Quién son los Hispanos Sefardi

Path of Crypto Jews

WHO WE ARE

By Yvonne Garcia and Rabbi Yosef Garcia

 

The Hispanic Sephardi/Crypto-Jews of the Americas are descendants of the Sephardi Jews of the Iberian Peninsula. Our ancestors fled Spain and Portugal and traveled west to the Americas. Most of us do not belong to modern day Sephardic synagogues. 

The members of the modern day Sephardi synagogues, which are part of the American Sephardi Federation, the World Sephardi Federation, or the Heredi of Yisrael are also descendants of the Sephardi Jews of the Iberian Peninsula. These people are the “Established Sephardi Jews” of today. They left Spain and Portugal, before The Edit of Expulsion of 1492 which stated that all Jews had to leave the country. They traveled to the east and south, into the countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa which belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Some of the Sephardi had to stay due to situations beyond their control. They went into hiding, searching for a safe passage out of Spain and Portugal becoming Crypto-Jews.

The Ottoman Empire was one of the world super powers from 1299 to 1923, mostly Arabic people ruled by Muslim rulers. The Ottoman policy of tolerance, protection and absorption of minority groups later became known as the Covenant of Omar.  From the 1500s to 1923, the Sephardi Jewish refugees were welcomed or at least tolerated throughout the empire, initially because Jews and Muslims were enemies of  the Catholic Church,  and  because this group of Sephardi included some of the world’s most educated and skilled people.  This co-existence ended at the conclusion of World War I when the Ottoman Empire was defeated and divided up among the winners of the war. The Sephardi Jews of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Morocco, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, and Bukhara either stayed in place as isolated minorities, living precariously dangerous lives surrounded by hostile Muslims, or they fled to the  Americas, or a limited few to Mexico, and to other countries willing to take them in.

After the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, discrimination and persecution of the Sephardi in Arab countries increased until there were riots and pogroms where murder and destruction of Jewish property occurred, and human rights violations went unpunished. Over 850,000 Sephardi became refugees, approximately 600,000 of whom gained refuge in the State if Israel.

These Sephardi Jewish people lived 400 years or more in stable separated communities, living openly as Jews. They had synagogues, rabbis, Torah scrolls, Jewish books, and Hebrew education. They were able to worship and celebrate life events as Jews; however they were forced to live with restrictions, discrimination and harsh conditions of inferiority.  Most of these people continued to speak Ladino (a linguistic idiom of Spanish combined with Hebrew and Arabic), as well as the languages of the lands in which they lived. Most of them lost their ancestral authentic Spanish or Portuguese language and much of their Iberian culture. They lived fully Jewish lives, many of them achieved economic success, and they adapted to the cuisine, languages, dress and the customs of the lands where they lived.

The Hispanic Sephardi of the Americas were not so fortunate. Our ancestors came to the Americas in the hope of keeping their Spanish or Portuguese Jewish heritage in tact, to find more religious freedom and economic opportunities than those that existed throughout Europe in the 1500s. They were able to keep their Spanish or Portuguese language, customs and cuisine, but with the coming of the Inquisition to the Americas in the mid1500s, they were forced into hiding their Jewishness on pain of torture and death. They did not choose to become Hidden Sephardi or Judios Secretos of their own free will. Once in the Americas, they were not able to leave. The Spanish and Portuguese governments controlled all travel and aspects of the lives of colonial subjects, and were intent upon erasing all vestiges of Judaism and Jewish lifestyle from their lands. The Hispanic Sephardi of the Americas are truly the B’ne Anusim, the children of the forced ones, who survived most of the last five centuries without synagogues, rabbis, Torah scrolls, Jewish books of learning, and mostly without input from the rest of the Jewish world. They depended upon the transmission of memorized prayers, portions of the Torah, the Psalms and the Book of Esther, customs and practices passed from generation to generation.

The modern day Hispanic Sephardi speak Spanish, Portuguese, or both, but most know very few words of Hebrew, if any. Those who know Jewish prayers and customs know them in Spanish or Portuguese, and generally only in part. It is a testimony to the tenacious Jewish spirit and the will to survive, that 500 years after the expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula many of us still know parts or all of the Shema, albeit not in Hebrew. The very fact that rabbinic teachings, such as candle-lighting on Friday night, traditional Jewish burial customs, the practice of kosher slaughter, and the separation of meat and milk in our cuisine are so wide-spread among our families indicates the unbroken continuance of our Jewish heritage.

Most of the Hispanic Sephardi of the Americas upon entering a modern day Sephardi synagogue in the USA are amazed to not find any Spanish or Portuguese speaking people, they generally do not feel “at home”, and sometimes they are not welcomed. These two groups of people, the Sephardi and the Hispanic Sephardi are descended from the same people, but historically their paths have been socially, culturally, and religiously widely divergent. These two groups are also different in appearance, both having intermarried with the indigenous populations of their adopted countries, as Jews have done throughout the world since the beginning of the Diaspora.  What we do have in common is the belief in and the practice of Judaism, adherence to and reverence of the same Torah, persecution and discrimination throughout our histories, and descent from Iberian Jews.

The Association of Crypto Jews of the Americas was formed to provide a group in which Hispanic Sephardic Crypto-Jews and their needs are the focus. The ACJA is in its infancy as a movement, but there are plans for synagogues, centers of learning and training for rabbis, cantors, kosher butchers, moils, and religious education. We want to be accepted as Jews and to live our lives openly as Jews, but because of our unique history and heritage, we need our own synagogues where we are always warmly welcomed and where we are at home. We need to reclaim our birthright as Jews, to speak, read and write Hebrew, to pray as Jews in Hebrew, and to celebrate our major life events and holidays as Jews. And for those of us just emerging from the crushing yoke of the Catholic Church, we need to be able to ask questions, to learn and to transition without enduring another Inquisition of false accusations and mistrust born from ignorance and misunderstanding. The main goal of the ACJA is to enable the Crypto-Jews of the Americas to live fully authentic Jewish lifestyles and to rejoin the Jewish world. We are the B’ne Anusim, the descendants of the Hidden Jews from Spain who were forced by the Inquisition to live outwardly as Catholics, but who secretly maintained Jewish spirits and practices and with HaShems help we will no longer be know as Crypto-Jews but just simply as Jews.

References:

www.americansephardifederation.org

www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org

www.ottomans.org

Levy, Avigdor. The Jews of the Ottoman Empire, Darwin Press, Princeton, 1994.

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