In this moment, I sit in a mountain-top cafe overlooking the Kabalistic town of Tzfat, Israel, delving into familial stories of Spanish Jewry long-buried under the weight of generations sheltered by American privilege. The sole survivor of my maternal line, I carry within me the stories of my mother, my mother’s mother, and my mother’s mother’s mother. Links in an ancient chain that tether me to some of the darkest periods in Jewish history.
Recently, the Spanish government approved a draft of a bill that offers citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492. My mirror (and my paternal family history) tells me I am the epitome of an Ashkenazi Jew: pale skin, light eyes, dark hair. Yet, I am eligible. As the maternal side of my family tree sprawls outward, the Jewish-European names of Davidoff, Fischl and Bloch disappear into the distinctly Spanish names of Gomez, de Lucena and Marques.
My ancestors were among the first Jews to arrive in America. Or, to be more accurate, America came to them in the form of the Revolutionary War. After Portugal conquered the Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil and brought the Inquisition to the New World, a small group of twenty-three Dutch Jews of Spanish and Portuguese decent fled to New York, which, at the time, was part of New Amsterdam. In the following year, my great (times 9) grandfather, Abraham de Lucena, led a group of settlers from Holland to New York. With them, they brought their most important possession: a Torah.
I, like many others, stand at a crossroads: should I “return home” and apply for Spanish citizenship? As someone who can relatively easily trace her roots back to the Inquisition thanks to genealogists, it’s my birthright. But how could I possibly accept citizenship from a country that has committed such atrocities against my ancestors and my people? If Germany offered citizenship to the descendants of Holocaust survivors, how many would return to such a place? What if it were hundreds of years later? Is a European passport enough of a consolation?
For me: the answer is no. My consolation is that I’m in Israel, the place my ancestors dreamed of as the Catholic Church turned their lives upside down and drove them from their homes. I came to Tzfat to study in a seminary because, as a Jew, the only right of return I need is to Israel.