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.
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.
(JTA) — There is a town in Spain called Castrillo Matajudios, and in Colombia “Matajudios” is a common surname.
The problem is, in Spanish one meaning of the name is “Kills Jews.” Which has led a Colombian emigre cashier in Argentina to attract the ire of a Jewish organization there.
It all started when Adrian Marguiles, a customer at the Expoalimentos supermarket in Argentina’s San Isidro district, discovered, upon reviewing his receipt, that his cashier went by the name Ivan Matajudios.
Thinking the cashier had chosen Matajudios as a nickname, in order to incite violence against Jews, Margulies complained to DAIA, a Jewish group that, just four days earlier, had signed an agreement with the district’s mayor to work together on educational activities promoting coexistence and tolerance.
When DAIA leaders met with the supermarket owner, they discovered that Ivan Dario Matajudios Galindo was the cashier’s actual name.
DAIA Vice President Waldo Wolff told JTA that the supermarket owners asked if they should fire the worker.
“We told them that this is not necessary at all,” he said. “But we want the cashier to appear in the receipts with his other surname, as Ivan Galindo.”
DAIA plans to request a meeting with Argentina’s interior ministry to request that immigrants with names that appear to promote anti-Semitism be required to choose a different moniker while in Argentina.
Perhaps Amajudios, or “Loves Jews,” would be a good option.
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.
Will I apply?
That’s what people are asking me today, as news circulates of the law the Spanish cabinet just approved to offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews.
Two weeks ago, the Forward published a long essay I wrote about this citizenship offer, which the Spanish justice and foreign ministers first proposed in 2012. I went to Spain in November 2013, at first thinking I would apply for a passport myself. When it turned out that that wasn’t yet possible, I tried figure out why the law had not been passed.
Three months after my trip, the text of the law is finally available. Spain’s Ministry of Justice posted it online today after it was approved by the Council of Ministers. It still must be voted on by the Parliament before it becomes law.
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.