My Diverse Hispano-Levantine Heritage
by S. Scott Alfassa
For Sharon, Rich, Stephanie, Samantha and Stephen
In 1969 I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My family are Hispanic, they are Jewish people known commonly as Sephardic Jews. My family’s language was Judeo-Spanish (what we call 'Ladino'), the language of the Jews that are descendants from Spain on the Iberian Peninsula in Western Europe. My family left Spain hundreds of years ago and settled in Ottoman Turkey, before coming to America. This is our story.
Origins in Spain
Jewish people had lived on the Iberian Peninsula long prior to the early descendants of the Catholic church had been there, some as early as the 1st century CE. Archeological findings place Jews in Spain long before the early Visigoths, or the later Arabs or Christians. Moreover, Jews had lived on the Iberian Peninsula well over 300 years prior to the “New Testament” first formally being canonized in the year 393 CE.
While I am not religious, back then, religiosity was the universal way of life. My family’s religious roots had developed in Al-Andalus (Islamic pre-Christian Spain), with the musta'arabi (Jewish-Arabic) tradition. Our traditional minhag (religious rite) was steeped in the tradition which was established and perpetuated by the two preeminent Babylonian Jewish religious schools of thought located in Sura and Pumbedita (modern day Iraq), within the then—Abbasid caliphate. This religious tradition and governing way of life was the generally accepted spiritual framework of the Jews for hundreds of years and was respected and practiced in many places including particularly among the Jews living among the Arab possessions of the Levant, Western Europe, and North Africa. In the late 15th century, the last of the Arab strongholds (Granada) fell to the Catholics, and Islam was pushed out of the peninsula.
In Christian Spain, Jews were weavers, carpenters, goldsmiths, fishermen, scribes, craftsmen, food vendors and money-lenders. When the Christians and the Arabs fought on the battlefield, Jews proudly served. Well-established Jewish community leaders were hildalgos, members of the Spanish gentry. The Jewish people had representation throughout the kingdoms, as all Spanish cities had a Juderia (Jewish Quarter). Spanish surnames which are common today in Christians, but were once predominantly Jewish surnames include: Pardo, Gomez, Amarillo, Zacuto, Marcos, Toledano, Pereira, and Trujillo.
Period of Religious Friction
After many centuries of war with the Arabs, the various Spanish kingdoms unified, and as they did, the Catholic Church in Spain got stronger. Christians long-held the belief that only they had the keys to the eternal kingdom of heaven through their devotion to their god; furthermore, they felt that non-believers had no place in the world to come. Spanish Christians saw non-believers as heretics; this is analogous to how Muslims see non-believers of their faith today. The Christians had considered the Jews unworthy of existing in a land in which their god had granted them and where he should be worshiped. Needless to say, the mere fact that Jews would not bow down and accept their godhead, bothered them at the highest level.
In general, detestation of the Jewish people had simmered since Roman times, and was related to the Church’s formalized theological position which claimed that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus; this is an anti-Jewish trope which still exists by certain Christians to this day.
At the time, the Jews in Spain were well assimilated into Spanish society. Yet, during the 14th and 15th centuries, Christian hatred of the Jews continued to increase, until it was complete with intense acts of violence in nearly every city. Between the 14th and 15th centuries, it has been reported up to 50,000 Spanish Jews were murdered in their homes and synagogues by rowdy mobs, stirred up through passionate church orators that issued repetitive inflammatory sermons.
This torment caused many Jews to capitulate and convert to Christianity—some out of sincere fear, and others to just be accepted; it is interesting to note that the latter group often continued to practice Judaism at home under stealth.
All of this came to a head when in the 15th century, all Spanish citizens of the Jewish faith living in Spain, including my family’s ancestors, were forcibly expelled on orders of the Catholic Church. Pressured by the ongoing Spanish Inquisition of the period, the Christian civil authorities banished the Jews in 1492.
Upheaval Leads to Resettlement
At the time, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, invited the Spanish refugees to come and dwell within his Islamic cities such as Edirne, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Salonika and throughout the Levant—and there the Hispanic Jews settled and stayed for over 400 years—maintaining their language, food, dress, and other foundational cultural heritage until the mid-20th century. There, they became successful members of their new host society. It wasn’t perfect, as they were now under the yoke of the Islamic tax man who demanded payment—just because they were not Muslims, however, the Jews integrated. They became everything from fruit vendors, to shop owners, to physicians, to Ottoman military officers. Many Spanish Jews still live in Turkey today, however my family had fled in the 1920’s for the safety of the United States.
My family surnames tell a story of origin, including Alfassa—from Fez (Morocco), but most likely the people who carried that name had originated earlier in 10th century Algeria, another geographic location in North Africa. A very prominent rabbi with the same surname had left North Africa in the 11th century and first settled in Fez, and soon after in the Spanish city of Lucena. Later, with the subsequent forced exodus from Spain to the Ottoman Empire, that family migrated to the Levant, and our family are most likely descendants of that family. With Spain and North Africa only being 15 miles apart, it was quite common for people to travel from North Africa to Spain. Our surnames are/were, Alfassa, Cordoval—indicating the city of Cordoba of the Almoravid (Moroccan Berber) empire of (southern) Islamic Spain which later transformed into a region of Christian Andalucia. Other names were, de Loya and Salinas—a common name originating from the city of Salinas in the Umayyad (Syrian) caliphate of (northern) Islamic Spain, which later transitioned into the Christian kingdom of Leon.
Increasingly, toward the 15th century, the separate small Christian kingdoms of Spain progressively unified, bringing together the regional dialects. Eventually, this language would be called Castellano. This Peninsular Spanish replaced Arabic and would become the lingua franca of all Spanish residents.
Our family language is an amalgamation of pre-15th century Castilian Spanish (remember the Jews departed before the unification of the separate kingdoms and the establishment of “modern” Castellano), with bits of Hebrew, as well as some old Arabic, Turkish, and even Greek words mixed in. To the untrained ear, Judeo-Spanish sounds no different than contemporary Spanish as spoken by a person from modern Spain, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico or Argentina. However, to a person speaking modern Spanish, Judeo-Spanish has been said to sound “old,” like how a Londoner would hear someone speaking in Old English.
Fleeing Turkey for the United States
The Balkan Wars in the beginning of the 20th century included Bulgaria, Greece, and other countries seeking independence from the then-failing (and once conquering) Ottoman Empire. These wars set off a cascade of major conflict which affected all of the peoples of the region, including my family. They fled to the United States in the 1920s, coming over third class (steerage) and landing at Ellis Island with $50 dollars to their name, and carrying the Spanish language and culture which they held onto for hundreds of years in Turkey.
Our Family Culture
The cultural milieu I was raised in include my great-grandparents, their brothers and sisters (my great aunts and uncles), and my grandparents. They all came from various Ottoman cities, and their first language was Spanish. My family lived in New York City which once had a bustling Hispanic Jewish population that had arrived from Turkey and other former Ottoman areas (including Bulgaria and Greece) between 1900-1930. These Jews settled predominantly on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but sizeable colonias (colonies) also existed in Harlem—where they got along well with the Puerto Ricans because of the language commonalty—thus the nickname Spanish Harlem.
There, among the urban streets of the pre-war Big Apple, the Jews listened to and played Spanish, Turkish and Arabic music, went to the kavanes, the coffee houses frequented, and sometimes owned by, Hispanic Jews. When the men chatted about daily events, played cards or backgammon, they all conversed in their mother tongue—Spanish. They received their news from many of the Spanish-language newspapers, including: La Amérika; La Boz del Pueblo; El Progreso; La Époka de Nu York; La Luz and La Vara. These were all were Spanish-language papers prepared by and for the Hispanic Jews, some printed with Latin letters, while others in Spanish but using Hebrew letters.
Like others, our Hispanic family was certainly influenced by the Islamic cultural influences of Turkey and other Muslim lands, and in our home you’d hear records with a Lebanese man singing Arabic songs about Egypt, see my grandmother dancing with castanetas, and enjoy dinners of traditional Arab, Spanish and Turkish meals such as: fasulya (stewed meat with tomatoes and green beans), djellos (stewed meat with tomatoes and white beans), bizelias arroz de pollo (peas, rice and chicken in tomato sauce), sevollas reinados (onions stuffed with meat), lentejas (lentils with meat), and biscochos (cookie rings). My great-grandmother would refer to god as Allah—but she was referring to her Jewish god. Common Islamic-rooted words such as mashallah (may god protect someone—especially from the evil eye) were often heard at home. “Ke haber!?” (“What’s new?”) would be said upon a friend or relative coming over to our house to visit—the ke from the Spanish and the haber from the Turkish.
A Beautiful Diversity
As an adult, I look back at our family’s Hispanic culture as a beautiful and unique one—one shared by many Sephardic Jews today across the world. It is primarily made up of Spanish influence, with deep diverse traditions assimilated into it including those from early Arab, Turkish and other Levantine locations where these Jews had once settled. Today, many of my family are buried in graves (in NY, FL and CA) with tombstones written in Spanish, carved in granite using Hebrew letters, which was the tradition in old Turkey and in 20th century America; our deceased were interred by large social and burial societies with names such as La Ermandad Sefaradi (the Sephardic Brotherhood).
Today, Sephardic Jews live across the world, and predominantly in Israel. Some Alfassa’s (aka Alfasa) families live in both Turkey and Israel today, and we all share a similar familial backstory. We maintain contact with each other. I have been to Spain many times, and love the country for many reasons. In the past 10 years, Spain has introduced a law which made any Jews with a Spanish heritage connecting them back to Spain to be eligible for Spanish citizenship. While the Sephardic Jews are few, our Hispanic heritage is a long and proud one.
Recommended further reading:
Ashtor, Eliyahu. (1979). The Jews of Moslem Spain. (3 vols.) The Jewish Publication Society., NY.
Baer, Yitzhak. (1961). The Jews of Christian Spain. (2 vols.) The Jewish Publication Society., NY.
Benardete, Mair J. (1982). Hispanic culture of the Sephardic Jews. Edited by Marc D. Angel; Sepher Harmon Press, Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Culture., NY,
Goodblatt (1952). Jewish life in Turkey. The Jewish Theological Seminary of New York., NY.