The Sephardim of Spain

©Fernando Caracena 2014

Recently I viewed a full-length documentary concerning the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 by royal edict of the Reyes Catolicos, Fernando and Isabel. Jews had been in Spain since perhaps before Roman times, having came there on the ships of Tarshish. These people are known as the Sephardic Jews. They not only developed a Spanish identity, but speak a medieval form of Castillian, called Ladino, which they made their own, much as the Ashkenazi have made Yiddish their own. The Sephardic Spanish identity is so strong that even in modern Jerusalem they continue to preserve their food, customs and language.

I remember meeting a Sephardic Jew at a Jewish friend's house. It was his brother in law. We chatted for a while, he in Ladino and I in modern Spanish. I was surprised at how close the languages were after all these centuries of separate evolution. Actually, I had heard some ladino-like speech in New Mexico, where in the small isolated towns people use Ladino words such as mercar for the verb that means to buy, In modern Spanish mercado means market ans the word comprar is used for the verb, to buy. In recent times, individuals have surfaced in New Mexico, who claimed that they were from Jewish families that still practised some vestiges of Judaism. Stanley Hordes has written articles and books about these people. His latest book, "To the End of the Earth" documents some of these cases with genealogical research and biological data.

According to Steve Birmingham, in his book, "The Grandees -- America's Sephardic Elite" a group of Sephardic Jews sailing back to Holland after being driven out of Brazil by the Portuguese, were captured and robbed by pirates. Penniless on a badly damaged boat, they sailed into New Amsterdam harbor, where unable to prove their Dutch citizenship they were denied entry. A wealthy Ashkenazi Jew, who lived there in Manhattan, vouched for them. In time, the small cluster of Sephardic Jews became a wealthy elite in Colonial New York City. They built the earliest synagogue of Colonial America, and later not only contributed to the wealth of the area, but endowed the arts and educational institutions. In more modern times, their descendants were assimilated into Protestant denominations, but retained some of their original surnames, such as, Gomez, Seijas and Piexoto.

I have read Jon Entine's book, "Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People", which has much interesting information about the Jews and their identity.  It however contains a glaring parochialism. He states that it is the Ashkenazi who are the smart ones, having the high IQs, whereas the poor Sephardim are not quite so fortunate, but are a bit dim witted. Perhaps, this is just tit-for-tat. From the above reference, I quote the following:

"Throughout the medieval period in Europe, the Sephardic Jews were treated as elites among Jews. Many times they had a secular education and often had great wealth. In the 18th century, the Sephardic Jews who lived in Amsterdam and in London, tended to discriminate against non-Sephardic Jews who wanted to pray at their synagogues by forcing them to sit separately from the rest of the congregation."

Now perhaps, the reverse it true. Ah, the winds of fortune vary in strength and direction. And, "Time and tide wait for no man."--Geoffrey Chaucer.


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