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Seattle’s Sephardi Jews Mull Spanish Citizenship While Preserving Ladino

Two recent articles detail a vibrant community of ‘Ladineros’ who have mixed feelings about returning to the country that was once their ancestors’ home

Jonathan Zalman
August 10, 2015
Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
The Congreso de los Diputados (the Spanish parliament building) in Madrid, Spain, December 27, 2011.Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
The Congreso de los Diputados (the Spanish parliament building) in Madrid, Spain, December 27, 2011.Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

In June, the Spanish government approved a law enabling the descendants of an estimated 300,000 Jews, exiled from the country during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, to apply for citizenship dual citizenship. Now, pockets of Sephardi Jews, which number around 5,000 (as of 2014) near Seattle’s Puget Sound, haven begun to consider the option.

On Sunday, The Seattle Times published an article detailing the decision-making process for a number of members of Seattle’s Sephardic population—or, “Ladineros”—who meet in the library of a neighborhood retirement home to study Ladino, “the centuries-old Jewish language.”

(Last year, Tablet contibutor Emily K. Alhadeff described the language thus: Ladino—also known as Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, or any number of other names no one can quite agree on—[is] a dialect that mixes Medieval Spanish with elements of Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, French, and Italian that [was spoken by] Jews who were cast out of Spain into the Mediterranean world picked up in the 500 years following the Expulsion.”)

The article, written by Nina Shapiro, captures varying mindsets. Take for example, that of Victor Amira:

“They kicked us out and now they’re making us go through hoops?”

…Amira was referring to requirements that include passing Spanish language and cultural-knowledge tests, getting certification of one’s Sephardic heritage and traveling to Spain to finalize the paperwork for dual citizenship. Amira was also reacting to an article passed around among the Ladineros that put the cost of applying at $5,600—an erroneous figure Alhadeff labels “ridiculous.” (The application fee is currently pegged at 100 euros, slightly more in U.S. dollars.)

Still, Amira is incensed. “They should pay us!” he said.

Then there’s Doreen Alhadeff, co-founder of the website Seattle Sephardic Network, whose “grandmother Dora Levy is believed to be the first Sephardic woman to come to Seattle, arriving in 1906.”

The first Sephardic men, two friends named Jacob Policar and Solomon Calvo, had arrived in 1902. Policar is the grandfather of Alhadeff’s husband, Joseph S. Alhadeff, who develops real estate for the Benaroya family.

“I’ve heard that many times: ‘They kicked us out,’” responded Alhadeff. Yet Spain, she said, is spending a lot of time and energy making amends.

“It’s not for everybody,” she, nevertheless, acknowledged. “I think it’s got to ring to you on another level.”

Alhadeff grew up speaking Ladino, and she traveled to Spain this past Spring and “reaffirmed her connection.”

She visited the town of Ávila, where the government preserved an ancient Jewish cemetery, one of a number of remnants of Jewish life still to be seen. She went to another town, until recently called Castrillo Matajudios (Spanish for Camp Kill Jews), where the populace voted to change its name to Castrillo Mota de Judios (Jews’ Hill Camp).

“The Spain of today is clearly not the Spain of 1492,” Alhadeff said.

On Monday, The Seattle Times published a follow-up of sorts, also written by Shapiro, that profiles the efforts of Devin Naar, a University of Washington professor (also featured in our 2014 article), who is “building the world’s first digital library of books, letters and other materials in the centuries-old language of Ladino, with materials donated from Seattle’s large Sephardic Jewish community.”

Naar, trying to decipher letters left behind by a Sephardic great-uncle, taught himself to decode the script using library books.

Once local Sephardic Jews discovered that, they started bringing him Ladino items they had squirreled away: a grandfather’s will, letters, newspapers, wedding contracts, songbooks, photos with inscriptions. And books. Lots of books.

In all—including the voluminous materials Naar found in a cache of Safeway bags buried in the basement of Seward Park’s Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation, dubbed the “Safeway Archives”—Naar has collected more than 700 Ladino books and at least as many items of other types.

Naar’s collection is reportedly second in size only to that of New York’s Yeshiva University.

Among the finds is a rare book of ethics published in Istanbul in the 1740s and a 1916 book of advice to immigrants to the U.S., which among weightier matters carries a useful explanation of how to eat ice-cream cones. (Ice cream, Sephardic Jews had seen before. Ice cream cones, not so much.)

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.