Spain announced Thursday that it would grant automatic citizenship to Jews of Sephardic descent as a further gesture of reconciliation after their ancestors were expelled more than five centuries ago. Sephardic Jews already benefit from a preferential naturalization procedure that requires them to live in Spain for only two years before claiming citizenship, but the change means that Jews will have to present only a certificate confirming their ancestry to claim a Spanish passport. The government did not say how many Jews it expected to apply for citizenship, but it noted that a large number of Sephardic Jews lived in Turkey and across Latin America. While estimates differ, the number of Jews living in Spain — 25,000 to 45,000 people in a population of 47 million — is only a fraction of the number who lived in the country before 1492, when Jews were told to convert to Christianity or go into exile.
There’s a wonderful story that imagines an all-knowing, infinite God, one who would surely have access to the Truth but who actually sees more value in the search. In this story, the God character wakes up on the sixth day of Creation with what may be the most creative idea idea ever: humankind. Full of wonder and excitement, God can hardly wait to get to work. As so many of us do before we undertake a momentous task or face a risky venture, God first asks for the advice of consultants, in this case the angels. But the anges are ambivalent, undecided, caught between Truth and Love. Truth argues against the idea of humanity, fearing that human beings will lie and kill in their pursuit of Truth. But Love understands that humanity will engage in great acts of altruism and self-sacrifice, and that God’s desire is born out of that most powerful of yearnings: the yearning to love.
-p. 5, Yearnings by Rabbi Irwin Kula, 2006.
28 November 2012. 7:00PM.
Congregation Shearith Israel - The Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue
At the corner of 70th Street and Central Park West, New York, NY.
Author of Stella’s Sephardic Table, Stella Cohen will present on the traditional food of Rhodes as well as discuss the Sephardic community in her local Zimbabwe. Tasty treats and a book sale and signing will follow Stella’s presentation.
Historical introduction by Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, the Director of the Romaniote Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum and scholar on the Jews of Rhodes.
In collaboration with American Sephardi Federation.
Sukkot Celebrations ( 1870 - 1950’s)
Wisdom of the Holidays: Sukkot
In preparation for this week-long Festival of Tabernacles, sukkahs, which are temporary shelters topped with branches and decorated with harvest and autumnal themes, are built in order to observe the holiday. Whether rain or shine, families eat and spend time together under the sukkah, a symbol of the time Israelites spent traveling in the wilderness once freed from slavery in Egypt. These seven days are meant to serve as a reminder of “embracing the impermanence of life.”
This time of the year is called either the High Holy Days or the Days of Awe and they begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, followed by the ten days of repentance, and then end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There really are three basic questions that these ten days invite us to think about.
One is can I change as a human being? Can I really become better? Can I become more? Can I continue to experience, expand, and enrich. I think that’s a really hard question to ask. Can I become better or is this the way it is and am I doing the best I can, and that’s it? And the second question is, is forgiveness possible? Can I forgive other people, and can I feel forgiven? I think that’s also a very difficult question. We talk a lot about forgiveness and wanting to be forgiven and to forgive other people, but it’s far more complex process than we may choose to realize. And the third question that runs through all of these days is am I accountable for my behavior? And I think those three questions and themes run through the entire High Holy Day period.
There’s also a practice starting the month before Rosh Hashanah of blowing the shofar, which is one of the central symbols of the High Holiday experience, blowing the shofar at the end of the morning prayer service, and the shofar is just a blast of the ram’s horn, and it, in a sense, wakes you up. You’re not used to hearing a blast of a ram’s horn, and it is supposed to cause you to become more alert to your own behavior. Another year is about to begin; time to wake up to what this last year has been and to walk with intention into the new one.
* * *
Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is a commemoration of creation and the beginning of life.
“In the beginning God created heaven and the earth –the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water…”
The poet who wrote this breathtaking narrative was someone just like us, someone who wanted to understand, to imagine the origins of life itself. And what a vision. The world began with an act of supreme creativity. Something was made out of nothing, and life began its glorious unfolding. There’s such a wonderful order to it all: each day yielding a new form of life; ever day seeming to reach such a satisfying conclusion; then humankind, created “in the image of the Creator.”
It’s no wonder so many people over so many centuries have wanted to take the opening of Genesis literally. How incredible to think the world emerged from a fourteen-billion year “week” of awesome power and sheer inspiration. How marvelous to imagine that humankind was in the image of an artistic genius we know as God. St. Thomas Aquinas called God “Artist of Artists.”
The first chapter of Genesis is a meditation on the yearning to create; a yearning, the Biblical author intuited, that is our very birthright. In Genesis human beings are invited into the creative process on Day Six, and time as we know it begins. After the rest of the world unfolds, human beings are created in order to tend and protect it. The world was left unfinished so that humans could have part in Creation.
These wonderfully poetic passages invite us to imagine that we too can create with purpose and intention; that we too can craft worlds. The Creation story is so powerful in part because it awakens this yearning. It taps into a basic human desire to connect with something larger than ourselves, to feel like we contribute to the continuation and evolution of the universe.
The poet understood that we are all world builders. When we write a poem, raise a child, build a home, or help launch a company, we are acting from that same God-inspired impulse. We are answering that overwhelming, wondrous yearning to be creative, to contribute something of value, to make a difference.
There are so many aspects of creativity and so many manifestations of the creative act and when we really think about it creativity entails a complex array of feelings: exuberance and anxiety; fear and hope; dissonance and harmony; discomfort and determination.
Creativity demands that we break from our habitual forms of thinking and acting. The conventions and rules we grew up with, the old solutions, just won’t suffice. And we must divert our energy from the known to the unknown. We must turn possibility into actuality. Nothing could be more daunting; which is why there is almost always a period of resistance, of self-judgment, of fear of failure. Maybe we’re not ready. Maybe we’ll come back to it. Maybe we’ll move on to the next thing. Inspiration can be that scary.
But when we decide to go for it, when we step away from our preprogrammed reactions to the world, we have the opportunity to launch ourselves into a whole new landscape, a new reality, whether in our work, our relationships, or the wider world.
Once in class while talking about Creation in the Genesis story, my friend, an artist asked a great question: “Where were the mounds of dried -clay thrown in anguish into the corner?” Creation seems so quick and effortless. Maybe da Vinci had to clean up after himself, but what about God? What kind of model for creativity did that Genesis poet create after all? It all seems so glorious, so neat, so perfect, so unrealistic, especially when seen in the context of our own creative experience. But there’s a story in the Talmud teaching that God created ten worlds, destroying each one, then trying again, until finally having that one wonderful, productive week. Earlier failures become the stuff of innovation
So many of the tensions endemic to creativity are captured in the story of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. There are two paradigms of creativity juxtaposed in this one scene, one coming right after the other as if to invite our comparison. The first is the story of the golden calf, followed by the building of a tabernacle in the desert. That moment at the base of the mountain was wide open with possibilities for human expression and realization. Both stories have so much to teach us about our process, the dark side of creativity and the light.
As the ancient Israelites stood at the base of Mt Sinai, they experienced the full dimensions of the creative moment. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, they were now free to create their lives. They were given opportunity to experience a new sense of their own capacities, which they simply couldn’t have had as slaves. They’d left their old identity behind, broken from their past, and now had to construct a new future. Meanwhile, on top of Mt Sinai, Moses received instructions for building a tabernacle, a temporary temple in the desert, a sanctuary for the divine presence.
Below, the people had an encounter with the Creator that was dramatic and fiery, as creative inspiration can so often be. Everything seemed altered. Time stood still, and everything hung in the balance. Their senses fused: We’re told they saw thunder and heard lightening. They were in a different reality. Then they heard the great silence and experienced the vast openness of life. The questions they heard in all that silence were, “What now? Who will we be?” The fear of the unknown is central to creativity. Will the Israelites be able to rise to the creative challenge? To follow the inspiration? To become a people? We, too, face similar turning points. We all have our Egypts. When we’re freed from the authority of our parents, the expectations of our bosses, the limitations of a dysfunctional marriage –what now? Do we really want the power to create our own lives? When it’s time for us to run the company, create our own family, construct a new relationship –are we up to the challenge? Or would we rather stay in Egypt, where the landmarks are familiar, if confining?
For the Israelites, the encounter was overwhelming. They shuddered, were knocked off their feet, and fell back from the mountain. They retreated from the questions. The problem of freedom seemed too difficult to tackle. And then they tried to fill the silence with their old script; to resurrect the past. Instead of building a tabernacle, they built the golden calf. At that moment of unprecedented freedom they engaged in what was a magnificent act of creativity and construction. But it was an old image, one that was worshipped in Egypt. Just at the moment when they were invited to create something new, they preserved a deadened form of the past. They literally recast it. They affirmed what they already knew rather than stretching into the future. Inspiration aborted.
Often, after we see the challenge, our first move is to retreat. Only then can we step forward. Sometimes we need to reach backwards before we can reach toward something new. The key is not to mistake our first move as our last. Just because we misstep doesn’t mean we preempt illumination. We can be loyal to our past and still transcend it. When Moses came down from the mountain and saw what the people had done, he was enraged. Is this what you do when you’re invited to create your own lives?! Moses destroys the calf, and then something remarkable happened. A different kind of construction began. It was the onset of illumination.
It was as if the people heard the question once again: What kind of world do you really want to create? This time they heard it as an invitation rather than a demand; an evolution rather than an abrupt break from the past. And the language in these passages is so markedly different than those which precede them. The construction of the calf takes only a few lines; you don’t need preparation and incubation if you’re simply repeating the past. The people bring Aaron their gold rings and the calf is built. But the tabernacle takes six chapters to build.
Before there are six chapters of instructions about how to build it and what it should contain. The people are to use gold once again, but hundreds of other materials to be combined in many new and intricate ways. This the information-gathering stage; now they are willing to jump in and learn. This time their response to the unknown, to the call of inspiration, has been to prepare. Rather than creating a solid idol, they construct a space, a safe place for creativity to continue, for the Creator to dwell.
Craft, design, make. These words are used eighty times in these passages describing the building of the tabernacle. They’re the same three words used to describe the acts of Creation in Genesis. Now it’s the people who are working hard to make a world; a house worthy of containing all that is.
The poet’s language so beautifully captures our creative yearnings. Everyone “whose heart so moves him” is invited to bring gifts with which to build. The Israelites contribute their gold and silver, their yarns and linens, and their oil and spices and wood as a “freewill offering” until there’s more than enough. The people are called “inspired artisans, cravers, designers, weavers.” They use their expertise to address their new challenge of freedom. The women spin blue, purple, and crimson yarns as the men build the grand tent in very specific dimensions, with silver sockets and bars of acacia wood and planks of gold.
One commentary describes a tapestry with a different scene on each side. When you’ve been inspired, prepared, and incubated there’s an element of impossibility to the nest stage –illumination. We can combine fragments of our imagination in untold ways. What a glorious world! What amazing creators! Miraculously, in the middle of the desert there’s a tabernacle: illumination in the midst of a barren landscape. Creation in the shadow of idolatry now becomes creation in the shadow of God.
The head architect of this monumental and complex structure is Bezalel, whose name actually means “in the shadow of God.” He’s “endowed with a divine skill, ability, and knowledge.” In Hebrew the word for knowledge is the same as that for lovemaking, intimacy. Bezalel combines materials both old and new to create. The sages say he pulled himself loose of all the forms of Egypt to build something new.
We are all Bezalels. We are lovers and weavers; architects and poets. The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that life is not about finding yourself but creating yourself. Like the ancient Israelites, we always have a choice: Will we build golden calves or tabernacles? Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. The good news is, and what the annual Rosh Hahshanah celebration reminds us, we can always start again.
From Yearnings by (my) Rabbi Irwin Kula
Sounding of the Shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah in the Portuguese Synagogue
From Bernard Picart, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde…
Amsterdam: J. F. Bernard, 1728
When I first came to Jamaica, in March 2011, community historian and patriarch Ainsley Henriques took me to see the synagogue in the historic downtown section of Kingston. Even though I knew the synagogue had sand floors, the actual visual image of all that sand shocked me momentarily. And even though I knew that Jews do not take off their shoes to enter synagogues, I nevertheless asked him, “Should I take off my shoes?”
The Shaare Shalom Synagogue in the Jamaican capital is one of five functioning synagogues with sand floors. The others are the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam (also know as the “Esnoga” ), built in 1675 and considered the “mother synagogue” of Spanish Portuguese Jewry; the Snoa in Curacao (1732), Zedek ve Shalom in Suriname (circa 1735 ), and Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim in Saint Thomas (1833 ), part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Suriname synagogue was fully restored by the Israel Museum and is without a doubt the highlight of the Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life.
The term “sand floor” refers to what is usually a wood base with a relatively small covering of sand. In Kingston, there is a brick base which has an empty space of about 38 cm above it. On top of this space bricks there is a wood covering made from pine. The sand is then poured onto the wood base. A good deal of sand is lost through attrition and erosion, so the supply requires replenishing every five or six years.
David Matalon, the president of the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, arranged for about 10-12 bags of sand (each weighing between 27 and 31 kgs ) to be filled from Lime Cay and other offshore cays near the Kingston Harbor. The sand was transported to the synagogue and poured over the existing sand. Contrary to what you may imagine, the sand does not become dirty or unusable. The sole reason for bringing new sand is to ensure there will be enough to fully cover the wooden base. At any given time, there is about an inch and a half of sand on the synagogue floor.
Exile, not paradise
The current synagogue building in Jamaica dates from 1912, but previous Spanish-Portuguese synagogue structures in the country presumably also had sand-covered floors. The origin of the practice is shrouded in mystery, and the explanations offered range from practical to historical to midrashic.
The custom may have originated in Amsterdam, where sand was used to dry mud on people’s shoes. The Esnoga synagogue was near the edge of town, where most of the streets were unpaved and, thanks to the weather, often muddy. It was, therefore, practical to line the floor in the synagogue with sand to keep it tidy. There are a number of churches and taverns in the Netherlands dating to the 17th century that likewise have sand floors.
The most common explanation, however, is that the practice originated in the early 1600s in the northern region of Brazil, where Spanish-Portuguese conversos (forced converts ) who had returned to Judaism were trying to retain their ancestors’ traditions while subject to the hostile eyes of Iberian ecclesiastical authorities.
Because synagogues were not permitted to operate, the conversos who were still committed to practicing Judaism had no choice but to meet in private homes. Though these gatherings were an open secret, the Jewish community felt it was better to be as discreet as possible. As such, they put clay and sand on the floor of the prayer rooms to muffle the sounds made by the comings and goings of worshipers, and the prayers themselves. Regarding the midrashic connection, it is said that the sand symbolizes the terrain of the Sinai Desert, through which the Children of Israel wandered for 40 years after the Exodus. Among earlier generations, this may have been understood as emphasizing the idea that, even though they were living in a tropical paradise, they were still in exile.
On a more positive note, there are those who believe that the sand symbolizes God’s promise to Abraham to make the Jews as populous as the sands of the sea: “I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore” (Genesis 22:17 ). This theme recurs throughout the Tanakh, like the verse in Hosea that says, “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered” (Hosea 2:1 ).
Though I have not been able to find sources that specifically suggest these verses as the theological justification for the placement of sand, it does seem logical. Of course, it is also possible that the decision was strictly pragmatic. Perhaps the original builders felt that since there was sand everywhere else, they might as well have sand on the synagogue floor, too. Perhaps they wanted to save money. It might also have been useful in minimizing the presence of small reptiles, bugs and insects of various types.
Whatever its source, one still wonders how the custom stood the test of time, how it prevails as standard practice so long after the original meaning and purpose has become obscured. I believe the answer lies in the dedication of the Spanish-Portuguese Diaspora community in the Caribbean. This group is perfectly reconciled with the fact that they may not understand what the tradition means or why it was developed, but are determined to perpetuate the tradition as faithfully as possible.
While customs relating, for example, to complex recitations of long Hebrew incantations are more difficult to preserve, practical traditions such as the appearance of the synagogue are maintained with great fervor and fastidiousness by each new generation. Even in generations where Jewish literacy was at a nadir, everyone would know about the tradition concerning the floor of the synagogue and would take the minimum steps necessary to perpetuate that tradition.
As such, the sand floors of Caribbean synagogues are not simply tread upon but cherished. They are part and parcel of Jewish life and observance in our corner of the world; they are our connection to Abraham and the generation of the Exodus as well as our unique take on Jewish tradition.
Dana Evan Kaplan is the rabbi of Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston, Jamaica. He also teaches Judaism at the United Theological College of the West Indies, and is a widely published author.
ARCOS DE LA FRONTERA, Spain — I still wonder how I ended up living in a former medieval bordello on the brink of a sandstone cliff on the southern frontier of Spain.
It was 2008, the start of the Andalusian region’s economic meltdown, La Crisis, and anxiety spread like the Black Plague. But from the roof of my apartment in this ancient white pueblo, I plunged back in time.
The other world worried about bills, real estate values, tourism, lost jobs, the immediate future. In contrast, I retreated into my quest, hoping to take new stock of my identity by reclaiming ancestral memories, history and DNA clues that I believe had been faithfully passed down for generations of my family, the Carvajals.
They had left Spain centuries ago, during the Inquisition. That much I knew. We were raised as Catholics in Costa Rica and California, but late in life I finally started collecting the nagging clues of a very clandestine identity: that we were descendants of secret Sephardic Jews — Christian converts known as conversos, or Anusim (Hebrew for the forced ones) or even Marranos, which in Spanish means swine.
I didn’t know if my family had a connection to the white pueblo. But by living in its labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, I hoped to understand the fears that shaped the secret lives of my own family.
History is a part of daily life in the old quarter, where Inquisition trials were staged and neighbors spied on neighbors, dutifully reporting heretics — Christian converts who were secretly practicing Judaism. The former Jewish quarter, where white houses plunge down a steep, silvery lane, is still standing, though unmarked by any street sign. I wanted to understand why my family guarded secret identities for generations with such inexplicable fear and caution. When my aunt died a few years ago, she left instructions barring a priest from presiding over her funeral; my grandmother did the same.
There are scientific studies exploring whether the history of our ancestors is somehow a part of us, inherited in unexpected ways through a vast chemical network in our cells that controls genes, switching them on and off. At the heart of the field, known as epigenetics, is the notion that genes have memory and that the lives of our grandparents — what they breathed, saw and ate — can directly affect us decades later.
Recent studies in Sweden explore the effects of famine and abundant harvests on the health of descendants four generations later. That is not exactly what I am looking for: I’m intrigued by the notion that generations pass on particular survival skills and an unconscious sense of identity that stands the test of centuries.
The French psychologist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger, now in her 90s, has spent decades studying what she calls the ancestor syndrome — that we are links in a chain of generations, unconsciously affected by their suffering or unfinished business until we acknowledge the past.
In the 1990s Dina Wardi, a psychotherapist in Jerusalem, worked with the children of Holocaust survivors and developed the theory that survivor parents often designated certain children as “memorial candles” who took on the mission of serving as a link to preserve the past and connect the future. The children of survivors who actively struggled against the Nazis, she found, had a compulsive ambition to achieve.
A similar strategy existed among the forced converts, the Anusim: Usually older women were entrusted with passing on information about their secret identity to particular younger family members. In our family, the historian was my great-aunt Luz, whose name means light in Spanish. I lived for a summer in her house in San José, Costa Rica, but she never confided in me, and regrettably I was not curious enough about our past to ask questions.
But recently, my cousin Rosie told me that she had made it her mission to question Aunt Luz at a family gathering. Given our family penchant for secrecy, she taped the conversation with a hidden recorder.
“Luz told me that our family came from Spain,” Rosie said. “She asked me, ‘Has your mother ever told you that we are Sefarditas?’ Of course, when I brought it up with my mother, she refused to talk.”
My fantasy, of course, was that I could somehow tap these ancestral memories. I have recently made the acquaintance of another Carvajal in Spain, an actor who remembers that even though he was raised Catholic he always insisted to his mother that he was Jewish. He said he started making the claim when he was about 6 years old.
In the video game Assassin’s Creed, fiction provides a solution to this kind of riddle: Gamers plunge into the main character’s genetic memory archives to share vivid recollections of Jerusalem and Italy during the Renaissance.
Reality is even stranger. Dr. Darold A. Treffert, a psychiatrist in Wisconsin, maintains a registry of about 300 “savants” who through a head injury or dementia acquire skills they never learned. Conceivably, he says, those skills, like music, mathematics, art and calendar calculating, were buried deep in their brains. He calls it genetic memory, or “factory-installed software,” a huge reservoir of dormant knowledge that can emerge when a damaged brain rewires itself to recover from injuries.
“How is this possible?” Dr. Treffert asked in an interview. “The only way that knowledge can be there is through genetic transmission.
“In the animal kingdom, we accept without question migration patterns that birds are born with, which they never learned. The monarch butterfly makes a trip from Canada to Mexico to a 23-acre spot, and they take three generations to get there.”
I think about the flight of butterflies when I consider what has brought me back to southern Spain, where my own ancestors surely left for Costa Rica on a boat from the Bay of Cádiz, most likely with some of the early Spanish explorers, who carried converso Jews fleeing the Inquisition.
In the red leather folder where I keep my reporter’s notebook and business cards, I always keep a photograph of the old Inquisition jail in Arcos de la Frontera. It’s from that heady time when I first visited the pueblo and felt a powerful urge to stay and explore. The photo shows a splintering wood door, a cobblestone lane and a whitewashed box of a building with a glowing light and street sign with the word “leal,” for loyal. I have marked it with a phrase from T. S. Eliot: “And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”
Long after I made my sojourn to Arcos de la Frontera, which is partly bounded by the Guadalete — named for the mythical Greek river of forgetting — I found out that Aunt Luz sometimes dreamed about Andalusia. It is too late to pose the question — she died in 1998 — but it haunts me that she told another cousin in Costa Rica that she often dreamed of a river that plunges into the bay where Columbus set sail for the Americas.
It could only be the home of our butterflies: the green river of forgetting, the Guadalete.
Doreen Carvajal, a reporter for The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, is the author of “The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity and the Inquisition.”
The search for truth is not about letting go; it’s about going deeper. The goal is not reaching a single realization, but living the process of realizing again and again.
Rabbi Irwin Kula