Last year’s Brexit decision has led to a massive increase in the number of British Sephardic Jews seeking Portuguese citizenship under a recent law intended to make amends for their ancestors’ expulsion from the Iberian peninsula in the late fifteenth century, British newspapers reported in late December. Spain too has brought in similar legislation, intended to offer a measure of belated reparation for the policies that saw its Jewish community forcibly converted, exiled and, in many cases where conversion was judged not to be “genuine”, burned at the stake.
Gillie Traeger, from London, is one of those now seeking Portuguese citizenship. “There’s kind of a sense of pride from coming from this very old Jewish family in England,” she said. “[But] historically, I don’t feel like I’m just English. I feel I’m European and would like to stay that way.”
The Sephardim, expelled from Iberia in the late fifteenth century and after and later settling in North Africa, Italy, south and central America, the Balkans and other areas, are one of the two great divisions of European Jewry, the other being the Ashkenazim. Sephardim traditionally spoke a Romance language dialect, sometimes known as Ladino Oriental, based on old Spanish inflected by the languages of their new host communities; Ashkenazim, who settled in east-central Europe, spoke Yiddish, a German dialect with Hebrew and Aramaic residues and added elements of Slavic vocabulary. Readers of Primo Levi may remember that a further setback he met on his arrival in Auschwitz was that Italian Sephardim like him were not recognised as real Jews by the predominantly eastern European inmates already there: who can be a Jew who does not speak Yiddish?
Britain, or England, has often been seen with some justice as a place of refuge for the oppressed, but the Sephardic Jews who found themselves trying to settle there in the Tudor period did not always find a wholehearted welcome. In particular the presence of foreigners, and their participation in economic life, was often resisted by the populace. In 1517 there had been riots, when London apprentices attacked the alien community. The authorities conducted a census, partly with a view to reassuring natives that there were far fewer foreigners living among them than they imagined. Nevertheless, notices (“libels”) showing gallows hanging strangers continued to appear and it was pointed out to the authorities that spies could easily be insinuated into the country in the guise of foreign workers, while “artisans and mechanical persons might be impoverished by the great multitude of strangers being of their trades and faculties”.
Some of the further background to the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews and their experiences in Elizabethan England is given in this drb review from last year of Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews:
A persistent problem in early modern Europe seemed to be identifying exactly who was a Jew, and nothing complicated the issue more than the measures in defence of the faith taken by the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. By 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain decided to expel from their kingdom those who, in spite of extensive efforts to convert them, still clung to Judaism, hundreds of thousands of Jews, probably more than three-quarters of the population, had already become Christians, some willingly and some in forced conversions. Many Spanish conversos, or “New Christians”, belonged to the country’s intellectual and social elite. But how solid was a conversion based on force, or one perhaps entered into merely formally, to secure material advantage? In spite of public displays of repression and the severity of the Inquisition, the spectre of a hidden, underground and possibly subversive Jewish presence continued to haunt Spain and Portugal. The introduction of blood laws, based on the idea of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), distinguishing between “New Christians” and old, seemed to involve an admission that the conversion and assimilation project had not worked, though in Shapiro’s view there was in fact a considerable degree of assimilation (and forgetting of origins): indeed a 2008 DNA survey in Spain found that twenty per cent of those sampled showed results consistent with Jewish ancestry. Blood laws of course also undermined one of the fundamental principles of Christianity, its claim to universality. As St Paul had written:
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
A religion based on brotherhood now seemed to have been replaced by one – like Judaism – based on lineage.
Expulsion of course also meant migration, and many Spanish and Portuguese Jews, now usually known as Marranos, emigrated after 1492 to Italy, the Ottoman empire, North Africa, Flanders and other centres, including England. According to evidence given to the Inquisition in 1540, a Portuguese Marrano, Alves Lopes, ran something like a safe house in London at the time, incorporating a synagogue to which the local Jewish community went on the Sabbath; and ...
on that day there came to Alves’s house other false Christians to the number of about twenty, among whom he saw: Diego della Rogna and his wife, Enrico de Tovar and his wife, Jorge Diez, Goncales de Capra and his wife, Peter, their son, and his wife, Antonio della Rogna, Ana Pinta and Rodrigo Pinto, her brother, and others from London ... and that it is true that whenever any refugee false Christians come from Portugal to go to England and Flanders and thence to Turkey and elsewhere, in order to lead the lives of Hebrews, they come to the house of the said Alves, who helps them to go whither they want to go for this purpose.
Another supposed Jew identified by evidence given to the Inquisition was Dunstan Ames or Anes (originally Añes), who died in 1594 and was buried under his pew at St Olave’s church in London. Ames, who was born into a converso family in Valladolid in Spain and brought to England as a child, was a wealthy merchant, a “purveyor and merchant for the Queen Majesty’s Grocery” and, eventually, a gentleman, having been granted his own coat of arms in 1568. His brother Francisco entered the military, commanded the English garrison at Youghal and later, as Francis Annyas, was three times its mayor. Sarah, the sister of Dunstan and Francisco, was to marry the prosperous doctor Roderigo Lopez (“one, that maketh as great account of himself, as the best: & by a kind of Jewish practis, hath growen to much wealth, & sum reputation”), who became the queen’s physician and who in 1594 was executed for plotting to poison her. He is also believed by many to have been a model for Shakespeare’s Shylock. Lopez maintained his innocence to the end, insisting on the scaffold that he “loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ; which coming from a man of the Jewish profession moved no small laughter in the standers-by”.
The plight of Jews – their evident helplessness when they were publicly humiliated, insulted, jeered at or subjected to corporal or even capital punishment ‑ seems, over many centuries indeed, to have often been a source of great amusement to those who looked on. What was it about this people that excited so much hostility and contempt? Didn’t the Jews, in Shylock’s words, have the same eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections and passions as everyone else? Well not quite, apparently. The accumulated lore of early modern England knew of a number of attested ways in which the Jews were not the same.
First, they were recognisably physically different, being dark (“swart”) in complexion and in some cases actually carrying a special mark, which “appears when they are in a passion, which is in some two, in some, three streaks ending in a point upward, joining at bottom to a dash about two inches square, as Cain had a mark on his forehead for killing his brother Abel”. They smelled:
... it seems there is a kind of curse fallen upon their bodies; witness the uncouth looks and odd cast of eye, whereby they are distinguished from other people. As well as that rankish kind of scent no better than a stink, which is observed to be inherent and inseparable from most of them above all nations.
They were prone to “the falling sickness”. It was thought the men as well as the women menstruated, the resultant need to replace lost blood perhaps accounting for their supposed practice of kidnapping, crucifying and bleeding Christian children. The Spanish physician Juan de Quinones wrote a treatise which claimed Jewish men had tails. They also had bad breath, and were thought to be sometimes able to breastfeed. (One wonders, with this ample list of striking physical differences, why they were so often required to wear special coats, or headgear, or cloth badges, to distinguish them from Christians.)
Then there were their deficiencies of mind or character: they had “light, aerial, and fanatical brains, spirited much like our hot apocalypse men [Puritans]”. They were clannish, and kept themselves to themselves. They were prodigiously timid and thus unfit for the noble profession of arms, and yet they were “firebrands of sedition”. They were often cross-dressers. Though their original occupation had been as shepherds, their frequent captivities and the corruption of the Gentiles had turned them into what they now were, “merchants, brokers, and cheaters” unfit for honest agricultural work. And of course they had crucified Christ and since then persisted stubbornly in error, waiting vainly and foolishly for a Messiah who had already come.
It was scarcely surprising that such persons were not made feel welcome.