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Spain re-invites the Jews

Luis Portero de la Torre

By Diane Joy Schmidt

WHEN THE Edict of Expulsion decreed that the Jews of Spain convert or be expelled by the Ninth of Av — the last day of July, 1492 — some half a million Jews walked west into Portugal, north over the Pyrenees into France, or sailed by boat from the ports in the south, some setting sail with Columbus. They left behind their homes and vineyards, and left Spain without its most skilled doctors, lawyers and merchants.

It was a calamity, both for the Jews and for Spain.

Spain has now offered the right of return and Spanish citizenship to all the descendants of these Spanish Jews, those of Sephardic origin, who can prove they are descended from those who were expelled or forced to convert, and who retain cultural or business ties to Spain.

The offer to apply for citizenship, which became law on October 1, 2015 and is good for the next three years, with the possibility of a one-year extension after Oct. 1, 2018, has been met with an entire range of emotions.

For some in New Mexico there is a deep sense of healing, interest, excitement and opportunity, and increased curiosity and a heightened interest in learning about family roots.

For others there is some ambivalence. That ambivalence is freighted with a mixture, in no particular order, of negation, angst, anger, suspicion, cynicism and skepticism.

Luis Portero de la Torre, special counsel for the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, is a lawyer from a distinguished family in Spain that today is Catholic but has Sephardic roots. Driven by a personal tragedy, Portero became deeply involved in assisting the federation make improvements to, and see the passage of, the new law. He has now been traveling the world at his own expense, visiting cities with significant Sephardic synagogues in Israel, South America, Mexico and the US to spread the word. Among his stopping points was Albuquerque, New Mexico.

At the end of last January, a small gathering of about 28 people, some coming from Colorado, were drawn to Albuquerque’s Congregation Nahalat Shalom to hear him speak. Portero’s youthful movie-star good looks, kind manner and Old World elegance graced the room at this historic moment.

During his three-day visit to Albuquerque he also met privately with interested applicants and with genealogical societies. His visit was covered by the Santa Fe New Mexican and on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal. After the story was picked up by local TV stations, the Instituto Cervantes reported receiving upward of 20 phone calls about their officially sanctioned Spanish language test and courses.

It requires a certain cataloging of one’s identity, both literally and psychically, to determine whether one is eligible for the Spanish citizenship. If one wants to take advantage of the three-year window of opportunity and jump through the not-impossible hoops necessary to acquire a Spanish passport, one may be doing this for oneself, for the benefit of one’s progeny or to honor one’s ancestors. The offer is good not only for those who are Jews today, but also for those who today are of other faiths and can trace their ancestry back to the Expulsion and who continue to have links to Spain.

An applicant will have to validate one’s Sephardic origins with two pieces of documentation, which may include a genealogy and a letter from the Jewish Federation testifying to one’s Sephardic heritage; two documents showing one’s current links to Spain, which might include coursework or business in Spain; and pass an official Spanish language exam given only by the Instituto Cervantes, a Spanish organization that conveniently has a location in Albuquerque at the Hispanic Cultural Center. One must show the ability to speak, read and write Spanish, and then also pass an online multiple-choice civics exam in Spanish, submit a US passport and birth certificate, a clean criminal FBI record issued within six months of filing the application, and have all these records translated into Spanish. Finally, one must have both the translations and the documents apostilled here, digitized as pdfs and submitted online, and then travel to Spain to appear before a notary with the original documents. The applicant will also be the subject of two criminal background checks, one by the state and one by the intelligence services.

After that, Portero said, you can be like James Bond, with two passports. An outline of these steps and community resources follows this article, and additional information is at the Nahalat Shalom congregation website,

Sara Koplik, director of community outreach of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, is arranging for Albuquerque to serve as a hub for people in the region who are interested in applying, via a relationship between the federation in Albuquerque and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain.

Koplik is organizing a review committee to assist with letters of approval. Applicants who have prepared their documents can email Kristen Gurule at the Federation for an appointment. Her contact information is, or call 505-821-3214.

Already, 4,300 people have been granted Spanish citizenship

The law has only been in effect for five months.

Portero said that as of Jan. 9, 2016, 859 people had opened applications, and 211 have uploaded all their documentation. Of these, the most applications have come from Argentina (107), followed by Israel (73), the US (59), Venezuela (46), Brazil (29) and Mexico (25).

On Oct. 2, 2015, as this new law came into effect, 4,300 people who had applied over the past years were granted citizenship.

There is the expectation that up to 70,000 may apply worldwide.

Ron Duncan Hart, Gaon Books publisher in Santa Fe, pointed to the relevance of a ketubah from the 13th century. (It will be in the upcoming “Fractured Faiths” exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum tracing the Sephardim through the New World to New Mexico.) Hart said:

“One of the documents that is being accepted as proof of being a Sephardic Jew is having been married with a Castilian ketubah, which is still in use today in the Sephardic world.

“Our daughter was married with a Castilian ketubah in Morocco. On another note, her father-in-law there was among the first 4,300 recently granted Spanish citizenship under the law of return. He had to prepare a set of documents showing his synagogue membership and involvement in the Jewish community, including the ketubah with which he was married.”

Hart continued, “There are many Sephardic Jews from Morocco and Israel on the list of those given citizenship, and among the Moroccans many are buying properties in southern Spain. The town of Marbella now has two Sephardic synagogues because of the large number of Moroccans who have bought properties and are living part of the year there, if not full time. It is an interesting process to watch, and it is bringing Jewish investment back to Spain.”

ECONOMIC BENEFIT may have been a deciding factor for the Spanish government today to go ahead with the new law, but in the eyes of some in America, this has also cast aspersions on the purity of its motives. Addressing this criticism, Portero pointed out that Spain didn’t just come up with this recently, but has done many things in the last two centuries to address the wrongs of the past.

One act was a royal decree of the Spanish dictator, Primo de Rivera, in 1924, granting the right of return, which some 3,000 Sephardim took advantage of, and which later resulted in “saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust in WW II, by applying the royal decree of Primo de Rivera, when the Spanish diplomat, Ángel Sanz-Briz, the angel of Budapest, and many others in Paris and Lisbon, saved many Jews from the Nazis by giving them Spanish passports. . . .This law is the result of a long process of rapprochement . . . The new law simply seeks to permanently close the wounds caused by one of Spain’s largest mistakes in its history.”

Because Spain is a member of the European Union, a Spanish passport means being able to live and work throughout the EU’s 28 member countries and also has benefits in non-EU countries like Norway.

People who acquire the Spanish passport become dual citizens and do not have to give up their current US citizenship. You do not have to live or work in Spain, and do not pay taxes in Spain unless you live or work there.  (If you choose to live and work in Spain, however, as an American citizen you will still be required to file UStaxes.) On the other hand, you may attend university there and enjoy the benefits of socialized health care.

Especially meaningful for the Crypto-Jewish community

Maria Sanchez is a mental health therapist and pastoral counselor who also is a Crypto-Jew, one of the hidden Jews of New Mexico whose family passed down its Jewish identity in secret from generation to generation. She came to hear Portero and said, “It was very meaningful. I knew that the King of Spain had taken down the Edict of Expulsion in the ’80s and that the pope had made amends, but to have something like this — to have Spain reach all the way here, and say hey, we are looking for you, here are some open doors, we want to say, ‘Forgive us.’ For some of us, who knows, we can do international trade. I think it’s an opportunity.

“Maybe some of us feel there’s that distrust of Spain — that probably goes through every Jew, not just Sephardim — what are they going to do with us, there’s that feeling — because I think every Jew has that. Do we trust where we have been chased from?’”

Sanchez met one-on-one with Portero the next day, who said she would have no problem in applying. She is now preparing her application and those of other family members.

Her grandmother’s family name, Toledo, comes from Toledano, which she traces to the rabbinical line. She says that the rabbis were the ones who felt most strongly the need to maintain and hide their identities and their Torah scrolls when they came here. “Here it was passed down through the women, women rabbis,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez maintains that it is not a problem to establish one’s Sephardic genealogy. “It’s very easy, once you plug into the families. It’s like when somebody weaves a rug, it all interrelates. Those people who are involved in the land grants here, because they had to get them from the king and queen of Spain, and the person who got that for us was Gabriel Sanchez, the treasurer of Spain, and he himself was a converso.”

The experts step in

When Stan Hordes became New Mexico State Historian, he began to publish his exhaustive research that brought the story of the Crypto-Jews into the media spotlight. His book, To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, was published in 2005.

Schelly Talalay Dardashti, a native New Yorker who arrived in New Mexico less than a decade ago, recently founded with several friends the Jewish Genealogical Society of New Mexico, which she said meets at Congregation Albert the fourth Sunday of the month, “barring the apocalypse or Jewish holidays.”

Dardashti, who is the US genealogy advisor for the global online genealogy company, said that she impressed Portero with the importance of using DNA research, which so far is not accepted as evidence by Spain for citizenship applications.

She met together with Portero and with Henrietta Martinez Christmas, president of the New Mexico Genealogical Society, and Yvette Kohen Stoor, who produces Primeras Familias certificates for those who have traced their genealogies in New Mexico.

Dardashti said, “Most of the genealogies of New Mexico are basically oral histories because most documents were destroyed during the Pueblo revolt, which occurred throughout New Mexico. But by searching baptismal and land records, some families have been able to piece together their family histories. The other route is to search the archival records in Spain” through a researcher there.

Dardashti said also that Assistant State Historian Rob Martinez has done extensive work regarding the New Mexico Crypto-Jews. He recently returned from a trip to Mexico City to obtain copies of Inquisition documents and other records, which will be presented in a talk for the New Mexico Genealogical Society, March 5 at the Special Collections Library in Albuquerque.

Relevance for the  Ashkenazi community

Sephardic roots resonate also for those in the Ashkenazi community here. American Book Award-winning author Maria Espinosa’s historical novel set in Inquisition times, Incognito: Journey of a Secret Jew, addresses the effects of concealing one’s identity in order to survive. Espinosa, who grew up identifying mostly with her Polish ancestry, began to be troubled by a painting that hung in her family’s house.

“There was so much secrecy on my mother’s side of the family, the fear of another pogrom, always a need to live near borders. A painting from the 18th century of my family’s family from Spain hung in our house. The original is in a museum in Brussels. I would ask my mother about it and later my uncle. They would only say that the family left Spain ‘because they wanted to have more freedom of expression.’ Why are they being so genteel about it? It goes back 500 years, this fear and secrecy has persisted, but we wanted to mingle with society.

“Writing the book made me aware on a deeper level. I think it made me much more aware of how traumas persist for so many years and generations.”

LUIS PORTERO de la Torre has already spent over 100,000 euros of his own money to reach out to Sephardic communities around the world. His involvement in this project is very personal — the trauma of his father’s assassination by the Basque terrorist group ETA.

“On my father’s side I come from a family of Jews, of Toledo. There have been plenty of doctors and lawyers on my father’s side. I guess that we converted to Christianity because we are Catholics, but we have always been pro-Jews, always, the Portero family.

“The other reason I’m doing this is it may close the cycle of a personal project that I have with my brother Daniel to take to court and judge the leaders of ETA, the Basque terrorist group that assassinated my father on the ninth of October of 2000.”

Luis Portero, the chief prosecutor of the Andalusian Supreme Court, was assassinated as he entered his home in Granada. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) condemned ETA for the murder. Now, his son is taking the matter further into the realm of ultimate reconciliation between Spain and its past.

Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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