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

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Synagogue: Inside the main Sephardic synagogue in Madrid at a 2006 ceremony attended by the Spanish king and queen.
getty images
Synagogue: Inside the main Sephardic synagogue in Madrid at a 2006 ceremony attended by the Spanish king and queen.

Part 5: ‘What About the Slaves?’

On the way back to the hostel that night, I found myself worrying about slaves.

I had brought with me to Spain a few photocopied pages from David de Sola Pool’s “Portraits Etched in Stone,” a 1953 history of New York’s early Sephardic Jews. On the subway from the airport the day before, I had read the book’s short biography of Luis Gomez, the Madrid-born ancestor I had discussed with Royo. The book questions the claim that he was born in Madrid, saying it was more likely that he was born in Lisbon — something I had chosen not to mention to Royo. Better to not confuse things, I figured. There was something more troubling, however, towards the bottom of the biography: a quote from his 1730 will. “I Louis Gomez, of New York, merchant, being in good health… leave to my sister Elenor Gomez, £25 a year,” he wrote. “I also leave her a negro wench.”

Slave ownership was common in New York among wealthy families, and Gomez did well once he arrived from Europe, establishing himself as a trader and buying thousands of acres in Orange County and Ulster County upstate. The fact that he owned slaves, then, was not a surprise.

But what if he traded slaves? His sons, also merchants, married women from Jewish communities in the Caribbean, which meant they had contacts in the massive slave markets there. If Gomez was a wealthy early 18th century merchant, wasn’t there some chance that he had participated in the biggest business of the era?

I had assumed that the logic behind the Spanish passport bid was, at some level, about reparative justice: Spain did this to our ancestors and has now proposed to give us citizenship in recompense. It would certainly throw off the moral calculus if the ancestors I was using to make that claim had gone on to trade slaves. I had just used Gomez’s name to make my citizenship claim to Royo. If he was a slave trader, would the claim still feel valid?

Earlier in the day, I had sent a few emails with questions about Gomez. That evening, I had a response.

My hostel was in a huge old apartment on Calle Atocha. I sat at the small desk and opened my laptop. There was an email in my inbox from Eli Faber, a CUNY professor who had written a 1998 book, “Jews and the Slave Trade.” The book pitches itself in its introduction as a corrective to the Nation of Islam’s “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” which argued that Jews were particularly complicit in the transatlantic slave trade. Faber’s thesis was that, though Jews owned slaves, they did not own slaves in disproportionately large numbers, and that very few were slave traders. I’m not sure whether that was supposed to be comforting.


It was clear by now that Spain’s Jewish community couldn’t care less about my Sephardic identity crisis.


Gomez, Faber said in his email to me, was probably not a slave trader. “There were, here and there, a few slave cargoes shipped by Jews — I know of none such by Luis Gomez (and I am quite certain he had none)” he wrote.

Okay, so probably not a slave trader, though definitely a slave owner, though probably not a disproportionately large-scale owner of slaves. How was my historic guilt quotient doing?

Some bar in the side street outside my window seemed to be having a British Invasion-themed karaoke party. I fell asleep to the sound of a drunk Spaniard at the karaoke bar downstairs singing along to “Mother’s Little Helper.”

The next morning was a Saturday. I got up early, put on a suit and headed to the café down the block. I had a ticket booked on a fast train to Córdoba in the late afternoon, but I figured I had better go to Shabbat morning services before I left town. I dawdled for a while over a plate of pan con tomate, feeling like the only man in Madrid in a tie.

I bought a copy of ABC, a right-wing paper, thinking it might be less of a downer than El País. It turned out to be a different kind of downer: more misery over Basque terrorists freed from prison and less over canceled scholarships, but misery all the same.

Sephardim: Madrid’s main Orthodox synagogue, a tough-looking little building.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Sephardim: Madrid’s main Orthodox synagogue, a tough-looking little building.

Madrid’s main Sephardic synagogue is next to the public library on Calle Balmes, a little curlicue off a side street near the Iglesia subway stop. The story here was much the same as elsewhere: A few old Jews, no young ones. The men who founded the synagogue left Morocco around the time of that country’s independence in 1956, worried that the new postcolonial regime would expel the Jews just as Nasser had in Egypt. Spain, still fascist, seemed a safer option.

Services were efficient and sparsely attended. Afterwards, there were peanuts and olives and beer at a kiddush downstairs. I had lunch at the home of the local Lubavitch rabbi, who lived with his wife in an apartment building around the corner. Their living room had at least nine pictures of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. The rabbi and his wife asked another visitor if she had any personal stories about the Rebbe; she told two, one of which amounted to her passing him on the street one day. The rabbi pestered me not to travel to Córdoba until after Shabbat ended, going into another room to dig out a printed train schedule to show me that there were trains after sunset. I resolved to reinstate my previously unbroken rule of not having lunch with Lubavitch rabbis.

Back outside, it was a beautiful Saturday in Madrid. The weather had warmed a bit; there were college-age kids drinking beer and talking politics in the park. I had a little while before my train, so I went back to my hostel to change out of my suit.

It was clear by now that Spain’s Jewish community couldn’t care less about my Sephardic identity crisis. They had their own problems, far more serious than the ones the government imposed when they said they wanted to offer Sephardic passports.

Those Sephardic passports, however, were still my problem, and I wasn’t much closer to figuring out why they had been offered. I couldn’t get any more out of Madrid’s Jews. In Córdoba, the center of Spain’s Jewish tourism industry, with the smell of American Jewish tourist cash in the air, I thought that everyone’s motivations would be more apparent.

I headed to Atocha and got on the train.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.