On April 30, 2014, The Christian Century carried a story about an event that occurred earlier this year. I had previously read about it in The New York Times on March 18, but did not pay much attention to it. The article in the Century suddenly struck me as intriguing. On February 7, 2014, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, Spain’s minister of justice announced that a new law would allow Sephardic Jews anywhere in the world, descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, to apply for Spanish citizenship without having to give up their present citizenship. A previous law had offered such a possibility before, but the application process was very complicated and dual citizenship was not an option; there were very few applications. Now the process would be simpler and speedier, in addition to not requiring the surrender of previous passports. The law still has to be approved by parliament, but this is deemed to be very likely. There has been huge interest in this new law; Spanish consulates in many countries (including Israel) have been inundated with inquiries about eligibility and procedures. (A curious fact: A grandfather of Ruiz-Gallardon had been Spanish ambassador in Romania during World War II and helped Sephardic Jews to escape from the Holocaust. What stories did little Alberto hear from his grandfather?)The article in the Times was based on an interview with Ruiz-Gallardon, who was visiting New York at the invitation of Jewish groups wanting to be informed about the new law. He described the law as “a real historic reparation of, I dare say, the biggest mistake in Spanish history.” “Mistake” hardly seems the right word to describe the horrendous event of 1492 and its aftermath. Be this as it may, I don’t know what motivated the Spanish government to take this step at this moment in time, some 500 years after the event. I assume that it was not simply caused by (shall we say) slightly delayed pangs of conscience, but that there were also some political considerations involved.But Spain is not the only European country where many people (especially young ones) are interested in retrieving the significant Jewish contribution to its history (Poland immediately comes to mind); there usually is an element of guilt and “reparation” in such confrontation with the past. The interest in the worldwide Sephardic community is not difficult to understand. I would think that there are two disparate motives. There is a long history of Sephardic nostalgia for the (real or imagined) Jewish condition in Spain before the expulsion. To be sure, Muslim rule in El Andaluz was not all sweetness and tolerance; there were periodic episodes of discrimination and repression. However, for long periods there was indeed a conviviencia—a peaceful co-existence of Muslims, Christians and Jews under the Caliphate of Cordoba (a rare phenomenon north of the Pyrenees).But, nostalgia or not, there are also more pragmatic reasons why a Spanish passport would seem desirable–not least because it would automatically mean rights of citizenship anywhere in the European Union! The Century story quoted a young Israeli entrepreneur, who mentioned the high cost of living in Israel as well as the endless conflict with the Palestinians: “I could take all my money to Spain, buy a house and start my business there. That would cost me the same amount as a one-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv”. I don’t know the prices of real estate in different parts of the EU, but this putative Spanish citizen could buy his dream house anywhere between Amsterdam and Athens!The global population of people assumed to be of Sephardic ancestry is large; in theory about 3.5 million might be eligible for Spanish citizenship. But many might not be aware of this opportunity, might not be interested, or have difficulty establishing their descent. The Spanish government estimates that about 150,000 are likely to apply. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain will be in charge of issuing “Sephardic certification”—not an easy task, since there will be few if any documents going back 500 years. The certifiers will have to rely on family traditions (even now anyone can go on the Internet and find lists of typical Sephardic names, like Sassoon or Vidal), or on the records of synagogues in the diaspora. There is a cruel irony in this certification process. The Spanish government has promised that there would be no investigations of the religious beliefs or practices of applicants. Put simply, the criteria for eligibility would be ethnic or racial rather than religious. Some years after the expulsion (which affected Muslims as well as Jews) laws were enacted by which “purity of blood” (limpieza de sangre) had to be certified for some official positions from which so-called New Christians (recent converts from Judaism or Islam) were barred. There was widespread suspicion of the sincerity of these convictions, and the Inquisition was particularly interested in ferreting out individuals who secretly practiced their ancestral religion. Of course one could collect empirical evidence of Catholic practice (overt affirmations of faith could not be trusted), but simply going by racial criteria was easier. Quite possibly the same evidence used hundreds of years ago to deny authentic Catholicity could now be useful in certifying authentic Sephardic identity—such as records of Inquisition tribunals! (A curious similarity: When the Soviet government gave Jews special permits for emigration, individuals who had previously tried hard to conceal Jewish ancestry now made efforts to prove it—sometimes by way of forged documents.)The facts of the “biggest mistake” are well known. In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella, the Most Catholic Monarchs, ordered all Jews to be expelled from Spain, unless they converted. Many found refuge and even welcome in the Ottoman Empire, where large Sephardic communities flourished for a long time. The Sephardic diaspora also created outposts in northern Europe (less welcoming) and the Americas. The etymology of the group comes from the Hebrew word for Spain—Sfarad. But the name came to include Jewish populations not originally Spanish. First came Jews from Portugal, which expelled its Jews five years after Spain (the Portuguese government has recently enacted a citizenship law similar to Spain’s). By now, however, the Sephardic name covers all Jews not coming from eastern and central Europe, the so-called Ashkenazim). The two groups differ in terms of the order of worship and interpretations of religious law. The difference has been emphasized in Israel, where there is an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic Grand Rabbi, and a political party responsive to Sephardic complaints against discrimination from the largely European elite. A major marker of Sephardic distinctiveness is the Ladino language, which is basically medieval Castilian with an overlay of Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish. Ladino sounds rather strange to modern Spanish-speakers (“you speak like Cervantes!”), but is readily understood by them. It is similar to Yiddish, the other Jewish vernacular (the only other one prior to the advent of Israeli Hebrew), in that it is also written in Hebrew letters and is a synthetic language—in the case of Yiddish, basically medieval German, with an overlay of Hebrew and Slavic languages. Both languages have distinctive musical traditions, the Ladino one having a haunting quality (east-European Klezmer is more cheerful, though it too has melancholy undertones). Both languages are undergoing a modest renascence (in Israel, Europe and the US).The theme of exile recurs in Sephardic history. It is not certain when Jews first settled in Spain, but a sizable wave of immigrants came as refugees after the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE. Like Jews elsewhere, they thought of themselves as exiles from the Land of Israel. But Muslim Spain had become a second homeland for many Jews, and the exile from it in 1492 left a deep scar in Sephardic memory. I don’t know to what extent the exiles from Spain felt themselves truly at home in the Ottoman Empire. But many Jews felt constrained to leave post-Ottoman Turkey after the new republican government legislated economic measures aimed at wealthy “foreigners” (notably Greeks and Jews)—another expulsion, which led many Sephardim to move to Israel. In Zionist ideology this move (called aliyah/”ascent”) constitutes a redemptive homecoming. There is bitter irony in the fact that many young Israelis have been opting for “descent”, mostly to the US and Europe (Berlin, of all places, has a large community of Israeli emigrants). How many will now choose to “descend” to Spain?The news item about the new Spanish citizenship law made me recall an influential figure in the history of Jewish mysticism I had read about years ago and had not thought about for a long time—Isaac ben Solomon Luria (1534-1572), whose school of “Lurianic Kabbalah” made the experience of exile a centerpiece of its very complex cosmology. He was the son of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardic mother; after his father’s early death he was raised and permanently supported by a rich maternal uncle who lived in Cairo. Isaac grew up in an intensely Sephardic environment, where the memory of 1492 was still raw. It is plausible to assume that this memory was the experiential basis of the Lurianic cosmology of exile.[Full disclosure: Contrary to some malicious rumors, I do not have a self-image as a Rennaissance man. Having reached a Methuselah-like age, I do have a sizable repertoire of what Alfred Schutz called “knowledge at hand”, pieces of which surface in response to random triggers. I am certainly not an expert on Kabbalah, and do not intend to become one. I came across Isaac Luria long ago upon reading the chapter about him in Gershon Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, and I was intrigued by some of Luria’s ideas. I surfed a bit on the Internet while preparing this post. The Lurianic system is exceedingly complicated, and I may have misunderstood some of it. What follows is my response to what I think are Luria’s notions about cosmic exile.]After finishing his rabbinical studies Luria settled in Safed, a little town nestled in the Galilean hills in what is now northern Israel. The town was full of Sephardic rabbis, some of whom were steeped in mystical traditions that had developed in Spain. Luria rarely saw his family, spent most of his time with a growing number of disciples. He wrote very little, thus his thought is mainly known as mediated by the disciples. Although Luria followed in the footsteps of earlier Kabbalists, especially the work known as the Zohar, his own mystical system is sharply original. I think it can be reasonably described as a cosmology of exile. God originally filled all of reality, then contracted himself to leave room for the universe. This contraction (tsimtsum) made possible the act of creation. In a sense, one might say that God exiled himself from the universe. The vessels of light which surrounded the throne of God were broken as God withdrew from his creation (“the shattering of the vessels”), leaving only shards, pinpoints of light in the darkness of the world. Evil and suffering are the result of this primeval loss. Creation itself has become a vast exile. Redemption is a process by which the broken vessels are repaired (tikun olam/”the repair of the universe”) and restored to their proper place around the divine throne. The mystical exercises of Kabbalah contribute to this cosmic repair service, which will only be completed with the coming of the Messiah.Whatever may be the place of 1492 in Luria’s mind, his key ideas had an influence far beyond his original circle of disciples—the mutual exile of God and world, the cosmic roots of evil and suffering, the broken remnants of God’s original presence in the world, lights in the darkness showing the way to the final homecoming when the Messiah arrives. Here was achieved an ingenious merging of mystical speculation with the age-old yearning for Messianic deliverance. This yearning was carried on by a number of heretical Messianic movements that had little if any of Luria’s sophistication—such as that of the “false Messiah” Shabatai Zvi, whose conversion to Islam was interpreted by his remaining followers as a mysterious process of carrying the shards of light into the heart of darkness. Gershon Scholem wrote a book about Shabatai Zvi, but to get a sense of this type of apocalyptic frenzy (often enough recurring in Christian history) one could profitably read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Satan in Goray (to my knowledge Singer was the only Yiddish writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature).But let me conclude by recounting a brief Sephardic moment in my own biography. While I was a penniless graduate student in New York, I worked as a receptionist in a clinic on the Lower East Side (all my classes at the New School for Social Research met in the evening). This area of the city was then still quite solidly Jewish—sprinkled with small synagogues and kosher eateries, theaters showing Yiddish plays, and the offices of the (socialist) Workmen’s Circle and The Daily Jewish Forward. In my lunch hour I would go to the Essex Street Market and buy a Bialystok roll (“Biali”) with chopped chicken liver, and then proceed to Allen Street and have a Turkish coffee at one of a number of Sephardic cafes. The one I frequented was owned and patronized by elderly Ladino-speaking immigrants from Turkey. One day I witnessed the following scene (I was sitting too far away to hear the conversation, but the owner came over and told me about it): A young Puerto Rican man came into the restaurant. Once inside he stopped, listened, looked bewildered. He went over to a group of the old men and asked them from where they came and what sort of Spanish they were speaking. They invited him to sit down and answered his question in lengthy detail. He smiled more and more brightly, nodding and urging them to go on. Evidently he had never before heard this story of an exotic offshoot of his native language. He seemed very pleased, and so was the little faculty of Ladino lore. When the young man got up to leave, the old men shook his hand and clapped him on the shoulder. Suddenly the distance had shrunk between Granada, Istanbul, San Juan and Lower Manhattan.
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Published on: May 7, 2014
Return From Exile500 Years of Solitude
Spain is welcoming back the descendants of the Sephardic Jews it expelled in 1492, giving out passports to whoever can prove their lineage.