Myths about Sephardim

hornsSephardic history has been so romanticised over the years that it is often difficult to differentiate between reality and mythology. The emergence of new movements of people who believe they are ‘lost’ Sephardim, along with the new Spanish and Portuguese nationality laws, have added to the confusion.

Here are some errors that I have seen on the Internet and, particularly, on Facebook.

Some Spanish and Portuguese surnames are Jewish. This belief is not true but has widely propagated by a website for almost twenty years.

A Portuguese version of this myth is that Jews took names of trees and flowers. Also not true. A Spanish or Portuguese surname of itself is no clue as to religious origins or beliefs.

Another version is that Spanish names ending in -ez are Jewish. Obviously, this is also untrue.

It is also claimed that the Spanish Government has published an official list of Sephardic surnames. No. This is not true.

Sephardim speak Ladino. Well, this is complicated! There are several different languages called Ladino. There is a written Ladino language that was used by Sephardic Jews. Often when people say ‘Ladino’, they mean ‘Judeo-Español’. Judeo-Español is a form of old Spanish and is spoken by Eastern Sephardim, those Sephardic Jews who after the Expulsion settled in the Ottoman Empire (including the modern territory of Turkey, Greece and much of the Balkans). Apart from erroneously sharing a name, Jewish Ladino has no connection with the Ladino languages or dialects spoken in Aragon and New Mexico. Our Western Sephardic ancestors generally spoke Portuguese as their mother tongue.

Huguenots were secret Jews. No, they were French Protestants.

Our converso ancestors secretly lit Friday Night candles in the broom cupboard. This is such a romantic story that I would love it to be true. Unfortunately I never heard any evidence. I know a family that sit to say the blessing for the wine, allegedly because a familiar (employee) of the Inquisition might be looking through the window, but this is less evocative. Possibly some in the crypto-Jewish world now misremember the lighting of Catholic votive candles as a Jewish activity. Obviously, lighting a candle in an enclosed space represents a fire risk.

Christopher Columbus was Jewish. The best scholarship suggests he was Genoese.

William Shakespeare was Jewish. No he wasn’t.

Miguel de Cervantes was Jewish. Where’s the evidence?

There were Jewish pirates of the Caribbean. This comes from a recent book that suggested that the skulls and crossbones design in 17th Century tombstones have the same meaning as the Jolly Roger flag used by English pirates in the 1720s. No, it doesn’t. The histories of various individuals have been re-written. I suspect the book may have been written tongue-in-cheek as some of the themes seem familiar from Errol Flynn films. An obvious error is that the merchant ships attacked by pirates were often owned by…. Guess who?! In a way, it is a retelling of the Jewish partisans’ story from the Second World War. It is an attempt to say that Jews did not always passively accept their fate.

There were communities of crypto-Jews in 16th Century England and Ireland. It is known that there were a number of individuals of Jewish origin, but their spiritual beliefs remain unclear. This is an evolving fantasy. One version has the English king Henry VIII’s court band composed of crypto-Jews. Another version apparently had crypto-Jews commuting between Iraq and Ireland.

There were (and are) communities of crypto-Jews in New Mexico and the American southwest. A book by Dr Stanley Hordes, ‘To the End of the Earth’ hypothesised that a group of Spanish (not Portuguese) New Christians established a secret but self-aware Jewish community. In the absence of evidence, and due to contradictions, this has been rejected by historians. There is no genealogical evidence supporting the claims.

A member of my family has a rare disease which is a Sephardic genetic legacy. Jewish by disease! Breast cancer, oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy (OPMD), and Neiman-Pick disease apparently exist in some Spanish American communities where – since around the 1970s – some people have been persuaded they are of Jewish origin. Somehow the disease and Judaism intertwine in some peoples’ minds. Breast cancer can hardly be described as a Jewish disease. I never previously heard of the other conditions, although wish sufferers a full recovery.

My Ashkenazi ancestors were actually Sephardic. There were some Sephardim in Eastern Europe, so the claim is possible. It is also possible that descendants of (often Hassidic) Jews who followed the Nusach Sfard prayerbook might have misunderstood Sfard to imply Sephardic. More research and evidence is needed.

There are specific customs and traditions that indicate Sephardic ancestry. These include:

  • Speaking Ladino. Not possible for the reason giving above.
  • Inscribing Stars of David on 17th and 18th Century graves. Not possible because the Star of David was not used as a symbol by Sephardim until the late 19th Century.
  • Playing with dreidel. A dreidel is an Ashkenazi spinning top toy.
  • The family had secrets. Well, all families have secrets.
  • Someone didn’t want to eat pork. This might indicate Muslim or Jewish connections, but might equally be indicative of personal taste or whether ancestral land was suitable for pigs, or doctor’s orders.
  • Someone didn’t like going to Church. There can be lots of possible explanations. Maybe they didn’t like the priest, or were atheist, or didn’t like sitting indoors, or found Church boring, or didn’t appreciate the singing, or had unorthodox beliefs etc.
  • We have a family artefact our family brought from Spain. If authentic it would be interesting. One family heirloom someone claimed had been brought from Al Andalus in 1492 appeared to come from the same factory as a menorah my grandparents bought in an Israeli tourist shop in the 1960s.
  • We have a family tradition that our family came from Jewish Spain. Fascinating. Write it down, but remember Rabbi Stern’s Second Commandment of Jewish Genealogy: Family traditions must be interpreted with caution and only used as clues.
  • Our family follows kosher rituals. I watched my Brazilian friend’s mother kill a chicken in a kosher manner. She then collected the blood to make a sauce… My point is that there are only a limited number of ways to slaughter an animal or prepare food, and different cultures often find the same solution. There MIGHT be a Jewish link, but it is not guaranteed.
  • We have an odd family ritual that must indicate Jewish origins. Sometimes these may open doors to a Jewish past. Equally they may mean nothing or indicate something else. Write everything down, but do not expect it to count as genealogical evidence. Recently people have been saying that their grandmother used to sweep dust towards the centre of the room. No Jewish person I know remembers this tradition in their family.