Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


The Romantic View of Sephardic Jews Runs into a New Jersey Pothole

posted by David Klinghoffer

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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Yossi

posted July 23, 2009 at 9:25 pm


As a Jew who is by birth half-Sephardic and half-Ashkenazic, I’ve watched with some amusement and dismay, the convoluted attempts of some Ashkenazic Jews, and some non-Jews, to demonstrate Sephardic ancestry. Several examples can be cited, such as a recent article in Hadassah magazine which quoted people claiming that the southern half of the Italian peninsula is largely of Jewish background. Some of the evidence cited included the supposed distate some people there have for pork (??!! PS Sicily was once Moslem). And I’ve heard people claim that the Jewish exiles from Spain founded the Jewish community in Poland. (reality check – Spanish Jewish exiles went elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin. German Jews went to Poland.)Admiration for a culture is one thing, rewriting history is another. If you have one Sephardic ancestor out of 64, well, fine… how do you feel about the other 63?
There are a few American Jews who have their fair share of Italian wannabe-ism – this can be a kosher way to express it. The real deal is that while it’s OK like Sephardic culture – it’s not OK for Yiddish culture to lie derelict. We’re losing a lot of wisdom and insight there.



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Yaakov

posted July 25, 2009 at 5:27 am


Who knows,maybe you have a nazi kidney.
Wherever there is corruption,there are jews.



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Mr. X

posted July 25, 2009 at 10:39 pm


I am Ashkenazi, born in Brooklyn and raised secular. I lived in Israel and served in the IDF. My observation is that Sephardophelia has little to do with distaste towards religious integrity, but more to do with a disdain for appearing typically Jewish. In the non-orthodox sector, in which most Jews are of the liberal left, claiming Sephardic roots makes one less European and/or less White. Many of the more moderate anti-Semites express a favorable view of Sephardic Jews. Considering their ignorance of our Diaspora developments, it’s a worthless compliment. From left wing anti-Semites, it is a compliment to be less “white.” or European. Many secular Sephardic Jews voluntarily dilute their “whiteness,” and/or the unpleasant stereo types, which are mostly of Ashkenazi imagery by featuring that they are Sephardic. Basically, there is more socio-political currency not to be White, to be portrayed as a victim and not to fit a Jewish stereo-type. On a more positive note, amongst the secular right of the Zionist spectrum, Sephardic Jews are seen as a preservation or reminant of our Levantine origins, often in appearance, culture and Hebrew accentuation. Secular Sephardic Jews still keep some tradition, or at least the older generation. They tend to be more politically right wing and assertive as “Israeli” Jews. Another attraction, at least for me is that third generation Secularist Ashkenazi American & Israeli families, upon enlightening themselves away from religion seemed to have lost family bonding rituals. Thus, joining and watching Sephardic families having Friday night dinner together was a new and seductive experience. However, it is not uncommon to experience a disclaimer, ‘but I am different, I am Sephardic.” And I will end with this, there is nothing wrong with being White, nothing wrong with being Ashkenazi , Sephardic, African and nothing wrong with being Jewish. Many of our brethren turn on our brethren to escape the discomfort of being Jewish, and a “sell out” should not be trusted by the entity they are currying favor with. We should learn to love what God made us and commanded us to be in spiteof it not being popular.



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Burning Bush

posted July 27, 2009 at 1:33 pm


What is wrong with all of you and who gives a damn about Sephardic or Ashkenazim.
We all believe in G-d, Torah, etc. Who cares what part of the world your ancestors are from? It’s meaningless. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. When the Nazis came, they didn’t care if you were Sephardic or Ashkenazim.
It is this type of nonsense and infighting that has hurt the Jewish people since Moses.
We have done more damage to ourselves then most external enemies.
On another point, the Syrian Rabbinic Scum in New York is tragic more for their followers than for anyone else. Think of the children and adults who look up to them for moral guidance and how betrayed they must feel.
Oy Vey!



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Shaul

posted July 28, 2009 at 1:10 pm


One might have thought that in the intervening 14 years you perhaps met a few Sephardic Jews and perhaps matured to where you’d be embarrassed to republish that article. Regardless of what “sephardophiles” see in Sepharadim, your take on Sepharadim is obviously very poorly informed.



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ROSEDO GAMBOA

posted August 8, 2009 at 3:54 pm


STOP WHINING YOU THINK THE INQUISTION WENT AWAY? IT DID’NT YOU TRY STATEING THAT YOUR SEPHARDIC OR JUST PLAIN JEWISH WHEN YOUR EXPECTED TO BE CATHOLIC THE MAJORITY OF JEWS PERIOD,DON’T KNOW THEY ARE JEWS. THE TEN LOST TRIBES ARE NOT LOST.THEY NEED TO BE TAUGHT HISTORY. THEY HAD THEIR IDENTITY STOLEN SO DO YOUR PART AND TAKE TIME TO EDUCATE THEM IT’S YOUR RESPONSIBILITY AS BROTHERS AND SISTERS OF THE TWELVE TRIBES WE COME FROM.YOU SOUND JUVENILE FIGHTING OVER PETTY DIFFERENCES . WE WERE PUT ON THIS ROCK[THIRD ROCK}FROM THE SUN as in the third {COMMANDMENT}WHERE BLASTPHEMERS LIVE FOR A REASON. IF YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND GO ASK YOUR RABBI. OR E- MAIL ME.GOD SAID DO NOT BE AFRAID I TOOK MY CREATOR AT HIS WORD BECOUSE HE KEEPS IT TO HIS OWN HURT LIKE ANY GOOD FATHER. GAMBOA



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AZ

posted August 14, 2009 at 12:45 pm


A history lesson for you. Jews do not choose to be Sephardic or otherwise, it is, predominantly at least, bloodline. Jewish families which can be traced to or towards what is now Spain in origin. Some reports place them their in King Solomon’s time. It is traditional to marry Sephardim if you are of that line, Ashkenazi if you are from that line. The traditions, the foods, the way of davening … or praying, have traditionally followed the bloodlines. There are different translations of what herbs are allowed, of incence use, of all sorts of details. However, it is said that when two Jews meet to speak of Torah there are three opinions present. Music is a great part of all Jewish tradition. In my family there were and are many musicians, including musical directors of large British and Irish Theatres but there are famous Ashkenazi musicians too. Watch ‘The Pianist’ … it seems your research and knowledge is less than those who go to the movies!? Whatever the research of this book to which you refer, you are obviously not qualified to pass judgement.
I have just found out, aged 30, that i am of a very old sephardic jewish bloodline. My family, over generations has included Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Italy during in the centuries they resided in Holland, before the Hollocaust. Speaking Ladino … a Castilian Hebrew facilitated this. The knowledge comes with grief for how dearly my family lost. The family name of my great grandmother is one refered to as one of the oldest Sephardic names known of. My family is decent and not corrupt i will have you know. My mother is a teacher of language, i work with disadvantaged children while funding a part-time Masters in an area of peace studies; human security. This is not corrupt or underhand.
Most that still dwelt in Holland … most of the family … were separated from children and siblings and slaughtered during the holocaust as were millions of Jewish people, whatever their origin and belief all over the world! Observant, orthodox, liberal, non practicing you name it… for who their mother was they were degraded, branded, starved, gassed, tortured, murdered. It was a the race Hitler wanted externinated, despite his own part Jewish blood, perhaps because of it, bound up in hatred of self and hatred of other. I have been protected from knowing this and from the veiled anti-semitism still very much alive. The first and oldest family member of mine I found to have died in a hell beginning with ‘A’ was an 80yr old who spent her life selling sweets. All those she saw suffer, even the 60year olds, she will have remembered as children in her shop. Her brother’s children, their spouses and their children were almost all killed, of her other sibling’s spouses and children, of the rest of the family … i could fill a book with the deaths in my bloodline alone … of two sisters who perished at Sorbitor within a month of one another. I could not even tell you all of them, many remain nameless as the bodies were piled high and Sorbitor is now a place were football is played, small nameless bones kicked up from the dirt. My mission is to find them and bring the family back together in the ways left to me.
I feel it a dishonour to even share with you my family stories because i offer them to eyes that see only with hatred. Be careful the log in your own eyes when you seek out the spinter in another’s. I am sure there have been dishourable Jewish clergy before now as there have been those within the Christian Church who foul the words and laws of God. Sex scandals abound as do stories of the great Cathedrals built after the crusades and perscecution of Jews partly on money taken from them, dead or alive. In the time of the crusades in the UK Jews in York were rounded up and burnt while persecution happened all over the land and we were expelled. This is a fact born out in history books and hearts. I still wish sanctuary and hope to all who pray with love within their walls. Jews made money during times before banks, before crusades as money lending was all they were allowed to do when Christians were not permitted to. The sin of envy made hearts green and vision clouded, something that seems, centuries later to make people ready to use the reported failings of one or two to denigrate an entire race.
I try to live a life of love, not corruption or hate, both of which Jesus, a Jew preached against. If you have not love you are a clanging brass. You are encouraging hatred and prejudice. Are you a man of cloth not a man of God? SHAME ON YOU! Jesus died on a cross preaching love and yet you spit poison in his name. Don’t you remember what he said … that whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me’? That was a Jewish teaching. How can you have come so far from that?
I realise this is more a passionate rant than well argued comment, for me uncharacteristic in this kind of forum. I am angry, my grief and questioning of human nature very raw. I do not know if you are trying to be satirical … you are only managing to stir up pain and in some cases hatred.
Think!



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Your Name

posted August 14, 2009 at 1:01 pm


Ps.
sorry for the grammatical mistakes above. and btw i do know the crusades was mainly against muslim brothers and sisters, but Jews were considered infidel too. It is not the bones of my lost family i wish to find, but their names, i have many but there are many missing, especially children … to unite them as they were separated by the willful hate of others.
Building a temple on hate is like building a castle of sand. There is healing and understanding to be done on all sides, of the past and the present. Finger pointing is pointless and ties up the hands meant for rebuilding. People of all faiths can be mislead.



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ROSENDO J. GAMBOA

posted July 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm


THE SAD PART ABOUT THE INQUISITION IA THAT IT NEVER HAS REALLY GONE AWAY. WHILE THERE IS A GREAT AWAKENING OF SEPHARDIC JEWS IT’S DUE TO PROPHESY BEING FULFILLED. THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER IS THAT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH THROUGH LOCAL GOVERNMENT AGENCIES THROUGH OUT THE AMERICAS HAS SUPPRESSED AND LEFT OUT THE HISTORY OUT OF SCHOOL BOOKS AND INTIMIDATED THOSE WHO APPOSED THEM HENCE FORTH PEOPLE IN GENERAL SUFFER FROM WHAT IS KNOW AS STOCKHOLM SYNDROME. EVEN MOST ASKANIZE JEWS DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT THE INQUISITION.OR HOW JEWS BETRAYED EACH OTHER



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