Dan Schifrin and daughter Elia overlooking the Spanish city of Toledo.
Dan Schifrin and daughter Elia overlooking the Spanish city of Toledo.

I had unfinished business in Spain, going back 500 years

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Around 1492 my ancestors, the Papos, fled Iberia for the Middle East or southern Europe, along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews, in what became a vast Sephardic diaspora. Then, in the early 1800s, the Papo descendants moved to Jerusalem, thriving as rabbis and agronomists for more than a century, until World War I. Stripped of their land in the Galilee by war and politics, the Papos finally made their way to America.

This past summer, I traveled to Spain with my sister, my wife and our three children to square the circle. Now, as we wait for our Spanish passports, the final stage in our journey toward citizenship, I’ve had ample time to reflect on the question bubbling beneath it all: What does it mean for a Jew to “go home”?

Spain recently has acknowledged the value of its “absent Jews” — perhaps as many as 250,000 lived in the Iberian Peninsula in the 14th century — and in 2015 passed a law offering citizenship to Jews who could prove their Spanish heritage. All of this comes at an odd time for Spain, with a radically unstable federal government, a deeply struggling economy and a crisis of identity with the province of Catalan in full independence mode.

During the past century, Spain has reached out to formerly Iberian Jews in many ways. In the decades after World War II, it offered citizenship and protection to Jews of Spanish descent living in Greece, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey. In 1968, the government formally abolished the 1492 Alhambra Decree, which had banished all Jewishly identified Spaniards during the Inquisition. And in 1992, just before the Barcelona Olympics, King Juan Carlos donned a yarmulke and prayed with Israeli President Chaim Herzog in a Madrid synagogue.

How can we judge the sincerity of all of this? Do we take it seriously when Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, upon announcing the 2015 law, stated that the expulsion of the Jews was “the biggest mistake in Spanish history”?

“This genuinely does feel like an apology,” says Sara Koplik, who runs a program out of the New Mexico Jewish Federation that helps Jews of Iberian descent navigate the complex process of applying for citizenship. At the same time, Koplik — with a Ph.D. in Jewish history, and a family tree that includes both Sephardic and Askhenazi branches — is keenly aware that practical considerations are at play.

“When previous laws were made, the Spanish government clearly hoped that Jewish immigration would spur the opening of businesses and other innovations,” she said. “Today, the Spanish government is very much struggling, with huge youth unemployment. The hope is that immigration will help the country economically.”

In any case, this particular experiment has ended. On Oct. 1, 2019, the government closed the books on this law, after receiving about 125,000 applications from people claiming Iberian Jewish ancestry. (Koplik estimates that just one-third will be successful). Estimates on the Jewish population in Spain vary, but most place the number under 50,000.

Jews have lived in Spain since at least the second century, with tantalizing hints that some had traveled to the area much earlier. (Historians have associated the “Tarshish” of Jonah’s Biblical whale journey with southern Spain, likely near the port city of Malaga.)

A statue of Maimonides in his hometown of Cordoba, Spain.
A statue of Maimonides in his hometown of Cordoba, Spain.

The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry took place in the southern region of Andalusia from the 9th through 12th centuries, during which a network of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars laid the groundwork for the Renaissance and created space for a multidimensional genius like Maimonides, who practiced medicine and reimagined Jewish intellectual life in the city of Cordoba. Significant achievements during and just after this period, in the south and then in northern regions including Toledo and Barcelona, included the poetry of Judah Halevi and the writing of the Zohar, influences that continue to guide our ritual, scholarly and meditative experiences.

During the subsequent centuries, a succession of intolerant Muslim invaders from North Africa and Christian reconquerers made life increasingly difficult for Jews, and by 1391 — during a peninsula-wide pogrom — a stable and comfortable Jewish society came to an end. The persecution continued through the 15th century, rising to the crescendo of 1492, sending Jews fleeing into exile.

For these Jews, the destruction of Sepharad (Hebrew for what is now Spain) ranked with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in terms of physical, spiritual and cultural tumult. Over the centuries, they continued speaking Ladino or related languages, maintained Iberian Jewish customs and pined for Spain alongside Israel as a sacred home.

Every Sephardic family history is different. Some of my friends are only one generation displaced from Iraq or Morocco; they grew up with parents who spoke Arabic, Greek, Turkish or Bulgarian. My Sephardic connection is through my grandfather Joseph M. Papo, who lived near us in San Jose, and whose home office was an ark of Sephardic history and texts, floating free of time and space. His bookshelves were filled with Ladino volumes. His desk was full of correspondence from friends and colleagues around the world, offering news of Sephardic doings from Chicago to Cairo. And always he was working on his book, “Sephardim in Twentieth-Century America: In Search of Unity,” a history of Sephardic life in the United States.

I wish I had paid more attention, and asked more questions, when he was alive. Even when I spent my junior year of college abroad in Spain, living with the cantor of the main Madrid synagogue (and a longtime correspondent of my grandfather’s), I spent absurdly little time exploring Spanish Jewish history and almost all of it studying Catholic art at the Prado Museum. All I remember from my scant visits to the synagogue was that almost everyone present came from Morocco, and I didn’t know a single melody.

Thirty years later I planned another trip to Spain, this time with a focus on my Jewish connection to the country. Working closely with the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, my family had assembled a series of documents proving our Sephardic ancestry. Along with producing a niagara of other legal paperwork (through which I learned phrases like “Notary Apostille” and “We have no record of you”), I had to travel to Seattle twice to take an advanced Spanish-language test, as well as pass the Spanish citizenship test, administered in Spanish. These obstacles were substantial, and I know they dissuaded many of my friends and family members.

Dan Schifrin and Abby Friedman with children Lior and Elia signing citizenship documents in government office in Malaga, Spain.
Dan Schifrin and Abby Friedman with children Lior and Elia signing citizenship documents in government office in Malaga, Spain.

In July 2019 we flew to Spain to sign official papers in Malaga, where we met with associates from the law firm of Luis Portero, a driving force in getting the citizenship law passed. On a visit to the law offices, we were surprised by the vibe. Far from sedate or stuffy, it was set up more like a political campaign, with attorneys at laptops sitting cheek to jowl at tables and talking on headsets with people from Venezuela, Los Angeles, Australia and elsewhere. They had been working in two shifts for a year and rarely took a siesta.

Eventually we went to a government office where, over the course of a long afternoon, we finally were informed that sometime in 2020 we would swear allegiance to the king of Spain and reclaim our place as Spanish citizens. (Although my wife was excluded from this process — one can’t “marry in” to Spanish citizenship — my kids will join me as citizens.)

Although this meeting was the official point of our trip, we spent most of our visit exploring Iberian Jewish heritage. We started in Barcelona, the capital of the Northern Catalan region, before continuing to Madrid and Toledo, and then into the storied Andalusian cities of Cordoba, Seville and Granada.

Since I had first visited Spain in college, the country had dramatically expanded its Jewish historical infrastructure, with new or vastly developed museums in many Spanish cities. The museum in the small city of Girona, just north of Barcelona, took a few hours to go through and included a study center. Just as impressive was Seville’s Centro de Interpretación Judería, which includes a large collection of early modern instruments and ends in a room filled with stars in the shape of keys, alluding to the house keys Jews kept when they were forced to leave, demonstrating their intention to return. In and around the winding lanes of the Jewish quarter in Cordoba, the powers that be placed tiny golden mosaics, which read Sepharad (Hebrew for Spain). Embedded within them, in gray, is the Hebrew word zachor, or remember.

This organized and respectful presentation of Jewish history was at odds with other cultural performances. For instance, the oldest part of Barcelona, a hill above the city, is called Montjuïc (Jews’ Mountain), where Jews in the region were once buried. Several hundred years ago, when stones became scarce, the walls of the city were expanded by robbing the Jewish gravestones and using them for building material, a common practice in many countries where Jews were killed or forced out. Today, on a prominent gate into Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, one can see Hebrew names and dates thrown up on the wall, a casualty of randomness and disrespect for the dead.

On the ceiling of the Center for Jewish Interpretation in Seville, models of keys from homes where Jews fled during the Inquisition. Families in the Sephardic Diaspora kept these keys for centuries as a symbol of the potential for return.
On the ceiling of the Center for Jewish Interpretation in Seville, models of keys from homes Jews fled during the Inquisition. Families in the Sephardic diaspora kept these keys for centuries as a symbol of the potential for return.

Or more pointedly: In Toledo, the former imperial capital, there are two Jewish historical centers. One, the former Synagogue of El Tránsito, offers an excellent overview of Jewish history inside a spacious building, decorated on the outside with the psalms in Hebrew calligraphy. The other, the former Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca, has become a church, whose interpretative material “welcomes our Jews.” Connected to the museum is an art gallery run by a Jewish convert to Christianity, who seems to want to bring Jews into Christianity not by violence, but by really bad art. Do we laugh or do we cry?

At the Seville Jewish center, a beautiful new building in the old Santa Cruz Jewish barrio, I spoke with Alvaro Prados, an educator and docent. He said the government was working toward a deeper acknowledgment of the country’s Jewish roots and influences, but historical precedent made him anxious about the reasons for welcoming Jews back to Spain.

“It’s something I’m afraid of,” he explained. “When we invite Jews in, it’s because we need money.” Over the course of history, “this hasn’t worked out very well.”

Was he Jewish, I asked? “I’m not,” he answered. “But like many Spaniards, I wonder if I have Jewish blood.” He added, as if to quantify the complexities of being a Spanish Jew, that “two of our educators are Jewish, but not from Spain, while two are from Spain, but not Jewish.” What, I wondered, did any of us mean by “Spanish Jew”?

A year before the family trip to Spain, I pondered this question as I sat in a small lecture hall at the University of Washington in Seattle, looking around at the 50 or so others who had gathered to take their Spanish citizenship test. I assumed that my sister and I were among only a handful of Jews (or Jewish-adjacent folks) in the room, surrounded by those exploring citizenship through other means.

Not so. Everyone I spoke with there had come because of the Sephardic angle. One family, Catholic and Spanish-speaking from Los Angeles, recently discovered their Sephardic heritage and wanted to relocate to Spain for economic reasons. Two sisters, both professors from different West Coast states, were doing it as an adventure. A third, a management consultant from Los Angeles, accidentally discovered his Jewish roots, and his interest in both Spain and Jewish history deepened.

“I was born in Puerto Rico, and because of the color of my skin, I was pretty sure I had Spanish background,” explained Julian T. Ortiz, who advises Fortune 500 companies. “But learning from a DNA test that I had Sephardic background was a huge surprise.” Ortiz began to learn more about Jewish history and also became interested in social memory, especially the therapeutic process called Family Constellations, which looks at family memories and traumas that are carried unconsciously for generations.

“I had always been a nomad,” he continued. “I’ve lived in L.A. for 17 years, but it never quite felt like home. Nowhere did. Learning about my Sephardic background, in some way, seemed to explain some things.”

Over the next few months, I became obsessed with hearing the stories of my Sephardic Jewish friends and hearing how they felt about obtaining Spanish citizenship. Many were intrigued by the idea but wary of the cost and time. Some didn’t think they had it in them to learn Spanish well enough to pass the citizenship test. Others took another route — applying for citizenship in Portugal.

Bonny Nahmias, an Israeli-born artist living in San Francisco, identifies with both the Moroccan and Greek sides of her family tree. After spending last summer in Spain, she decided to apply for Portuguese citizenship, a parallel process to the Spanish one, but one that is easier to achieve (and also open-ended).

“My ancestors, for centuries, walked all around the Mediterranean in search of safety,” she explained. “As Jews, we are always looking for a Plan B. With Trump in power, well … it’s all a bit scary.”

At the same time, Nahmias acknowledged the privilege of being Jewish in the first world, in which someone like herself already has two citizenships and is about to add a third.

(From left) Aviv Shifrin, Debra Schifrin, Abby Friedman, Elia Shifrin, Dan Schifrin and Lior Schifrin overlooking the Alhambra in Grenada.
(From left) Aviv Schifrin, Debra Schifrin, Abby Friedman, Elia Schifrin, Dan Schifrin and Lior Schifrin overlooking the Alhambra in Granada.

So why did my family do it? Why did we spend almost two years to become Spanish citizens? As an adventure? An act of historical closure? So our kids could study more cheaply abroad? An escape plan if things in America went south? Our answers to these questions changed and thickened over our year of study, documentation and travel, and the answers will likely continue to change.

What I can say for sure is that we were frequently surprised by what we learned.

One gleaning is the simple power of historical memory, and how Jewish education and culture really can drive fundamental ideas about the Jewish place in the world. In Cordoba, we walked down to the Guadalquivir River to see a preserved, and very impressive, first-century bridge. My 6-year-old daughter, who attends synagogue with us at Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and is a product of the Gan Shalom preschool, refused to walk on it.

“The Romans didn’t show us kavod,” she exclaimed, using the Hebrew word for respect. “So I’m not going to walk on their bridge.” She folded her arms on her chest and pouted, until she spied a playground on the other side and began to run across.

Another surprise was the unalloyed reverence with which Spain viewed Columbus, an adopted son who famously “discovered” America and was a symbol of Spanish ingenuity and imperial power. This pride in Columbus, whom some believe was a hidden Jew (and whose trip was sponsored by other hidden Jews, all of them hoping to get out), was allied with my sudden awareness that Jews — fleeing from impossible circumstances — were by necessity a small part of the colonial engine that destroyed the native peoples and civilizations.

A third was a reminder of how lucky we are as American Jews, despite the ominous increase of anti-Semitic incidents in Pittsburgh, New Jersey, New York and elsewhere. This was brought home at one museum where we saw the actual wood blocks upon which Jews were handcuffed, and the red hats and yellow-starred gowns they were required to wear.

A fourth was the complexity of our relationship with Israel. What did our desire to have Spanish citizenship mean, if anything, in terms of our commitment to the Jewish state? Is it possible to have multiple homelands? What was I to think about Israeli cousins who had applied for and received citizenship in countries such as Germany and Austria?

After our trip, when I spoke again with Sara Koplik of the New Mexico Jewish Federation, she told me that of the approximately 125,000 applications for special citizenship the Spanish government received, “My guess is that 1/3 of these will be successful.” She said the process takes about two years.

Koplik added that the majority of those applications came not from identified Jews with family ties to Turkey or Morocco or Spain, but from Catholic-identified residents of America, descendants of Spanish exiles, for whom a “return” to Spain during this moment of intense xenophobia feels like a new beginning.

We don’t have to travel from the Bay Area to understand the diverse experience of people whose Jewish ancestors left Spain. In Central California, Modesto’s Congregation Beth Shalom is full of Spanish-speaking folks originally from Mexico or the American Southwest, who only recently discovered that their ancestors fled Spain for the New World.

During our trip I realized that Jewish journeys are always more complicated than we think they will be. At the end of the day, the question of what it means for a Jew to come home may be as simple as: Do I feel safe? Can I imagine my children living here? Is this place a bridge I can walk over and, like my daughter, uncross my arms and take a deep breath?

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.