Postcard of Madeira
While other Jewish families suffered unimaginable brutality in the Holocaust, my family lived like royalty in the Portuguese paradise known for its wine, Madeira.
I know: I sound like an entitled, unsympathetic brat. And what I’m trying to say is, I feel guilty about this. I always have.
Every time a Holocaust remembrance day rolls around — like today, Kristallnacht — I feel guilty. Guilty that my family survived, that I can’t relate to the Holocaust on a personal level at all, that Holocaust history is the core of Jewish identity in modern America — and yet I have no part in it.
My family is from Gibraltar (like the straits you learned about in history class), a British territory on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1940, the civilian population of Gibraltar was evacuated because it was being used as a base for the British Royal Air Force’s, Military’s and Navy’s war efforts. The evacuation moved the entire peninsula’s population well out of harm’s way — and well out of the Holocaust’s scope — to Madeira, where my family went, and Jamaica, another tropical paradise.
My point in highlighting this history is not to brag — just the opposite. I thank God that my family wasn’t subjected to Hitler’s evils, but I feel like the fact that we were so far removed from the horrors carried out by Nazi Germany somehow isolates me from the modern Jewish community and makes my identity less, well, Jewish.
Maimonides, one of the most famous Sephardic Jews, as portrayed on an Israeli banknote
Like most Jews with ties to South Africa, my heritage is extremely Ashkenazi. In fact, both sides of my family largely originate from the same region of what is now northeastern Lithuania and northern Belarus. Growing up in New York, most of what I was exposed to as “Jewish culture” was really “Ashkenazi, specifically Lithuanian practice”: savory gefilte fish, Yiddishisms, and my grandmother’s frown at the mere mention of the word Chabad. (As almost every Litvak family does, we claim — perhaps incorrectly — that we are descended from the Vilna Ga’on, whose archenemy was the Hasidic movement.) Suffice to say that, in a country whose Jewish community equates “Jewish” and “Eastern European,” my Jewish upbringing was extremely Ashke-normative.
Some of this changed in college. I learned about Sephardi and Mizrahi customs and traditions — from the additions in the Kaddish to the foods consumed on various holidays. I learned particularly about the discrimination Mizrahi migrants faced in the early days of Israel, and about continued struggles in that regard today. However, my engagement with non-Ashkenazi custom by and large remained somewhat curtailed, and our Hillel was certainly very Ashkenazi-centric — despite the staff’s best efforts at inclusion.
And then I crossed the Atlantic.
Spain’s King Juan Carlos / Getty Images
If Juan Carlos didn’t entirely reconcile Spain and the Sephardic Jews, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The Spanish king announced his abdication this morning, 39 years into a reign that stands both as an argument for monarchy and an argument against it.
Lionized for shepherding Spain through its democratic transition in the 1970s, Juan Carlos has seen his approval ratings crater as scandals and economic crisis have eroded faith in the Spanish monarchy.
To many Sephardic Jews, the king was not only a symbol of Spain’s resurgent democracy, but of the country’s efforts to atone for the anti-Jewish sins of its past, however ham-fisted some of those efforts turned out to be.
It’s safe to say that, from a Sephardic perspective, Juan Carlos was the best Spanish king in over half a millennium. An heir to the throne of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who expelled Spain’s Jews in 1492, Juan Carlos asserted that their descendants remained a part of Spain. In 1992, the king attended a ceremony at Madrid’s main synagogue, a symbolically weighty moment in a country that actively persecuted hidden Jews for centuries.
A night-time scene in the historic district of Córdoba, Spain. / Josh Nathan-Kazis
It’s only been a week since Spain’s cabinet approved a law offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews, but Israelis are already tripping over each other in their race to apply. Between 700 and 800 have sent email inquiries to Maya Weiss-Tamir, an Israeli lawyer who deals with European citizenship applications, according to a report published Thursday in The New York Times. “It doesn’t stop; the response has been crazy,” Weiss-Tamir said. Apparently, Israelis just can’t wait to become Spanish.
As exciting as this news may be for individual Israelis, for Israel itself, it’s downright embarrassing. Because when you put Spain’s new law next to Israel’s current policy, the latter looks pretty bad by comparison. The Spanish law — which won’t become official until it makes it through the Parliament — is murky on a lot of points, but it clearly takes an inclusive approach to determining Jewish status. In fact, it specifies that you don’t even need to identify as Jewish to claim citizenship as a Sephardic Jew; the application in no way hinges on your “ideology, religion or beliefs.” Meanwhile, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — which accepts or rejects the Jewish status of those who have converted abroad, and so impacts many of the state’s potential immigrants — is notoriously exclusionary.
The timing of this Spain business is particularly awkward. Earlier this winter, controversy erupted over the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject determinations of Jewish status made by New York’s Rabbi Avi Weiss. That decision was overturned in January, thanks in part to pushback from an outraged American Jewish community. But that didn’t stop Weiss from penning a scathing critique of the Rabbinate for the Times opinion page. And it didn’t quell Jews’ mounting frustration with the Rabbinate’s strict, intrusive and coercive dictates.
Against this backdrop, the new Sephardic citizenship law presents Israel with some supremely bad optics: It makes it look like Spain is actually more inclusive and welcoming to world Jewry than the Jewish state.
How do you sum up 500 years of Sephardic history in just a couple of illustrations? That’s the challenge I had to answer in the pages of the Forward and on the web at forward.com.
Josh Nathan-Kazis’ story tells about his attempt to make good on the Spanish government’s offer to issue passports to Jews of Sephardic (Spanish) origin. It was a substantial piece, and the Forward had decided to present it in two weekly installments in the print edition.
It was my job as art director to make that happen — and soon.
We had plenty of photos Josh had taken during his travels in Spain. But we needed a main image to anchor the piece on the front page of the Arts section each week. None of the photos really expressed the overarching ideas of the story. Deputy culture editor Naomi Zeveloff suggested “maybe an illustration with Josh in the foreground and Spanish architecture/trains in the background.”
That launched the idea of having illustrations using Josh as a character in the illustration, which is a bit light and whimsical, inasmuch as it fictionalizes the author a bit; you wouldn’t do that for a hard news story. But arts and culture editor Adam Langer felt that was the right idea though — while there are serious aspects to Josh’s piece, cultural and political, the piece itself is first person and written with a tone that bends towards the satirical. Josh suggested that perhaps he should be in Madrid, but in the background we see the garbage that filled the streets while he was there during a strike.
I suggested that Josh should be Don Quixote. For Americans it’s on a short list of familiar things Spanish. The rest of the list would be bull fighting and castanets. But it seemed appropriate — Josh’s piece is all about coming to Spain with noble illusions that prove to be absurd. I suggested Quixote on a rearing horse in lower Manhattan (where the Forward is located) and an Atlantic Ocean, truncated à la Saul Steinberg, to show nearby Spain.
Josh and Adam thought I should run with the idea. While making a pencil rendering, I turned Don Quixote’s lance into a yad, highlighting the Jewish nature of Josh’s “quest.” Having Josh’s horse set out from lower Manhattan gave me an opportunity to draw the new World Trade Center tower.
I inked the drawing on tracing paper. I thought Don Quixote called for some engraving-like lifework. so I rendered the drawing in pen and ink.
I scanned the ink drawing and colored it in Photoshop.
Aristides Sousa Mendes is a national hero today in Portugal for bravely saving Jews fleeing the Nazis. It wasn’t always that way.
When Aristides Sousa Mendes was a child, his name forced his family to leave Portugal for Africa. Today, his name is famous, and his grandfather and namesake, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, is a national hero, his story taught in every Portuguese school.
I met Aristides in Lisbon in November, while traveling in the Portuguese capitol to report my story about Sephardic identity that Forward published last week. While I was there, I thought it would be worthwhile to meet Aristides — another man concerned with his roots.
Aristides and his wife Teresa met me in the lobby of my hotel. Both have white hair and an aristocratic posture, and speak English well. They pronounce their surname in the vowel-less Portuguese style, so that “Mendes” sounds like “Mensch.”
Aristides realized that there was some sort of cloud over his grandfather when he was just seven or eight years old. “I started understanding that there was some strange thing around him, because my parents and my uncles, when they would meet with each other, they were always regretting something, even crying about something,” he told me. “In our house we were not allowed to speak about our grandfather.”
Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese diplomat stationed in Bordeaux in 1940. Portugal was neutral throughout the Second World War, and Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, wanted to keep it that way. So when Sousa Mendes, an observant Catholic, asked for permission to provide transit visas to the Jews amassing in Bordeaux to pass through Portugal and on to safer continents, Salazar said no. Sousa Mendes provided them anyway.
News of the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a towering religious and political figure in Israel, plunged millions into mourning.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Yosef “was imbued with love for Torah and his people.” President Shimon Peres cut short a meeting with Czech Prime Minister upon hearing of Rav Ovadia’s death. Ordinary people fainted with emotion and grief.
Even amid this outpouring, we should not forget Yosef’s true colors: He was a racist and inflammatory bigot.
It is true that Yosef was an instrumental and often lenient religious arbitrator throughout his decades-long career. He famously ruled that widows of Isreali soldiers who went missing in the 1973 Yom Kippur War should be allowed to remarry. When large number of Soviet Jews arrived in Israel in the 1970’s and it was unclear if they were really Jewish by traditional, rabbinic standards, Yosef found a way to ensure that they would be accepted as legitimate members of the Jewish community.
At the same time, we should not be blinded by his political or religious importance to his shameful discriminatory language. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Yosef said black Americans brought the disaster on themselves.
“There are terrible natural disasters because there isn’t enough Torah study,” he said. “Black people reside there (in New Orleans) Blacks will study the Torah? (God said), ‘let’s bring a tsunami and drown them.”
The rabbi’s offensive talk was not limited to the African American community. In 2007, Yosef explained that some Israeli soldiers are killed in battle because they are not observant enough.
(JTA) — I didn’t need to ask directions.
Stepping out of the Central Bus Station, I saw them, men in hats and coats walking together slowly, a steady stream moving east along one of Jerusalem’s central thoroughfares to the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. At 5 p.m., an hour before the funeral, the streets were already closed to cars – the capital’s rush-hour rigmarole giving way to foot traffic that was softer but no less intense.
From a distance it looked homogenous –aerial photographs would later show a sea of black choking the broad avenues of haredi Orthodox northern Jerusalem. But as the group coalesced, men in polo shirts mixed with boys in sweatshirts and soldiers in full uniform – some still holding their guns. Knit kippot bobbed in the crowd with black hats, Sephardi haredim in wide fedoras walked with Ashkenazi hasids in bowlers. A man in a black coat made conversation with another in short sleeves. Women, almost all with modest dress and vastly outnumbered, mostly stood to the side.
The men talked, they shook hands. A few took out their cellphones, perhaps not ready to begin the public mourning of a public leader who, to many, still felt so close. Everyone in Israel knew Ovadia Yosef’s name, but in public his followers would hardly use it, opting instead to call him Maran, our master.
On the sidewalk, a half-dozen men stood at a long table offering a sugary orange drink. Behind them, a speaker blared a recording on loop, quoting a common blessing:
“’To give life to every living soul!’ Come say a blessing over a cold drink to benefit the soul of Maran, may his holy righteous memory be blessed!”
The faithful heeded the call, crowding around a spigot, holding cheap plastic cups that formed a growing pile on the ground once the commandment was fulfilled.
Behind them, on the street, men and boys stood with oversize tins collecting charity. Paper printouts taped to the cans promised that Maran approved of the collection.
Some news, apparently, is fit to print, but not too boldly. Take, for example, the demure self-censorship on display Saturday in the New York Times’ eye-opening report, headlined “On Island, Largely Blue, an Exception: Trump Tower,” on the handful of New York City neighborhoods that voted for Mitt Romney over President Obama. Overall, the city voted Obama over Romney 81% to 18%.
The headline and the first five paragraphs were about the two isolated election precincts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan Island where Romney won half or more of the vote. It wasn’t until paragraph 7 to find out that the main news began to trickle out: that the “deepest single bloc of Republican support in all the five boroughs” was a four-square-block section of Gravesend, Brooklyn, “dotted with Sephardic temples and yeshivas.”
Finally, well into the jump, we learned that Romney “enjoyed strong support from a range of neighborhoods with large populations of Orthodox Jews.” Many precincts in Borough Park, Kew Gardens Hills and Sheepshead Bay (which is largely Russian, not Orthodox) voted 90% GOP. A note on the accompanying map gave you the money quote: “Mr. Obama’s worst precincts were in Orthodox Jewish areas like Ocean Parkway and Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Kew Gardens Hills in Queens.”
The map shows the city’s 5,286 precincts as a sea of blue and red dots, shaded darker or lighter to indicate higher or lower percentages of partisan leaning. The darkest red voted over 80% for Romney, while pale pink gave him 50% to 65%. In addition to the broad swathes of dark red running down Brooklyn from Hasidic Borough Park down Sephardic Ocean Park to Russian Brighton Beach, there are dark red clusters in mostly Italian-American Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and mostly Irish-American (and storm-ravaged) Breezy Point, Queens.