500 years after expulsion, Spain reaches out to Jews


TOLEDO, Spain -- Almost 500 years after its expulsion of the Jews, Spain is trying to reach out to their descendants all over the world, but the task is troubling, disquieting, fraught with hidden complexity.

Few problems, however, are visible amid all the ceremony.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain expelled the Jews in 1492 -- the same year that the royal couple completed the conquest of Spain from the Arabs and the same year that Columbus, in their pay, discovered America.

With the 500th anniversary rushing near, Spain has formally revoked that edict of expulsion, granted the Jewish religion the same status as Roman Catholicism and awarded its highest civilian honor, the Prince of Asturias Prize, to the world's Sephardic Jews, the descendants of those pushed out. The Sephardic Jews take their name from the Hebrew word for Spain, "sepharad."

The prize was presented to a leader of the Sephardic Jews in October by Prince Felipe of Bourbon, heir to the Spanish throne and Prince of Asturias. "In the spirit of harmony of today's Spain and as heir of those who signed the decree of expulsion 500 years ago," Prince Felipe said, "I receive you with open arms and great emotion."

Dr. Solomon Gaon of Yeshiva University in New York, a 77-year-old Sephardic Jewish leader born in Yugoslavia, accepted the award. Speaking in Ladino, the 15th-century Spanish still spoken by the Jews, Dr. Gaon said, "This is a dream realized."

Much more is planned for 1992. The Spanish government, the Israeli government, the 14,000 Jews of Spain -- mostly refugees from Nazi persecution or the decolonization of Morocco -- and Sephardic organizations have a host of projects: the restoration of the Sephardic museum in Toledo, the opening of a new Jewish museum in Girona, a pavilion at the Seville World's Fair and numerous conferences, lectures and exhibitions.

For Spaniards, it is exhilarating to encounter a people who have maintained some Spanish ways after five centuries of exile. In 1986, after Spain finally recognized the state of Israel, Spanish television news show host Jose Antonio Martinez Soler decided to do a joint telecast with Israeli television.

"When we made the connection," he recalled recently, "I heard themsay, 'Buenos dias, Sepharad,' and I replied, 'Shalom, Israel.' I, of course, expected that we would then go on in English. But the Israeli journalist started to speak in 15th-century Spanish, in the Spanish of Miguel de Cervantes. It sent shivers all through ZTC me. It was a very emotional moment."

There is a dark side to all this. A century of massacres before 1492 and the expulsion itself drove thousands upon thousands of Spanish Jews into Christianity. They were known as "Conversos," or New Christians, and often reviled. The church imposed the Inquisition to root out and burn at the stake those backsliding into Jewish ways. Centuries later, Spanish Catholics had to prove "purity of blood" -- no Jewish ancestry -- to qualify for the best positions in government, the military and the church.

These converted Jews are ignored in all the ceremonies honoring Sephardic Jews. Yet, when most Spaniards talk about Jews, they are usually not talking about Sephardic Jews but about these Christian descendants of Conversos. For years, many Spanish were ashamed to admit such Jewishness in their past. Now, some intellectuals boast about it. But most Spaniards have not come to terms with this Jewish heritage.

All this is reflected in Toledo, a city of great Jewish influence, scholarship and riches in the late Middle Ages. A visitor can find remnants of the Golden Age of Spanish Judaism, such as the imposing Transito Synagogue built in the 14th century and the 13th-century synagogue that was later transformed into the Church of Santa Maria la Blanca. And it is still wondrous to wander through the narrow streets and arches of the old Jewish quarter.

But no sign points the way to any remnants of the Spanish Inquisition. And there is no museum documenting the "purity of blood" regulations that discriminated against the descendants of converts. Nor is there any official hint that many Toledans still feel the presence of Jews around them.

"I hear there are a lot of Jews in the United States," said Luis Conde Serrano, a Toledo shopkeeper. "We also have a lot of Jews here in Toledo."

But aren't your Jews Christian, he is asked, aren't they descended from converts of the 14th and 15th centuries?

"Oh, yes, of course," he replies. "Our Jews are Christian."

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