Thoughts on Sephardic Jews in frontier America


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I pulled the last post about Sephardic intermarriage with Native Americans after receiving a very useful email from a reader questioning the person who gave the lecture, but not the idea of intermarriage of Sephardic Jews and Native Americans.The idea of intermarriage with Native Americans was yet another instance of learning something truly surprising about the Sephardic Jews who went West.   My attention has always been on the geographic trajectory and experiences of relatives who went East to escape the persecution of the Catholic Inquisition and Christian Europe.  To now be more seriously imagining Sephardic Jews, who had faced torture under the Inquisition and been expelled from Spain, trying to find a home in a place as foreign as frontier America at that time, brought up thoughts about what skills they came with, and what they were avoiding as well.Those who went East to the Ottoman Empire would have already been generally aware of where they were going and may even have had contacts via merchant routes.  Thanks to their own history of migration across the Mediterranean to Spain, they knew the Mediterranean, and they were familiar with Muslims.  They had gotten along well with other cultures – Muslim and Christian – before the Inquisition, helping to create a Golden Age in Spain while Europe was going through the Dark Ages.Some Sephardic Jews went West, not east, with Carjaval to what was to be Mexico and began to settle there in northern Mexico and on up into the US.  But despite their courage is giving up so much an traveling  so far to find a better world, they had not left the Catholic Inquisition behind.

Those Sephardic Jews who were not killed went underground (some only now emerging as Crypto-Jews and seeking to recover their Jewish identity).I knew there was a continuing Inquisition in Central and South America, but I had never really considered the differences in portions of  the New World that was not under Spanish rule.  For Sephardic Jews, some communities – Native American ones, for instance – would present the unheard of opportunity to be away from Catholic power, as well as Christian power, Muslim power and power altogther.  Native Americans did not tax anyone, did not impose religious controls of any sort., and did not treat other people as though they were a lower class of human beings.

It is hard to imagine how such a culture would appear to Sephardic Jews after all they had been through, and were still going through, even after fleeing to the New World.  It would certainly make logical and emotional sense that Sephardic Jews might have liked the freedom to be themselves and the equality of living among Native Americans.  And with a history of mixing with other cultures – even antagonistic ones.  If genetics showed they  intermarried, then they mixed freely enough with Native Americans to fall in love.  That would say something about a lack of fear and lack of condescension toward people different from themselves.  But then, Sephardic Jews has already shown that in Spain.

Did it happen?

One reader with expert knowledge of Native American history, wrote in that they’d

never want to completely discount any intermarriage theory, because there definitely was a tremendous amount of interracial marriage going on in those days and it was considered a squeamish topic by the white elites, so it didn’t get written about in history nearly as much as it actually happened.

When we think about Ladino as a way to bring back culture, do we wonder what qualities that culture contains?  It seems that Sephardic Jews have an ease in living among other people without hatred or fear.  To me, that’s a trait to be extremely proud of.  It stands out as a cultural gift.

And the simplicity of the freedom and human respect Native Americans may have offered people who had been tortured and expelled for not submitting to the controls of others, stands out like a great blessing, against the evil of religious persecution, hatred, .murder and warfare.   How might that disparity have felt to people whose old world offered not one single place to be fully themselves and for whom most of the new world continued to seek their death?

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