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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this is your history

What the youngest member of Congress could learn about her Jewish ancestors. And what we all need to know about them, as well.

Casa de Sefarad, a museum in Cordoba, Spain, devoted to Spanish Jewry. Photo courtesy of Casa de Sefarad
Suddenly, everyone wants to know who they really are.
23 and Me is doing blockbuster business. The latest craze: spitting into tubes and having your DNA checked. Earlier this week, a fourth cousin discovered me. She has been hiding in plain sight in Deerfield Beach, Florida.
The latest, big news: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected firebrand congresswoman from Queens, New York, has revealed has Sephardic Jewish heritage.
The 28-year-old Democrat said her distant ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition to emigrate to Puerto Rico, where her immediate family roots lived until they moved to New York.

“Generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “So many people practiced Catholism on the exterior but on the interior they continued to practice (Judaism).”

This is what Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is actually saying. Not that she considers herself, but that Puerto Rican history — indeed, much of Caribbean history — is a hodgepodge of ethnicities, races, languages, and religions — and that she represents that glorious mixture.

Having said that: as a public service to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, let me welcome her to her past.

There had never been as brilliant a Jewish culture as the Jews of Spain. That brilliance lasted for ten centuries. No Jewish community in the Diaspora has lasted that long.

The Jews called the Iberian peninsula Sfarad–and its Jews and their descendants, Sephardim. In that land, we lived both with Muslims and with Christians. Sometimes there was uneasy co-existence. Often there was mutual tolerance. The Jewish world had never seen anything like it before, and rarely since then

In Sfarad, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Jews had a true Golden Age.

Philosophy, mysticism, art, literature, astronomy, astrology, music, ethical reflection, dialogue and disputation with Christians and Muslims: everything we are today as modern Jews flows from Spain.

Suddenly, it came to an end.

The Christians began to re-conquer Spain from the Muslims. In 1391, religious extremists provoked anti-Jewish riots. 70 Jewish communities were wiped out. 50,000 Jews were killed, 100,000 Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity.

The converts were called conversos, or New Christians, the Anusim, those who were compelled — or, the Marranos.

Many were sincere Christians. But many others secretly practiced the faith of their ancestors. They met in cellars, lighting candles secretly, eating matzah secretly, teaching their children secretly.

Spain embarked upon a war against Jews and Judaism. It is the classic example of what happens in a society that believes in us and them. Every one of the Nuremberg Laws began in Spain. Jews could no longer commune with Christians. Jews could no longer practice law and medicine and most forms of commerce. Jews could no longer build synagogues.

Then came the Inquisition: the ruthless ferreting out of heretics, including those New Christians who were still secretly practicing as Jews.

The Inquisition was the beginning of modern racism: the idea that your lineage could make you subhuman.

In the land that made bullfighting into a national sport, heresy trials and executions became public spectacles. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella got married, their wedding gift from the Spanish clergy was an auto da fe, with thirty Jewish victims burning at the stake.

On Erev Pesach, March 31, 1492, came the edict of Expulsion.  The Jews of Spain spent the next few months trying desperately to sell their homes. A Sephardic Jew tells me that every year, at Rosh Ha Shanah dinner, his family reminisces about the house that they left in Portugal — more than five hundred years ago. Its description has come down through the generations. There are many Sephardic families that still have the keysto those homes. Someday, they believe, they will return to the palaces they left.

The wealthiest and most cultured Jewish community in Europe was suddenly homeless. From Spain to Portugal — and then in 1497, the expulsion from Portugal as well.

They went north: to Amsterdam and Hamburg and London.

They went east, across the Mediterranean: to Venice and Livorno, to the Ottoman Empire, to Salonica and Sarajevo, to the land of Israel.

They went South: to Northern Africa. They west west: to the Caribbean– to Curacao and the Netherlands Antilles and St. Thomas and Guadaloupe and other great Jewish vacation spots; to the American Southwest, where there were entire synagogues of secret Jews; and to Brazil.

They would ultimately come north to Newport, to Philadelphia, to Charleston, to Savannah, to Richmond — and finally in September 1654 to New Amsterdam, provoking the first anti-semitic remarks in American history from Peter Stuyvesant, who didn’t want the Jews around.

But we stayed, and because we Jews are a forgiving people, we even named Stuyvesant Town after him.

This is what American Jews need to understand about the Sephardic story.

It is all about what happens when a people becomes “Them” and the Other.

First, the othering of the Jews themselves.

As I said, the end of Spanish Jewry heralded the beginnings of racism, of societies that divine themselves into us and them.

The “othering” not only happens from the racists and bigots on the right.

It also happens from the bigots on the left, who have picked out Jews, and the Jewish state, for opprobrium.

Second, the othering of Sephardic culture.

The truth is: American Jewish life is Ashkecentric.  The stories we tell are overly romanticized stories of the eastern European shtetl. The songs we sing are eastern European and Hasidic and German melodies, some of them based on drinking songs. The folk language that we default to is Yiddish.

We Ashkenazim have committed the sin of omission. We have omitted the Sephardic experience from our Jewish world-view (or, if we include it, we make it too exotic to really engage).

A child whose ancestors are from Istanbul or Rhodes can go through ten years in religious school, learn Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity, and never know that Maimonides was a Sephardic Jew. She would never learn that the first Jews in America were Sephardim. No one would even tell her that Vidal Sasoon is a Sephardic Jew.

We need to include Sephardic Jewish culture — all Jewish cultures, really — into our Jewish educational programs.

So, if Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants to learn more about her Sephardic past, welcome aboard. We would love for you to learn.

Because we need to learn as well.