A Sephardic Women's Point of View: The Grandees

by Paula O. de Benardete

The publication of "The Grandees" by Harper and Row, 1971, by Stephen Birmingham has created a stir not only among many of those of the Christian community who perhaps had not even heard in all their lives the word Sephardic. Mr.Birmingham, in presenting these people's origins whom he calls America's Sephardic Elite, has performed a good service for his fellow countrymen. Mr. Birmingham himself a non Jew is also the author of "Our Crowd" dealing with the German Jews and not the Yiddish speaking Jews. The Sephardim are of Iberian ancestry whose forebears spoke Castilian and Portuguese. Because of the novelty of his material the book has much interest and merit but still there are many flaws because Mr. Birmingham has not delved deeply into the historical material on the subject, and when he has done so, it is rather cursorily. He has also reported conversations and chit chat from the descendants of these early Sephardim who themselves are not well versed in the intricate patterns and webs of their history. The tone of the book as a whole is gossipy and replete with information that is found in society columns.

"Because of the novelty of his material the book has much interest and merit but still there are many flaws because Mr. Birmingham has not delved deeply into the historical material on the subject...."

The book is divided into twenty-two chapters and has three hundred and fifty three pages. For this reviewer the best account in this book is the one on Uriah P. Levy, the first commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy of the Jewish faith, on March 5, 1817.

It seems to us that Mr. Birmingham was much impressed by a book published, Americans of Jewish Descent in 1960 whose author, Malcolm H. Stern, traces the ancestry of some 25,000 American Jewish individuals back into the eighteenth, seventeenth and sixteenth centuries under family headings. The book includes only those Americans descended from Jews who came to America before 1840. Perhaps Mr. Birmingham got the inspiration to write his book after reading Mr. Stern's we venture to say.

Mr. Birmingham sketches the history and background of his "Grandees" in the Iberian Peninsula, then Holland, Brazil, the West Indies and New Amsterdam. On page nineteen of his book he mentions the Mendes family and one of its great ladies, Dona Gracia Mendes, whose Christian alias was Lady Beatrice de Luna in Portugal. In Antwerp as the widow of a wealthy banker she was a great success socially. She herself was a good business woman and vastly increased the wealth her husband had left her. She left Antwerp after some indication that her true origin and faith were known and went to Amsterdam for greater safety because there, a colony of marranos from Spain was already established. These marranos were Jewish converts. And here Mr. Birmingham leaves his Dona Gracia without going into her amazingly curious history which unfolded later in Italy and Turkey where she finally settled. In Ferrara Dona financed in 1553 the printing of the Bible in Spanish for the first time by Abraham Usque who was a Portuguese Jewish marrano. She sponsored also Samuel Usque who was the author of "Consolacam As Tribulacoens de Israel" in Portuguese, which was the history of Israel in the form of pastoral dialogue. (See recent English translation by Martin A. Cohen, "Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel).

Dona Gracia was perhaps the greatest patron of letters that the Sephardic Jews ever had, having subsidized not only the publication of the Bible in Spanish but many other books in Judeo-Spanish.

She had an only daughter who married her cousin, Joseph Nassi, who later became the Duke of Naxos by order of the Sultan of Turkey for whom he acted as advisor and on occasions as Ambassador. One of the author's real blunders is the following quotation found on page 31 which is truly amazing.

"Up to Alphonso's time the official language of the royal court, of diplomacy and of the universities had been Latin. Since it was the language of the Church, of their persecutors, it was a tongue that the Jews instinctively regarded with aversion. The upper -- class Jews preferred Castillian and the lower classes spoke Ladino, or Judeo -- Spanish written in Hebrew characters, among themselves. Alphonso and his Jewish scholars codified Castilian, abolished Latin, and declared Castilian the official language of Christian Spain, to the great rejoicing of the Jewish community."

Ladino or Judeo -- Spanish was only spoken centuries later by the Jews exiled from Spain who went to live in the vast lands of thr Ottoman Empire. In Alphonso's time everyone spoke the same Castilian language nor was it the prerogative of only upper class Jews to speak it.

This is yet another instance of the many found in this book with appeals to snobbishness and wealth.

On pages 46 and 47 he discusses the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 and infers that many rich Jews bribed the authorities so that they could stay in Spain beyond the date of Expulsion. This simply was not so. Only those who accepted conversion could remain. Even as to the distinction of those who chose exile, he attributes riches as a factor. On page 50 writing about the dispersion he states, "Only one rule applied, the richer the Jew, the more liberal he could be with his bribes and therefore, the freer he was in the choice of his destination. The poorest Jews fled across the Gibraltar straits and into the mountains of Morocco. The richest went to Holland and for good reason."

The foregoing statement is questionable and has no substance. True there was an exodus to Holland but that came much later when the Jews of Spain crossed the border to Portugal first in 1492 and not much later had to submit to forced conversion by command of the king. The Jews who were thus converted by trickery, because they had previously been promised they could leave the country were resentful and restive. But they had no choice. There was no place in Western Europe at the time where they could live as Jews, so remain in Portugal they did as Catholics. It was not long before the same condition that had prevailed in Spain materialized in Portugal as the new conversos achieved prominence and wealth. Again the accusations as to the sincerity of their conversion to the new faith was questioned. The conversos having seen what happened in Spain were thrown into a near panic. They tried every means at their disposal to prevent the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal. They had a lobby in the Vatican itself. They offered bribes left and right at Court but to no avail. In less than fifty years the Inquisition was established in Portugal with all its dire consequences. There began a trickle of an underground movement to get out of the country before that time, when it became evident that they could no longer forestall the establishment of the Inquisition. Some of the conversos made their way to the cities of southern France like Bordeaux and Bayonne where there were already a number of Spanish conversos. Since France was in a religious turmoil at that time, scant attention was paid to these refugees who outwardly to all purposes appeared to be Catholics. There was no Inquisition in France. Other conversos moved to the Italian city states of Ferrara, to which we have already alluded and to Venice. And finally still others reached the low countries which were in rebellion against the Spanish Crown and where there was no Inquisition. It must be remembered that they always moved as Catholics at the time. Not until Holland achieved independence in the early seventeenth century did the conversos openly establish themselves as a Jewish community and practice Judaism as reconverts, as we shall call them. As Holland prospered as an empire overseas and secured a foothold in Pernambuco, in Brazil, some adventurous members of this newly organized Jewish community made their way overseas for the first time as Jews. When Holland after some years lost Pernambuco, the Jews had to leave, as Mr. Birmingham correctly states and after many hardships an vicissitudes landed in New Amsterdam. And from there on Mr.Birmingham traces the fortunes of these former marranos of Spanish and Portuguese origin here in this country. In New Amsterdam the refugees experienced great hardships and difficulties in the early years. But time and again they were helped by Jewish influential shareholders in the Dutch West India Company at home in Amsterdam. By the time the English had taken New Amsterdam, their position was consolidated. Mr. Birmingham gives us some fascinating insights into the activities of these Jews who began to make their fortune later. Indeed they started from very low and humble pursuits. In time quite a number engaged in the slave trade in Newport, R.I. Here he tells us the story of an Aaron Lopez, a very rich Jew in that city, who had been refused naturalization. He was a Tory and pro-British during the Revolutionary War. He had gone to Massachusetts and was the first Jew to be naturalized there on October 15, 1762. States the author, "At his request the words 'upon the true faith of a Christian' were deleted from the oath."

Before long Mr. Birmingham introduces the Ashkenazim in his book in a most unflattering guise. He writes "It was a case of titled Spaniard versus ghetto German, of third and fourth generation American versus foreign born, of rich versus poor, of the cultivated versus the uncouth. In a situation like this there were bound to be reactions!" Marriages between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the beginning were few and far between and he tells of a case where a certain Samuel Jacobs an Ashkenazic Jew married a girl of Sephardic background whose name was given only as Rosette. It was a stormy marriage as the author describes it, "She spoke sneeringly of her husband's 'peasant' ancestry. -- In less than a year, the couple were granted a legal separation, one of the first in Louisiana history and a great rarity in its day -- particularly in a Jewish marriage."

The Sephardic community in New Orleans seems to have had an unusual amount of scandal which shocked the other staid Sephardic -- Jewish communities. It had, of course, its share of prominent men who are remembered in history. One of these was Judah Touro, who went there from Newport. He was a bachelor who through frugality and good investments became a rich man. There are indeed some very interesting facets to this man's character. He has remained something of a mystery. Judah Touro was a pioneer in civil rights one might say, who bought Negro slaves only to set them free. One of the executors of his will was Pierre Andre Destrac Cazenove who was a mulatto and a beneficiary of Touro. He left him $10,000. Judah Touro is famous for his 65 separate bequests to charities in his will. Not only were Jewish communities and Charities the beneficiaries but also Christian institutions. For example, in Boston Touro's name is now associated with Mass-General Hospital, the Asylum for Indigent Boys, the Female Orphan Asylum, the Humane Society and many others. He left, we are told, $483,000 to charities thus becoming one of the first philanthropists on American soil. Another Christian cause which he aided in New Orleans was most notable proving to us that this man was indeed not a parochial minded individual. When the First Congregational Church of New Orleans was having financial troubles and was to be torn down, he bought the church for $20,000 and returned it to them.

On page 145, Mr. Birmingham states: "Judah Touro rests, along with all the puzzles and questions about his life, in the Jewish cemetery in his native Newport, with all his relatives." This statement is confirmed by the Jewish Encyclopedia. But if this is so, then there can be no truth in the statement which appears on the same page. "Quite early on, after his arrival in New Orleans, he rented a pew at Christ Church, and became an Episcopalian." No Jewish community would have buried him in a Jewish cemetery if he had become an Episcopalian, no matter how many charities were his legatees. Neither in a biography of Judah Touro nor in the long article in the Jewish Encyclopedia does Mr. Leon Huhner ever mention that Judah Touro had ever changed his religion.

Time and again Mr. Birmingham refers to the Ashkenazim as a threat to Sephardic existence and in so doing belittles them thus:

"The Ashkenazim spoke 'heavy, ugly' languages such as German, and an 'abominable garble of German and Hebrew' called Yiddish instead of 'musical, lyrical' Spanish and Portuguese....."

Another section of the book which interested me immensely was the one on Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo whom I remember in my own lifetime, and his family. Benjamin Cardozo showed very early in his life that the courage of his convictions was stronger than any popular tide. With immense pride in his Sephardic heritage while still a young lawyer, Benjamin Cardozo present at a meeting of the elders in 1895 who had come together to modernize Shearith Israel, because Emanu-El the new temple of the Reform movement presented a challenge got to his feet. Here we shall quote from Mr. Birmingham. "Nothing, he said, must be allowed to change the Sephardic ritual of the synagogue, the oldest in America. Its very name, meaning 'Remnant of Israel' indicated that there were values here worth clinging to at all costs. Perhaps the weight of his Nathan-Seixas-Levy-Hart ancestors added strength to his words, for he was certainly effective. After his speech, a vote was taken, and the proposed changes and updating were defeated by a count of seventy-three to seven. Thus Sephardic tradition stepped into another century of imperturbability."

"He may not have consciously meant to, but as Mr. Justice Cardozo he became Sephardic Jewry's proudest figure, restoring the old families' oldest pride, a pride of history, of heritage of race which was the way he felt it."

Benjamin Cardozo was a shy and withdrawn man, devoted to his family particularly to his sister Nell who lived with him for years, and never married. By the time he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, his sister Nell who had been to him more like a mother than a sister, died and he mourned her loss deeply.

The twenty-first chapter entitled "An Altogether Different Sort" is an affront to the Sephardic Jews who, for more than four hundred years had lived in the Ottoman Empire, came here to this country at the beginning of the twentieth century. The tone of this chapter is snobbish and insulting. Earlier in the book, on page 31, he had stated the following: "Up to Alphonso's time, (El Sabio), the official language of the royal court, of diplomacy, and of the universities had been Latin. Since it was the language of the Church, of their persecutors, it was a tongue that the Jews instinctively regarded with aversion. The upper class Jews preferred Castilian, and the lower classes spoke Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, written in Hebrew characters, among themselves. Alphonso and his Jewish scholars codified Castilian, abolished Latin, and declared Castilian the official language of Christian Spain, to the great rejoicing of the Jewish community."

Mr. Birmingham does not simply understand that at the time of Alphonso el Sabio (the wise) everyone, rich or poor, high or low, spoke the same medieval Spanish. The fact is that many of us who read Don Quijote, a work of the sixteenth century, could read the novel without difficulty. Ladino was the name given to the language spoken by the Jews in the Ottoman Empire much later and never to any Castilian spoken in the Middle Ages.

Another sentence -- "These were people who were poor, ignorant, superstitious, who practiced an exotic form of Judaism no one comprehended, who spoke a language that sounded worse than Yiddish, some of whom -- the Jews of North Africa, for instance -- had actually lived in cave." This was enough to make some prominent men of these Sephardic Jews think of even suing the author for libel and defamation. Mr. Birmingham does not know apparently with what delight scholars of the universities in Spain listen to these people as they talk and sing. Mr. Birmingham would have done well to stick to his marranos and not have written the twenty-first chapter at all because he succeeded in arousing the indignation and wrath of these descendants of their truly noble forebears who never changed their faith because they were "not sophisticated enough to be conversos." They remained Jews and suffered the torment of expulsion and settlement in their new found homes because they believed theirs was the true faith and the children of Israel would not break their covenant with God.

Paula O. de Benardete

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