Kurt Hoffman

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

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published January 26, 2014, issue of January 31, 2014.

Madrid — The Spanish government expelled the Jews in 1492. In 2012, they said that they wanted us back. At a press conference that November, two ministers announced that any Sephardic Jew who wanted a Spanish passport could have one.

Then nothing happened.

By late 2013, Spain had not given out any passports. No one even knew how to apply.

I’ve got a little bit of Sephardic blood, and my grandfather looked like a duke in an El Greco painting. So, at the end of 2013 I went to Madrid to see about becoming Spanish, and to figure out what Spain wanted with us after 520 years.

Part 1: ‘Never Return’

On a Friday afternoon in early November, I spread out four sheets of paper on the glass conference table at Spain’s official Jewish federation and launched into my bid for Spanish citizenship.

I pointed to the name Luis Gomez at the top of one of the pages, a copy from a huge book of genealogies that my grandmother keeps in her dining room. Gomez, born in Madrid in 1660, was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. He died in New York City; a house he built upstate is now a museum. I hadn’t brought a photo of the house. All I had to show to María Royo, the spokeswoman for the Jewish federation, was this family tree.

Cousins: The author with a portrait of a long-dead Sephardic ancestor.
courtesy of Josh Nathan-Kazis
Cousins: The author with a portrait of a long-dead Sephardic ancestor.

When the Spanish ministers announced that they would offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews, they told the press that the actual decisions about which Sephardim would qualify for Spanish passports would be made by the Spanish Jewish federation, the Federación de Comunidades Judías de España. What the ministers didn’t say was exactly how the Federación was supposed to decide who was Sephardic and who wasn’t.

“So, if I had this, this would be enough?” I asked Royo in Spanish, gesturing vaguely at the generations of Nathans and Gomezes in front of us. She did not seem impressed.

“This is just a piece of paper,” Royo said.

This was going to be harder than I had thought.

Becoming Spanish had started to sound fun at a family barbeque in August. I brought up the citizenship offer over gin and tonics before dinner. We instigated half-serious plans while my dad overcooked the burgers: Why not apply for passports? Why not do it en masse? Why not organize a delegation and see if we can get the Spanish king to deliver a formal apology?

I imagined a dozen Nathans in top hats and tails, Juan Carlos tapping our shoulders with a sword, his wife Sofía dealing stiff new passports from a deck.

The Nathan name has rated us special treatment before. Our ancestors were among the first Jews to settle in New Amsterdam in the 17th century, and we’ve made a lot of the connection. We have been interviewed for documentaries about the history of Jews in America; there’s a pulpy book about our set of early American Sephardic families. (Actual chapter title: “‘Nathans Don’t Cheat’ — But Do They Kill?”) My uncle just finished a term as president of Shearith Israel, the Sephardic Manhattan synagogue our family has attended for some 350 years; my grandfather and great-grandfather were also presidents.

Click on the thumbnail to see the author’s family tree dating back to 1654.
Courtesy of the American Jewish Archives
Click on the thumbnail to see the author’s family tree dating back to 1654.

Citizenship, however, has deeper implications than a good seat in synagogue. I worried about its implications for my historic guilt quotient. Would a Spanish passport make me responsible for Columbus and the conquistadors and that whole thing with Cortés pouring gold down Montezuma’s throat? What about the sinking of the Maine? The murder of Lorca? Bullfighting?

Others took the whole thing more seriously. “I think they lost their claim to me when they kicked me out the first time,” said my 20-year-old cousin Jonathan, a junior at the University of Chicago, when we talked about it later.

Jews arrived in Spain under Roman rule and lived there under Muslim and Catholic kings for a millennium. In 1390, anti-Jewish riots started a wave of exile and conversion that culminated in 1492, when Isabella and Ferdinand expelled all the Jews who were left. They signed the order at their newly captured castle in Granada.

“[W]e, with the counsel and advice of prelates, great noblemen of our kingdoms, and other persons of learning and wisdom of our Council,” they wrote, “resolve to order the said Jews and Jewesses of our kingdoms to depart and never to return.”

As many as a quarter million split. (This figure comes from Encyclopedia Judaica; estimates vary.) Some went to Portugal, which expelled them six years later. Most of the exiles moved on to the lands of the Ottoman Empire, to Istanbul and Salonika. Others went to Morocco and Syria and Tunisia, to Egypt and Amsterdam and beyond.

Tens of thousands of others converted to Catholicism and stayed. The Church spent the next 342 years trying to weed out the insincere Catholics among them, inventively torturing suspected heretics and handing over the irredeemable to the state to be burned alive. No one knows how many Jews converted, though the number burnt as late as the 18th century — over a thousand after a secret synagogue was discovered in Madrid in 1720 — suggests that the original population of conversos must have been huge.

Openly practicing Jews didn’t return to Spain in large numbers until the late 1950s, when Moroccan independence led tens of thousands to move north across the Mediterranean. When the Moroccans opened their first Sephardic synagogue in Madrid in 1968, Spain’s fascist government marked the occasion by issuing an official order revoking the edict of expulsion, which was nice of them.

It was presumably in repentance for all of this that Spain’s justice minister and interior minister sat down at the press conference in November 2012 with the president of the country’s Jewish community to offer passports to the descendants of the expelled “Jews and Jewesses.”

We were pretty confident we could qualify. Sure, my brother and my cousins and I only have one Sephardic great-grandparent. And I don’t attend a Sephardic synagogue. (I grew up at a Conservative synagogue nearby; the sex-segregated seating at Shearith Israel didn’t work for us.) And no one in our family has spoken Ladino since — who knows? The 15th century?

Still, we’re Nathans. Nathans are Sephardic. Who was going to tell us otherwise?

There was something off-putting, though, about the way Spain’s consul general in New York talked to me about the passports.

I had gone to meet Don Juan Ramón Martínez Salazar in his office around the corner from Bloomingdales in Midtown Manhattan to see if I could learn anything about the status of the law. This was just a week before my trip. A life-sized portrait of Spain’s elderly king flanked his office door. I sat in a fancy chair and worried about staining it with my pen. The consul general couldn’t tell me much about the status of the law, but he did speak to the rationale.

Martínez did not expect that American Jews would actually move to Spain. Though he didn’t explicitly mention the economic crisis that has sapped the country of jobs, capital and political stability, the implication was clear: You would have to be crazy to move to Madrid right now. Instead, Martínez said, the passports would be a symbolic gesture demonstrating the Sephardic connection to Spain.

“This Sephardic population belongs to Spain, somehow,” Martínez told me. “It would be a good thing to, in a way, have them back.”


‘They lost their claim to me when they kicked me out the first time.’


That we belonged to Spain was news to me. For my family, to be Sephardic is to belong to America. One Nathan helped bankroll the Revolution. In the gilded age, the Nathans and their cousins were the sorts of Jews who the WASPs allowed into their social clubs while the arriviste Germans were still locked out. A Nathan lived next door to Edith Wharton. (He was later murdered spectacularly, perhaps by his son.) A cousin, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, was a United States Supreme Court justice.

And it wasn’t just that we became American. We also cultivated a resentment of the Spanish. Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, was a first cousin of my great-great-grandfather. Besides paeans to America, she wrote a couple of poems that read as anti-Spanish diatribes. In “Don Pedrillo” and “Fra Pedro,” two poems in a series Lazarus wrote in 1876, she imagines an evil half-Jewish Spanish priest who looks like the devil and delivers wonderfully cruel anti-Semitic speeches: “All your tribe offend my senses/They’re an eyesore to my vision/And a stench unto my nostrils.”

Lazarus’s bile aside, I had warm enough feelings for Spain. The idea that Spain wanted to make contact with me was exciting. It pandered to my pride in our Sephardic blood and what I had always imagined to be our highborn pre-Inquisition past. I didn’t know why Martínez’s government was interested in the contact. I figured it had to do with some mix of tourism dollars and historical guilt. That sounded like a fair swap for a passport.

kurt hoffman

My editors raised the limit on my Forward credit card. I flew to Madrid.

November 2013 was a particularly bad time to try to get Spanish citizenship. Madrid was suffocating amidst endless recession, and the Jewish community there was dying along with it. The country, meanwhile, was trying to negotiate its newfound interest in its Sephardic past while figuring out how to capitalize on it. My theory about why Spain had extended the citizenship offer turned out to be more or less correct. What I didn’t expect was that my trip to Spain would undermine my own belief in those imagined highborn roots. By the time I got on the flight back to JFK, I wasn’t sure I was Sephardic anymore, and I was certain I didn’t want to be Spanish.

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.

Part 3: ‘Everyone Is Sephardic’

There was another problem with the ministers’ plan: It might give every single Jewish person in the world grounds to claim Spanish citizenship.

The Spanish and Portuguese Sephardim of New York — my people — have very particular ideas about who is and who isn’t Sephardic. If you count Syrian Jews, Brooklyn is full of Sephardim. We don’t count Syrian Jews.

“Real Sephardim are from Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and then Italy, France and then Greece, Turkey and the islands — Rhodes, Salonica,” said Norman Benzaquen, a Moroccan-born Jew and a prominent member of Shearith Israel, our Sephardic congregation in Manhattan. “Those are real Sephardic Jews. The rest call themselves Sephardic.”

That definition of Sephardic leaves out the Syrians, the Yemenites, the Iranians, and the Iraqis. There’s some historical validity in the distinction: The Yemenites and Iranian Jewish communities don’t descend from Iberian exiles, and the Syrian and Iraqi Jewish communities descend only in part from Iberian exiles. Yet all but the Yemenites adhere to Sephardic customs, and even the Yemenites follow some Sephardic sages.

Elitism requires sharp distinctions, however, and heavy currents of that elitism run through the Sephardic identity of families like mine. At the end of the 19th century, that elitism led lots of Nathans to marry their first cousins, including my great-great grandparents. Those cousin marriages were more about Sephardic purity than about social class: Plenty of German Jews in New York City were as rich as the Spanish and Portuguese Jews were by the 1890s. But it wasn’t until my great-grandparents got married in 1917 that German names start showing up on the genealogy.

Our family shaped itself around the notion that Sephardic blood was different. According to an October 2013 study by Joshua S. Weitz, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, that notion is bullshit.

In direct response to the new citizenship proposal for Sephardim, Weitz built a genealogical model of Jewish ancestry that suggests that almost every Jew alive today had at least one ancestor expelled from Spain in 1492. A director of a quantitative biosciences group at Georgia Tech, Weitz was on a trip to Barcelona last May when he started wondering how one could claim descent from a person who died 550 years ago.

What’s complicated about making such a claim is that everyone has a ton of ancestors. Count back 20 generations and you have a cumulative total of over two million ancestors, assuming no inbreeding. “The major point here is that the number of Jewish ancestors, whether you’re Sephardic or Ashkenazic, becomes so large that the chance that none of those people are Sephardic becomes very small,” Weitz told me over the phone.


‘Real Sephardim are from Spain.’


Even if you assume very low levels of marriage between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the vast number of ancestors of each individual Jewish person living today has means that there had to be, at some point, crosses between the two populations. (This leaves aside intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, which doubtless also happened.) In a draft paper published on the academic website arXiv.org in October, Weitz wrote that, based on his calculations, it’s probably very common for each Jewish person today to have both Sephardic and Ashkenazi forebears.

“Nearly all present-day Jews are likely to have at least one (if not many more) ancestors expelled from Spain in 1492,” Weitz wrote.

In other words, every Jew is probably a little Sephardic.

Weitz stopped there, but it seems that Spaniards have taken his argument a step farther: If all Jews are Sephardic, maybe all Spaniards are Sephardic, too.

Jewish Eyes: Madrid’s annual book fair, where Spaniards ask Fernando M.-Vara de Rey if he thinks they have Jewish roots.
getty images
Jewish Eyes: Madrid’s annual book fair, where Spaniards ask Fernando M.-Vara de Rey if he thinks they have Jewish roots.

El Retiro, the big park in the middle of Madrid, is like a palace garden with no gates. Paths radiate out from small plazas to intersect with tree-lined avenues. In the spring, when everything is blooming, intellectual Spain gathers here for a big book fair. Hundreds of booths are set up along the Paseo Fernan Núñez, sponsored by publishing houses, government ministries, the army and whoever else has books to sell.

At Fernando M.-Vara de Rey’s booth, everyone wants to know whether he thinks they’re Jewish.

Vara de Rey works for the Centro Sefarad-Israel, a new government-sponsored cultural organization. In 2013, its stand was the only Jewish-themed booth at the fair. All day long Spaniards would come up to the booth, presenting evidence of their Jewish ancestry: last names, family legends, dark-colored eyes.

A surname like Herrero, for instance. Plenty of Jewish families hid their heritage by taking the names of their trades after they converted to Catholicism. Herrero in Spanish means blacksmith; someone with the last name Herrero could certainly have Jewish ancestors.

But dark-colored eyes?

In his office overlooking the back garden of the old Madrid palace where the Centro is based, Vara de Rey said that Spaniards are interested in Jews, but that they don’t know much about them. “This is a sympathy that’s a little mythical, a little innocent,” he said.

Isabella: Michelle Jenner, the actress who plays Queen Isabella in a popular Spanish TV series, may have something to do with the current Spanish interest in Jews.
Isabella: Michelle Jenner, the actress who plays Queen Isabella in a popular Spanish TV series, may have something to do with the current Spanish interest in Jews.

Vara de Rey thinks the interest in Jews may have to do with a series running on Spanish TV called “Isabel,” about the Spanish queen. Isabella, and the hot young actress who plays her, may be part of it. But it’s too pervasive to stop there. At times, it feels like everyone in the Iberian Peninsula thinks they might have Jewish roots.

A woman told me that she thought she was Jewish because her parents had always lit candles behind closed shutters on Friday nights. A man said that he thought he had Jewish roots because, among other reasons, his grandmother didn’t let him put his elbows on the dinner table. (I’m still trying to figure that one out.)

Claiming Sephardic ancestry, then, is fashionable in Spain. Given the tens of thousands of conversos, and the 20-odd generations that have lived and died here since the 1390s, it’s not unlikely that lots of people do have some sort of legitimate claim. Still, it felt like they were cutting in on my territory. Weitz’s argument, that every Jew has Sephardic blood, was intellectual and abstract — no German Jew is actually calling him or herself Sephardic based on an academic paper. In Spain, though, they were all grabbing at something I had thought was mine.

Hats: Hats for Orthodox Jews made in a factory Southern Spain.
getty images
Hats: Hats for Orthodox Jews made in a factory Southern Spain.

Part 4: ‘Perhaps It Was Not the Right Decision’

I went from Royo’s office to the Ashkenazic synagogue, the only Jewish space in Madrid where nobody cared about the legacy of the Inquisition, to meet the country’s most recent Jewish immigrants. I wanted to see if they now regretted moving to Spain.

It’s hard to find Congregación Bet El. The congregation has a website, but lists no address or phone number. In 2005, when I was studying abroad in Madrid, I wound up ringing a buzzer one Friday at an address I found online that I thought was the synagogue. All I heard on the other end of the intercom were angry-sounding dogs.

This time, I found the synagogue easily. It was an unmarked storefront with frosted windows in a residential neighborhood of Madrid. In a circle of chairs in the center of the room, Mario Stofenmacher was meeting with a family about bar mitzvah classes. Stofenmacher isn’t quite a rabbi, but he’s the closest his congregation has. He had been a student at the Masorti rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires, but then left the country in 1990 for work in Spain. Now he leads the only Masorti synagogue in Madrid and the third-largest synagogue in Spain.

The sanctuary sticks, with impressive fealty, to the aesthetic clichés of the North American Conservative synagogue — a piece of art depicting the Tree of Life, another depicting a candelabra, an Israeli flag hung next to the Spanish flag, a Yamaha keyboard. The ceiling, however, is low; the room is lit with flat fluorescent lights. Stofenmacher’s office is a tiny glass-walled cubicle toward the back.

The Jews at Bet El came to Spain in two waves: first, in 1990, fleeing economic crisis in Argentina, then 10 years later fleeing an even larger economic crisis in Argentina and political unrest in Venezuela.

Stofenmacher came with the first wave. “I was 30 years old,” Stofenmacher said. “We were just starting again.”

The Argentines arrived with no illusions about Spain. The children of refugees from Eastern Europe who had the relative bad luck to settle in a South American country where not much went right after 1900, they had no grandparents obsessed with any prehistoric Spanish idyll. Seeking economic stability in Spain, they couldn’t have picked a worse refuge.

They came because of the shared language, and because of the special deal the Spaniards offered to all Latin Americans starting in the 1980s: In return for four centuries of conquest, enslavement and general imperialist oppression, you could get a Spanish passport after just two years of residency instead of the normal 10.

“It’s an easygoing country, the services were pretty good,” Stofenmacher said, sitting in his office while the sanctuary started to fill with congregants and their kids. His synagogue has 150 member families today. After they got their Spanish passports, the Latin American Jews stayed, and they transformed Spain’s Jewish community. Enrollment at the partially state-funded Jewish school in Madrid nearly doubled. Stofenmacher claims that the Ashkenazi Latin Americans who have arrived since 1990 make up something like half the Jewish population in Spain.


‘This community has a complicated future….The question is how it’s going to survive with no youth.’


One thing that the Latin Americans haven’t changed is the Federación. Royo’s group, though still the official Jewish leadership in the eyes of the state, remains the fiefdom of the better-established Moroccans. Only the Orthodox communities, which are Moroccan-dominated, have a vote on the Federación’s board. Bet El is an associate member of the Federación with no say in its governance.

“They usually [say] they represent all of the Jews,” Stofenmacher said of the Federación. “It’s not true.”

He complained that Moroccan-dominated Orthodox communities outside of Madrid that are far smaller than his congregation receive more in government funding through the Federación. Meanwhile, Madrid’s Orthodox chief rabbi, a black-hat Sephardi, won’t allow Masorti converts to be buried in Madrid’s Jewish cemetery, and won’t count them in a minyan.

All of this might be a bigger problem if the community itself were not disintegrating in front of Stofenmacher’s eyes.

The Latin Americans who came to Spain in 2000 and 2004 arrived in poverty. Most were families with young children, businessmen who had lost everything back in Argentina. “They were really starting again,” Stofenmacher said. “That was why, for them, it was more difficult.” When the economic crisis came to Spain, they had barely had a chance to get established. The congregation itself had put away some money during its early years and has continued to operate, but its members are struggling.

“Now, after 20 years, you see yourself and you say, ‘Hey guy, perhaps it was not the right decision,’” Stofenmacher said. “But they felt that they made part of their lives here, so it’s not so easy to break those roots and to go back.”

Their children, however, are more mobile. As soon as they can, young Jews from Stofenmacher’s community are leaving Spain. Some go to high school in Israel, then stay for college. Stofenmacher’s own son is going to high school in Chicago. He doesn’t think he’ll ever move back.

“This community has a complicated future,” Stofenmacher said. “The question is how this community is going to survive with no youth.”

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.

Mezquita: A night time scene in the historic district of Córdoba.
josh nathan-kazis
Mezquita: A night time scene in the historic district of Córdoba.

Part 6: Maimonides’ Foot

The fast train from Madrid to Córdoba makes the Acela look like the G train to Queens. We pulled out of Atocha at 5 p.m., picking up speed as we rolled past Toledo and into a region of rolling hills like oversized moguls and towns with castles and church spires. I took speed-blurred photos out the window as the sun set.

In Córdoba two hours later, I checked into a chain hotel and set off down a dark alley towards the old city, thinking back on my conversation with Abulafia, the Uruguayan romantic. After her first disappointing visit to Spain, Abulafia had gone to Israel, then stopped back in Spain for a second shot. During that second trip she took a nighttime walk through Córdoba that, in her telling, convinced her to settle in Spain.

“I don’t know why, my steps take me straight to the Jewish quarter, like I know where to go,” she had told me. “And then I walk a little bit more and I find the synagogue. My body starts to shake really, I cannot control it, the emotion, and I say I have to live here.”

Kurt Hoffman

My steps took me straight to the Jewish quarter, too — it’s hard to miss. The old city’s not that big. And there are plenty of signs. I stood in front of the statue of Maimonides, hoping for something transcendent.

Eh. I took a picture of the statue’s foot, rubbed shiny by a million tourists’ hands like the balls on the Wall Street bull. The thing is: Córdoba is the most beautiful city in the world. It’s also an ungodly tourist trap.

The walls of the Mezquita, the cathedral in the center of town, are unearthly masterpieces, magnets that trap your attention and pull you in circles around them for hours. The Burger King across the street, less so. There’s a Mezquita Garage and a Mezquita ice cream store and a million crummy jewelry stores. There’s something called the Gallery of the Inquisition, which is six rooms of wildly disturbing replica torture devices, pornographic illustrations of naked women being tortured on the devices, and a couple of cheesy skeletons. The entrance fee is three euros.

Tourist Trap?: A statue of Maimonides stands in the middle of Córdoba’s Jewish quarter.
josh nathan-kazis
Tourist Trap?: A statue of Maimonides stands in the middle of Córdoba’s Jewish quarter.

I watched the bats from the bridge over the Guadalquivir and dodged the local kids riding mountain bikes up the stone streets of the old city, then found myself at a great-looking bar with a bull’s head on the wall and ate an overly large plate of cured tuna for dinner.

The next morning, back in the Jewish quarter, I figured out the other problem with Córdoba.

Córdoba’s one remaining synagogue, its only legitimate extant pre-expulsion Jewish landmark, is on the Calle Judíos, just down the way from the Plaza Maimónedes. Built in the 14th century, it’s a single room with, I’ll grant you, some very beautiful plaster work on the walls. But that’s it.

The Jewish sites in Córdoba don’t rate mention next to the Mezquita. In the gardens of the Alcázar, an ancient palace that served as a headquarters of the Inquisition, sculpted pine trees surround a statue of Christopher Columbus with Isabella and Ferdinand, and there’s a pond where monster fish flop and suck at chunks of bread thrown in by a keeper. The Jewish sites? There’s an alley and a room.

“The Spanish Jewish identity, it isn’t tangible,” said Sebastian de la Obra, who runs his own private museum just down the block from the synagogue. “There’s no Mezquita, there’s no Alhambra, there’s no Giralda de Sevilla.”

In a faux-synagogue on the second floor of the Casa Sefarad, the mansion he converted into a museum in 2004, de la Obra sang the Yiddish version of “Dona, Dona” to a crowd of 30 rapt Spaniards. Apparently familiar with the Joan Baez version, they joined in en masse for the chorus.

A Yiddish show-tune-turned-pop-hit may be irrelevant to Spanish Jewish history, but the museum crowd didn’t mind. It was the climax to a lengthy tour of the museum during which de la Obra’s massive enthusiasm for Sephardic history was used to bludgeon the Spaniards into identifying with Spain’s Jewish past. They hadn’t known the chorus to any of the Sephardic songs de la Obra had sung first, but they sure knew “Dona, Dona” — and they got into it.

Earlier, in the basement, in front of an exhibit on Sephardic food, de la Obra had described the Sephardic origins of el cocido, a typical Spanish stew. He played etymological games, pointing out Spanish expressions that had roots in the Inquisition or with the Jews. The word desmazalado, for instance, means unlucky in Spain; mazal is Hebrew for “luck.”

In a dark room with a replica of the outfit the Inquisition’s victims were forced to wear as they were burnt, de la Obra talked about the legacy of the Inquisition. “This is a country of suspicions,” he said. The Spanish tourists, most of whom were old enough to remember Franco, nodded. “This country continually suspects half of the country… This has its origin in the Inquisition.”

Heretic: Jews sentenced to death during the Inquisition in Spain wore garments like this one at the Casa Sefarad in Córdoba.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Heretic: Jews sentenced to death during the Inquisition in Spain wore garments like this one at the Casa Sefarad in Córdoba.

De la Obra is a dramatic sort of man. He’s tall and grey-haired, with a goatee and a black polka-dot scarf. After the tour, he stood outside the museum, smoking and shaking hands with his awed audience. He isn’t Jewish, but he, too, thinks he has Jewish roots — he’s found records of a man named Antonio de la Obra, a scribe, who was brought before an Inquisition court in Granada in 1620. (One of his employees at the museum thought he might have Jewish roots, too: His family’s nickname in Lucena, their hometown, was “the Hebrews.”)

We sat together in his small library on the second floor of the Casa Sefarad. Smoking a cigarette and gesturing broadly, de la Obra explained why he cared about Spain’s Jewish history.

For the past 500 years, he said, Spanish identity has been defined by Catholicism, the Spanish language, and the land itself. Judaism and Islam, which existed on the peninsula for centuries before the expulsion, have been excluded. “We have constructed our identity denying the fundamental, either the heart or the brain,” he said. “We have constructed a mutilated identity.”

When the government first opened the Centro Sefarad-Israel in Madrid, it opened under the name Casa Sefarad. De la Obra sued to protect his right to the name and won. But his fight with the government isn’t just about trademarks. De la Obra believes that the local and national governments in Spain have exploited Spain’s Jewish history for political ends since the 1980s.

In de la Obra’s telling, it started when Spain recognized Israel. That recognition had been held up for decades on both sides, first by the Israelis, who mistrusted the Spanish government for its previous alliance with Hitler, and then by the Spaniards, who worried about upsetting the Arabs. Israeli and Spanish diplomats finally signed a mutual recognition agreement in secret in The Hague in 1986, according to a 2009 article in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs by Shmuel Hadas, Israel’s first ambassador to Spain.

Spain had kept its foreign policy oriented towards the Arab world in the aftermath of its post-Franco transition to democracy in the mid-1970s. According to Hadas’s article, the country’s diplomatic leadership felt that strong relations with Arab countries would help protect their lingering colonial interests in North Africa, and would bring investment from oil-rich Arab leaders. That began to change in the early 1980s when Spain began a diplomatic pivot to the West. Today, Spain is firmly within the United States’ sphere of influence: The country joined NATO in 1982, sent warplanes to the Bosnian War in 1996, took part in the invasion of Iraq, commanded the UNIFIL force in Lebanon between 2010 and 2012, and still has troops in Afghanistan.

It’s clear, too, that the relationship with Israel has become particularly important to Spain. In his bid to bolster international support for an independent Catalonia, a movement that has grown stronger in recent months amid the ongoing economic crisis, Catalonian regional president Artur Mas traveled to Jerusalem in November, where he said that he saw Israel as a model that demonstrated the viability of an independent Catalonian state. (Netanyahu declined to meet with him, probably so as not to annoy the Spanish government, which strongly opposes Catalonian secession. Mas also failed to meet with any Palestinian leaders, an oversight that drew much criticism back in Barcelona.)

Yet while Spain pays plenty of attention to its relationship with Israel, it also maintains strong economic and political ties to the Arab world. The country has deep historic, economic and diplomatic relationships with Arab nations, plus a growing Arab immigrant community. That can force Spain into tough positions, like the one the country faced around the 2012 U.N. vote on Palestinian non-member observer state status.

According to de la Obra, the government’s cultural work promoting Spain’s Sephardic heritage is a tool that the foreign ministry uses in striking that tricky balance.

“It’s political,” de la Obra asserted of the Centro Sefarad-Israel, created by Spain’s foreign ministry in 2006. “The principal ally of Spain, politically, is the United States,” he continued. “A large part of the investments made here actually come from the Arab countries, and they have to maintain this situation. At the same time, they have to seem to have a good relationship with Israel,” de la Obra said. “For this reason they created [the Centro Sefarad-Israel].”

On the one hand, de la Obra has an interest in playing down the ideological purity of the Centro Sefarad. He’s got something of a fixation on the place. He says that his fight with them was like David taking on Goliath.

But it’s also true that the institution exists under the patronage of the foreign ministry, and that Shimon Peres (an Ashkenazi Jew born in Poland) attended the opening ceremony at their offices with the king and queen in 2011.

De la Obra’s other grievance is with the touristic exploitation of the Sephardic legacy. He sees the political and economic uses of the legacy as connected. In his telling, Spain’s creation of the Red de Juderías in 1995 — a state-run tourism organization that coordinates among cities with historic Jewish quarters — was, at least in part, a reaction to the opening of relations with Israel.

The problem with the effort to promote the country’s Jewish quarters as tourism destinations was that very little remained of them.

“The immense majority of the juderías are new,” he said. “They have been built out of nothing. Out of nothing. They have made a fake stone [with a] magen David. They have put a little sign with ‘House of Maimonides.’”

De la Obra’s response is this museum. A small bust of Maimonides sits on his desk. The museum is full of artifacts, but its real function is to be a vessel for de la Obra’s exuberance for Jewish Spain. Hence, the singing.

“In the history of Judaism, Spain is the second homeland of Judaism,” de la Obra told me. “It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland, it’s not Russia. It’s not France, it’s not Great Britain. It’s Sefarad… No Ashkenaz dreams of Poland. [If] they dream, it’s as a nightmare, not a dream. No Ashkenaz dreams of Hungary. A Sephardi, yes, dreams of Sefarad.”

San Mateo: A church in Lucena, built on the former site of an ancient Jewish synagogue.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
San Mateo: A church in Lucena, built on the former site of an ancient Jewish synagogue.

Part 7: Good News for Lucena

Just past the life-sized caveman diorama at the ancient castle-turned-museum in the center of Lucena is an octagonal room dedicated to the Jews.

Fundamentalist Muslim caliphs chased the Jews from Lucena in the 12th century, a few hundred years before the Catholics did it again; this room is more or less all that’s left of them.

I had come to Lucena for sentimental reasons: Right at the top of the family tree I had shown to Royo back in Madrid, in the 10-or-11-generations-back range, is a man named Abraham de Lucena. Based on his surname, I figured he had ancestors in Lucena, this small city an hour and a half south of Córdoba, in the heart of Andalucía. My shtetl, maybe?

Kurt Hoffman

The idea of revisiting the village you think your Jewish ancestors may have come from is horribly overdone, and I felt bad about the whole thing. I was so afraid of the cliché that I decided to go incognito. I wouldn’t set up interviews or even call ahead, just show up and look around and then leave and that would be it. As I perused the pottery shards in the Jew room, however, a tour guide asked if I was Jewish. My cover blown, I admitted I was.

Turning to her tour group of older Spaniards, she informed them that they were in a room dedicated to the town’s Jewish history. “So, shalom,” she said, turning towards me to beam and nod.

I grimaced back at her.

The guide wore a black fleece vest over a pink shirt, and spoke in Spanish faster than I could follow. From the ninth century through the 12th century, Lucena was almost entirely Jewish, the richest Jewish city in the region. The Jews called the city Eliossana, or Eli hoshanah, which means “God save us” in Hebrew. (Broad smile in my direction! Nod!) She described Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath (Smile! Nod!), before shuffling the Spanish tourists into the next room.

On the way out, a young woman in the tour group stopped her. I had been taking notes on her speech, the young woman told the guide. Was I writing down mistakes she had made in explaining Shabbat?

The woman and the guide pulled me aside to ask, presumably thinking I was some kind of Jewish spy, ratting out mistaken tour guides to higher religious authorities. I told them no, I was just a journalist.

Bad move.

Dreidel: At Lucena’s city hall, local tourism official Manuel Lara Canitzani gave the author a dreidel.
Courtesy of the Ayuntamiento de Lucena
Dreidel: At Lucena’s city hall, local tourism official Manuel Lara Canitzani gave the author a dreidel.

Within the hour, Lucena’s top tourism official was handing me a dreidel in front of a fast-clicking camera as I sweated through my blazer.

There’s no train station in Lucena, so to get there I took the early bus from Córdoba, through hilltop towns with ancient towers. On the way I read La Razón, a right-wing paper I got for free in the hotel lobby, which excitedly reported that members of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party had sung the “Internacionale,” the Communist anthem, at a meeting the previous weekend. The economic crisis had felt less acute in Córdoba — perhaps because of all the Spanish vacationers, whose presence made the place feel particularly affluent — but there were reminders of unease, like the anti-immigrant graffiti in the park outside my hotel that read, “Spain for the Spaniards.”

Lucena is not far from Granada or Seville or Córdoba, all three of which are more interesting places to spend a day. A small mountainside city built around an ancient church and ringed by industrial zones, Lucena is the kind of place that still takes siesta seriously. From 2 until 4 p.m. on Monday, more or less the only person on the street was a kid kicking a cigarette carton.


‘We say that the Jewish spirit is still here in Lucena.’


The city’s provincial dullness only became an economic problem once the crisis hit. Lucena went heavy into the furniture business in the 1980s, eventually becoming the region’s major furniture producer. The Lucena furniture factories rode Spain’s real estate bubble, churning out couches to fill the new buildings that developers were planting up and down the Costa de Sol and all over the country. When the crash came, it hit the furniture industry hard. The number of unemployed people in Lucena more than doubled. Faced with collapse, Lucena needed to diversify.

As it happens, Lucena was once a wealthy Jewish city with an important talmudical academy and a large Jewish population. Unfortunately, that was a millennium ago. Two rounds of expulsions later, there were absolutely no signs left of a Jewish presence.

Still, that hadn’t stopped nearby Córdoba or Jaen or Avila, or a handful of other cities in the area, from suckering Jewish travelers with renamed streets and Jewish-themed restaurants. Lucena decided to give it a try.

Roping in the Jews was the general brief of Jose Antonio García Suárez, the tourism official who grabbed me on the way out of the museum in the castle in the city’s center. After identifying myself as a reporter to the smiley tour guide, I had climbed with the elderly Spanish tourists to the top of the old castle’s tower, where you can see the tiled spire of the Iglesia San Mateo, apparently built on the site of a synagogue demolished centuries earlier. On the way out, the tour guide pointed me out to García, and we were off.

García dressed like a young college professor in a light-colored blazer and jeans. I followed him up through the town to a gated lot bordering the highway. Until just a year ago, García told me, Lucena had not been allowed to join the Red de Juderías, in part because Lucena had absolutely no historical Jewish sites at all. Then, in 2007, when building this highway, they found buried treasure: bodies. Hundreds of them. According to García, some initially thought that the construction crew had come upon a mass grave from the Civil War in the 1930s. An archeological study determined that the graves were much older — 350 Jewish tombs dating from the 10th and 11th centuries, plus a handful of gravestones.

Graves: Construction workers found an ancient Jewish cemetery while building a highway around Lucena.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Graves: Construction workers found an ancient Jewish cemetery while building a highway around Lucena.

That was good news for Lucena.

The cemetery, for now, is only open to tour groups; García had a key. Inside, he rattled off quirky, tourist-friendly Lucena tidbits, like a student guide telling prospective freshman at a liberal arts college about Connecticut’s six-women-living-together-is-a-brothel law. For instance: Lucena’s Jews, apparently, were in the business of castrating slaves and selling them as eunuchs to Muslim rulers to work in their harems. And: There’s a legend (possibly invented by Lucena tourism authorities — I couldn’t find it mentioned anywhere online) that the grave of the biblical Noah is hidden somewhere in the city.

And then there was this: Lucena, García explained, had traditionally been wealthier than its neighbors. “We say that the Jewish spirit is still here, the Jewish entrepreneurial spirit,” García said.

The cemetery itself is a dusty patch encircled by the highway with a few dozen plots where the recovered remains were reburied in a ceremony that, for some reason, included black-hatted Ashkenazi rabbis. A few graves were left open to demonstrate how the medieval Jewish Lucentinos dug down and then sideways to protect the bodies from grave robbers. The discovery of the cemetery has allowed Lucena to really go for it with the Jew-pandering. Now, there is Hebrew on the street signs, a pastry shop that sells cookies in the shape of Jewish stars, and this performance where they feed you a meal blindfolded while making it sound like you’re in a Talmud study hall and then before an Inquisition tribunal.

“From city hall, what they’re trying to do is, first, assemble all of our Jewish past… [and] convert it into economic development,” García said. “If we have a Jewish past, it’s a tourist resource, because thanks to our Jewish past, people can come here, just as you came.”

Should I have been offended? Here was this bald tourism apparatchik, who had just said something vaguely anti-Semitic about Jewish money, explaining how his government was exploiting a history of torture and forced conversion to sell cookies shaped like Jewish stars. Not just a history of torture and forced conversion — my history of torture and forced conversion. I had the family tree to prove it.

The problem was, I was starting to have some doubts about the family tree — and about Abraham de Lucena, the man at the top.

Part 8: The First 23

Abraham de Lucena is at the center of our family mythology. I learned his name before I learned the names of most of my great-grandparents. He is our link to the ultimate genealogical trump card, the hallmark of true New York Sephardic aristocratic authenticity — a blood connection to the original 23 Jews to land in North America.

Click on the thumbnail to see the author’s family tree dating back to 1654.
Courtesy of the American Jewish Archives
Click on the thumbnail to see the author’s family tree dating back to 1654.

That first boatload arrived in New York the year before de Lucena in 1654, from Recife, in Brazil. Recife had been part of a Dutch colony that was taken by the Portuguese earlier that year. The Portuguese brought the Inquisition with them, so the Jews set out to return to Amsterdam. They wound up in New Amsterdam instead; both pirates and a shipwreck have been blamed, though no one knows what actually happened.

We claim descent from the 23, though we have always known the claim is a little tenuous. The presumption, I think, was that de Lucena married one of the original 23 or one of their daughters. Either way, the claim relies on a connection to de Lucena.

De Lucena was an important man in the early Jewish community in New Amsterdam. In March of 1655, soon after he landed, he defied the colony’s authorities by keeping his store open on Sunday. Later, his name appeared at the top of the handful of petitions the colony’s Jews sent back to Amsterdam demanding, and eventual receiving, rights in the colony similar to those they had enjoyed back in Amsterdam.

Our claim to de Lucena is through one of Luis Gomez’s sons, who married de Lucena’s granddaughter. Their descendants were rich. Really rich. Until 1786, the Gomez wives and daughters had a special fenced-in area reserved just for them in the women’s gallery of Shearith Israel, the synagogue led until recently by my uncle. The family owned huge amounts of property in Manhattan, including large sections of what’s now Greenwich Village.

The day job of De Sola Pool, the author of “Portraits Etched in Stone,” was as rabbi of Shearith Israel, the leadership and membership of which was heavily populated by descendants of Gomez. All this is taken into account in the section of the book on Abraham de Lucena.

Shearith Israel: The Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Manhattan, founded in 1654.
wikicommons
Shearith Israel: The Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Manhattan, founded in 1654.

Abraham de Lucena is a tricky case, de Sola Pool writes. There are records of a gravestone for an Abraham Haim de Lucena, a trader and Jewish minister who died in 1725, but none for Abraham de Lucena. Abraham Haim de Lucena is the man whose daughter married a Gomez. The connection to the 23 relies on Abraham Haim de Lucena being Abraham de Lucena’s grandson. According to de Sola Pool, however, that connection is more-or-less wishful thinking.

It is “attractive” to imagine the two men as grandfather and grandson, de Sola Pool wrote. “One would fain trace the story of these families in direct line of their demonstrable ancestor the Reverend Abraham Haim de Lucena to the leader of the original Jewish community in North America, Abraham de Lucena.”

“Attractive”???

This de Sola Pool book has been on my parents’ shelf my entire life. It’s fat and expensive. The dustcover is crumbling. There’s one on my grandparents’ shelf, too, and probably one on my great-uncle’s shelf. These are all bookshelves that I’ve spent a lot of time browsing. And I’m interested in de Lucena. But somehow, I never read that passage until I landed in Madrid with a photocopy of it in my backpack. All of a sudden, our whole first-Jews-in-North-America shtick was starting to sound like something cooked up a few generations ago to humor us.

How much of our Sephardic identity relied on that claim? Would we care so much about Shearith Israel and the portraits and the family trees without the ultimate legitimacy of a tie to the original 23? Would I even consider myself Sephardic if someone, some number of generations ago, hadn’t decided that Abraham Haim de Lucena was actually the grandson of Abraham de Lucena? Would I have noticed the citizenship offer? Would I have come to Lucena?

Part 9: A Jew Visits Lucena

As we left the cemetery, García asked if I wanted to stop by city hall to meet Lucena’s top tourism official. We swung by the museum-castle again to collect another tourism official, swung through the cathedral where García showed me a crazy baroque chapel that he said was built by conversos and had some esoteric hidden messages about Noah’s burial site, and went on to city hall.

The first thing that happened in city hall was that the city’s top tourism official, Manuel Lara Cantizani, told me I would be given a menorah. I said that, as a journalist on assignment, I could not accept a menorah. They insisted it was a small menorah. Nothing fancy. Made of clay. Things got confusing. I heard Lara, an energetic man with a thin goatee, asking someone to go to another building to get the menorah. I said I really couldn’t take their menorah. Okay, Lara said. What about a dreidel?

I followed Lara into the next room, where an assistant waited with a camera. There was a backdrop with the town logo. I put on my jacket, which I had stuffed into my backpack when it got warm up by the cemetery. Then Lara was handing me the little wooden dreidel and we were shaking hands and smiling and the camera was going and I was wondering if I would be on the front page of the local paper the next day under the headline, “Jew Visits Lucena.”

In Lara’s small office moments later, I was sweating uncontrollably. A fourth tourism official joined us. The room was crawling with them.

“My proposal is that many Jews from all over the world know Lucena,” Lara said. He pulled out a poster for a half-marathon he’s organized for April of 2014. The run is sponsored by McDonald’s; the M in “Marathon” is in the shape of the golden arches. The poster has silhouettes of two runners on it. Behind each of them are photos of Jewish gravestones recovered from the graveyard.

The runners, Lara said, are supposed to be Jews. “As if two Jews, with the stone, they are running, finding their future patrimony,” he said. Lara hopes people will come for the race from all over Spain. “Obviously, the Jews will be very welcome.”

Indeed.

Peeling out of city hall as fast as I could, I found a bar and ordered a slice of tortilla española. At the next table, a group of older men were drinking beers. I tried to decide what I disliked most about Lucena: The Jewish gravestones being used to sell burgers? The dreidel photo shoot? The octagonal Jew room? The swarming tourism officials?

But then there was something that García had said back in the graveyard. During Holy Week, when masked men all over Spain carry icons of the Virgin Mary through the streets of their towns, the men of Lucena traditionally twist their heads behind their masks so that onlookers can see their faces through the eyeholes. García said that this was because Lucena was full of Jewish conversos who wanted to prove that they were good Catholics by participating in the ritual.

Let’s say, for a moment, that Abraham de Lucena was my direct ancestor, around 11 generations back. And let’s say that it’s four more generations between him and the Decree of Expulsion in 1492 and suppose that he had an ancestor who fled Lucena that year. That ancestor would be one of as many as 32,000 of my 15th-generation ancestors. (That’s the mathematical maximum. The real number is definitely lower — again, my great-great-grandparents were first cousins, and they probably weren’t the only ones.) Assuming all that was true, what right did one tiny sliver of a fraction of a blood tie give me to this place? Sure, the burger-hawkers were sons of the inquisitors — but they were also sons of conversos. And while my people had gone across the ocean and bought land and seats at a synagogue, theirs had stayed in Lucena and made sure everyone could recognize them through their Holy Week masks so that they wouldn’t be burned at the stake. And if their 15th-generation descendants had lost their jobs at the furniture factories and wanted to hustle some sentimental Jewish suckers into buying Star of David-shaped cookies and weird aural tours, who was I to get offended?

Maybe their claims to the Jews of pre-Inquisition Spain were just as strong as mine. Maybe they really were as Sephardic as I was.

Streets: A view of the ancient city of Toledo.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Streets: A view of the ancient city of Toledo.

Part 10: ‘Yo El Rey’

One night while walking home in Toledo’s ancient judería, Carmen Gomez Gomez noticed something on the side of a building she had never seen before. At around eye-level, deep in the red brick, there was a series of connected lines gouged deep into the rock. An ancient Arabic inscription, she decided.

To me, when we turned up the narrow alley to look, they looked like random scratches. To Gomez (no relation, I don’t think?), they were another sign that Toledo is magical. Sometimes, when she’s falling asleep, Gomez imagines a “Midnight in Paris” scenario happening to her on the streets here, but instead of F. Scott and Zelda and Hemingway she would meet Samuel Halevy Abulafia, the Jewish royal treasurer executed by his boyhood friend King Peter the Cruel in 1360.

After Lucena, I needed some magic. I had taken a bus from Lucena back to Córdoba the night before, slept there, then caught a pre-dawn fast train to Madrid, where I left a suitcase in a train station locker before hopping on another commuter train that got me to Toledo a little after 9 in the morning. I was starting to feel a little tired.

Gomez met me at the train station. She said she had a surprise waiting for us in the city archives. I pretended to be excited.

Kurt Hoffman

A 30-year-old Catholic from the northern Spanish city of Ponferrada, Gomez smokes skinny cigarettes and wears a red plaid scarf. She thinks that it’s silly that the Zara in town sells high-heeled shoes — they don’t work on the stone streets here; she’s tried.

Gomez came to Toledo nearly two years ago to research her dissertation on daily life in the 15th century judería. She’s relying, ironically, on records kept by the Catholic Church, which did business with the town’s Jews before it started torturing them to death. She spends her days in the archives, reading about leases of church land to families with names like Abenxoxen (pronounced Abenshushan) and Abulafia. She can show you the street in the Jewish quarter where each one lived.

Yet she is suitably skeptical of the Jewish sentimental gold rush. “Here in Toledo, everybody says they come from converts, and everyone has a mikveh in their basement,” she said. She dismissed the claims of one basement tourist site we visited that purported to be a former Jewish home with a mikveh as wishful thinking.

We drove from the train station in a little red car steered by Almudena Cencerrado, a tour guide and one of Gomez’s endless supply of helpful friends. The view of Toledo from a bluff across the Tagus River was enough to make me forget Córdoba entirely. The Tagus encircles the city on three sides, bordered on both banks by steep cliffs that have protected residents for 3,500 years. Catholic kings ruled Toledo from 1085 until the 16th century, when they decamped for Madrid and left the town a backwater. That slowed development and left the city still looking untouched and ancient 300 years later, when artists besotted with Romanticism came looking for inspiration in its dilapidated old streets.

Tagus: Toledo is surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River.
josh nathan-kazis
Tagus: Toledo is surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River.

After the artists came the tourists. Over a century ago, city boosters built phony old-looking stone arches in the judería to amp up the Romantic effect. They rebuilt the facade of a Catholic church that had been a synagogue before the expulsion so that it looked more like a synagogue. Toledo may be a little phony, but its phoniness is old enough to be of historic interest itself.

And it’s not all phony. Between the layers of piled-up kitsch, Gomez has an eye for the real thing. We passed through Plaza Zocodover, a busy square where an arch frames a view of the fields outside of town. “This is the square where, during the Inquisition, people were killed and burned,” Gomez said, flatly.

We stopped at an abandoned building with a boarded-up door locked with a chain and peered through the holes at stairs that Gomez said led up to an unrestored synagogue cupola. At the Museo Sefardí de Toledo, built on the site of a synagogue that was given to a Catholic order of warrior priests after the Inquisition and then rebuilt in the 19th century, she read off the engravings on recovered Jewish tombstones.

Gomez brought me to an Inquisition museum somewhat less salacious than the torture porn-filled one in Córdoba, but still upsetting. Inquisitors’ methods of tormenting suspected heretics seem to have had a distinctly sexual bent — there were all sorts of tools in the museum that destroyed the genitals of both male and female victims. I was visibly disturbed.

“It’s hard, but it’s history,” the ticket taker said on my way out.

With Cencerrado, we stopped at a church that houses El Greco’s 1586 masterpiece “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.” Cencerrado spoke passionately about the work, and about how its upper half presages Impressionism, a movement that would not exist for another 300 years. “Only a genius can make you cry with emotion,” Cencerrado said.

I, meanwhile, was searching the faces of the nobles gathering around the count for one who looked like my grandfather, Edgar J. Nathan 3rd, who died in April. The long faces and long noses in El Greco paintings like “Portrait of an Elder Nobleman” and “The Nobleman with His Hand on His Chest”, both at the Prado in Madrid, had always reminded me of him. The black-clad lords in the painting in Toledo, with white ruffles around their necks and wrists, were of a similar type. I’m not sure whether they looked like him or whether I just wanted them to. Either way, my instinct here was the opposite of what it had been in Lucena — I wanted to feel a connection, not run away.

The municipal archives in Toledo are in a big library in the center of the old city. Gomez had called ahead; they were expecting us. On a table near the door were two squarish pieces of paper marked with ancient stains and creases. One, signed on June 25, 1492 in Guadalupe, just months after the order of expulsion, made synagogues and other Jewish communal property possessions of the crown. The other, signed in Córdoba on May 30, 1492, set a rapid time frame for the liquidation of Jews’ debts so they could leave the country faster.

Edict: An order signed by Isabella and Ferdinand signed in June 1492 making all Jewish communal property the possession of the crown. The document is kept in the municipal archive in Toledo.
Courtesy of the Archivo Municipal of the Ayuntamiento de Toledo
Edict: An order signed by Isabella and Ferdinand signed in June 1492 making all Jewish communal property the possession of the crown. The document is kept in the municipal archive in Toledo.

On the back of each was the imperial seal. And on the bottom, in almost illegible scratches, were the signatures of Isabella and Ferdinand: “Yo el Rey.” “Yo la Reina.”

The orders themselves were written in a loopy Spanish script that, at first glance, looked like it should be read right-to- left like Arabic. I tried to puzzle it out: “Don Fernando e Doña Ysabel, por la gracia de dios…” The actual order of expulsion began the same way. It would have looked just like this, transcribed and signed in the same hand.

They asked if I wanted to touch the parchment. No one was wearing gloves. I dabbed at one of the ancient pages with my finger, sure I was committing a grave scholarly sin.

I left the building all turned around. In Lucena, where Sephardic Jews only existed as silhouetted joggers, the stakes had seemed lower. Everything Jewish was transparently phony, a simulacrum of something gone a millennia ago. Its incompetent abuse wasn’t something I enjoyed watching, but it didn’t feel like that big a deal.

Here in Toledo the phoniness was honest about being phony and the history felt real, and the use and abuse of the Sephardic legacy seemed to matter again. I still didn’t begrudge the Star of David-shaped cookies. But I also felt less willing to toss away my own claim.

Lisbon: A view of the Portuguese capital.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Lisbon: A view of the Portuguese capital.

Part 11: ‘Not Meat or Fish’

I arrived in Lisbon shlubby and tired. The pockets of my jacket were sagging with old receipts and boarding passes, and I worried that I smelled like a budget airline departure lounge. I had lunch at a restaurant on a terrace by the edge of a park. Ordering was hard: I started off in Spanish, realized that wasn’t working, and panicked. I’m pretty sure I tried Spanish with an Italian accent and French, of which I speak zero words, before reverting to wild gestures. Somehow, a soda and a vegetable sandwich wound up in front of me.

Kurt Hoffman

I had flown from Madrid to meet an American couple who are helping the descendants of Portuguese conversos to become Jewish.

It would be exaggerating to call the small numbers of Portuguese and Spanish Catholics seeking Jewish conversions a trend — we’re talking dozens, not scores — but in these small Jewish communities, the converts are hard to miss. I had talked to a few at the Sephardic synagogue in Madrid and had a beer with another big group after services at Stofenmacher’s congregation.

You can see these converts grasping at Spanish and Portuguese historical identities that were impossible to acknowledge under the authoritarian regimes that ruled Spain and Portugal until the 1970s. The converts’ radical decision to try to become Jewish seems to be an extreme example of the phenomenon of interest in those identities that de la Vara saw at his book fair booth.

It’s hard to say exactly when the ripple of conversions started. Rabbi Jules Harlow and his wife Navah have been coming to Lisbon since 2005. Harlow is a Conservative rabbi; he edited the original 1985 edition of the standard Conservative prayer book. So far, he and Navah have brought 16 Portuguese to the Masorti rabbinic court in London to be converted.

In the lobby of the Sana Rex Hotel, which the Harlows have made their base in Lisbon for the past eight years, I met Filipe Craveiro, who has been studying with the Harlows for four years. Born in 1948 in Caldas da Rainha in western Portugal, Craveiro’s grandmother insisted that the family’s roots were Jewish.

The family didn’t consider itself Jewish — they were Catholic, just like everyone else. And they knew it wasn’t safe to speak openly about their Jewish past. But at home, on Friday nights, they would light incense.

“We were so much afraid to talk about it,” said Sonia Craveiro, Filipe’s cousin.

Conversions: Rabbi Jules Harlow, left, and his wife Navah have been traveling to Lisbon since 2005.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Conversions: Rabbi Jules Harlow, left, and his wife Navah have been traveling to Lisbon since 2005.

António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, had a relationship to the Jews that was similar to Franco’s: The regime was not officially anti-Semitic, and an elite population of Jews in Lisbon was tolerated, and even thrived. But Catholicism was the state religion and a central part of the mandated Portuguese identity, and freedom to stray from those norms was limited.

Shortly after World War II, Craveiro’s family left for Angola, then a Portuguese colony. The regime was less strict there than in Portugal itself, and there was less pressure to conform to the prevailing Catholic identity. When the Angolan uprising began in 1961, however, Craveiro’s world exploded. His family fled to the city. At 11 he was given a gun. “I saw many people die,” he said.

He returned to Portugal in 1975, after the regime had fallen and the colonies were relinquished. The adaptation was hard. Communists were ascendant in Lisbon and they resented the former colonists. Chased from Angola, Craveiro had come home to find that he wasn’t welcome.


When they asked prospective converts why they wanted to be Jewish, they took offense. ‘We are not choosing…We are Jews.’


Talking to Craveiro, it seemed clear that he saw becoming Jewish as a way to make up for all of that. He wasn’t Catholic, he wasn’t Angolan, and he wasn’t exactly Portuguese. He had always felt, he told me, like he was neither “meat nor fish.” Conversion to Judaism would change that. “I want to finish well,” he said.

Craveiro and his cousin fell in with a group of Lisbon-area prospective converts. Members of that group had been the first to reach out to Masorti Olami, the worldwide Conservative movement, back in 2005. Masorti sent the Harlows to investigate. “Were we suspicious? We didn’t know why [they wanted to convert] until we first met them,” Navah said. When she and her husband asked the first of the prospective converts why they wanted to be Jewish, they took offense. “We are not choosing,” they told her. “We are Jews.”

Craveiro had a surgical circumcision three years ago. All that remains is for him to appear before the beit din. The Harlows think that Craveiro will be ready to go before the beit din soon. After that, what will happen is unclear. The problem is that there’s little Jewish life in Lisbon, and basically no Conservative Jewish life.

Masorti converts are not counted for a minyan in the Orthodox synagogue in Lisbon. There are Masorti communities in Madrid and elsewhere in Europe, but many of the prospective converts are struggling economically, and travel is hard. “We’re talking about this constantly,” Navah said. “The sad thing is, they’re going through this and you’re right — what will be their future?”

Part 12: ‘Even If You Don’t Speak Ladino’

I flew back to Madrid from Lisbon on an afternoon flight. The garbage was worse. Even in nicer neighborhoods, piles of junk hugged the sides of buildings. A windblown plastic bag wrapped itself around my leg.

Kurt Hoffman

A week and a half into my trip, I was worried I had failed. I had flown over to figure out if I could become a citizen. I had spoken to dozens of people, filled a tall stack of notebooks with my sloppy notes, typed on my laptop for hours, spent nights in hostels and hotels all over the Iberian Peninsula, rode on buses and in taxis, arrived unnecessarily early at airline terminals, and still just had a few rumors and secondhand accounts of the passport law.

I had one more chance: I had an interview scheduled for the next morning deep in the corridors of Spanish power, in the offices of Spain’s foreign ministry on the outskirts of Madrid.

I rode the subway out to the interview. No matter how dirty the city grew, the subway stayed pristine. The disembarkation ritual on the Madrid metro involves politely asking whether the person standing between you and the door plans to get off at the next station, then smiling as the train slows and you do-si-do your way around them. It’s inefficient and wonderful.

The offices of the foreign ministry are in a set of grey glass towers out in the northern part of Madrid. I had a meeting with one of the men actually writing the new citizenship law, a diplomat named Álvaro Albacete Perea.

Foreign Ministry: Alvaro Albacete Perea is the Spanish foreign ministry’s ambassador to the Jewish community.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Foreign Ministry: Alvaro Albacete Perea is the Spanish foreign ministry’s ambassador to the Jewish community.

Albacete has an unusual job in the foreign ministry. He is, essentially, an ambassador to the Jews. That means he spends part of his time helping Sephardic communities abroad, and part of his time liaising with Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee. “It’s important to be coordinated with them,” he said of the Jewish groups.

The latter part of the job had Albacete attending a meeting the day before I landed between the Spanish king and the leaders of Keren Hayesod - United Israel Appeal, a massive fundraising group that had its biennial meeting in Madrid. Before I flew to Spain, I had requested an interview with the king and had been told that he doesn’t do interviews. He apparently does do meetings, though, particularly when Sheldon Adelson is involved. Adelson, the billionaire Republican casino magnate, was in negotiations at the time to open a massive casino complex in Madrid, and came to the Keren Hayesod meeting as a delegate. The king, though he was about to undergo hip surgery, attended a reception with the delegates. Adelson also got a private tour of Toledo and a meeting with the mayor of that city. (The casino plans have since been scrapped. Maybe Adelson didn’t like Toledo.)

Albacete is tall, his hair slightly graying around the temples. Aside from the map of the world behind his desk and the bookshelf filled with Jewish history books, his small office is relatively sparse. When I asked if he was Jewish, he was taken aback — it’s not polite to ask that so directly, he told me. “That’s very sensitive for us,” he said. “It’s not part of our culture.” (He’s Catholic.)

Though the changes to the Sephardic citizenship law proposed in the November 2012 press conference are being worked through in the justice ministry, Albacete has been participating in the drafting. He more or less denied that the proposal had been made to directly counterbalance the Palestinian statehood vote.

“The announcement was made by the minister of justice and the minister of foreign affairs, and to be honest I’m not in their mind,” he said. “But my personal feeling is there is not any connection with that.”


I had arrived in Madrid to claim my birthright. I left unsure that it was mine.


As for what’s been holding up the change, Albacete admits to two reasons. The first is that the change is technically complicated — it requires a law making its way through parliament that would change Spain’s civil code. The other problem is that they seem to have realized that drawing the line between Sephardic and non-Sephardic Jews is next to impossible.

“Probably that’s the reason why the production of that new piece of legislation is taking so much time, because it’s not so easy,” Albacete said. “I have read and I have written different draft proposals for that, we are still working on the wording of the law.”

Albacete’s ideas about how it would work seemed vague. “We would take into consideration the name” — as in whether you have a typically Sephardic surname — “the knowledge of the language” — as in whether you speak Ladino. “We would take into consideration many, many things and we’ll ask the Jewish communities where the person or the people live to tell us something about him or her, [and] we will ask the Federation here in Spain to help us.” He said there would likely be a limited time window for applications.

He knew the plan didn’t sound convincing. “If you have any suggestion to do that in a different way, please tell me,” he said.

I didn’t, and I didn’t envy him for needing to come up with one. It seemed like Albacete couldn’t win. If his government’s goal really had been to placate Israel and the American Zionists, the vast interest the proposal has generated among Moroccan Jews in Israel seeking passports to allow them to move to the EU would likely erase any goodwill. If their goal had been to generate warm feelings among American Sephardim, the idea that they wouldn’t qualify because they don’t speak Ladino would be infuriating.

I asked if I should apply if the law actually does pass. “Please,” Albacete said. He laughed: “Even if you don’t speak Ladino.”

Chatham Square: The author looks for Luis Gomez’s grave in Shearith Israel’s old cemetery in Manhattan.
Claudio Papapietro
Chatham Square: The author looks for Luis Gomez’s grave in Shearith Israel’s old cemetery in Manhattan.

Part 13: Chatham Square

I met up with my girlfriend in Casablanca two days later. (We went to Fez. I asked her to marry me. She said yes!) When we returned to Madrid the following Saturday for a stopover on the way home to New York, the garbage strike was over but the city seemed even more unsettled. We watched a tremendous protest moving up Calle Atocha from the window of our hostel, followed by a heavy retinue of riot police vans.

When we flew home to New York the next day, I was ready to leave.

I had arrived in Madrid to claim my birthright. I left unsure that it was mine.

It was, in part, realizing that Abraham de Lucena may not have actually been my ancestor, and that Luis Gomez may have actually been from Portugal, and that all these Iberians together only accounted for a minuscule trickle of my blood. And that, as a result, Gomez in Toledo and de la Obra in Córdoba, and even the tourism bureaucrats in Lucena, had a claim to the Spanish Jewish past that seemed even stronger than my own.

For the government, symbolic and apparently fake gestures towards the Sephardim seemed to be a diplomatic tactic. For the converts and the Spaniards claiming Jewish descent, identifying with the Sephardim looked, in some cases, like a bold resuscitation of an alternative Spanish identity that had been denied for generations. Viewed from another angle, it turned trendy and kitschy and a little anti-Semitic.

It repelled me. I didn’t really want to be Spanish anymore.

In fact, it didn’t seem like it would be an option. In early December, Spain’s right-wing ruling party introduced a measure in the parliament that reiterated the government’s interest in offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews but offered no further details on the plan. I emailed Royo to ask about the parliamentary group’s action; she sounded just as annoyed and bewildered as when we had met at her office.

“Business as usual: Waiting for them to announce the terms and requirements that the applicants for Spanish nationality will need,” she wrote.

Albacete did not respond to two emails, sent as this article approached publication, asking for updates on the passport law.

Portugal passed a law over the summer that made similar promises. Though the Portuguese law, unlike the Spanish law, is on the books, it’s just a single sentence offering citizenship to the descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews. A spokesman for the Portuguese embassy in the United States told me over email in early January that, contrary to press reports, the justice ministry was still writing a law that would establish specific requirements. So, right now, the Portuguese passports don’t exist either.

On Christmas Eve, I caught the end of the Spanish king’s annual address to the nation. He looked sad and tired. The next week, I organized an expedition to find Luis Gomez’s grave. Our group met at 9 a.m. on December 31 in Manhattan’s Chinatown. A statue of Confucius in Chatham Square faces north up the Bowery; we met behind his back, in front of the old Shearith Israel cemetery. It’s a tiny lot the size of a dog run. Zachary Edinger, Shearith Israel’s sexton, rode the subway downtown to unlock the iron gate for my cousin Jonathan, my brother Saul, Saul’s girlfriend Kristen, and me.

We had been inside a few times before, though not in years. No one has been buried at Chatham Square since the 1820s, but it’s the oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States, and the synagogue still holds ceremonies and memorials there. From the outside it doesn’t look like anything. I realized, as I waited for Edinger to open the gate, that I had walked by a thousand times since my last visit, each time forgetting it was there.

De Sola Pool’s book reports the English, Hebrew and Portuguese (Portuguese! Claim totally undermined) text of Gomez’s tombstone, but not its location. He died in 1740, after the purchase of the grounds, and likely would have been buried here. But the borders of the cemetery have been cut back over the years, and graves were lost. Gomez doesn’t appear on the map of the cemetery in the de Sola Pool book. We decided to look around.

Ancestor: The grave of one of the author’s Sephardic ancestors at the Chatham Square cemetery.
Claudio Papapietro
Ancestor: The grave of one of the author’s Sephardic ancestors at the Chatham Square cemetery.

It was freezing. The lock on the gate stuck when Edinger tried to get it open. He warmed it with his hands and tugged again; it snapped clear. Inside, the frozen ground cracked under our shoes as we treaded over the plots.

We saw the grave of Simon Nathan, our great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, who came from England in 1746. His brother-in-law, Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first rabbi born in North America, has a funny-looking pyramid-shaped grave right next to him. We saw the grave of Luis Gomez’s son Mordecai, another ancestor. But though we read every stone we could, Gomez himself didn’t seem to be there.

I didn’t feel defeated. Was Luis Gomez lost? I didn’t care. The long-dead ancestors, their bodies disintegrated, amount to a meaningless little genetic sliver in our source code. The men and women themselves were morally skewed — slave owners, if not slave traders. It wasn’t with them that I felt a connection.

The graves, however, represent something else. We’ve chosen to care about them. Our parents and grandparents had chosen to bring us here as kids so the bits of rock would stir us when we visited later. My grandfather and his father chose to lead the institution that kept the graves up. They’re ours not because of blood, but because we’ve made them ours.

We didn’t stay at Chatham Square long. Our feet were cold. It felt like it would snow soon. We hustled through Chinatown to a diner for breakfast.

Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at nathankazis@forward.com and on Twitter @joshnathankazis.


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