the Latinos and Hispanics who have Jewish roots.
While those Jews who were expelled continued to develop within the Jewish world, those who were forcibly converted were brutally cut off from their people, and had to keep their identities, culture and tradition a secret for fear of the Inquisitorial pyre.
These crypto-Jews or Anusim (“the Forced Ones” in Hebrew) fled in great numbers to the Americas, hoping to remain outside the Inquisition’s reach. However, the Inquisition soon followed them. As early as 1508, bishops in Havana and Puerto Rico informed Madrid that the New World was being filled with hebreo cristianos (Hebrew Christians). Some in Latin America claimed that the majority of those who came from Spain and Portugal were secret Jews. Although that is probably an exaggeration, it demonstrates how many there must have been across Central and Southern America.
The crypto-Jews did not want this attention so they kept their Judaism secret to the point where they would look to the outside world like any Catholic. Over the generations, while some maintained, against the odds, their secret Jewish culture and traditions, the majority were not able to do so because of the constant attention of the Inquisition and of the others who wished them and their families harm.
What we know today, thanks to advances in genealogy and DNA testing, is that there are tens of millions of the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities in South, Central and North America. The names Perez, Lopez, Garcia, Gonzalez, Cruz, Fererra, Pereira and thousands of others are indicative of Jewish ancestry.
Awareness about the shared origins of Jews and Latinos and Hispanics is growing by the day. In fact, the more one studies Jewish and Hispanic/Latino history, the more one sees a very strong overlap that is largely unknown or unstudied by both communities. Nonetheless, the shared ties, culture and history between the Jewish and Hispanic/Latino community is something which is now coming to the fore and it is incumbent on both of our communities to embrace this past and use it to strengthen ties between us for the future.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to develop stronger ties in Latin America it would be extremely beneficial to use our shared roots, culture and history to improve these relations. Additionally, if Prime Minister Netanyahu were to use this visit and send a strong message of fraternity to the tens of millions of Latin Americans who have Jewish roots, it could constitute a tremendous acknowledgment to those whose ancestors were disconnected from the Jewish world and who now seek some form of reconnection to the Jewish people and Israel.The writer is president of Reconectar and director of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities.
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