2017-10-11 / Voice at the Shore

Federation trip to Spain and Morocco will offer rich taste of Sephardic culture

Executive Director Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties

I am a Sephardi Jew, with deep familial roots in the Iberian Peninsula. It is rare today, in the English-speaking world, for a Jew to grow up with two Sephardic parents. In my case, as a first-generation American, who grew up in Australia, whose two parents were European and Sephardim, it defined us as people and as Jews. Our traditions are somewhat, although not entirely, different to those of Ashkenazi Jews, as is how we worship, the languages we speak, the foods we eat, and, often, our perspective on Israel and the world.

Sephardim, whose origins date back to Spain and Portugal in the year 1,000 CE until the expulsion under the Alhambra Decree of 1492 (i.e. the Inquisition), should not be confused with Mizrachim. Sfarad is the Hebrew word for “Spain,” whereas Mizrach is the Hebrew word for “East.” Mizrachi Jews, although they follow many Sephardic traditions, are those whose origins are in the Middle East and Asia.

Growing up, I was often told,

“You don’t look Jewish,” or, “You’re Jewish and you don’t speak Yiddish?” As a result, my Sephardic cultural, gastronomic, and linguistic traditions became more important to me. Some of my fondest memories are of my ‘Abuela’ (Bubbe to you) singing to us in Ladino (the language of the Sephardim), or making the only charoset that will ever cross my lips, after she supervised her maids who would twist a dateladen table cloth for what seemed like hours to extract the silan (date syrup) from them. It was my abuela who would say to me, “You look Jewish, you just don’t look Polish or Russian like your Ashkenazi friends,” and “They speak Yiddish, we speak Arabic, Ladino, French, and Spanish, but we all pray in Hebrew.”

At the time of the Expulsion, my mother’s family fled Spain principally for France, Italy, and North Africa. Some made it to The Netherlands, Lebanon, Russia, and Syria, and, in the case of my father’s family, to Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

This is significant because more than five centuries later, the not-quite-five-hundred-year existence of Jews in Spain and Portugal continues to influence and define who we are as Jews. Today, Sephardim number only a little more than 15 percent (2.2 million) of the world’s 14.4 million Jews. The three largest Sephardic populations today live in Israel (1.4 million), France (400,000), and the United States (300,000). In fact, despite recent attempts by Spain to draw Jews back to its shores with offers of citizenship, there are fewer than 12,000 Jews in Spain and Portugal today.

Spain and Morocco are certainly beautiful countries with rich histories in their own right, but their Jewish histories are what make them extremely delightful and interesting places for Jews to visit and explore, Sephardic or not. This is why, when Judy and Dr. Leonard Galler made the exceptionally generous offer to chair a Jewish Federation trip to Spain and Morocco in the spring of 2018, we knew it was something we had to do. It will be unbelievable!

If you would like to know more about what we will see and experience of Spain and Morocco’s histories and cultural marvels—and their Jewish communities today, please give me a call at (609) 822-4404 or e-mail me at kirk@jewishbytheshore.org.

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