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Kingdom of Priests

That’s Deal, New Jersey, I refer to, the scene of the arrest of some rabbis associated with the Syrian Sephardic community. The Syrian Jewish community there and in Brooklyn is often referred to as an “enclave.” Being an enclave generally isn’t a healthy thing.

This blog is not the kind of place where we dwell on the real or alleged misdeeds of clergymen and other religious personalities. God knows there are plenty of other blogs for that if you want it. But the news story of rabbis arrested on money laundering charges — and let’s be fair, of New Jersey mayors arrested too — did bring to mind a piece I wrote on Sephardic Jews for the Forward back in 1995. I remember it well because it greatly annoyed one of the paper’s editors at the time, who was Sephardic. I’m pretty sure it was the two paragraphs at the end (after the jump) that irritated her.
Was she right? You tell me.
My subject was the phenomenon of Sephardophiles — people who romanticize the Sephardic experience. I thought I’d share with you what I wrote then. It was a review of The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey, by Victor Perera:

Lately I keep coming across Sephardophiles: Jews who fancy the Sephardic tradition in Judaism, while commonly, though not always, viewing its Ashkenazic counterpart as dubious at best. Following 1992 and the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a number of Sephardophile books have been published, most of them romanticizing the pre-1492 period of Spanish Jewry with emphasis on the many luxurious lawn parties, hip poetry readings and generally glittering nightlife supposedly enjoyed by the Sephardim of that era. Professor Howard Sachar contributed a book of this type last year in “Farewell España,” in which he lauded the Sephardim at the expense of certain uncouth Ashkenazim, particularly a Lubavitcher Chasid in a Spanish shul who infuriated Mr. Sachar by having food remnants on his face.

At once compelling and annoying, Victor Perera’s memoir of his Sephardic family fits nicely into the Sephardophile mold. This is not a rigorous history book, nor is Mr. Perera, a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, a scholar of Judaism: He refers to Sephardic synagogues as “temples,” that irritating, anachronistic tag used by the Reform movement, and describes what he takes to be a traditional Sephardic meal of “groundmeat kubes and…cheese burrecas,” not realizing that this would be a distinctly non-kosher combination. His scholarship consists mostly of reading other people’s books, from which he has gleaned many interesting stories.

Mr. Perera’s account of the Sephardic experience begins with a legend that “Biblical Hebrews” first arrived on the Iberian Peninsula before the Great Flood. These early Jews, we are told, were descendants of Noah’s grandson Tubal. (Actually, like Noah, Tubal wasn’t a Jew and neither were his descendants, but let that go.) Proceeding to the medieval period and the Expulsion, Mr. Perera enlivens the latter, by-now-familiar story with questionable but still delicious gossip about the Jewish origins of King Ferdinand (he had a Jewish maternal great-grandmother) and even the dastardly Torquemada (who might have had a Jewish convert for a grandmother), set against stories of Jewish heroes. Of these, my favorite is Don Lope de Vera, a convert from Catholicism whose defection to the Jews landed him in prison, where he changed his name to Judah and “circumcised himself with a bone.” Ouch.

But the most consistently moving part of Mr. Perera’s book is his long, not entirely successful search for the origins of his family in pre-Expulsion Spain and beyond. The title refers to the family coat of arms, which varies from branch to branch of the Pereras depending on whether the branch is one that converted to Catholicism under the duress of the Inquisition (in which case it contains a pear tree and a cross) or not (just the pear tree). Much of “The Cross and the Pear Tree” consists of travelogue, allowing us to follow Mr. Perera in his search, as he journeys from Spain to Portugal to Israel, where his parents grew up, and finally to Guatemala, where he was born. In Lisbon he visits the archives of the Inquisition, the Torre de Tombo, and finds numerous references to people named Pereira (an alternative spelling).

Though the Inquisition is often thought of as simply one more horror in the long line of horrors the Jews of Europe have endured, it didn’t aim itself at Jews per se at all. The Jews, after all, had been expelled from Spain and Portugal. Instead, the Inquisition focused on people of Jewish background who had accepted baptism in the Catholic Church but were suspected of practicing Judaism in secret. Many Pereiras were martyred in autos-da-fé, in which they were accused of such “Judaizing” activities as “refusing pork, alleging medical reasons” and “looking away from the crucifix.” If such a Jew refused to repent, he was burnt alive. A truly moving story Mr. Perera turned up concerns 15-year-old Ana Pereira, convicted of Judaizing in 1684.

Before her conviction, Ana underwent tortures that her latter-day relative describes in appalling detail: “I picture this adolescent girl dressed in white from head to foot, her brown or black eyes wide with terror as she is led to the casa santa, as the torture cell was called, and is placed on the rack by the secular torturer, who usually doubled as executioner. A representative of the bishop, a notary and a recording secretary would have been present as the inquisitor — perhaps a Dominican friar — admonishes the girl in a stern voice. Addressing her as `sister in Christ,’ he counsels her to confess all her sins in order to be spared the twists of the cords tied around her waist, wrists and breasts….The interrogation would have included questions like the following: Did she light candles on Friday night? Did her mother change the bed linens on Saturday?” And so on. Ana did eventually confess, revealing that her uncle observed Shabbat and that her sister refrained from eating pork.

As long as Mr. Perera sticks to Sephardim of the past and of his own family, his book remains quirky but rewarding. He evokes the personalities of his stubborn mother, sister and aunts marvelously. The book concludes with a sad detour to Alexandria, Egypt, where Mr. Perera searched for the grave of his grandfather.

This material wasn’t enough to fill 265 pages, though, so Mr. Perera has padded his book with other stuff that has nothing directly to do either with the Sephardim or the Pereras. Much of the travelogue sections of “The Cross and the Pear Tree” consists of his several visits to Israel over the years, where he fell under the influence of a Palestinian Arab from Hebron with a gift for gab and took the obligatory trip to Deheisha, the Palestinian refugee camp that is the destination of all Western journalists looking for Palestinian sob stories. Without a bit of skepticism, Mr. Perera piously records all the anti-Israel hogwash he hears. For example, he talks to a number of Sephardic “Black Panthers,” one of whom informs him that Ashkenazim “know that we Sephardim and the Arabs eat more rice, so they make the price of rice go up and up, while the prices of Ashkenazic foods remain the same.”

What really bothers him about Israel, though, is the fact that the country, while more than half Sephardic, is ruled by Ashkenazim. He doesn’t care for the hawkish policies of the Likud Party — leaving the impression that hawkishness is an Ashkenazic trait, whereas in reality Israel’s Sephardim provide a much stronger voter base for nationalist politicians than do the considerably more liberal Ashkenazic Israelis. The Ashkenazim he dislikes most are the ones who are religiously observant, such as an ultra-nationalist rabbi whose bad breath and “pale gums and dark brown teeth” he notes with disgust and a Lubavitcher woman whose “unsightly wig” and “pale, burning husband” likewise offend Mr. Perera’s sense of good taste.

In fact, it often seems that what irritates Sephardophiles more often than anything else is Jews who cling to traditional Judaism. After all, despite their “proud history,” the Sephardim haven’t always done an outstanding job of remaining Jewish. When periodically Christians have offered Jews the choice of baptism or death — whether in the form of the Inquisition or the various persecutions that affected Northern European Jews — the Sephardim were more likely to choose baptism than were their Ashkenazic cousins. The ones who left Spain and Portugal to resume the lives of Jews in Holland or France or America saw their children assimilate and leave Judaism in enormous numbers.

Of course Mr. Perera has every right to be passionately interested in his Spanish origins. But his corresponding irritability around Ashkenazic Jews requires an explanation. My own theory is that the romance of the Sephardic past appeals to a certain class of Jews who are made uncomfortable by Ashkenazic religiosity, with its occasional detours into kitsch and bad taste. By contrast, with their fabled garden parties and poetry readings, there is something grand, aristocratic and refined about the Sephardim, in legend if not in reality. For the Jew who wishes to identify with Jews, but not necessarily with Judaism as a living religion, the Jews of Spain are the ticket.

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