Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this is your history

Casa de Sefarad, a museum in Cordoba, Spain, devoted to Spanish Jewry. Photo courtesy of Casa de Sefarad
Suddenly, everyone wants to know who they really are.
23 and Me is doing blockbuster business. The latest craze: spitting into tubes and having your DNA checked. Earlier this week, a fourth cousin discovered me. She has been hiding in plain sight in Deerfield Beach, Florida.
The latest, big news: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected firebrand congresswoman from Queens, New York, has revealed has Sephardic Jewish heritage.
The 28-year-old Democrat said her distant ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition to emigrate to Puerto Rico, where her immediate family roots lived until they moved to New York.

“Generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “So many people practiced Catholism on the exterior but on the interior they continued to practice (Judaism).”

This is what Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is actually saying. Not that she considers herself, but that Puerto Rican history — indeed, much of Caribbean history — is a hodgepodge of ethnicities, races, languages, and religions — and that she represents that glorious mixture.

Having said that: as a public service to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, let me welcome her to her past.

There had never been as brilliant a Jewish culture as the Jews of Spain. That brilliance lasted for ten centuries. No Jewish community in the Diaspora has lasted that long.

The Jews called the Iberian peninsula Sfarad–and its Jews and their descendants, Sephardim. In that land, we lived both with Muslims and with Christians. Sometimes there was uneasy co-existence. Often there was mutual tolerance. The Jewish world had never seen anything like it before, and rarely since then

In Sfarad, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Jews had a true Golden Age.

Philosophy, mysticism, art, literature, astronomy, astrology, music, ethical reflection, dialogue and disputation with Christians and Muslims: everything we are today as modern Jews flows from Spain.

Suddenly, it came to an end.

The Christians began to re-conquer Spain from the Muslims. In 1391, religious extremists provoked anti-Jewish riots. 70 Jewish communities were wiped out. 50,000 Jews were killed, 100,000 Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity.

The converts were called conversos, or New Christians, the Anusim, those who were compelled — or, the Marranos.

Many were sincere Christians. But many others secretly practiced the faith of their ancestors. They met in cellars, lighting candles secretly, eating matzah secretly, teaching their children secretly.

Spain embarked upon a war against Jews and Judaism. It is the classic example of what happens in a society that believes in us and them. Every one of the Nuremberg Laws began in Spain. Jews could no longer commune with Christians. Jews could no longer practice law and medicine and most forms of commerce. Jews could no longer build synagogues.

Then came the Inquisition: the ruthless ferreting out of heretics, including those New Christians who were still secretly practicing as Jews.

The Inquisition was the beginning of modern racism: the idea that your lineage could make you subhuman.

In the land that made bullfighting into a national sport, heresy trials and executions became public spectacles. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella got married, their wedding gift from the Spanish clergy was an auto da fe, with thirty Jewish victims burning at the stake.

On Erev Pesach, March 31, 1492, came the edict of Expulsion.  The Jews of Spain spent the next few months trying desperately to sell their homes. A Sephardic Jew tells me that every year, at Rosh Ha Shanah dinner, his family reminisces about the house that they left in Portugal — more than five hundred years ago. Its description has come down through the generations. There are many Sephardic families that still have the keysto those homes. Someday, they believe, they will return to the palaces they left.

The wealthiest and most cultured Jewish community in Europe was suddenly homeless. From Spain to Portugal — and then in 1497, the expulsion from Portugal as well.

They went north: to Amsterdam and Hamburg and London.

They went east, across the Mediterranean: to Venice and Livorno, to the Ottoman Empire, to Salonica and Sarajevo, to the land of Israel.

They went South: to Northern Africa. They west west: to the Caribbean– to Curacao and the Netherlands Antilles and St. Thomas and Guadaloupe and other great Jewish vacation spots; to the American Southwest, where there were entire synagogues of secret Jews; and to Brazil.

They would ultimately come north to Newport, to Philadelphia, to Charleston, to Savannah, to Richmond — and finally in September 1654 to New Amsterdam, provoking the first anti-semitic remarks in American history from Peter Stuyvesant, who didn’t want the Jews around.

But we stayed, and because we Jews are a forgiving people, we even named Stuyvesant Town after him.

This is what American Jews need to understand about the Sephardic story.

It is all about what happens when a people becomes “Them” and the Other.

First, the othering of the Jews themselves.

As I said, the end of Spanish Jewry heralded the beginnings of racism, of societies that divine themselves into us and them.

The “othering” not only happens from the racists and bigots on the right.

It also happens from the bigots on the left, who have picked out Jews, and the Jewish state, for opprobrium.

Second, the othering of Sephardic culture.

The truth is: American Jewish life is Ashkecentric.  The stories we tell are overly romanticized stories of the eastern European shtetl. The songs we sing are eastern European and Hasidic and German melodies, some of them based on drinking songs. The folk language that we default to is Yiddish.

We Ashkenazim have committed the sin of omission. We have omitted the Sephardic experience from our Jewish world-view (or, if we include it, we make it too exotic to really engage).

A child whose ancestors are from Istanbul or Rhodes can go through ten years in religious school, learn Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity, and never know that Maimonides was a Sephardic Jew. She would never learn that the first Jews in America were Sephardim. No one would even tell her that Vidal Sasoon is a Sephardic Jew.

We need to include Sephardic Jewish culture — all Jewish cultures, really — into our Jewish educational programs.

So, if Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants to learn more about her Sephardic past, welcome aboard. We would love for you to learn.

Because we need to learn as well.

 

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

39 Comments

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  • And Elizabeth Warren claimed to be Native American. DNA showed she was no more Native American than the next white person.

    So far Ocasio Cortez has offered no evidence beyond the fact that SOME Puerto Ricans may have distant Jewish ancestors.
    I will wait for the DNA evidence.

    If she does, then I’m sure she will be able to exploit her Jewish roots politically. Actually, it looks like she’s already doing that.

  • If President Trump can promise to Make America White Again, why can’t Ocasio-Cortez promise to Make America Jewish Again?

  • “The Inquisition was the beginning of modern racism: the idea that your lineage could make you subhuman.”

    First thing to note, the Spanish Inquisition was not a church enterprise but a Spanish Crown enterprise.

    Second thing to note, it arose because of the repression of the Christians under the Moors, which required a very long bloody war to correct.

    No, everyone did not just get along under the Moors.

    Third thing to note, it was 100% religious. Any Moor or Jew could convert and become a full-fledged Spaniard. By the time of the Spanish Inquisition the intermarriage was so longstanding and ubiquitous that in most cases the racial lineage was indistinguishable by appearance alone.

  • Like most Democrats, AOC Believes that identity politics is more important than ideas. Better to claim be a little bit of an approved SJW group, then to be who you are – or to actually have some ideas.
    Soon she’ll be like HRC replacing her Brooklyn accent with a southern accent when talking to black folk.
    Maybe she’ll do one better than senator Pocahontas and claim to have lineage to island dwellers that kill Christian missionaries.

  • The Roman Church and State in Spain were an extension of each other in the 14th century. Therefore one cannot excuse the church or the state from what happened. The Roman Church could have easily told the Spainish monarch to stop.

  • No, the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown were not “an extension of each”, not in the 14th century, not ever.

    As to ” The Roman Church could have easily told the Spainish monarch to stop.”, as Stalin said “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

  • The relationship to Stalin and the Roman Church was non-existent. The pope had no influence politically or militarily with Russia. In fact, Russia because of its loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Catholic Church has been at odds with the Roman Church throughout history. Spain and the Roman Church worked in unison even through much of the 20th Century. The Roman pope and his agents could easily stop anything undertaken by the monarch or even Franco.

  • And the relationship of Spain to the Catholic Church was – essentially – non-existent.

    That “The Roman pope and his agents could easily stop anything undertaken by the monarch or even Franco” is both anachronistic and non-factual.

  • Identity politics is why she has made campaign finance reform and renewable energy the center of her platform?

    Identity politcs is what the media wants to focus on.

    They barely, if ever mention how she took no Super PAC money…

    why?

    Because those SUPER PAC’s pay big money for advertisements. Which is just another way for big organizations to pay off the mediums used to influence your opinion.

    Which is why you just said what you said.

  • She will soon be part of the Washington machine and will gladly take money from any source.
    Identify politics is dangerous.
    BTW, a don’t need an advertisement to tell me a fool is a fool.

  • Surely you jest! I almost spit of my Cheerios. She is not a statesman.
    She is the perfect example of the uneducated masses who walk toward socialism; singing its praises, but unwary of its peril.
    Had she not been marginally attractive and young, she’d be just another Bernie groupie.
    Get back to me when she can define the type of government we have, explain basic fundamental economic principles or discuss 20th century history.
    Until then, keep her away from the microphones and take the gimmie vote in the house.

  • Identity politics = a conservative being called out over discrimination and bigoted rhetoric and political platforms.

    Funny how obviously racist your post was, yet you somehow claim not to be racist

  • You support an incompetent in the White House. Your judgment as to what constitutes a statesman is impaired or non existent.

    There are no Republican statesmen any more. Just people running cover for an immature, ignorant man baby.

    Bigotry just drips from your post. It’s not that minorities are too ignorant to vote Republican. It’s that Republicans target minorities as policy. Sane people don’t cite for those attacking them and their interests.

  • She just started. Nothing to defend against. All you are doing is making bigoted attacks for her existence as a member of Congress.

    Your attack is garbage from someone whose judgment about what constitutes a statesman is wildly unreliable. How can you attack others in it when you clearly don’t know what a statesman is.

    Also the Democratic plantation argument is the most bigoted way to argue you are not a bigot. It is irony incarnate.

  • Many Latinos identify as “Crypto Jews”…A Crypto Jew is a Jew that has been stripped of his faith… None the less they are still Jews by blood, because they are descendants of Abraham…

    During the Spanish Inquisition Jews were forced into Catholicism. Many were tortured, killed their money and property was taken from them if they did not convert to Catholicism. During the Spanish Inquisition the Spanish Hebrews (Sepharad Jews) added the suffix EZ to the last names to identify their HEBREW roots for future reference. The meaning was not just “the son of” as writers tell us today, but the meaning was the “PRECIOUS SONS OF ZION”.

    The suffix EZ means “Eres Zion” or “of/or from Zion” or “from the land of Jerusalem, Israel”. Now the surname “PEREZ “is an ancient Hebrew (now Hispanic) name which means “break forth from the womb”. Perez is one of Yahudah’s (Judah’s) twin sons.

    Here is the lineage of Abraham ~

    Many of these Latinos are descendants of the 13 tribes of Israel and don’t even know it.

    Examples – {Sanchez, Ramirez, Martinez, Lopez}.
    =======================================

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TIi0maJZQU

    https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-why-we-shouldn-t-be-surprised-by-ocasio-cortez-s-jewish-heritage-1.6740071

  • This is correct. an uninformed few will argue that they are not Jews, because they do not practice the religion but as a Jew. I personally will never abnegate anyone that is of Abraham’s lineage. Others will argue that according to Judaism there must be an unbroken line of matrilineal descent (only those born of Jewish mothers are Jewish), but to those people I say remember this:

    TORAH – DO THIS HIS WAY…
    “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take from it”
    DEUTERONOMY 12:32
    ———————————
    In all the Torah, G-d delegates the descent by paternal line. Abraham, Isacc, Jacob … and in every place the sentence “son of” is shown, prophesied that the Messiah would be David’s descendent. A quick glance at Biblical genealogies makes this clear – see the many examples of Jewish kings who took non-Jewish spouses – and in inter-tribal marriage during the Biblical era, paternal descent was likewise decisive. A non-Jewish woman marrying a Jewish man didn’t even have to convert. She was now part of the tribe and her children would naturally be Jewish. Jewish family status continues to go by the father’s side to this day when determining whether one is a cohen (priest) or a levite.
    Rabbis in the years following the fall of Jerusalem to Rome had very good reasons for switching to matrilineal descent. Harvard professor and historian Shaye J.D. Cohen summarizes these in his comprehensive 1984 paper “The Matrilineal Principle in Historical Perspective.”
    These include the fact that you always know who the mother is but not necessarily who’s the father, and that there may have been a social problem to be solved following the mass rape of Jewish women by Roman soldiers during the wars of the first and second centuries of the common era. There’s much more and the full paper is worth reading – it’s at:

    https://www.jpost.com/Blogs/This-Normal-Life/Roman-vs-Jewish-law-whatever-happened-to-patrilineal-descent-389254

    In this day and age all this hearsay can be put to rest with a simple DNA Test. If you are not a blood Jew…then you are a descendant of converts and you will still be a valued member of the Jewish community. Either way it is good to know the truth.

    My Heritage DNA will tell you if you have genetic similarities to the following Jewish communities:
    Ashkenazi Jewish
    Sephardic Jewish
    Ethiopian Jewish
    Mizrahi Jewish
    Yeminite Jewish

    http://whoareyoumadeof.com/blog/2018/01/26/which-dna-test-is-best-for-jewish-ancestry/

  • She appeals to us hispanics and let me be clear we are a very large group in the united states. Alexandria is very much a puerto rican at heart and you can tell in the way she talks about her ancestry and her heritage she is very proud of that. Having sephardic roots is far more common for hispanics then you seem to understand. Just because she talks about her sephardic ancestry doesn’t mean she is appealing to anything or anyone.

  • See, that’s the problem; isn’t it? You like her because of the color of her skin; not because of her values, ideas or politics.
    What you said is no different than the white guy who says I didn’t vote for Obama because he’s black.
    Both are racist beliefs and statements; which I thought was something MLK fought against.

  • And why would you not think people who wouldn’t relate to her on many levels as well as her ethnicity? Do you think that someone who has come from a average background is not going to attract more people and the fact that she is hispanic and represents us in politics wouldn’t vote for her? You are clueless in understanding that us minorities have more stacked against in politics. There is very little ethnic diversity in congress and she won many people with her passion and the fact that many can relate to her background.

  • I liked her for many reasons her being hispanic was a plus and offered diversity which I was happy to see.

  • Thank you Sam, I did not know that.

    So absent a specific genealogy, she may have either a lot, a little, or no actual Sephardic ancestry.

    Well, in putting forth a claim that cannot be tested,she’s certainly a lot smarter than Elizabeth Warren was!

  • Oh, surprising response since your original comment mentioned the numerous Hispanics in the US and that is why you liked her; because she was Puerto Rician. Again, that sounds pretty racist.
    What are the many reasons that you support her?

  • You started with ethnicity; I didn’t.
    I am from an average background; and still am.
    I hate the divisiveness that identify politics creates; breaking people down into groups pitted against one another.
    Maybe if you and I put race aside; and didn’t align ourselves with parties because of race – we may find we have more in common than not.
    I think anyone – white, female, minority that chooses someone based on the color of their skin sells themselves short. It implies that they cannot think for themselves.

  • @disqus_yg9L1yy91I:disqus – You typed – “Sephardic Jewish ancestry is proven with genealogy not dna”. This is not true. DNA is critical if you want to know the truth. How else would you establish that you are a descendant of Abraham the {Lord’s Chosen People} and a descendant of the 12 tribes of Israel or 12 + the 1 small tribe that dwelled with in a larger tribe. 13 tribes of Israel. Jews are either descendants of Abraham or descendants of converts. as “Nothingbutthetruth” says above, and I quote: “If you are not a blood Jew…then you are a descendant of converts and you will still be a valued member of the Jewish community”.

  • I have documentation of my sephardic ancestry thanks. It goes back to the 13th and 14th century. I don’t need DNA to show me anything. Jewish authorities look at ancestry not DNA. So I have no clue what you mean DNA when it is interesting in scientific terms but it’s not considered when one wants to be considered Jewish.

  • Well as a hispanic living in Trump’s America I don’t feel safe and have been called all kinds of names and asking if I am legal or not so I don’t think you understand that right now.

  • She is full of more crap than a Christmas turkey. She would be Mongolian if it helped her with any votes..man please..what a total phoney..

  • Ashkenazi Jews are not descendants of Abraham. They are Turkish converts, circa the 8th century, that make up approximately 90% of the current Jewish population.

    https://gbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/5/1/61.full

    Whether they are converts or not, if they practice the teachings of the Talmud, they are filthy scum. And it’s no wonder why they were kicked out of countries throughout the millennia.

    https://www.henrymakow.com/2014/03/Does-Talmud-Teach-Bestiality-Pedophilia-Incest.html

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