Ashkenazim Storm Sepharad


By Dale Fuchs

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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In 1986, when Buenos Aires native Isidoro Gravier decided it was time to find a better future for his family, he moved to Madrid, thinking he could settle comfortably into the established Jewish community there. But it was not so easy.

“The people were very friendly and supportive,” he recalled, “but the culture felt alien to us, and the attitudes were alien to us.”

At the time, Gravier could not have imagined how dramatically the situation would change. Today, using the recipes of his 87-year-old mother-in-law, who is the daughter of Russian immigrants, Gravier operates a catering business specializing in Ashkenazic fare like latkes and blintzes — in Spain, the birthplace of Sephardic Jewry.

Gravier and his family are part of a growing Ashkenazic community in Madrid, a city that now boasts Yiddish-language workshops, book fairs celebrating the works of Sholom Aleichem and, most recently, a Jewish theater club.

Spain — legendary as the country that expelled and killed its Jews in 1492 — may not seem the obvious place for a Ashkenazic Jewish community. But roughly 15% of Spain’s 30,000 Jewish residents today are of Central and Eastern European descent, and that percentage is climbing. More than 250 Jewish families — overwhelmingly Ashkenazic — have come to Spain from Argentina in the last six months alone, according to Argentinian rabbi Adrian Herbst. A continuous flow is expected as social and economic conditions worsen in Buenos Aires, which is still home to 180,000 Jews.

“Those who come from Latin America — Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela — usually don’t speak English, so they don’t want to go to the States. They don’t speak Hebrew so they don’t want to go to Israel — and, besides, for them Israel would be like trading one crisis for another,” Herbst said. “Where else should they go?”

Though Spain may seem like a reasonable answer, its largely Sephardic and Orthodox community poses unique challenges for many recent immigrants. “Even in the synagogue we felt uncomfortable,” said Gravier’s wife, Lidia Sigal, looking back on her initial impressions in 1986. She noted that the Sephardic and Orthodox traditions in Madrid were “nothing like what we were accustomed to in Buenos Aires.”

“Most of the Jews who just arrived from Argentina are used to a real synagogue for Friday night services, sending their kids to youth groups and Hebrew school and maybe even studying something themselves during the week,” Herbst said. “When they get to Spain, they miss that. They don’t tend to be very religious, but they enjoy being part of a community. When they realize they don’t fit in, some feel like leaving the country. But if we develop an Ashkenazi community, not only will they want to stay, but Spain could become a natural destination for Jews from all over Latin America.”

To that end, Herbst traveled to Madrid last month to help its Conservative synagogue, Bet El, deal with the recent influx of Argentine immigrants. The congregation is fast outgrowing the modest apartment, crammed with people sitting in bridge chairs, that serves as makeshift sanctuary and meeting place. Holidays are standing-room only and this past Yom Kippur services had to be moved to a hotel to accommodate the 200 attendees.

In addition to finding a new space for the synagogue, a main priority is hiring a permanent rabbi. Until now, Sabbath, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services have been conducted by a good-natured accountant who once studied at a seminary in Argentina but was never ordained. “He does it as a hobby,” Herbst said. “He doesn’t have time to offer spiritual guidance during the week; he’s busy working.”

While the historic community was wiped out some 500 years ago, the modern Jewish presence in Spain goes back more than a century. As early as 1917, more than 1,000 Jews were living in Madrid. They prayed in a rented apartment on Príncipe Street until the Spanish Civil War, when they were forced to go underground. “Some Yom Kippur celebrations ended up in the police station,” said Isaac Querub Caro, former president of the officially recognized Jewish Community of Madrid. Scholars are still divided on the extent to which Franco’s fascist regime helped Jews during Hitler’s time. According to Caro, officials offered them refuge “as long as they were on their way to somewhere else.”

The first significant wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in 1956, following Morocco’s independence from French and Spanish colonial rule. The official reason, popular in political circles here, is that Jews sought better schools and economic opportunities for their children; the unofficial reason is that they feared repression by the new Arab government. The Six-Day War in 1967 provoked a similar exodus of North African immigrants, Sephardic Jews who spoke Haketia, a version of Ladino that combines Arabic, French and Hebrew with 14th-century Spanish, the language of their ancestors.

When a law guaranteeing religious freedom was finally passed in 1968, the Orthodox Sephardic community in Madrid received permission to build Spain’s first new synagogue since the Inquisition, in the heart of the capital on Balmes Street. Spanish King Juan Carlos even made a highly publicized visit there in 1992, acknowledging the grave mistake made by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella 500 years earlier.

The Conservative Ashkenazic community of Bet El has a long way to go to reach the level of organization achieved by the Sephardim of Balmes Street. But it is on its way. Last October, the organization Masorti-Olami of the World Council of Conservative Synagogues sent two “consultants” to help. Rebecca and Eytan Hammerman have spent the last eight months setting up weekly Hebrew classes, youth groups and, once a month, Saturday morning services, all with an Ashkenazic flavor.

“These are people who came from a huge Jewish community, where you walk down the street and feel the Jewish culture in the air, like in New York,” Rebecca Hammerman said, speaking of the Argentine immigrants. “Here that’s not the case. They don’t have contact with Jews in their daily life. And in Balmes Street, they haven’t felt that comfortable. We need to create a place where they belong.”

The organizers are counting on ordinary folks like Claudia Filozof to make things change. Filozof, a doctor, left Buenos Aires with her husband, mother and two teenage children less than a year ago. After finding a job, renting an apartment in Madrid and settling the kids in new schools, she was ready for the next step: getting back into step with the rhythms of Jewish life. First Filozof visited the synagogue on Balmes Street, but “didn’t feel anything,” she said. “It was like going to a Greek ceremony.” After a while, she found out about the Conservative services at Bet El’s shabby apartment. “It felt like family,” she recalled.

Back in Argentina, Filozof’s family was not especially observant, and the kids hardly ever went to Friday night services. But here, suddenly swimming in strange waters, the teens don’t skip a week. The eldest boy is especially sensitive to anti-Israeli sentiments of his classmates at the public high school and has sought out any Jewish youth activities available. This Passover, the family joined 200 other Argentinian Jews for a mega-Seder at a local restaurant.

“There was dancing and kosher food and lots of little kids running around all over the place,” Filozof gushed in her melodious Argentine Spanish. “We all ended up singing ‘Halleluyah.’”

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