In our Sephardic Corner, we will write about the vicissitudes of the Jews who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula for at least 1,400 years (probably more) and, in 1492, were expelled from Spain.
In the first article of what we hope is a long series, we will give a brief overview. Each article will consider an aspect of the Jewish presence in ancient, medieval and early modern Spain until 1492, as well as an anecdote from the more than 500 years of diaspora throughout Europe, the Middle East and America. Sepharad is the Hebrew word for Spain.
There is no consensus on the exact arrival of Jews to the Iberian Peninsula. Some identify the biblical Tarshish with the Tartessos, a civilization in the present-day provinces of Huelva, Sevilla and Cádiz in Andalucía. If this is true, contact with the Iberian Peninsula dates to the time of King Solomon.
The oldest archaeological findings, however, show an established Jewish presence (tombstones with inscriptions in Hebrew or menorahs) from the second century of the Common Era. It is assumed there was a constant creation of Jewish settlements in the peninsula after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by Titus in 70 C.E.
The war with Rome and the end of the Temple triggered the second great diaspora of the Hebrews. It is logical that their travels through the Mediterranean brought them to Hispania (the Latin name for Spain).
Another theory postulates that some Jews from the elite class enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar after the First Temple was destroyed in 587 B.C.E. arrived in the Iberian Peninsula as refugees.
Countless rabbis, doctors and scholars of medieval Spain produced poems and analyses of the Torah that today are part of all Jewish ceremonies, not only the Spanish-Portuguese tradition. Their names will become more familiar through our Sephardic Corner. Among the best known are Maimonides, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, Samuel HaNagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol and Yehuda Halevi.
We will also learn about more obscure scholars, such as Abraham bar Hiyya, known as the first great scientist of Christian Spain. He wrote the first treatise on algebra in Europe: “Treatise on Mensuration and Calculation.”
The expulsions of Jews from other European countries during the 12th to 16th centuries, mainly from England and France, did not include large populations. The situation was different in Spain. The large Jewish population, occupying important positions in the economic and cultural life of Spain, made the forced departure traumatic.
Over the centuries many of these exiled families maintained ambiguous feelings toward Spain, oscillating between resentment and nostalgia for a country that became idealized as the generations lost contact with the actual expulsion.
Traditions were passed down from generation to generation in the language of their forefathers, Judeoespañol or Ladino. Ladino, its history and its contemporary reality will be the subjects of future articles.
An important segment of Sephardim found success and fortune as protagonists in Occidental modernization. Others went to North Africa and to the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century they began to be persecuted again, and many immigrated to America.
Together with their Ashkenazi brethren, Sephardim were victims of the Nazi nightmare, and they played an important role in the creation of Israel. We will come to know many details of the past 500 years of the Sephardim as well as of the 1,400 years in Sepharad.
This first installment ends with a story.
A group of Sephardim arrived in France from Portugal and Spain during the middle of the 16th century. They settled as Marranos, or new Christians. They also called themselves the Portuguese Nation, the Jewish Nation or just the Nation. They fled from the Inquisition to Biarritz, a town of fishermen, and later went to Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
In March 1619 a priest was giving Communion to a woman, and church members saw her spit it into her handkerchief. She was imprisoned; however, the population opened the prison doors and burned her alive. The new Christians decided to abandon this dangerous town.
They went to Saint-Esprit, in front of Bayonne, which became a prosperous city with the help of its new inhabitants. Feeling safer, these crypto-Jews began to practice their Judaism.
Even though they were discreet in their practice, the Christian population knew they were Jewish. They therefore could not live in Bayonne and were able only to participate in wholesale trade.
Despite the obstacles, because these Jews had relations with Amsterdam (another important city for the Sephardim, a subject of many future articles), they participated in the commercialization of spices and cocoa. They brought the secret of chocolate manufacturing to the city, making a substantial contribution to its growth and wealth.
Documents show that in 1761 in Bayonne, the Jewish population of Saint-Esprit was reprimanded because of the symbolic transgression that its inhabitants committed by living in beautiful homes where they would leave their curtains open on Friday night, allowing the Christians to see their Shabbat candles.
However, the Sephardic families of Saint-Esprit had relatives and allies not only in Bordeaux and Peyrehorade, but also in Amsterdam, London and Hamburg. When a young woman from Saint-Esprit, accompanied by her brother, would leave to get married in one of those cities, she would find herself with friends and relatives.
The 600 Sephardic Jews of Saint-Esprit at the beginning of the 18th century formed part of a much larger community; they were related in some way to those who had stayed in Spain and Portugal, as well as those across Europe, in the Caribbean islands, and on North and South American coasts.
While many of their Christian counterparts saw the world as distant and strange, or perhaps even threatening, these Sephardic Jews received emissaries from the Holy Land, had relatives in Hamburg and Jamaica, and maintained networks of colleagues in London and Amsterdam. They saw the world in other ways.
Beyond the familiar environment they shared with the people of Bayonne, they belonged to a much larger world, much more encompassing than that of their neighbors, because of their Jewish heritage, which they held on to in the face of many trials and tribulations.
This is just one story from the great Sephardic diaspora.
The Sephardic Corner is a monthly contribution of Congregation Or VeShalom to the greater Jewish community. Special thanks to historian Alicia Benmergui and to her incredible popularization work on the history of the Jews. Many of these articles will be based on her presentations about the Sephardim.