My Word: Spanish sighs

Even if it’s been more than 500 years since the Jews were expelled by the royal order, the signs of righting a historical wrong are welcome indeed.

A person paints the facade of a building in the old Jewish quarter of the Seville. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A person paints the facade of a building in the old Jewish quarter of the Seville.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s nice to feel wanted. No wonder Israelis have been celebrating proposed changes to Spain’s citizenship law like there’s no mañana.
Even if it’s been more than 500 years since the Jews were expelled by the royal order, the signs of righting a historical wrong of such immense proportions are welcome indeed. In the age of the Internet, news that descendants of Spain’s ousted Jews could be eligible for dual citizenship spread faster than Ferdinand and Isabella’s awful decree.
No Jew living abroad wants to hear “Get out! This is not your country” – although a great number of those of us who have lived in the Diaspora know exactly how it sounds. It doesn’t matter in what language it is said, it has an instantly recognizable menacing tone all of its own.
Similarly, there is nothing worse than telling an Israeli than that this is not our country – a slur hurled at Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman by Arab MK Ibrahim Sarsour in the Knesset plenum this week.
I’m not the first to reflect on the irony of our enemies – be they far Right, far Left or their pro-Palestinian or Islamist supporters – always wanting us to be somewhere else, like “wandering Jews” doomed to sail the Mediterranean forever.
There are very few personal accounts of what the Expulsion actually meant. One which I read in a special issue of Eretz magazine in 1992, marking the 500th anniversary, has haunted me over the years.
Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Ya’acov Hayat recorded his tragic tale in a commentary on the kabbalistic book Ma’arechet Ha’elohut (The System of Divinity).
In it, he recalls how, having moved to Portugal after the expulsion from Spain, he was then expelled from that temporary safe haven by another royal decree. Together with his family, he set out on a boat crowded with 250 passengers.
Bubonic plague quickly broke out and the ship sailed from port to port without being permitted to dock. It was hijacked by pirates and later anchored off the coast of Malaga, where priests and other religious leaders and city elders boarded daily to try to force the exiles to convert. After the local bishop banned all provisions to exert more pressure on the passengers, they were left for five days without food or water. During that time, 50 people died, including Rabbi Yehuda’s beloved wife.
“The sweet and innocent woman, may she rest in peace, died of hunger and thirst with other maidens, youths, old men and boys.”
The “bitter ordeal” was so great that nearly 100 Jews converted in one day and the ship was allowed to set sail.
Finally, the Jews were able to disembark in Morocco, but Rabbi Yehuda’s suffering was not over. He was falsely accused by a former neighbor of celebrating the Christian conquest over the Muslims in Granada. Resisting more attempts to persuade him to convert – this time to Islam – Rabbi Yehuda was eventually ransomed, traveled to famine-struck Fez, and from there to Naples “after enduring troubles too numerous to recount.”
But Naples was conquered by the French soon after his arrival and he was once more imprisoned. More trials and tribulations awaited Rabbi Yehuda until he was able to settle among the large community of Spanish Jews in Mantua.
JEWS ARE commanded to recall leaving ancient Egypt for the Promised Land as if it happened to each of us personally. Such are the powers of Jewish collective memory and identity.
There is no similar commandment regarding the Expulsion from Spain, but this too is personal.
Earlier this week, the media were full of stories – incorrect as it turned out – about a list of family names that if the proposed legislative change goes ahead would grant their bearers Spanish citizenship.
Friends joked that most residents of my Jerusalem neighborhood – built in the 1950s to absorb the Jewish immigrants from Arab lands – could line up outside the Spanish Consulate in alphabetical order, or street by street, singing Jo Amar’s “Oh Barcelona, Barcelona.”
Incidentally, I came to the conclusion that there are two main reasons for the yearning to grasp a Sephardi heritage, and neither has anything to do with the sudden desire to leave the Holy Land in a reverse exile. One, not to be underestimated this time of year, is the hope of Orthodox Jews currently bound by Ashkenazi custom to avoid eating kitniyot (legumes) on Passover that they will be able to finally enjoys the sort of kosher-for-Pessah foods that fill Israeli supermarkets and are enjoyed by Sephardim.
The other reason is that Spanish citizenship confers the benefits of a EU passport – and far be it from any Israeli, no matter what their ethnic origin, to wait in line at passport control if they can simply be waved through. No wonder hearts were beating faster than castanets.
The list of names caused much speculation, including as it did not only some obviously Spanish Jewish names but also some clearly Ashkenazi ones, such as Schlesinger and Bloch.
There were also some noteworthy absences in the roll call such as Toledano. Wordsmith Avshalom Kor interestingly noted in Yediot Aharonot that the name reflects the difficulties the Jews faced in their city of origin and means “We will not return to Toledo.” Well, except perhaps as tourists on a roots trip.
Suddenly it seemed everyone was dreaming about all the good things associated with Spain, as if we didn’t have plenty of sunshine, Mediterranean beaches and fresh fruit and vegetables here. The neighbors’ grass – or olive trees – always seems greener. Even Spanish separatist movements have not stirred nearly as much interest and UN obsession as the Palestinian issue here.
Spain might now well be investing in tourism to its lost Jewish communities as a means of recovering from its current economic woes.
There are tours to Toledo, Cordoba, Granada, and other places with exotic-sounding names and a noteworthy Jewish past. As my Post colleague Marion Fischel wrote last month, she recently attended events dedicated to Ladino – the everyday language of the Spanish Jews – in Zamora in northern Spain.
There is definitely an overdue and welcome revival in interest in the legacy of Spain’s long-exiled Jews. Although arguably this legacy lies not in the repainted, cobblestone streets where Jews used to live or the remains of synagogues – many forcibly converted like their former worshipers and now serving as churches – but in the collection of philosophical, religious and scientific works.
Perhaps it also lives on in local customs. A friend recalls a Portuguese au pair who told the Jewish family she worked for that her grandmother had lit candles on Friday nights; Fischel notes the myriad ways conversos protected their Jewish habits – from refraining from eating pork to hidden mezuzot, and hanukkiot in and near doorways.
Shortly before the excitement over the Spanish descent turned into something close to mass hysteria in the Israeli media, I took part in a lively Facebook discussion on superstitions – interested in discovering whether my family’s habit of throwing spilled salt over our left shoulder “against the Evil Eye” comes from the Polish shtetl or Sephardi roots further back.
One thing’s for sure, no part of me anywhere down the line considers bullfighting to be either culture or sport. If anything, I suspect it stems from pagan roots. It is one of those anomalies that the EU protects it under a “cultural” heading, but wants to ban shechita, the millennia- old method of killing animals for food according to Jewish law first laid down in the Bible.
I doubt family superstitions and hearsay are enough to grant me Spanish citizenship, and since I already eat kitniyot and have access to an EU passport, I haven’t exactly spent the last few days dreaming of Spain or humming: “Y Viva Espana.” Still, as I said, it’s nice to feel wanted – as I’m sure Rabbi Yehuda would have agreed, albeit with a tremendous amount of caution.
The writer is the editor of
The International Jerusalem Post.
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