Spain wants to fix centuries-old error
By Harriet P. Gross

grossforwebSomething is really bubbling in the olla!
In case you know even less Spanish than I, that’s a big pot, one often used for cooking south of the U.S. border or in our southwest. What’s on fire now in this metaphoric utensil is the seemingly imminent offer of Mother Spain to grant full citizenship to descendants of the Jews she ousted more than 500 years ago! When I first read about this possibility in a story the Chicago Tribune published in April, I couldn’t believe it.
The year best known to most Americans for the sailing of Columbus is better known to Sephardic Jews for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s alternatives to their ancestors: Get out, convert to Catholicism or face death. Many died. Many left for other places. Many stayed and became Catholics. But many who were Catholics in public remained Jews in private, retaining traditions whose origins and meanings slowly faded for their descendants.
Half a millennium later: what a chaotic kettle of pescados! Spain says it’s trying to right this “historic mistake,” but would many descendants even be interested today? And, if so, how could they prove their origins in order to claim citizenship?
After I read, I went straight to Rachel Bortnick, a local whose ancestors were among the many who refused to convert and fled to the then-welcoming Ottoman Empire. She herself could probably make a valid claim without too much trouble: She was born in Turkey. Amado is her clearly Spanish maiden name. And she is fluent in Ladino, that little-spoken blend of Spanish and Hebrew that’s the Sephardic equivalent of Ashkenazi Yiddish. Bless her, Rachel answered questions I hadn’t even thought to ask!
That “historic mistake” began a full century earlier than the actual expulsion, she says. “In 1391, the Church first instigated pogroms, not to get rid of the Jewish people per se, but to get rid of their religion, to get them to convert. It started in Seville, spread like wildfire, and wiped out the Jewish community of Barcelona.”
This gave rise to “conversos,” the hidden Jews, so in 1483, the Church invited the Inquisition into Spain to seek out those suspected of practicing Judaism in secret. People could be denounced for such simple “evidence” as laundering a white tablecloth on Friday, or washing their hands before eating.
Jews who remained openly Jewish were the first to leave, Rachel’s forebears among them. Later, those who had undergone conversion went in another direction, primarily to Holland and France. Eventually, many reached the southern Americas, including the southwestern United States. In recent years, some who have discovered their Jewish roots are exploring a return to Judaism.
The first Spanish attempt to offer expelled Jews a return was in 1924, but it would have required a two-year residency plus the giving up of current citizenship, whatever that might be. The new offer, if adopted, will make no such demands. Having a Spanish passport appeals to many Sephardic Israelis, to facilitate easy European Union travel. (It would also appeal to Muslims, whose ancestors were driven out of Spain along with the Jews, but no such offer is on the table at this time. That will surely keep the olla’s oil boiling!)
Today, Rachel says “Good people and politicians are both pushing for it now. Yes, they want tourism, and to help the Spanish economy, but there are many sincere Catholics who are sorry, and want to make amends. It’s a good gesture, but I wish it had been an operative law in 1940. This is too late. But — maybe better late than never…”

On a related note …

The Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies will hold its 21st annual conference in Dallas, July 20-22. Everyone interested in learning more about the fascinating history of Spain’s Jews and the lives of their descendants is invited to attend.
For more information, visit, call Dr. Roger Martinez at 719-255-4070, or email

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