No matter how rich or powerful, every Jew in Spain was forced to leave the country in 1492. One of the most prominent advisors to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella was Don Isaac Abravanel, a Portuguese diplomat and scion of the House of David, according to Jewish tradition. At the time of the expulsion, he was a tax collector for the Spanish monarchs. He had helped them finance the journey of Christopher Columbus to the New World. In addition, he tried to persuade the King and Queen to change their minds about expelling the Jews. He was ultimately unsuccessful, but this was merely the beginning of the next act in the story.
Abravanel sailed to the Kingdom of Naples, where he wrote of his journey…
In the end there left, without strength, three hundred thousand people on foot, from the youngest to the oldest, all at one time, from all the provinces of the king, to wherever they were able to go… Each pledged himself to God anew. Some went to Portugal and Navarre, which are close, but all they found were troubles and darkness, looting, starvation, and pestilence. Some traveled through the perilous ocean, and here, too, God’s hand was against them, and many were seized and sold as slaves, while many others drowned in the sea. Others again, were burned alive, as the ships on which they were traveling were engulfed by flames.
In the end, all suffered: some by the sword and some by captivity and some by disease, until but a few remained of the many… I, too, chose the way of the sea, and I arrived in the famed Naples, a city whose kings are merciful!1
Jews lived on the Iberian Peninsula for at least 2,000 years. They have contributed vastly to western culture, literature, medicine, philosophy, and more since their forcible expulsion. No doubt, the Sephardic story is a human story of perseverance and persistence worth rediscovering and reconnecting with. I recently caught up with Dr. Isaac Amon, an attorney and counselor at law, a descendant of Jews who left Spain in 1492 for the Ottoman Empire, and Director of Academic Research at the Jewish Heritage Alliance, for a follow-up interview.
One of the untold stories about Sephardim is their origins. In one of the forgotten books from the 19th century “Sephardim; or, the History of the Jews in Spain and Portugal,” the author James Finn tells us that the earliest uncontradicted testimony that demonstrates numerous Jews residing in Spain is given by the decrees of the Council of Elvira, held in the early 4th Century CE. Can you elaborate on this?
While long-standing tradition holds that Jews may have come to the Iberian Peninsula during the reign of King Solomon, the builder of the First Temple in Jerusalem, the documentary evidence does not confirm this. If any did arrive at that time, they must have disembarked as mariners, sailors, and merchants; there was no communal presence as yet. That only seemed to arise much later, in the early Common Era, when Spain (known as Hispania) was incorporated as a province in the Roman Empire. In dating the existence of a successful and well-integrated community, the early 4th century CE Council of Elvira, near the city of Granada, is cited as evidence of settled communal Jewish life.
Indeed, this was the first ecclesiastical synod held in Spain, and some of its clauses directly targeted the Jewish community. The law was essentially weaponized to fragment and prevent future, Jewish-Christian relations; Jews could not bless Christian crops; Christians could not observe Saturday as the Sabbath (Shabbat); they could not marry one another; any children of the union were to be baptized; and they could not even break bread together. These canons, corroborating the earliest archaeological evidence of Jewish gravestones in the 3rd/4th centuries CE, are the first issuance of anti-Jewish legislation in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. This occurred during a period of increasing Christianization across the Roman Empire following the rise to power of Constantine the Great and his convening of the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) in modern Turkey, which officially promulgated the Nicene Creed. The Jewish community would appear to have been relatively successful and on good terms with non-Jewish neighbors. While the Council of Elvira alone may not be concrete evidence of contemporary social reality, the nature of its anti-Jewish legislation and eerie legal precedent cannot be overstated.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes settled across these former imperial provinces. In Iberia, the Visigoths came. What was their relationship with Jews?
The fall of the Western Roman Empire is conventionally dated to 476 CE, when Romulus Augustulus, the last Emperor, was deposed by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain. Its Eastern counterpart, often called the Byzantine Empire, lasted for another thousand years, only falling to the Ottoman Turks in May 1453.
The Visigoths, like other Germanic tribes, were gradually converted over time to Christianity. Initially, however, they were not Catholic but subscribed to Arian theology; they followed the teachings of Arius, a presbyter and priest from Cyrenaica (Libya). Arius significantly held that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father as the former was begotten by the latter; in other words, the Son had a beginning whereas the Father did not. The 325 CE Council of Nicaea denounced Arius and his teachings as heretical (of the estimated 300 bishops present, only two refused to condemn Arianism). Nonetheless, this Christian creed remained popular across North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, including among these Germanic tribes. Indeed, Arianism remained the official theology of Visigothic leadership until the Third Toledo Council (589 CE), when King Reccared converted to Catholicism, the Christianity of his Hispano-Roman subjects. Legislation was issued against Jews: they could not marry Christian women; their offspring would be baptized; and they could not be assigned any public business by which they could discipline Christians.
This was but the prelude to an extraordinary campaign against Iberian Jewry; succeeding decades intensified anti-Jewish pressure. This terrifying situation culminated in the infamous decree of King Sisebut (c. 613 CE), ordering all Jews throughout the Visigothic realm to convert to Catholicism. Many fled to France or North Africa, whilst it appears others nominally submitted to baptism,though they continued to profess Judaism in secret. The Sixth Toledo Council (638 CE) affirmed the validity of forced baptism. By 654 CE, the Lex Visigothorum, the legal code of the Visigoths, was promulgated Lamenting “that the soil of our kingdom is defiled by the Jews,” the law code arguably created the racialization of religion by branding Jewish converts to Catholicism as essentially false converts; both “baptized” and “unbaptized” Jews were explicitly forbidden from testifying in court. Judaism was thus no longer seen as a religious faith but was defined as much more akin to biological descent. It mattered not what an individual believed; Jewish ancestry was what mattered in the eyes of the law. Near the end of Visigothic rule, adult Jews were to be enslaved, their property confiscated, and children over seven years old were to be taken from their parents and raised as Christians. While not all these decrees may have been implemented, Visigothic Iberia was largely a chilling time for Sephardic Jews; they were saved due to the Islamic conquest of 711, which produced the “Golden Age” of the 10th–12th centuries.
It is well known that during the Middle Ages the Jews from Spain and Portugal excelled in literature. Can you elaborate why the author James Finn says…“We have never yet repaid our debt of the grateful acknowledgement to the illustrious Hebrew Schools of Cordova, Seville, and Granada.”
Jews in Spain and Portugal were well integrated. Indeed, they were physicians, philosophers, authors, poets, and more. They were deeply engaged with Iberian society, especially during the Golden Age. Two incredibly prominent exemplars were Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Samuel ibn Naghrela (HaNagid, or The Prince). The former was the foreign minister or vizier to Umayyad Caliph Abdel Rahman III. He corresponded with the legendary Khazar Empire in Central Asia and with the Talmudic Academies in Babylon (modern Iraq). The latter, in addition to being a religious commentator, served as Vizier of Granada and Commander of the city's armed forces for 17 years.
Other famous individuals included Judah HaLevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Abraham ibn Ezra (a 12th-century synagogue in Cairo named after him, which Maimonides worshipped at, was recently renovated and rededicated). However, the greatest tribute to the age was undoubtedly Maimonides himself—a physician, philosopher, sage, legal codifier, and community leader.
Following the mid-12th century Almohad conquest of Iberia, which displaced the previous Almoravid invasion launched in response to the crumbling Umayyad caliphate and the emergence of ta'ifas, or Islamic statelets, life for Jews drastically worsened. Synagogues and Jewish centers were destroyed. Maimonides, along with his family, fled to Morocco (it was during this 10-year period of wandering that he composed his Mishneh Torah, his commentary on Jewish religious law, or halaka) and the land of Israel before settling in Cairo, where he became a community leader and physician to the legendary Sultan Saladin, who reconquered Jerusalem from Christian forces at Hattin in 1187.
There is a common belief that Jews in the medieval Islamic world were treated better than their counterparts in Christendom. While there is much truth to this, there were exceptions, and this time period represents an important one. While Jews and Christians were forcefully persecuted by the Almohads, frequently compelled under threat of death to convert—at least openly—to Islam (another manifestation of crypto-Judaism), more tolerant Christian rulers engaged Jews and Muslims in translating works of literature. In this process, they rediscovered and preserved Greek and Roman works of thought.
The most famous monarch in this endeavor was Alfonso X “El Sabio” of Castile and Leon (r. 1252-1284) who established a legal code for his entire kingdom (Siete Partidas), which greatly influenced the development of Spanish law. He played a key role in the Reconquista, or Catholic reconquest of Islamic Spain, yet styled himself "King of the Three Religions." Alfonsine Toledo inherited the cultural legacy of Cordoba as it was in the days of the Caliphate. Building on the 12th century Archbishop Raymond of Toledo, works were translated into Castilian from Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew. This laid the foundation for modern Spanish.
Furthermore, a mini-'Golden Age' emerged as Jews, Christians, and Muslims collectively worked to preserve human comprehension of the cosmos—the common heritage of mankind. Jews played a crucial role in preserving the flame of human knowledge, especially in sciences, literature, medicine, and astronomy. This inter-cultural and inter-religious cooperation took place against the backdrop of the Crusades in the Holy Land and the Reconquista. Similar cooperation occurred in Sicily. We must remember this legacy too, especially as it has been overshadowed by the Inquisition and the 1492 Expulsion.
There are many Sephardic synagogues around the world. Alone, they cannot ensure the growth of Sephardic culture. Are there other outlets for preserving Sephardic heritage?
The heritage of Sepharad cannot be preserved only in synagogues, though they can play a role. Legacy is cultural, social, religious, and historical. One crucial thing that is indispensable to preserving this past is the requirement to learn about it. Only by reclaiming our past triumphs, trials, and tribulations can we all plan for a better future, both as Sephardim and as human beings.
Since we last connected, I've had the privilege of visiting historic and active Sephardic communities in London (Bevis Marks); Manchester (Spanish & Portuguese synagogue, now Jewish Museum); Seattle (Ezra Bessaroth and Sephardic Bikur Holim); Toronto (Sephardic Kehila Centre); and Savannah (Congregation Mickve Israel). I’ve participated in academic conferences and spoken at universities. I’ve lectured on various topics, such as the Golden Age of Spain; the Spanish & Portuguese Inquisitions; 1492 and the Sephardic diaspora; the Sephardic legacy and the United States; the Holocaust and Sepharad (from Amsterdam and France to Rhodes and Thessaloniki), etc.
I’ve met with rabbis and lay leaders who all wish to preserve this inheritance, which has contributed so much to the world at large. Jews and non-Jews that I’ve met and am proud to call friends are keen to learn more. There is a real thirst for greater intellectual conversation and discourse on this cultural and social history. While there are other organizations that focus on this topic, many emphasize one particular niche, country, or liturgical and religious customs. There is a place for that, of course, but the Sephardic legacy is bigger. To learn more about the cultural and historical heritage of Sepharad and its enduring consequences, one of the most unique outlets is the Jewish Heritage Alliance (JHA). The saga of Sepharad is not just a Jewish story; it's a human story. By focusing on culture and history, JHA aims to bring this lasting legacy to the global stage in multiple forums.
Indeed, JHA is an educational organization and worldwide platform dedicated to researching, preserving, and promoting the legacy of Sepharad (Iberian Jewry). As I hope the interview has shown, this is such a profound part of Jewish and world history that is tragically unknown to so many. Through capsule exhibits (intended for museums and cultural places, community centers, and synagogues), educational webinars, and on-site lectures and events, JHA aims to rectify this glaring lack of knowledge. It is a worldwide coalition of over 50 (and growing) universities, synagogues, communities, museums, and even governments that work together in this great enterprise.
1 Isaac Abravanel, Commentary to the Prophets, quoted and translated in Benjamin Blech, Eyewitness to Jewish History (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2004), 148.