Following in the Footsteps of Spain’s Expelled Sephardim

By Larry Tye

Published August 19, 2011, issue of August 26, 2011.
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Most American Jews who travel make at least a token attempt to visit a synagogue or otherwise to taste the Jewish flavor of whatever land they are in. But few have the time, instinct or know how to faithfully follow in the footsteps of their forbears, especially when those trails lead across a continent. Fewer still pay heed to Judaism’s Sephardic as opposed to its Ashkenazi roots.

Enter Benjamin Hary and 32 fellow wanderers from Atlanta’s Emory University.

Hary, a professor of Hebrew, Arabic and linguistics, and his troupe spent five weeks this summer exploring Sephardic culture in Europe. They started in Spain, where Judaism flourished for centuries under Christian and Muslim rule. Then they went where the Jews did after being expelled from Spain in 1492 — to what became a thriving Diaspora, ranging from France and the Netherlands in the east down to Italy and Greece. The point was to understand the roots and effects of the Inquisition. It also was to celebrate the following 500 years of cultural and religious re-rooting and renewal.

“This is so much more significant than teaching it in a classroom at Emory,” said the Israeli-born Hary, an expert in Judeo-Arabic linguistics and history. “What could be better than sitting around Maimonides’s statue in Cordoba and reading from his writings? And then [to] discuss it?”

Hary first took students on the odyssey in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of the expulsion. It was a unique commemoration and, in Hary’s mind, a one-shot deal. It worked so well that he did it seven more times, most recently this past May and June.

In Madrid, the group went on a walking tour of the historic Jewish quarter and had dinner with America’s ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont. In Rome they toured the Vatican and had lunch in the old Jewish ghetto. In Paris they hung with Muslim youth, while in Salonika, they talked with a second-generation Holocaust survivor. At each stop, they didn’t merely accept what their guides said, like most tourists do. Instead, prompted by their relentless professor and his teaching assistants, the Emory students probed, debated and, when the guide got it wrong — on everything from linguistics to denying a particular country’s complicity in the expulsions — they tried to set the record straight and to see why, as Hary kept telling them, simple answers are seldom sufficient. Comparing and contrasting the experiences of communities as different as Barcelona and Venice, they came to understand how ancient experiences could hold compelling lessons for contemporary Jews.

History was the focus, along with understanding how language reflects and affects culture. And while Judaism was the reason they were there, the students also explored the rich and at times problematic interactions that Jews of old had with Christians and Muslims. Each student kept a journal and was expected to write in it at least five times a week, synthesizing what he or she had learned in class, saw on tours and read from a syllabus that tracked the lands visited. A final paper also was required, one whose topic they picked at the start of the course and whose thesis they fine-tuned during their journey.

So who were the Jews in whose footsteps they followed, and why should Emory kids or anyone else care? Faced with the choice of converting to Christianity or leaving, an estimated 200,000 Jews abandoned Spain in 1492 (some say the number was as high as 800,000, others as low as 40,000). Whatever the number, it was huge by the standards of the day — when most of world Jewry spoke Judeo-Arabic — and suggested how important faith was to Spanish Jews. Today, the label “Sephardic” is sometimes applied narrowly to refer to Jews directly descended from those in Spain, and other times to include any who aren’t Ashkenazi. There are large Sephardic communities in Israel, France, Argentina, Canada and the United States, many coming over the past half-century from the Middle East and North Africa. Today there are about 50,000 Jews in Spain.

Aviela Lerner, an anthropology major and global health minor, went on Hary’s tour not so much for academic reasons (she plans to be a nurse practitioner) as for cultural ones (she knew about her Ashkenazi roots, but not about any ties she might have to Sephardic cultures). The 19-year-old sophomore from Newton, Mass., was not disappointed. “Learning about the rich history and culture in these communities was fascinating and taught me about where many of the Jewish traditions originate,” Lerner said.

What stood out to Benjamin Lejfer, a 20-year-old business major and Ashkenazi Jew from Newton, is that last summer’s course was “the first time that I looked at and/or studied Judaism from a strictly academic point of view.… I studied Judaism the same way I study math or science.”

Studying Judaism at all was a new thing for Lynn Hargrow, a 21-year-old history major from Miami who is not Jewish. At Emory, he has been focusing on such issues as cultural intolerance and expulsion, so Hary’s course seemed like a natural. It was, and now that he is back in America, Hargrow said, “I have made the decision to learn Hebrew and Arabic, in an effort to better understand Judaism and Islam.”

Larry Tye is the author of six books, including “Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora” (Henry Holt & Co., 2001).

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