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Spaniolischer Jude (Jew from Spain), etching print on a postcard
From the E.M. Lilien Collection. AR 1944
Collection of the Leo Baeck Institute

“The Sephardim Are Coming, the Sephardim Are Coming!”

By: J.D. Arden, M.L.I.S., Reference Services Librarian,
Genealogy Specialist, Center for Jewish History

More than 500 years ago, on July 30th of 1492, Jews residing in Spain—numbering approximately 200,000—were expelled from their homes. This event in Jewish history came in the wake of the frenzy of Catholic fundamentalist zeal following the defeat and retreat of Muslim armies from the Iberian Peninsula. A long history of persecution already hung on the necks of Jews, hounded by years of torturous forced conversions of the Spanish Inquisition. The rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, had issued a decree of expulsion in March of 1492: all openly-practicing Jews who had not converted then had just four months to sell their property and homes (at cutthroat prices) to the Spaniards who watched them leave by the middle of summer. Some of the Jewish population included those whose recent ancestors had fled total expulsions of earlier centuries from England and Germany.

In 1492, most Jews fled to Portugal, only to be expelled or converted later in 1496. Some Jews fled to Holland, France or the northeastern edge of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, while others fled to the Ottoman Empire: to Salonika, Izmir and Istanbul. Another group fled to North Africa or to Syria. Still others returned to the Land of Israel – mainly to Safed or Jerusalem, also occupied by the Ottomans at that time. Many of those exiled from their homes on the Iberian Peninsula vowed in resentment that never again would any of their descendants set foot upon Spanish or Portuguese soil. (1)

This year, that might be about to change.

The governments of Portugal and Spain have both recently passed laws that, in theory, make it possible for Sephardic Jews or those of Sephardic heritage to be granted citizenship. In a speech in 2014, the Spanish Justice Minister, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, said, referring to the 1492 expulsion: “In Spain, a clear majority realize we have committed a historical error and have an opportunity to repair it, so I am sure that law will pass with an immense majority in parliament.” The law was passed on June 11th, and it is expected to take effect on October 1st, 2015.

This new law has generated some interest (and some skepticism) among the Sephardic community. According to a June 15th article for the Jewish Chronicle Online, the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities (FCJE), acting as intermediary in approving and processing the certificates of Sephardic origin [https://certificadosefardies.fcje.org], the first step in the application process, has already received more than 6,000 applications. The exact requirements and fees for demonstrating language and history proficiency, and for proving one’s authenticated Sephardic heritage, however – are yet to be tested and thoroughly explained. The online application form, on the website of the Spanish Ministry of Justice, is only in Spanish and can be found here [http://www.justicia.sefardies.notariado.org/liferay/web/sefardies/inicio]. Eligibility can also apparently be based (at least partially) on the dubious motivation of “realization of charity contributions in favor of Spanish individuals or institutions, provided they were conducted regularly” (see the Sephardic Heritage Project link below). Furthermore, some of these required tests are to be submitted in person in Spain (Portugal allows for interviews via Skype). On the other hand, the prospect of an EU passport, for some Israelis or Americans, continues to draw applicants—for the time being, anyway. Whether interest will wane, if the application process ends up being too discouraging or costly, remains to be seen.

Here at the Center for Jewish History in New York, the librarians of the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute and the American Sephardi Federation have been fielding various inquiries about the offer of Spanish citizenship. One prospective applicant, who spent the day trying to verify his family tree which stretched back from Hungary to Bohemia to Barcelona, confided that he would be eager to have a Spanish passport. He said he remembers, as a young boy, fleeing Hungary after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, along with 20,000 Jewish refugees escaping Soviet anti-Semitism. The surfacing of right-wing ultranationalism and anti-Semitism in Hungary today makes him feel that, although he is a US citizen, he would rather have a safer alternative in Europe.

Dalia Kandiyoti, a professor at the College of Staten Island (CUNY) who is researching contemporary Sephardism in Spain and the Americas helpfully framed the perspective that “Spain has had special dispensation for Jewish descendants who have survived the mass expulsion for some time now, but the latest law offering citizenship to descendants of Spanish Jews was welcomed by many in the Sephardic community because it promised to remove a great prior obstacle: the prohibition of dual citizenship. The gesture was perceived as a form of restitution for the disaster of the expulsion (though not necessarily of the forced conversions). But the surprise inclusion of conditions, including of geo-historical-cultural as well as language examinations, has disappointed many of those possibly interested in the offer. That the language exam is for proficiency not in Judeo-Spanish but in modern Castilian has even offended some who are rethinking their intention to apply. Many ask why Spain, which has chosen to bestow citizenship on descendants of expelled Spanish Jews without requests or pressure from Sephardic communities, has now opted to place conditions on its gesture of reparation. Hopefully, these will not undermine the reconciliation that Spanish officials themselves have chosen to initiate, which was largely perceived positively by Sephardic people in Turkey and the Americas.”

Another researcher in the Lillian Goldman Reading Room, who was visiting from Turkey, noted that recent events in Greece, which put the future stability of the EU into question, have left many Jews lukewarm to the idea of navigating more paperwork, tests and travel for what seems to be an uncertain chance for a passport – not a rebuilt community and a place to live and call home.      

Selected resources specific to the Center for Jewish History Genealogy Institute:

Research Guide for Sephardic or Mizrachi genealogy

Mexican Inquisition Collection

The Mexican Inquisition collection contains twenty-four processos (transcripts of trials) of individuals accused of Judaizing. The Mexican Inquisition tried accused Crypto-Jews, Jews who converted to Christianity but were believed to secretly practice Judaism. Eight of the processos are originals; sixteen are typed transcriptions from the Inquisition Records of the Archivo General de la Naciâon (Mexico). Three of the transcriptions are also translated into English (including two trials of the same individual). The trials range in date from 1572 to 1768. The collection is in Spanish, with some English.

Link to Finding Aid, index of material

Dicionário Sefaradi de Sobrenomes: inclusive cristãos novos, conversos, marranos, italianos, berberes e sua história na Espanha, Portugal e Itália / Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames: including Christianized Jews, Conversos, Marranos, Italians, Berbers, and their history in Spain, Portugal and Italy 

Sephardic Genealogy: discovering your Sephardic ancestors and their world by Jeffrey S. Malka

Bevis Marks Records Collection: contributions to the history of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation of London The Bevis Marks collection contains abstracts of the Ketubot or marriage-contracts of the Congregation from the earliest until 1837, birth and circumcision registers, up to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

1. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, its People, and its History by Joseph Telushkin, here at CJH

Selected further reading:
JTA News Brief “Spain passes law of return for Sephardic Jews”:

Haaretz “Spain’s lower house passes law of return for Sephardi Jews”: 

For a comparison of the laws in Portugal and Spain, see: http://sephardicheritageproject.org  
For the details of the Portuguese law, see: http://jewishcommunityofoporto.blogspot.pt

For the official text of the Bill Granting Spanish Citizenship to
Sephardic Jews, provided in English with contact information by the
Embassy of Spain in Israel, see:

Please note: At the time of this blog posting, contrary to incorrect speculation, there is no official list of approved Sephardic names or any list of names of any kind that has been compiled by any government – neither by Spain, Portugal nor Israel.

For more on the expulsion of Jews in 1492, see: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/expulsion.html

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