Exiles in Sepharad: The Jewish Millennium in Spain

Exiles in Sepharad: The Jewish Millennium in Spain

Exiles in Sepharad: The Jewish Millennium in Spain

Exiles in Sepharad: The Jewish Millennium in Spain


The dramatic one-thousand-year history of Jews in Spain comes to life in Exiles in Sepharad. Jeffrey Gorsky vividly relates this colorful period of Jewish history, from the era when Jewish culture was at its height in Muslim Spain to the horrors of the Inquisition and the Expulsion.

Twenty percent of Jews today are descended from Sephardic Jews, who created significant works in religion, literature, science, and philosophy. They flourished under both Muslim and Christian rule, enjoying prosperity and power unsurpassed in Europe. Their cultural contributions include important poets; the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides; and Moses de Leon, author of the Zohar, the core text of the Kabbalah.

But these Jews also endured considerable hardship. Fundamentalist Islamic tribes drove them from Muslim to Christian Spain. In 1391 thousands were killed and more than a third were forced to convert by anti-Jewish rioters. A century later the Spanish Inquisition began, accusing thousands of these converts of heresy. By the end of the fifteenth century Jews had been expelled from Spain and forcibly converted in Portugal and Navarre. After almost a millennium of harmonious existence, what had been the most populous and prosperous Jewish community in Europe ceased to exist on the Iberian Peninsula.


Chance brought me to Spain. In 1982 I came to the end of my first U.S. Foreign Service tour in Colombia (Medellín and Bogotá), with an onward assignment to Tokyo. A call from my assignments officer in Washington “closed out” Tokyo, and Santiago loomed in my future. A last-minute-assignment break brought me a new offer: Bilbao. In those pre-Guggenheim days, I knew the place-name only from a song by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht (“Der Bilbao Song”), but I needed no urging to accept a tour in Spain.

As a Jew in Bilbao, I was a statistical anomaly. Jews made up about .0001 percent of the population, fewer than ten—all expatriates—in a greater metropolitan area of about nine hundred thousand people. The two years I spent in Bilbao gave me a few glimpses into Spain’s peculiar attitude toward Jews. The most revealing came after I attended a lecture on the history of Jews in the Basque country, given by a priest who served the expatriate community. Afterward, I introduced myself to him, noting that I was one of the few Jews in the city. To my surprise, he contradicted me: “There are a mountain of Jews in Bilbao.” He proceeded to recite a series of last names, none of which sounded Jewish to me. I promised myself that I would look for this invisible Jewish community.

A few weeks later, the priest called me to say that an Israeli ship had put in at port, and the sailors on board wanted someone to host a traditional Jewish Sabbath dinner. I demurred, pointing out that I was a bachelor who couldn’t cook, and I was not very religious. He countered that I was the only one available to do it. I asked him about the “mountain of Jews” he had mentioned before. “Oh,” he said, “they are . . .

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