Can Sephardic Jews Go Home Again — 500 Years After the Inquisition?

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Trash: Madrid’s streets were strewn with garbage.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Trash: Madrid’s streets were strewn with garbage.

Part 2: The Real Spain

A dead piglet watched Alejandra Abulafia eat breakfast.

The pale carcass lay on a bed of lettuce inside a refrigerator at a Madrid café, its snout pointing in the general direction of Abulafia’s cup of coffee. I sat across the table from Abulafia, slightly out of the pig’s line of sight, drinking tea.

Abulafia, a 35-year-old woman with straight black hair and a paisley sweater, was born in Uruguay. She first came to Spain five years ago on a trip that started out kind of like mine. Then she never left.

We met for a meal early on my first morning in the country. Eating in Spain was turning out to be tough: I don’t eat pork, which is limiting in a city where the most popular local chain restaurant seems to be the Museo del Jamón, or Museum of Ham. It wasn’t as though I had imagined that being in Spain would feel like a walk through Zabar’s. But when you spend weeks preparing for a trip about Jews, it’s easy to forget that the country is really, really Catholic.

The dead piglet in the café was a good reminder.

Descended from Turkish Sephardic Jews on both sides, Abulafia grew up in Uruguay. Her grandmother sang her lullabies in Ladino and talked about her nostalgia for the Spain of her ancestors’ ancestors’ childhoods. “My grandmother all the time [was] saying she wants to come back to Sefarad,” Abulafia said. “But she was born in Smyrna. She had never been to Spain.”

Uruguay: Alejandra Abulafia moved to Spain to chase her grandmother’s Sephardic fantasy.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Uruguay: Alejandra Abulafia moved to Spain to chase her grandmother’s Sephardic fantasy.

Abulafia’s grandmother died without ever visiting. In 2008, Abulafia saved up and made the trip. It was, at first, a letdown. “I came here with a dream… and then this is the real Spain,” Abulafia said.

Five hundred years after the expulsion, there wasn’t much of Jewish Spain left to see. Her grandmother’s fantasy was really just a fantasy. And the Jews who Abulafia met in Spain didn’t care about her Sephardic romance. Spain was a place where they happened to live. Her grandmother’s dream didn’t mean anything to them.

We were eating pan con tomate, toast covered in pulpy tomato paste and doused with olive oil and salt, when the piglet made its move.

Or, rather, the bartender moved the pig, opening the glass refrigerator door and leaning across our table to grab it with both hands. He carried it low over our half-finished breakfast.

Abulafia laughed so hard she nearly choked on her water.

I had landed in Madrid the previous afternoon in a white Airbus. The budget Spanish airline gave out free copies of El País, the leading left-wing daily, that read almost as a warning to turn around and go home: A thousand people fired as a state-owned TV station is closed, government scholarships cut for foreign students halfway through the semester. The message was similar in the echoing halls of the empty Madrid airport, which has seen traffic drop 11% in the past year alone.

None of that, however, prepared me for what had happened to Madrid. When I climbed out of the subway at the Anton Martín stop, I found a plaza full of trash.

Garbage was piled around cans and spilling out of dumpsters, spread over the sidewalk and stomped into the pavement. There were banana peels in crosswalks. I saw chopped vegetables and cracked eggs and bags of dog shit and dog shit with no bag. Socialist and monarchist newspapers blew together across the plazas, gathering in corners until another gust picked them up and blew them back the other way. You could feel the beginnings of a walloping odor playing at the corners of your nostrils.

Madrid is a clean city. A fascist capital just a few decades ago, today it is patrolled by an armada of men and women in green-and-yellow Day-Glo jumpsuits carrying brooms and pushing garbage bins. They drive golf-cart-sized street-sweepers through the plazas, sucking up discarded churros and café napkins.

Three days before I landed, however, the Day-Glo jumpsuits went on strike. I saw them rallying across the street from the train station, with more and more middle-aged comrades carrying union banners coming out of the subways to join them.

Upstairs at my hostel, the desk clerk hardly seemed to notice. It’s not that the garbage problem wasn’t news — on Friday morning, the paper I bought was worrying about garbage-borne contagion. But in Spain today there are strikes all the time. Unrest is an everyday thing. One night in the Puerta del Sol in the center of Madrid, right in front of city hall, I saw two separate protests collide with each other.

Between 2007 and 2012, unemployment in Spain leapt from 8% to 26%. Among people under 25, unemployment is 56.1% — higher than any European nation besides Greece. Massive budget cuts and wage freezes for government workers have undermined the country’s social services, while countless corruption scandals have eroded faith in Spanish institutions.

The official Jewish federation, the Federación, is in a comfortable-looking building in a fancy neighborhood in Madrid, just off the Castellana, the tree-lined avenue that runs through the middle of the city. Behind a white door with a mezuzah on the frame, Royo, the group’s spokeswoman, is feeling the impact of the economic meltdown.

Federación: María Royo, the spokeswoman for Spain’s official Jewish federation.
josh nathan-kazis
Federación: María Royo, the spokeswoman for Spain’s official Jewish federation.

“The principal problem is the crisis,” Royo told me. “The young people don’t have a future in Spain.”

The Catholic Church in Spain has been directly funded by the government since forever; non-Catholic religious groups only started getting taxpayer-funded subsidies in the 1990s. The Federación is the officially recognized conduit for that cash, its leadership elected by representatives of the official, Moroccan-dominated Orthodox communities in 14 Spanish cities. Recently, the nationwide government cuts have hit the Federación, and it has cancelled lots of its programs.

Royo’s real worry, however, is for the future of the community itself. The Federación claims that there are 45,000 Jews today in Spain, though others I interviewed said that estimate is high. Most arrived as political or economic refugees in the past 50 years, and all have the relative mobility offered by the possibility of immigration to Israel. Now, many are choosing to exercise that option.

There are no good figures on how many Spanish Jews have left the country during the crisis, but Royo thinks the numbers are large. “People don’t come to Spain,” Royo said. “In Spain they leave.”

The citizenship question, for Royo, was a frustrating afterthought. It felt obnoxious to bring it up, to pester her with abstract problems of blood and heritage while people were marching in the plazas and the trash in the streets was starting to stink. But I was being paid to be obnoxious, so I asked anyhow.

Since last November, Royo’s office has been flooded with what she said were 5,000 requests for information on citizenship. The names are piling up in a database in a Federación computer — South American Sephardim, Israeli Sephardim, Sephardim from all around the Mediterranean.

There is a preexisting law that’s been around in one form or another since the 1920s that allows Spain’s Council of Ministers to grant a naturalization card to Sephardic Jews who want to become Spanish citizens. In effect, the law is useless — it’s slow, onerous, and applied at the whim of the government. The citizenship program announced in 2012 would have replaced the naturalization card, sped the whole thing up, and dumped an earlier requirement that applicants renounce their prior citizenship.

At least that’s what the government had said then. According to Royo, they hadn’t said anything else since.

“They haven’t told us anything,” Royo said. “We still don’t know the requirements.”

Will the descendants of crypto-Jews who now practice some other religion be eligible? What about Jews with only one Sephardic parent? One Sephardic grandparent? Does the Spanish government play by Nuremberg rules? Will eligible Sephardim need to speak Spanish? Ladino? What about Haketia, the Judeo-Spanish language spoken in northern Morocco? Has the Spanish justice minister ever heard of Haketia?

Royo has no idea.

What Royo thinks will happen is that the government will ask applicants to get a rabbi in their home community to certify them as Sephardic.


‘The young people don’t have a future in Spain.’


She didn’t seem to mind that idea, but it sounded crazy to me. In Israel and much of Europe and Latin America, Jewish communities have official chief rabbis recognized by the state. Maybe this tactic would work there. In the United States, however, there’s a rabbi around every corner, and no one to say who is legitimate and who isn’t. I’ve written about a guy who will ordain you for $8,000, a short essay, and some sessions over Skype. Can rabbis ordained by him certify congregants as Sephardic? Will the Spanish government decide which rabbis count and which don’t?

In fact, it’s pretty clear to the Federación that no one really considered these questions before the proposal was made. “They did it very fast,” Royo said. “[They told us] come, come tomorrow, we have to present it and we have to announce it.”

The ministers gave no explanation for their haste. A week after the announcement, something happened that some in Spain seem to think explains the whole proposal and everything that’s come since.

The press conference announcing the citizen ship proposal took place in the third week of November 2012. In the fourth week, Spain voted to accept Palestine as an observer state at the United Nations.

The Palestinian observer status fight was one of those chapters in the Middle East conflict that launches a thousand dire op-eds and then fades quickly into a half-remembered muck of old diplomatic scuffles. The question was whether Palestine should be recognized as a non-member observer state at the U.N.; the answer, for most countries besides the United States, Israel, Canada, Panama, some tiny islands in the Pacific, and the Czech Republic was, “Yes.” (Another 41 countries abstained, including Germany, the U.K., Australia, and some more tiny islands.)

The United States and Israel pressured their allies to oppose the measure. Most supported it anyway. But in Madrid, the diplomatic assault may have had some unintended consequences.

“Was it a coincidence or no, we don’t know,” said Royo. “The thing is that a year has passed and nothing has happened.”

Had I flown to Spain to chase down some ministerial feint invented to distract American Jews from a U.N. vote? Something the Spanish authorities thought we would forget about before they actually needed to follow through?

Our imaginary audience with the king was looking even more imaginary.


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