Sephardic Hispanic Heritage: 13 Facts About ‘Latino Jews’

Sephardi Jews Hispanic heritage month
Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar stands as he overlooks La Alhambra Palace in the Spanish southern town of Granada, Spain, on May 31, 2011. The conquest of Granada by Christians in 1492 marked the end of war with Arabs, and the beginning of the persecution against Jews in Spain, known as Sephardim. Many Jews overcame Spanish laws that restricted travel to the New World, and thousands of Hispanic families in the U.S. are of Sephardic descent. REUTERS/Pepe Marin

Sephardic Jews, also known as Spanish Jews or Latino Jews or Arab Jews, are descendants of people who practiced the Jewish religion in Iberia (now Spain and Portugal) and North Africa. For Hispanic heritage month, we are sharing share some quick facts about Sephardic Jews and their descendents, who form an important part of the Latino community in the Americas.

1) Spain had an "interesting" year in 1492. A foreign entrepreneur by the name of Christopher Columbus planted the Spanish flag in a continent that no Europeans knew about. The first Spanish grammar book was published. Lastly, of the Jews in Spain were ordered to leave the country under threat of death . That last point is essential to understanding the history of Hispanic Jews.

2) As a result many Jews left the country, hid their faith, or converted to Christianity. But even those who converted or hid their faith were branded for generations as ethnically Jewish conversos.

3) Crypto-Jews hid their traditions and their heritage, secretly practicing judaism under the guise of Catholicism.

4) Spanish Jews had to lie in order to move to the Americas . As Spain began to conquer and settle the Americas in the 16th century, Catholic authorities tried to keep the New World “pure” by preventing conversos from from spoiling the native populations of potential converts. Jews who made it through the strict migration review boards house in Sevilla were really good at keeping it crypto.

5) Spanish Jews hid their traditions so well that sometimes their children never found out. Many Hispanics in the U.S. and across Latin America have discovered their Jewish ancestry by accident.

In one tale, a New Mexico resident was moving a cross when it dropped on the floor, breaking open to reveal a Hebrew prayer that had been hidden inside for possibly hundreds of years. In another story, a special kind of breast cancer unveiled a community of ethnically Spanish Jews in a Catholic community Colorado.

6) Hispanics sometimes practice Jewish traditions without knowing it. A Jewish association in in New Mexico identifies “suggestive practices, disconnected from any consciousness of a Jewish past.”

  • Lighting candles on Friday night

  • Observing the Sabbath on Saturday

  • Not eating pork

  • Male infant circumcision

7) Sephardic is in your genes. A study in 2008 attempted to calculate the percentage of Iberian men that had a Jewish Y chromosome, one of 14 haplotypes associated with Sephardic peoples. The study concluded that 20 percent of Spanish men have such a Y chromosome.

8) Hispanic Heritage Month overlaps with a bunch of Jewish holidays. On the fifth day of Yom Kippur, Jews celebrate Sukkot. Also known as the Festival of Books, Sukkot celebrates the harvest and commemorates Jew’s 40-year exile. It is one of the three biblically mandated holidays in the Jewish tradition, and is celebrated differently by Hispanic/Sephardic Jews, mainly in terms of the food that’s used.

9) Sephardic food. While Ashkenazi (white) Jews learned to love bagels and lox in Eastern Europe, the Sephardic diaspora grew a culinary tradition of North African food like chickpeas and okra and dates.

10) Tortillas are unleavened. Like matzah, tortillas don’t have yeast in them. For Sephardic Jews, most corn tortillas are kosher for passover .

11) As many as 50 million people in Latin America have some Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

12) Spain feels bad about kicking out the Jews. Spain passed a law in 2015 that could confer citizenship to descendants of Spanish Jews, but critics say that the requirements are onerous. Portugal passed a similar law, which some Brazilians may be eligible for.

13) Many Latino Jews are not Sephardic. Many Ashkenazi Jews moved to Latin America well after the conquista . Hundreds of thousands of Ashkenazi Jews live in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.

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