By David Ramírez
The recent news about Spain and Portugal granting automatic nationality to descendants of Sephardim has caused a lot of commotion in the Jewish and non-Jewish media. Sephardim are Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and 1497 respectively or those who remained by willingly or unwillingly converting to Catholicism, known also as conversos. It has been of particular interest the cascade of reports being generated on print and on-line newspapers worldwide, mostly authored by non-Sephardic Jews, or by Jews with partial Sephardic lineage, yet not necessarily raised in the Sephardic tradition.
It is of interest because when Germany granted automatic citizenship to Ashkenazi Jews victims of Nazism and their descendants, no one really raised an eyebrow or was greeted with such healthy dose of reports. Among these authors, there is a recent one published in Spanish-speaking Jewish on-line publication Aurora, titled “Escritor Avitov advierte sobre los ‘sefardíes imaginarios’” [trans. Writer Avitov warns about ‘imaginary Sephardim’].
Yaron Avitov is an award winning Israeli fiction writer with, what it appears, partial Sephardic ancestry, and who has made a documentary called América ladina, which is about Sephardic conversos and took 8 years to make. In the Spanish newspaper El País, Avitov describes himself as, “I have the soul of a documentarist. I am like Don Quixote, I follow my own road… in competition with myself and even the windmills; but I do not enter into academic arguments…” This non-academic self-described Don Quixote doing battle with imaginary monsters was invited to weigh in the on going commotion, and had to say the following on the proposed Spanish citizenship law.
Avitov launches a series of warnings, fearing that with the new law many wanna-be-conversos from Latin America would feign a Sephardic identity with the hopes to obtain automatic Spanish citizenship. One such way, he says, is by taking “intensive ladino courses.” Ladino is the calque Spanish language developed by Sephardic exiles after the expulsion, some even think that this was the common language of Sephardim in Spain before the Expulsion. He underlines the need for the Spanish government to be “very careful” and establish “very clear” criteria to grant Spanish citizenship to Sephardim. For Avitov, a Sephardi is one who did not deny his Jewish faith and had to leave Iberia as a result; although he quips he would include those conversos with “irrefutable evidence.”
Thereafter, Avitov explains that Sephardim were forbidden to enter Spain’s American possessions, whereas the so-called “marranos,” an anti-Semitic pejorative applied to Sephardic conversos, were not. “Philosophically, the most affected were the ones who left Spain,” Avitov remarks, more than those who remained as Catholics known as ‘anusim (heb. forced), marranos (sp. pigs), or conversos (sp. converts), the article completes.
Avitov goes on to lecture the “marranos” in Latin America for not accepting their Sephardic roots, or for getting offended at being called pigs. “Marrano is no longer an offense, but the Latin people (him meaning, Latin Americans) do consider it an offensive term” (sic!!), the non-native Spanish speaker Avitov continues.
In Avitov’s closing remarks he expresses a word of caution that there are many, “who claim to have such (Sephardic) root,” among whom there are “true descendants as well as imaginary.” And God forbid, this may cause that “people that have nothing to do with Judaism or the root of the ‘anusim’ could take advantage of the Jewish (expulsion) tragedy” [my parentheses], the article ends.
I have been involved with the study of conversos since 1998, primarily in regards to the little known subject of Sephardic rabbinic responsa, treating cases of the Iberian anusim for the past 600 years (14th to 20th centuries). Responsa are Jewish court decisions, and rabbis across history since the closing of the Talmud have made collections of these cases, so future generations can study them. These responsa are used as judicial case-study aids to discern how rabbis past and present have reached or reach decisions.
To get a full understanding of the responsa one has to be familiar with Rabbinic jurisprudence, as well as the specific historic and social circumstances that generated such responsa. Most historians and even more rabbis in our days ignore about the Sephardic responsa on anusim cases, which holds the key on how to properly view the converso issue in Jewish terms.
This issue has even touched the Ashkenazim. For example, we have the Ashkenazi rabbi, Gershom ben Yehudah of Mainz, whose halakhic decisions are viewed as inviolable by Jews of the Tsarfati and Ashkenazi traditions to this day. Gershom’s own son was forced to convert to Christianity at the hands of a local tyrant. In response, Gershom ben Yehudah forbade Jews to remind a Jew, forced to convert to Christianity, of his previous shame and to accept them back into their communities, judicial position that actually stems from the Talmud. Machzor Vitri records that Rabeinu Gershom took the following approach about a Kohen who was forcibly converted and returned:
“His prophets already wrote, ‘Return to Me and I will return to you.’ Because he has repented, the Omnipresent has accepted him and concurs with his blessing. We have no proof from verse or Mishna to invalidate him, but we do have proof from verse and Mishna to not invalidate him because it is written, ‘V’lo sonu ish es amiso,’ (Do not cheat one another),’ [and Chazal say], this is speaking of ona’as devarim. And what [is ona’as devarim]? If he was a repentant, do not say to him: remember your early [sinful] deeds. And if you say he cannot go up to duchen and not read the Torah first, there is no greater embarrassment [than this].”
Jewish history is filled with such events of forced conversions, although any novice on the subject may commit a series of errors, which are quite common in cursory reports regarding modern-day conversos such as the one in Aurora.
Firstly, a few corrections are of the essence. One, there were repeated attempts to ban conversos from emigration to the New World. These attempts were never successful, as reported in Inquisition documents.
Secondly, the term “marrano” was and remains an insult in all Spanish-speaking nations, although today it does not carry the same connotation of “converted Jew” as it once did. Scholars still debate the origin of the word; some scholars say it refers to a recently born pig (as this is what the Spanish word originally refers to), in derision of the former-Jew then recently born Christian, i.e. New Christian; and to add insult to injury, the analogy is made on purpose to an animal forbidden for Jewish consumption in Jewish law. Others maintain it comes from the Visigothic-Germanic root marré, which in turn is from the Latin “errare,” which in its religious connotation means deviating from the Church Orthodoxy. It is a word which was never used by Jews in general, and Sephardim in particular, until the 19th century. The closest equivalent to “marrano” in Ashkenazi historic experience would be the word “kike.” The obligatory question is, how would Ashkenazi Jews feel if they were told the word “kike” is no longer offensive and therefore they need not to be insulted by it?
Thirdly, no academic explorations have been conducted to suggest Sephardic exiles suffered more than conversos; sure, the exile was very hard, much was lost, and many Sephardim died en route to the Levant and North Africa. However, how can one measure that relatively brief suffering to almost 400 years of Inquisition, which caused many generations of conversos to loose their property, the pain of death and torture, being publicly shamed and discriminated, and the entrenched psychological anguish all that perpetrated?
Fourthly, Avitov needs not to worry about people using ladino to feign a Sephardic identity, since this language did not exist at the time of the Expulsion. Conversos escaping Spanish and Portuguese territories to return to Judaism in Western Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries did not speak ladino, as clearly shown by the literature printed by our respective communities. Books printed by Western Sephardic communities for Western Sephardic use utilized modern Spanish, never ladino.
Fluid commercial exchanges existed between the Western Sephardic and American converso Diaspora in the early modern period, but none between the Ottoman Sephardim, where ladino flourished, and the American communities. Whatever common elements American Spanish and ladino may share can be traced to old Castilian, Aragonese or Portuguese words no longer in use in modern Spain and Portugal, but still in use in rural Spanish or Portuguese America. But people taking a speed-course of ladino would certainly fool anyone not aware of these historic nuances. Now let’s explore, in broad strokes, how this initiative to grant automatic Spanish citizenship evolved, how it has been managed, and the unlikelihood of it ever being “abused” by anyone who claims converso ancestry, however real or imaginary their claims may be.
According to an article by Kobi Nachshoni published in Ynet News, the initiative started when the Venezuelan Sephardic community was concerned the Chavez regime would harass them. They spoke to the Spanish embassy in Caracas, whose Ambassador got the idea to grant Spanish citizenship to all Sephardim in the Diaspora, and negotiations begun. Eventually, then Israeli Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shelomo Amar became involved, and he in turn had conversations with King Juan Carlos of Spain. Spain’s Ministry of Justice assigned the Federation of Spanish Jewish Communities as the arbitrator to process the documentation for the applications, and this community institution in turn will emit a certificate authenticating the claims of Sephardic ancestry. Both the Venezuelan and Spain’s Jewish communities are dominated by Moroccan Jews, who are a mix of Berber (North African) and Sephardic Jews – two communities which once remained distinct from each other until very recent. Rabbi Shelomo Amar himself is of Moroccan Jewish extraction.
We can guess the extent of the Federation of Spanish Jewish Communities’ interest in processing the applications of conversos via their participation in recovering Spain’s Sephardic past. On one of my many trips to Spain, I met a very influential Spanish priest, a family friend of a close Spanish friend of mine, who at knowing I was a Sephardic Jew became elated and began to tell me his experience in recovering Spain’s Sephardic past. In the wake of Spain’s 500-year Discovery of America Anniversary celebrations in 1992, this Spanish priest, who professes a lot of love for Sephardic Jews, begun to organize symposiums about Sephardim through out Spain. With shame and compunction he related to me that he first approached Madrid’s Sephardic community to involve them in the process. They did not meet the idea with much enthusiasm, and therefore did not participate. He then asked for assistance to Haham Salomón Gaón, of blessed memory, then the most important rabbi of Britain’s Spanish & Portuguese Jewish community. He happily obliged. The Spanish priest then proceeded to tell me all the nice anecdotes he had with Haham Gaon, with a twinkle in his eyes. It is perhaps because of the single-handed efforts of this Spanish priest that Spain’s government and academic establishments began to take interest in all things of Spain’s Sephardic past, thereby initiating the recovery of Sephardic treasures, which go from literature of great pre-Expulsion Sephardic authors, archeological artifacts, town designations where Jewish neighborhoods and synagogues were located, new books on the subject of pre and post Expulsion Sephardim and conversos, music, etc. Towards the end of our conversation, which was met by me by a measure of sadness and melancholy with a bittersweet after-taste, the Spanish priest showed me his “Hai” pendant (word that means “Life” in Hebrew, made up of the letters He-Yod, הי) he wore around his neck, and told me he read the Biblia de Ferrara—the pre-Expulsion Hebrew Bible translated in Castilian by Sephardic Jews, the first Bible translation into a lingua franca anywhere in Europe at the time—every night, which he kept next his bed.
So to ease Avitov’s concerns of any “imaginary (converso) Sephardim” getting the bounty of a Spanish, and therefore European passport—where the Federation of Spanish Jewish Communities plays a key role for its processing—, the likelihood is next to zero, even for the real ones; this despite the fact that the citizenship law may contain a provision for conversos, which makes no distinction of current religious affiliation.
Which brings me to the point of this article: When it comes to conversos, where have the Sephardim been? The following observations are directed more to Sephardim in charge of lay and religious institutions, than to the day-to-day people who have little or no idea how current “Sephardic” politics really work these days.
In 2009, I published an article in JVoices relating the saga of modern-day Portuguese conversos trying to recover their Jewish identity. That was just the tip of the iceberg. In the years I have been studying the issue, I have met many people, especially from Latin America, who claim to be of Sephardic ancestry; some claims, in my own assessment, are very convincing; many more are not. Also, I have other Jewish friends who hold the same interests as me, and who try to assist them with what they can to help them recover their Jewish identity. The information we have collected over the years, relating all these individuals’ particular sagas in trying to connect to a Jewish community, is many times frustrating and discouraging because of the type of abuses or complete lack of compassion that keep repeating over time. It is emblematic of what Haham Faur describes as the definition of “hate” in the Hebrew language: Not-Love.
No doubt there are people among these would-be-Sephardim who have hidden agendas, but I would say most are moved by a genuine love for the Torah, the Jewish people and the land Israel, however levelheaded, eccentric, misinformed or distorted their motivations may be. (Dealing with their understanding or lack thereof regarding Jews, Judaism or Israel is another volume unto itself). But the laundry list of how these people have been treated really does not speak well about us as Jews, which include:
- The existence of dubious “rabbis” of any denomination, charging thousands of dollars to the possible-anusim for lessons and conversions, which in the end hold no value in the eyes of Orthodox rabbinates or the State of Israel.
- The existence of non-profit organizations who claim to help possible-anusim, which cash in the million-dollar donations they receive thanks to a generous publicity, and have clear political ends where possible-anusim can be put to use. And although they may assist them to convert to Judaism with a stamp of Israeli Orthodox approval – not without also charging for lessons among other sundries, the tragedy is that such conversion really does not represent a return (teshubah), but a cut off to their Jewish past. Judaism considers proselytes as parentless new-borns. The conversion process is one of adoption to the People of Israel.
- The existence of individuals who say only half-truths or never speak straight about the issue, and the complexity of conversion/Jewish status politics that plague every corner of the Jewish Diaspora. They often mislead or confuse the possible-anusim, perhaps unwillingly, who may end up running in circles without ever getting anywhere.
- Stories of possible-anusim who knock the doors of synagogues, always meeting the closed door.
- Stories of South American Sephardic community rabbis emphatically stating they want nothing to do with the issue.
- Stories of possible-anusim sacrificing all they had to move to Israel, only to be expelled by the Israeli Interior Ministry.
- Stories of possible-anusim who end up hating Jews and Judaism because of all the unseeming people they have met along the way. Some even turn back to Catholicism again, and even Islam out of spite.
And my two personal favorites: Back in the days when I was trying to reach out to rabbis and educate them about the historical and halakhic complexity of anusim cases:
- One former Sephardic Chief Rabbi from South America retorted, “who has the time (to study) all that??!!” Indeed!! Who has the time—in the name of Jewish love and Toráh study—to recover lost and found Jews?
- The latest one came at my behest to a rabbi, once a minister to the oldest Sephardic congregation and former president to a major orthodox rabbinical organization in the United States, in order to organize a special Bet Din (Jewish Court) to treat only anusim cases, and to receive them with the accorded love and respect they deserve and are entitled to by Jewish Law. All I got from this rabbi was a “cheer on” in response.
And even when approaching contacts in the higher echelons of the Israeli Sephardic rabbinate, heads a major Sephardic Yeshiva, who cannot deny the appropriateness and kasheruth (adequate jurisprudence) of the historic Sephardic responsa to receive anusim as proper Jews without the need of conversion, which are in the hundreds and that spans for 600 years—even then, and even them—all they can say, “it is all politics.”
Sadly, gone are the days when Sephardic rabbis of the stature David de Sola Pool, who in the 1920s personally traveled to deliver a Scroll of the Torah to the then nascent community of Oporto (Portugal) made-up exclusively of former-anusim; gone are the days when Sephardic communities of the stature of London’s Shaaré Tiqváh and New York’s Shearith Israel, who in concert with DeSola Pool, organized a committee to help the Jews of Oporto so they could form their own community; without agendas, without asking anything in return. Where have those Sephardim gone? If I were to look from the outside, looking in as if I were a historian glancing from the future, I find it at the same time amazing and scary how people can change within one generation—the foregoing happened in the first half of the 20th century! In fact, I often consider the Iberian anusim issue a litmus test as to find out who still is a Sephardi, a term which today only remains a by-word with no real connection with its immediate past. It was the general consensus among Sephardim up until one generation ago to consider conversos as our brethren; we even held hopes the restitution of Sephardic Jewry and even the messiah would come by agency of the conversos returning to Judaism. Today, this is no longer the case.
Besides the possible-anusim having met with a long list of misanthropic experiences for at least the past 30 years, now we have Avitov’s reported passively racist and vastly uninformed position to add insult to injury. It is true, however, that there are a lot of people who imagine themselves to be of Sephardic stock due to the lack or distorted information on the Internet and popular yet very poorly researched books. However, “Sephardic” lay and religious institutions everywhere have done nothing in recent history to clarify and control the issue. A minority of competent non-Jewish and lay Ashkenazi and Sephardic academicians have done a great job in clarifying the very complex and long history of conversos, yet their efforts remain hardly touched in the echelons of academia.
It is a historically redeeming gesture that Spain may soon have a law symbolically mending its wrong past doings to the descendants of unconverted and converted Sephardim. However, given the present circumstances with “Sephardic” institutions everywhere, who have done next to nothing to recover their own brethren, conversos will not have the opportunity to receive Spain’s historic gesture.
As American Sephardic activist David Shasha says in his essay A Broken Frame, the “full-fledged Haredization of important sectors of the community there, that the post-Sabbatian rejection of Religious Humanism in the name of a more pronounced mystical bend has done a great deal of damage to the organic values of Sephardic Religious Humanism whose roots, as we have seen, extend back many centuries… what we are dealing with is a form of Jewish monolingualism that eerily reminds us of an exclusionary Hellenism that did not tolerate aliens.”
This is an alienation that has come to reject our Sephardic past, even our Sephardic Jewish brethren. Which leads us to beg the question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Well, those of us who have read Genesis know what is God’s answer to that. Don’t we?
Mr. David Ramírez, a former Counselor to the Board of Directors for Congregation Ess Hayim – the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Houston (est. 2005) – is a recognized independent researcher on Sephardic history, development of halakhic thinking in the tradition of Maimónides, comparative studies in religion and philosophy. Mr. Ramírez has had the opportunity to study under Rabbi José Faur; he has participated in learning projects with Rabbi Yosef Bittón; and more recently with Rabbi Jacob Oliveira, and Rabbi Mordekhai Lopes via Yahdut Sefarad, an Israeli non-profit organization for the promotion of rabbinic intellectual values. As a translator, Mr. Ramírez has collaborated with professors at Bar Ilan University, Netanya College, with directors at the Centro Educativo Sefaradí (Jerusalem) and he has been featured as a poet and essayist in the “Mentalities” journal, from the University of Waikato in New Zealand. As a writer, David has been invited for cameo appearances at the Sephardic Update Newsletter, and currently some of his work has been featured at www.josefaurstudies.org. He has also participated as an exponent in conferences regarding Sephardic history both in the U.S. and Mexico. Born in Mexico, and raised both in Mexico and the United States, Mr. Ramírez holds a BBA from Oglethorpe University and a MBA from Universidad Tec Milenio, part of Latin American renowned Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, a music degree from Escuela Superior de Música de Monterrey. He is an avid reader on the history of New Spain and Spanish literature.
 Don Snyder. “Descendants of Holocaust victims reclaim German citizenship.” NBC News. April 16 2012. Web. April 6 2014.
 EFE. “Escritor Avitov advierte sobre los ‘sefardíes imaginarios’.” Aurora. April 1 2004. Web. April 6 2014. Any quotes from this article are my translation.
 Manuel Vallejo. “América ladina.” El País. June 7 20012. Web. April 6 2014. My translation.
 See David Ramirez, “Ba‘alé Teshubáh: Key Legal Responsa on Iberian Anusim (14th-20th c.)” Scribd. August 26 2008. Web. April 6 2014. Also, Dora Zsom’s Conversos in the Responsa of Sephardic Halakhic Authorities in the 15th Century. Piscataway, NJ : Gorgias Press, 2013.
 See David Malkiel’s “Jews and Apostates in Medieval Europe – Boundaries Real and Imagined.” Past and Present, 194, no. 1 (2007): 3-34. Oxford University Press.
 See David M. Gitlitz. Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews. Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 1996. P. 55.
 I discuss the origins of the word in my “Ba‘alé Teshubáh: Key Legal Responsa on Iberian Anusim (14th-20th c.)” Scribd. August 26 2008. Web. April 6 2014. P. 14.
 “Ladino was never the language spoken by Jews (just like Jews never spoke the Aramaic of the Targum). Rather, it was the language used to translate the Scripture. Hence, the verb ladinar. The syntax is radically different than the spoken language, referred to as ‘Judío’—a noun synonymous to ‘Yiddish.’ My grandmother used to refer to that language as ‘castilla’; i.e. the language spoken in Castile.” In José Faur’s The Horizontal Society: Understanding the Covenant and Alphabetic Judaism vol. 1. Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2008. P. 348, n. 100. However, those involved in reviving ladino as a spoken language maintain otherwise; see Judith Roumani’s “The Story of Ladino: From Roots to Branches.” Sephardic Horizons. Web. April 8 2014; originally written for and published in Midstream, 57:3 (Summer 2011).
 Please see the collection of books printed by Menasseh ben Israel. “Menasseh ben Israel: Catalogue of the collection.” Universiteit van Amsterdam. Web. April 8 2014.
 See Richard L. Kagan and Philip D. Morgan. Atlantic Diasporas: Jews, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500-1800. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
 See Kobi Nachshoni. “The rabbis will decide which Israelis get to be Spanish, says Amar.” YNet News. February 14 2014. Web. April 8 2014.
 See Maya Weiss-Tamir. “Spanish citizenship for the descendants of ‘Spanish Exiles’.” Maya Weiss-Tamir, Law Office and Mediation. February 10 2014. Web. April 8 2014.
 See David Ramirez. “Freund’s Business of Farming Jews.” JVoices. March 23 2009. Web. April 8 2014.
 David Shasha [David Shasha]. “A Broken Frame”. Google Groups. June 20 2011. Web. April 9 2014.