Sephardic Roots – Jews in Spain & Sephardic Ancestry Citizenship - Episode 88

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

In this episode of The When in Spain podcast we're talking about Jewish history or Sephardic history in Spain - to use the Hebrew word.

We'll also be talking about a law that Spain passed in 2015 that has laid a pathway for people of Sephardic descent to reclaim Spanish citizenship – and one of those who is going through the process joins me in the episode.

Listen to this episode free on the player below or on your favourite podcast app.

Toledo´s Jewsish Quarter or Judería
Toledo´s Jewsish Quarter or Judería

I'll be chatting to Nichole Martínez Kruse who relocated from San Diego in the US to Zaragoza in the Spanish region of Aragon after a family member and amateur genealogist discovered Inquisition records dating back to the 1500s proving that Nichole's Spanish ancestors were Jews. This culminated in Nichole applying for Spanish citizenship via Sephardic ancestry.

(CORRECTION: In the episode I incorrectly said that Nichole already has Spanish citizenship. She is currently still in the process and awaiting.)

Nowadays Nichole helps others looking to gain Spanish citizenship through their sephardic roots through her boutique immigration firm, Welcome Home Sefardi.

Nichole Martínez Kruse
Nichole Martínez Kruse

Nichole is going to be sharing her personal story and offering some practical advice for those interested in embarking on the same ancestral journey. We'll also look at Jewish history in Spain and how she finds her new life in Zaragoza. At the end of the episode I'll be running through a few historical locations across Spain that should be on your radar to visit to if you're interested in exploring the history of Sephardic Spain.

Jewish History in Spain

Jewish history in Spain dates back to the time of the Romans (2nd Century C.E.) and by the Middle Ages, Spain was the center of the Jewish world in Europe. Under Muslim rule Jewish communities flourished and Jews were highly successful in the fields of agriculture, diplomacy, the arts, philosophy, commerce and sciences such as astronomy, medicine, botany and geography.

Judería in Toledo
Small tiles mark the route around Toledo´s Jewish Quarter

During the Roman Empire, the Jews treated the same way as other communities. However, after King Recaredo converted to Christianity in 586, Spanish Jews endured persecutions and forced conversions for almost a century. When Arabs arrived in 711, Jewish people cooperated and both communities got along well.

In 1146, the Almohads of Morocco invaded Spain and prohibited the practice of Judaism. Some Jews converted, others practiced their religion secretly, while the rest fled to the neighboring countries. As the power of the church grew, the anti-Jewish measures were issued – the freedom of Jews was limited and they were excluded from public service.

As the Christians reconquered Spain, a dark cloud gradually spread over Jewish society. Jews were increasingly subjected to religious intolerance: they were forced to live in ghettos (juderías).

Then in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus set sail, after conquering Granada in March 1492, Isabella of Castile and Fernando of Aragón signed the edict of expulsion (Alhambra Decree) with the aim of eliminating Jewish influence in Spain. This decree forced many Jews into exile.Spain’s Edict of Expulsion gave Jews a stark choice: Convert, depart, or die.

At the time, Spain’s Jewish community was one of the largest in the world, though their numbers had diminished due to a series of massacres and mass conversions 100 years earlier.

Santa María la Blanca, Toledo
Santa María la Blanca (Ancient Synagogue converted into a Church)

Historians still debate the number of Jews expelled; some estimate 40,000, others 100,000 or more. Those who fled sought exile in places that would have them—Italy, North Africa, the Netherlands, and eventually the Ottoman empire. Many continued to speak Ladino, a variant of 15th-century Spanish peppered with Hebrew. Tens of thousands stayed, but converted, and remained vulnerable to the perils of the Inquisition. How many Jews were killed remains unclear, but a widely accepted estimate is 2,000 people during the first two decades of the Inquisition.

For over 400 years, there was no Jewish life in Spain. At the end of the 19th Century, a new interest in Judaism and Sephardic culture arose, and a small number of Jews started to trickle back in from Germany, Greece and other parts of Europe.

With the help of a few Spanish politicians and intellectuals, they opened the first synagogue in Madrid in 1916 and were able to worship freely until 1938, when Franco’s fascist regime prohibited all religions except Roman Catholicism.

In his Christmas message of 1939, Franco made a thinly veiled reference to the Jews as a “race” that was a “disturbance” and a “danger,” noting that “we, by the grace of God and clear vision of the Catholic Kings, have for centuries been free of this heavy burden.” Spain, however, did not deport Jews—indeed, thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis crossed safely through Spain en route to other countries.

By the end of the 1950's, the regime had become more tolerant. In 1967, the first law guaranteeing freedom of religion was passed, and the main synagogue in Madrid was opened the following year.

In a powerful gesture of atonement, In 2015, the Spanish Parliament sought to make amends and enacted a law inviting the Sephardim—Jews who trace their roots to Spain—to return. (Sepharad is the Hebrew word for the Iberian Peninsula)

It´s estimated that there are between 15 & 40,000 Jews living in Spain, mostly in Madrid and Barcelona, with Jewish communities in over ten cities and towns - although Spain today has one of the smallest Jewish populations in Europe for a country of more than 46 million people.

Ladino Language

For centuries the language of the Sephardic community, descendants of Jews driven from Spain in 1492, was Ladino, a unique version of Spanish, peppered with Hebrew. Here are ten examples:

1. Kal (Synagogue) קאל

A of contraction kahal, Hebrew for “community,” kal means “synagogue,” where the community gathers. Thus, you can say Vamos al kal, “We are going to the synagogue.”

2. Dio (G‑d) דיו

In the classic Ladino version of Ein Kelokeinu sung after Shabbat services, you will hear the congregation sing, non como muestro Dio, “there is none like our G‑d.” Dio is Ladino for G‑d. It is interesting that the Spanish version is dios, which sounds like it is plural, indicating (Heaven forbid) that there is more than one G‑d. As a Jewish language, Ladino refers to the Creator as Dio, unmistakably singular.

3. Kayades (Quiet) קיאדיס

This word means “let’s be quiet.” You use this word when you want to say that now is a good time not to attract undue attention. Unfortunately, during the Inquisition, when practicing Judaism was punishable by death, the Jews of Spain and Portugal became adept at this skill, trying their best to remain under the radar.

4. Pasensya (Patience) פסינסיה

This is a cousin of the English word “patience,” with an added layer indicating the ability to accept hardship with equanimity and faith.

5. Pezgaduras (Heaviness) פיזגדוראס

This word means “heaviness,” denoting a person for whom everything is pezgado, “heavy,” or a big deal (the opposite of liviano, “light”).

6. Vaziduras (Nothingness) וזידוראס

This means “nothing.” You can use this to describe the outcome of a failed project, the empty words of a chatterbox, or something that just simply doesn’t make sense.

7. Midrash (Study Hall) מידרש

This refers to the small prayer room adjacent to a larger synagogue, a cousin of the Yiddish shtiebel (“hut”) or cheder sheni (“second room”). The term comes from beit midrash, Hebrew for “house of study,” but in common Ladino parlance the first word has been dropped.

8. Ajeno (Foreigner) אז'ינו

An ajeno is a “foreigner.” Exiled from the Holy Land following the destruction of the Holy Temple, and once again exiled from the Iberian Peninsula where they had contributed so richly to the local community, the Sephardic Jew acutely felt his status as ajeno, a stranger in a strange land.

9. Kaminando i Avlando (Walking and Talking) קמיננדו אי אבלנדו

This one means “walking and talking,” and you use it like “time will tell.” T

10. Haberes Buenos (Good News) חביריס בואינס

Paralleling the Hebrew term besurot tovot, haberes buenas means “good news,”

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