Author’s Ladino roots inspire medieval-era novel

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In Joe Hobesh’s old neighborhood there were no bagels, lox or Yiddish. Instead it was bourekas, white cheese and Ladino.

Both of Hobesh’s parents hailed from Ottoman-era Turkey. Yet the 73-year-old retired Lafayette electrical engineer was 8 when his father, Albert, died. And his mother, Sultana, never wanted to talk about the old country. So when Hobesh decided to re-create his family history — starting with Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492 and ending with Ladino conversation drowning out Red Barber calling Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio — he figured he could take a little literary license.

In Hobesh’s debut novel, “Sephardic Farewell,” Christopher Columbus is a hidden Jew and Hernando Cortez , the conqueror of the Aztecs, has an adopted Jewish brother.

“Hey, that’s one of the reasons I decided to write a novel and not history,” he said with a laugh.

After four years of working on his novel, Hobesh was still short of the Age of Enlightenment, at least chronologically. So he decided that he’d write several books instead of a single James Michner-esque one.

The novel traces the lives of a pair of Spanish Jewish families at the time of the Sephardic expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. One, the Halavi family, refuses to convert to Christianity and emigrates to Turkey. The other, the San Miguels, has already converted and opts to stay in Spain.

But if only it were so simple. Joshua Halavi falls in love with Elena de San Miguel, opts to convert to Catholicism, becomes known as Diego de Sangil and leaps aboard the Nina, Pinta and/or Santa Maria to sail the ocean blue. And if you guessed he left Elena a “souvenir” before shipping out — correct!

“I wrote this to basically make people aware of Sephardic Jews, who we are and how we have a different history than Ashkenazis and Mizrachis,” said Hobesh.

And, while he promotes his first book, he’s hard at work on his second and reviving his childhood memories by speaking Ladino with his wife, Anita — whose possibly crypto-Jewish ancestors may well have accompanied Ponce de Leon on his quest for the Fountain of Youth in the 1500s.

But that may be the subject of another book altogether.


“Sephardic Farewell” by Joe Hobesh (247 pages, Publish America, $19.95)

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.