Chapter Six The Spanish Jew-The Sephardim

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Chapter Six

The Spanish Jew-The Sephardim

Once again, my many thanks to those on the Internet for providing excellent information.

SECTION I. What is a Jew?
When writing about what constitutes being a Jew, one must remember that there are many people with both personal and religious views on the subject, some objective and some subjective. For those who are Jewish or consider themselves to be Jews, the importance cannot be understated. As for myself, I offer the following as a series of self-revelations based upon some study, but personal revelations none the less. I will leave the final outcomes and decisions of what is right and wrong on the matters discussed here with the professional historians and DNA experts.
As the writer of this chapter, the content has had an extraordinary impact upon me. The research of the Sephardim necessary to prepare for its writing required a review of issues spanning thousands of years of Jewish history. Ultimately, as the scribe I found myself reflecting upon Israel as an ancient nation and Judaism, its religion, its reason for being. Eventually, the loss of nationhood and its implications to a people left without a land to call their own crept into my psyche. The realization of it had a profound effect upon me. It raised many questions in my mind. How can a people exist without a country, a home to call their own? What would it be like to be a permanently stranded, unwanted guest? Why was it so important to the Jews to maintain a separate and distinct religion and culture in so many foreign lands, over these many thousands of years? How could a people endure such millennia of hatred, mistreatment, injustice, cruelty, rape, torture, murder, and savagery when they could have simply assimilated into their host countries and ended much of the persecution? How could a people have such faith in their G-d as to believe that they would eventually be returned to the land He intended for them to possess? Relative to many of these questions, I remain perplexed. However, I’m left with an impression of a people that have an indomitable spirit and a faith worthy of their G-d. I’m also humbled by their strength and commitment to their beliefs.
As the reader will soon become aware, being a Jew has always come with a very, very high price. Since the beginning, when Israel was first unified as the “12 Tribes” and later as a divided Israel (Israel and Judea) the Jewish nation has been under constant siege by various entities (Empires, surrounding tribes, Christianity, Islam, etc.). The result has been a nation plagued by war, destruction, and outright slavery. The people of the “Promised Land” have suffered repeated destruction of their most sacred places, the forced removal from their homeland on many occasions, and restriction from the return and resettlement of their lands.
Throughout the centuries they’ve been held in captivity by various nations and in many locations. While in captivity the Jewish people have suffered grave injustices, rejection, exclusion, oppression, murder, rape, forced religious conversion, their children forcefully removed from their custody and care, endured cultural and religious re-education, and in many cases the children were never returned to their rightful parents (Stolen). Think of this people of Jewish ancestry and/or religious self-identification continually being coerced and forced to convert to alien religions by torture and duress (Under pain of death). Would you endure it? Could you endure it?
The aftermath of those thousands of years of unyielding outside pressure and attempted religious and cultural obliteration has only resulted in the increased faith in their G-d, the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the end, after living hell on earth they’ve returned to the land of their fathers, Israel. These thousands of years of oppression has left them weary and often times hostile toward the world of non-Jews.
Given the aforementioned, the importance of establishing a basis of agreement for the concept of, “what is a Jew” is of paramount importance for those who uphold and love Judaism. This becomes all important to those who have fought and died to keep Judaism alive and intact as a religion and culture. When one looks at the question through the lens of Jewish history with its turbulent and destructive outcomes, inclusion and exclusion become very real issues. For those concerned with the protection and survival of Judaism, who should and should not be accepted as a legitimate Jew is a question of great urgency. As history informs them there exists a constant potential that their religion and culture may be taken from them at any moment. For those wishing to be accepted as Jews, the questions of who is and who is not a Jew are also of great importance. This is an essential element of “who” they see themselves as, and “who” they are.
For both Jewish religious authorities and the modern state of Israel, the “Anusim,” the descendents of those tens of thousands of Jews that left the observance of Judaism for other religious or non-religious practices, represent a modern-day dilemma. To maintain some semblance of order, structure, and definition for a modern Jewish state and culture, Jews are forced to establish boundaries for who is and who is not a Jew. For the Anusim, that legal category of Jews in halakha (Jewish law) who were forced to abandon Judaism against their will, typically while forcibly converted to another religion, the matter of being an accepted Jew has become an arena of heated debate. Their acceptance by observant Jews has been, and is problematic. This applies in a very personal way to, we Sephardic Jews which became Conversos.
For the numerically large number of Sephardic Jewish communities of Spain, both accepted and unaccepted, being a Jew has become an issue of religious and cultural self-identification.
The American Journal of Human Genetics in December of 2008 stated that 19.8 percent of modern Iberians (Spaniards and Portuguese) have DNA reflecting Sephardic Jewish ancestry. The 2008 population census of Spain stood at 46,063,000. This could mean that approximately 9, 120,500 individuals in Spain may be of Jewish ancestry. Thus, some portion of the "Anusim" whether "coerced", "forced", or voluntarily converted (Conversos) is at the crossroads of religious and cultural identification. For some, this has become a crisis of identity. What of the tens of millions of the descendents of the non-observant Conversos in the Spanish New World? If all of these are rejected by their fellow Jews (Observant) and the modern state of Israel, do they become a loosely affiliated, unwanted, 2nd tier of Jewish wannabes? Picture a 21st Century with tens of millions of Conversos aligned with little Israel in a partnership of shared ancestry, religion, culture, and history. Issues, issues, and all of those greater issues!
It is easily understood that the great majority of those who are not Jewish have little interest in the subject. And then there are the haters, those who tend to see everything Jewish as evil and bad. Obviously, this chapter is not written for them. It is in fact written for those who are interested in Spanish history, its people, and those many outcomes that derived from the actions taken Spain as a new nation, by its official religion (Catholicism), Monarchy and nobility, and its people.
From the Sephardim of Spain and Portugal (c. 1490s C.E.) arose the Conversos, those that converted to Catholicism (Christianity) and left the observance of Judaism for fear of the loss of property, livelihood, torture, and/or death. Perhaps genuinely accepting the Christian Messiah was the genesis of their choice. Whatever the cause, a schism has existed between the observant Jew and the Conversos for millennia. This is one more reason that the presenting of this chapter has been extraordinarily difficult, akin to walking barefoot on broken glass.
Firstly, in an effort to provide some understanding of what it means to be Jewish, one must establish a succinct and structured view for the reader of what constitutes being Jewish. The basis of which must be an agreed upon construct by the interested parties. That is to say, while the Jewish peoples share a common beginning they also differ culturally and genetically. The beginning was the spring or tribes (Genetics) that brought forth Judaism. Of interest is the fact that the answer to what is an acceptable form (Rabbinical agreement) of Judaism (Religion) may be based upon a decision embraced and promulgated by a few members of today’s Judaism, who are in part grafted into the original community of Israelite tribes from non-original gene pools. However, in all fairness it must be noted that the very survival of both modern Israel (The state) and Judaism is a result of this observant, modern-day, mixture of original and grafted on peoples of observant Judaism.
With this in mind, it is commonly understood that he/she is a member of the Jewish people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who may or may not trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham. There are also questions about Jewish identity and considerations of Jewish self-identification which are constantly being explored. This is because issues related to Jewish personhood have religious, cultural, genealogical, personal, historical, and political implications. Therefore, the definition of who is a Jew varies according to what is being considered. It may be based on normative religious statutes, self-identification, or other concerns. The definition depends on many aspects of Jewish identity which can include characteristics of ethnicity or conversion.
For a simple definition, a person is Jewish by birth or may become a Jew through religious conversion. It is reported that about 80% of Jewish males and 50% of Jewish females trace their ancestry back to the Middle East. The remainder entered the “Jewish gene pool” through conversion, intermarriage, or other means. Those who did intermarry often left the faith in a few generations. But many converts became interwoven into the Jewish genealogical line. One can reflect upon the iconic convert, the biblical Ruth, who married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David. Ruth began as an outsider. However, you can’t be much more Jewish than of the bloodline of King David.
If left there it might seem to be a simple matter. But it’s not and never will be. One must accept that when dealing with something as special and personal as religion and its affiliation, there will be differences of opinion. And there are! In the application of a definition among the differing branches of Judaism this may include the issue of mixed parents, conversion, and historical loss of Jewish identity (As in the case of Spain’s Conversos). Jewish ethnic divisions also refer to a number of distinctive communities within the world's ethnically Jewish population, although considered one single self-identifying ethnicity.
Self-identifying ethnicity as it relates to cultural identity is the identity or feeling of belonging to, as part of the self-conception and self-perception to nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, generation, locality and any kind of social group that have its own distinct culture. In this way cultural identity is both characteristic of the individual and also of the culturally identified group. Therefore, cultural identity is similar to and overlaps with identity politics.
There are distinctive ethnic divisions among Jews, most of which are primarily the result of:

  • Geographic branching from an originating Israelite population

  • Mixing with local populations

  • Subsequent independent evolutions

From biblical times, cultural and linguistic differences between Jewish communities, even within the area of ancient Israel and Judea are observed both within the Bible itself as well as from archeological remains. In more recent human history, an array of Jewish communities were established by Jewish settlers in various places around the Old World, often at great distances from one another resulting in effective and often long-term isolation from each other.

During the millennia of the Jewish Diaspora the communities would develop under the influence of their local environments such as:

  • Political (Political environment)

  • Cultural (Jewish culture is the international culture of the Jews. Since the formation of the Jewish nation in biblical times the international community of Jewish people has been considered a tribe or an ethno-religious group rather than solely a religion.)

  • Natural (Natural environment)

  • Populational (The area that is used to define a sexual population is defined as the area where inter-breeding is potentially possible between any pair within the area. The probability of interbreeding is greater than the probability of cross-breeding with individuals from other areas. Under normal conditions, breeding is substantially more common within the area than across the border.)

Today, manifestation of these differences among the Jews can be observed in Jewish cultural expressions of each community, including:

  • Jewish linguistic diversity (Sephardic Ladino Vs. Ashkenazi Yiddish)

  • Culinary preferences

  • Liturgical practices (Liturgy is the customary public worship done by a specific religious group, according to its particular beliefs, customs and traditions.)

  • Religious interpretations

  • Degrees and sources of genetic admixture (Genetic admixture occurs when individuals from two or more previously separated populations begin interbreeding. Admixture results in the introduction of new genetic lineages into a population. It has been known to slow local adaptation by introducing foreign, un-adapted genotypes (known as gene swamping). It also prevents speciation by homogenizing populations.)

  • Genetic studies regarding today’s Jews are part of population genetics. This discipline is used to better understand the chronology of migration and complements the results provided by history, archeology, language or paleontology. The interest of these studies is to investigate the origins of various Jewish populations. In particular, they investigate whether there is a common genetic heritage among various Jewish populations.

SECTION II. What is a Sephardim?
Secondly, we must acquaint the reader with what is meant by Sephardim. For the purpose of this chapter, a short explanation must be given explaining what is a Sephardic Jew and where they came from. For simplicity’s sake, we have provided an accepted view of how Sephardic Jews are defined. They were those Jews living on the Iberian Peninsula prior to 1492 C.E. and who experienced tragic events when the Edict of Expulsion was signed by their Most Catholic Majesties, King Ferdinand of Aragón and Queen Isabella of Castille and León.
The “Jews of Spain” are known as Sephardic Jews or simply Sephardim. They are a Jewish ethnic division whose ethnogenesis and emergence as a distinct community of Jews coalesced on the Iberian Peninsula as a permanently displaced and relocated collective. As Sephardic communities were established throughout Iberia, in what is known today as Spain and Portugal, they evolved distinctive Sephardic characteristics:

  • Identity

  • Style of liturgy

  • Law

  • Customs

  • Diasporic identity

Their community was brought to an end starting with the issuance of the Alhambra Decree by Spain's Catholic Monarchs in the late 15th Century C.E., resulting in executions, mass conversions, and a combination of internal and external migrations. However, an estimated 13,000 to 40,000 Jews live in Spain today. In the latest population census in Israel Sephardim represented the majority around 55%, with Ashkenazim at 45%.

Interestingly, the Sephardim are the less well known of the Jewish peoples. It has been suggested that Jews settled in the land of Sepharad or Sefarad, as Spain was called in Hebrew language, very early. There are three much discussed, possible migration scenarios from the Holy Land which introduced the Jews into Iberia. Each has its reasons for being correct and each has its drawbacks. According to the oldest Jewish traditions it is suggested that the first Jews arrived in Spain in one of King Solomon's fleets with Hiram's Phoenicians in B.C.E. Their mission was to conduct business with Tarsus. These appear to be the same boats of Tarsus that the biblical prophet Jonah boarded and which must have arrived at the Tartessos of the Guadalquivir.
A second tradition suggests their arrival as refugees in Spain occurred soon after the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 587 B.C.E. These joined their compatriots who had come earlier during the Phoenician trading era. Though all this is possible, there is little hard evidence to support it.
The third and more accepted explanation is to assume that the first Jewish settlements in the Iberian Peninsula took place after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. The war against Rome and the complete destruction of the Temple opened up the great Jewish Diaspora (dispersion) throughout the Mediterranean. The Diaspora could have easily reached Roman Hispania (Spain) in the 1st Century C.E.
An important piece of 1st Century C.E. information is Saint Peter's epistle to the Romans about his visit to Spain. This could indicate the presence of Jewish communities on the Peninsula. Also at this time, Jonathan ben Uziel (Died the 26th day of Sivan, June, year unknown) identified Spain with the Biblical Sepharad which resulted in Spanish Jews referring to one another as "Sephardic."
There is also a legend among the Sephardim that the city of Toletum or Toledo, the capital city of Visigoth Spain, was founded by Jewish refugees from Jerusalem. A popular etymology has been used to explain its name, pronounced by the Jews Tolaitola, to be derived from the Hebrew word "tolatola" exile, or, according to another explanation, from "toledoth" or generations. The Sephardim considered this city a second Jerusalem and recreated what could be called a new Palestine around it. It is believed by some that the towns of Escaluna, Maqueda, Jopez, and Azeque were built on the adjacent lands in memory of the Palestinian Ashkalon, Makedda, Joppa (Yafo) and Azeka.
There are many Sephardic families such as the Ibn-Daud and Abrabanel (Abravanel) who proudly claimed their descendance from the house of King David, Solomon's father.
The father of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current (2015) Prime minister and celebrated Israeli historian, Benzion Netanyahu has placed Spain’s 1492 C.E. Jewish population at 225,000. Others have estimated that on July 30, 1492 C.E., the entire Jewish Community had an approximate population of between 225,000 and 230,000. This represented perhaps 2% of Spain's population at the time. While the numbers may be disputed, it is claimed that of this estimated Jewish population, 50,000 were baptized Catholic (Conversos) and remained.
Historically, the native language or native dialect of Sephardic Jews was Ladino, a Romance language derived from Old Spanish. It incorporates elements from all the old Romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula, Hebrew, Aramaic, and in the lands receiving those who were exiled Ottoman Turkish, Levantine Arabic, Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbo-Croatian vocabulary. The traditional vernacular language of North African Sephardim was Haketia, a form of Judeo-Spanish. It was also derived from Old Spanish and heavily influenced by Hebrew, Aramaic, and Maghrebi Arabic. The ex-Converso Western Sephardim traditionally spoke Spanish and/or Portuguese, or a mixture combining elements of both.
As mentioned earlier, one example of the Sephardic families is the Abravanel family. It is one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish families of the Iberian Peninsula. These can trace their origin from the biblical King David. It is reported that members of this family lived in Seville, Córdoba, Castille-León, and Calatayud. Additionally, Jewish communities were founded in Carthago Nova (Cartagena), Granada, Saragosse, Aragón, and other areas of the Iberian Peninsula. Don Judah Abravanel, its most prominent representative, once lived in Seville. Don Judah was said to be a treasurer and tax-collector under Sancho IV (1284 C.E.-1295 C.E.) and Ferdinand IV (1295 C.E.-1312 C.E.).
These are some examples of other Sephardic surnames names from Portugal and Gibraltar which show the changes made over the years: Abeasis, Abecassis, Abensur, Abitbol, Aboab, Abohbot, Absidid, Abudarham, Acris, Adrehi, Aflalo, Albo, Alkaim, Amar, Amram, Amselem, Amzalak, Anahory, Asayol, Askenazi, Assayag, Athias, Atrutel, Auday, Azancot, Azavey, Azerad, Azuelos, Azulay, Balensi, Banon, Baquis, Barchilom, Baruel, Berlilo, Benabu, Benady, Benaim, Benamor, Benarus, Benatar, Benbunan, Benchaya, Benchetrit, Benchimol, Bendahan, Bendelack, Bendran, Benelisha, Beneluz, Benhayon, Beniso, Benitah, Benjamim, Benjo, Benmergui, Benmiyara, Benmuyal, Benoalid, Benoliel, Benrimoj, Benros, Bensabat, Bensadon, Bensaloha, Bensaude, Benselum, Bensheton, Bensimon, Bensliman, Bensusan, Bentata, Bentubo, Benudis, Benyuli, Benyunes, Benzacar, Benzaquen, Benzecry, Benzimra, Berdugo, Bergel, Bibas, Blum, Bohudana, Brigham, Brudo, Buzaglo, Bytton, Cagi, Cansino, Cardoso, Carseni, Castel, Cazes, Cohen, Conquy, Coriat, Cubi, Danan, Davis, Delmar, Elmaleh, Esaguy, Esnaty, Farache, Ferares, Finsi, Foinquinos, Fresco , Gabay, Gabizon, Garson, Hadida, Hassan, Hatchuel, Israel, Kadoshi, Katzan, Labos, Laluff, Laredo, Lasry, Lengui, Levi, Malca, Maman, Marques, Marrache, Martins, Massias, Matana, Megueres, Melul, Moreira, Mor-Jose, Mucznik, Muginstein, Muller, Nahon, Namias, Nathan, Obadia, Ohana, Oliveira, Pacifico, Pallache, Pariente, Pimienta, Pinto, Querub, Roffe, Ruah, Rygor, Sabath, Salama, Sananes, Saragga, Schocron, Sebag, Segal, Sequerra, Serfaty, Serequi, Serrafe, Seruya, Sicsu, Tangi, Tapiero, Taregano, Taurel, Tedesqui, Tobelem, Toledano, Tuati, Uziel, Varicas, Wahnon, Waknin, Wolfinsohn, Zafrany, Zagury.
Jewish society dictated the origins of ancient Jewish names within the Jewish community. Patronymics, such as David ben (son of) Joseph or Sarah bat (daughter of) Aaron were used. Jewish legal documents in synagogues such as the ketubah (marriage contract) have Jewish names in this form. Historically, Jews did not have family surnames.
Specialists in this field believe that it is possible to trace the events of Jewish history by studying the names used by Jews in certain times and locations. To establish Sephardic Jewish surnames originating in Spain and Portugal the origins and meaning of family names, locations, and a wide variety of sources have been used where the names are cited. In medieval Spain Jews used Hebrew names. After the Muslim conquest of Iberia, Arabic became the spoken language (8th Century C.E.-12th Century C.E.) Jewish names became more Arabic sounding. From the end of the Golden Age, the beginning of the Reconquista (The era during which Christian Kings enlarged Spanish Christian territory), and until the July 1492 C.E. expulsion, Jews used a variety of name spellings.
Of those surviving Jewish surnames, lists of unique medieval spellings of names must be browsed to determine if they have survived after 500 years. To accomplish this, the following points had to be first clarified:

1. Name spellings

2. Surnames can be written in many different languages.

3. Medieval scribes and notaries such as those of the royal court wrote down names as they heard or understood them.

4. During these periods of time, names did not yet have a fixed orthography. The methodology for the writing a language which includes rules of spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation was not yet a fixed process. Thus, it happened that one single document might contain two or three different spellings of a same name. As a result, a surviving name may have many, many different spellings.
Another part of the name process is the separating of names from their numerous prefixes in order find out the surviving name. Prefixes which have been found include:

  • A/The: A, Al, Ça, Des, Dez, El, Ha, L’, La, Sa

  • Father of: Abo, Abu, Abul, Bu

  • From: D’, De, De la, Del, Den

  • Qualifier or title: Bel, Bien, Bon, Buen, Don

  • Son of: Ab, Abe, Aben, Abi, Abin, Abn, Amna, Apen, Auen, Aven, Avin, Bar, Bem, Ben, Eben, Em, En, Euen, Even, Ibn, Haben, N’, Na, Uen, Ven

These prefixes are in several languages such as, Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Catalan, and Spanish. Many are resulting deformations or contractions of originals such as N’ for Ibn.

With the exception of some Iberian aristocrats, wealthy people, and prosperous merchants surnames were not used by most Jews. When Jews did adopt family names in the 18th and 19th centuries C.E., the choice was frequently patronymic (a name derived from the name of a father or ancestor, typically by the addition of a prefix or suffix), and first names thus became family names.
Prior to the Napoleonic era in Eastern Europe of the Early-19th Century C.E., most of the Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of central or eastern European descent) from countries captured by Napoleon (Including Russia, Poland, and Germany) were ordered to use surnames due to a need for tax collection. Soon after Napoleon’s defeat many Jews eliminated surnames and returned to "son of" names.
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