Yearning for Sepharad and beyond contemporary Sephardic Voices of Diaspora

A note on nomenclature + glossary

Owing to the history of migration and integration with other groups, many of the people, places, and ideas in the Sephardic world have multiple names. In general, an effort has been made to choose the most appropriate name or language for the context while maintaining English readability. Some terms may appear interchangeably. These names principally draw from Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Haketia (Judeo-Arabic), and English.

This glossary contains terms used in or in other literature relevant to this project. Spellings may vary and are kept in their original form in quotes.

  1. Sephardic Jews: the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal from Roman times until the Inquisitions and their descendants
  2. Sephardim: plural for Sephardic Jew, borrowed from Hebrew (also present in Ladino). Used to be concise, but is otherwise interchangeable with Sephardic Jews
  3. Sepharad: the Ladino word for Spain, though it has Biblical origins. Also spelled Sefarad.
  4. Yerushaláyim: the Ladino word for Jerusalem.
  5. Land of Israel and Israel: place names referring to the Jewish Biblical and cultural conception and geographic area. Unless otherwise specified, this does not necessarily refer to the present-day State of Israel. Importantly, diasporic yearning for the Land of Israel does not necessarily imply and should not be interpreted as supporting modern Zionism.
  6. Zion: used as either of the above (Jerusalem or Israel), often in a conceptual, yearning way
  7. State of Israel: the modern State of Israel and its geographic area, referred to as such to avoid confusion between the historic concept/place and the modern state. May be shortened to Israel when the meaning is clear by context.
  8. Dhimmi: non-Muslims who pay a tax for protection. Sephardic Jews were considered dhimmi.
  9. Al-Andalus: Muslim Iberia, which included most of Spain and Portugal at its largest extent. Centered around, but not to be confused with, Andalusia.
  10. Andalusia: modern autonomous community of southern Spain that includes Cordoba, Seville, and Granada.


From Biblical Egypt and Babylon to medieval Iberia, late modern Europe, contemporary North America, and beyond, Jews have always been characterized by living in states of exile. Time and time again, Jews have fled persecution in search of new lives in new lands – early Sephardim purportedly came to Iberia in the wake of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. For many, to be Jewish has been characterized by living in the Diaspora.

While the Jewish Diaspora is commonly understood as the dispersion of Jews from the Land of Israel, mostly to Europe and later on, the Americas, it takes on a second meaning in the Sephardic context. Just as Sephardim, in Spain and beyond, have yearned for Jerusalem, they have also yearned for Sepharad. This sets Sephardim, who are often overlooked in Jewish culture and academia, apart.

"No Ashkenaz dreams of Poland.... A Sephardi, yes, dreams of Sefarad." - Manuel de la Obra, speaking to Josh Nathan-Kazis

Though this quote, attributed to Manuel de la Obra of Córdoba's Casa de Sefarad, may be characterized as a gross generalization, it reflects a genuine trend of Sephardic yearning that is largely absent in Ashkenazi culture and literature. Despite the violence and discrimination they periodically suffered, Sephardim were generally better treated and more integrated than their Ashkenazi kinsmen. Even so, it is important to note that they were still dhimmi, non-Muslim outsiders protected by their Muslim rulers but outsiders nevertheless.

For millennia, Sephardic literature, music, art, and discourse has reflected this state of exile and its accompanied yearning. Though each is unique, there are distinct parallels between the pre-and-post-Inquisition yearning for the Land of Israel and the post-Inquisition yearning for Spain. This project aims to examine contemporary Sephardic voices of exile through the lens of a layered Diaspora. In his seminal work on this theme, scholar David Wacks named this a "double Diaspora," the post-Inquisition Sephardic Diaspora across the Mediterranean as a continuation of the greater Jewish Diaspora following the Roman conquest. However, for many Sephardic Jews it is a triple Diaspora, with the recent Sephardic flight from anti-Semitism in the Middle East and North Africa in the mid-20th century.

Longing for Yerushaláyim from Spain and Beyond

In Sephardic imagination, Jerusalem has ranged from a semi-mythical place of longing to a corporeal homeland. It is present in Sephardic literature of all times, evoked by those who yearned for it, visited it, and lived in it. Well before the emergence of modern Zionism, Jews such as Yehuda Ha-Levi prayed for a return to their holy city (see Reflection 4). He wrote his famous "My Heart is in the East" from 12th century Al-Andalus.

"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west-- How can I find savour in food? How shall it be sweet to me? How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains? A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain -- Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary." - Yehuda Ha-Levi

This theme across the Mediterranean in the Sephardic Diaspora through the power of song. Written in a Spanish-based language, Ladino songs about Jerusalem characterized the yearning of a double Diaspora. One song popular in Turkey and Bulgaria speaks to the extent of the desire for Jerusalem, a love stronger than that of one's family.

"Ir me kero madre a Yerushaláyim... A Yerushaláyim lo veo d'enfrente, olvido mis ijos i mis parientes (I want to go, Mother, to Jerusalem... I see Jerusalem in front of me, and I forget my own children and my relatives.)"

Among other old Ladino ballads, this song has been performed and preserved by Israeli Sephardic singer Yasmin Levy.

Looking to Spain Half a Millennium After the Expulsion

"And the question is this: how can the memory of Spain be retained as if it were a cherished memory of Jerusalem? How can it be that Jews, whose ancestors were cruelly banished from Spain in the late Middle Ages and lived in exile in Muslim or Christian countries, have insisted on preserving a Spanish identity of sorts for more than four hundred years? It is as if they had said to those who drove them out: you succeeded in expelling us physically from Spain, but you will never succeed in expelling Spain from inside of us." - Abraham B. Yehoshua

This quote by a Sephardic academic highlights the strong parallels between the exiles of Sephardim. It contrasts the holy Jerusalem with the violent former Spain, both beloved homelands. The latter perhaps is more in memory than actuality, as one can see in the previous section – in general, Jewish works from within Spain paint a more varied picture while works of exile look back with bittersweet nostalgia. Beyond explicit nostalgia, Sephardic culture is undeniably somewhat Spanish, and the remarkable preservation of Ladino for five centuries reflects this.

Ladino as a medium of memory

Through centuries of exile and across many countries, Ladino has been the common bond tying Sephardic Jews to both Spain and each other. Spain's history of granting citizenship to Sephardic Jews dates long prior to the 2015 nationality law, with a movement to encourage Jewish migration to Spain in the early 20th century. Paul Abravanal, a Sephardic Jew from the formerly thriving center of the Diaspora, Salonica, was one such proponent of the movement, working for the Spanish Consulate as an intermediary of sorts. He advocated for about 400 Greek Sephardic families to receive nationality, working with the seemingly encouraging Spanish government and the reluctant Greek government. In 1931, he wrote to the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) detailing his opinion on the matter. He references the use of Ladino, or the "Spanish tongue", as evidence for the Spanish-ness of his Sephardic community.

"Although centuries have passed since the edict of expulsion issued by the Catholic Sovereigns of Spain in 1492, the Jews have remained loyal to Spain, preserving the Spanish tongue, in spite of the natural tendency to assimilate to the languages of the countries in which they now reside," - Paul Abravanal

However, in the nearly 90 years since Abravanel spoke, the state of Ladino usage has greatly changed. Ladino has struggled in the last century, which saw many of its speakers murdered in the Holocaust or pushed to emigrate (more on that in the next section), but it has seen a recent revival of academic and cultural interest, especially in Israel and North America. Led by community, academic, and governmental organizations like the University of Washington's Sephardic Studies Program and Israel's National Authority for Ladino, this resurgence in Ladino culture looks not just to Sefarad itself but to the exile, which shaped the language.

Abravanal called Ladino a "Spanish tongue" and it is indeed very intelligible to a Spanish speaker like this author, but it is also imbued with languages of exile like Turkish and Greek and has different geographic dialects. It thus looks implicitly to both Spain and the Diaspora in a way that is particularly meaningful given that its current speakers likely use another language (English, Hebrew, etc) in their daily lives. Thus, to speak Ladino is to speak with a purpose, especially for the non-native speaker younger generation who learned is out of a desire to connect with their past. For the older generation of native speakers, many of whom are immigrants, it can be the key to retaining their heritage and crafting communities of Diaspora.

The University of Washington's Sephardic Studies Program and Stroum Center for Jewish Studies are invaluable spaces in the documentation and preservation of Ladino language and culture, with digital archives from and events engaging Seattle's Sephardic community. In the clip above, a member of the community, Doreen Cohen Alhadeff, speaks in 2014's annual Ladino Day, detailing her path to learning her ancestral language as a means of connecting with Spain itself. She looks explicitly to visiting Spain – or Sefarad or "Espanya", another Ladino term for it (Sefarad originates in Hebrew but is used in Ladino) – as a way forward for herself and her community to connect with their heritage.

In her recent travels, she encountered a "new Spain" (Not to be confused with the imperial holdings in New Spain). Without needing to explicitly reference the era of the expulsion of her ancestors, she implies it, saying that the Spain she found is "21st century", "different", and "truly wants to know its history and culture, including the lives of it Jews," (Translations my own). Her speech, though it may be a particularly rosy take, reflects two key facets in contemporary Sephardic memory: not only are Sephardim looking to Spain, Spain is looking to them. With government-funded efforts in Sephardic historic tourism (see the Red de Juderias' Caminos de Sefarad, covered in Reflection 4 and Midterm), the nationality law, and even the Real Academia of Español's new institution for the study of Ladino, Spain is looking to its Jews and their cultural heritage. These efforts have broad, sometimes troubling implications beyond the scope of this project – the politics of memory and who benefits, the discordance between inviting Jews back and still celebrating the leaders of the Inquisition, and many more – but nevertheless indicates a convergence of Spanish and Sephardic memory.

This recent resurgence of interest in Ladino has led to its widespread usage in the arts. Though it is has been vitally helped by academia, academia alone cannot carry a language when a language itself holds so much more than words and grammar. Projects like those at UW have helped bridge the gap from strictly academic to cultural realms. Ladino is also rising as a medium of Sephardic storytelling outside of academia entirely.

One particularly strong voice in modern Ladino culture is Israeli poet Margalit Matitiahu, whose family also hails from Salonica. Matitiahu has advocated for the place of Ladino poetry in Israel, where the language initially suffered under nationalist efforts to encourage the use of Hebrew. Matitiahu writes in both languages with a strong use of what writer Monique Balbuena called "physicality" in her 2016 book, Homeless Tongues: Poetry and Languages of the Sephardic Diaspora, which is centered around three authors including Matitiahu. Physicality is her use of intricate sensory details to create a sense of place, time, and being out of memories.

This physicality extends not only to Matitiahu's works on femininity and sexuality but also those on the Greek Sephardim who perished in the Shoah (yet another Sephardic mass tragedy and source of forced migration) and her family memories of Sepharad. This physicality lends itself to placemaking, creating visions of Matitiahu's ancestral lands in Greece and Spain. Extending her role as a poet to one of a historian, Matitiahu collaborated with her filmmaker son, Jack, to create a Spanish-Ladino documentary on the Jews and conversos of León, a northern Spanish city. Her narration of the 2010 A New Encounter evokes place as a key part of Sephardic memory, writing that descendants of León's Jews can

“...still smell the pomegranates that grew in our gardens.” - Margalit Matitiahu

Using this strong physicality, Matitiahu conjures Sepharad in the most joyful terms. Memories like this are at once joyful and bittersweet, and emphasize the lives rather than deaths of Sephardic Jews. Though history focuses on their trials, Sephardic Jews experienced much more than just persecution. It paints a strong sense of place, invoking pomegranates a symbol for Spanish-ness. Gardens represent the roots that continue to anchor Sephardic Jews to Spain.

A Third Exile: Fleeing Anti-Semitism in the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th Century

Lisa Cirincione and AJ Meijer perform a Ladino love song, "Aido Querida" (Goodbye Love), in Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks, Jewish Women's Theatre, California, United States, 2017.

The resurgence of Ladino arts extends to another important Sephardic migration, the 20th-century exodus from the Middle East and North Africa. Pictured above is a scene from "Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks," a 2017 production by the Jewish Women's Theatre in California. Based on a true story about a Sephardic family's last Seder in Egypt, it brings Ladino to an English-speaking production and crowd, including a famous Ladino love song. The song, "Aido Querida" (Goodbye Love), may be about romance, but its theme of departing a loved one (or rather, place) fits the Sephardic experience well. Showing the enduring strength of Sephardic culture across nations, the same song is included below in a hauntingly beautiful iteration by a Bosnian Sephardic duo, Barimatango. Like those in Egypt, Sephardic Jews in the former Yugoslavia have suffered tremendously, and music is used as a medium of cultural-linguistic preservation though upheaval.

After fleeing the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions, Sephardic Jews made their way to new homes across the Mediterranean, with many settling in the Middle East and North Africa. For hundreds of years, they lived in strong communities and maintained their Sephardic identities while adapting to the cultures around them. However, they did not escape the fate of so many Jews before them, and by the mid-20th century, many were forced out of their homes once again. Some migrations were more voluntary than others, but nearly all were motivated by real fears of violence and persecution. This third Diaspora (though there are many more) is lesser known than the mass migrations of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the Inquisition, but it is deeply relevant to modern Sephardic memory with many migrants still alive today.

Though lesser known than the European Holocaust victims, North African Jews suffered pogroms, forced labor, and in some cases, deportation to concentration camps under Vichy and German occupation in the Second World War. This empowered existing local anti-Semitism, which had already been on the rise amidst nationalist movements. Soon after the occupations ended, North Africa experienced a wave of nationalist decolonization.

In some cases, decolonization took away the protection that Jews had previously enjoyed – Jews had stood between colonizer colonized in both social hierarchies and roles as intermediaries, and some were even granted French citizenship. As empires crumbled, many Sephardic North Africans were uncertain of what their fate would be in post-colonial societies and decided to leave. Moreover, the creation of the State of Israel further catalyzed anti-Semitism while at the same time giving Jews a viable option to leave. This new wave of persecution came from both civilians and states, with anti-Jewish decrees and massacres. Only the Tunisian and Moroccan governments worked to protect Jews and encourage them to stay, but their efforts were not enough to counteract the mix of fear and hope that pushed their Jewish citizens to make Aliyah to Israel.

"I always carry a suitcase... and the suitcase is filled with toys no child has played with filled with memories of people without a past." - Mois Benarroch

The above quote, published in 2005 by the Moroccan-born Israeli poet Mois Benarroch, exemplifies the pain of dispersion and reminds us that Sephardic yearning does not mean to idealize or gloss over the past. While some Sephardic Jews fondly recall their past homes with bittersweet nostalgia, others see their history as a series of places they were never quite allowed to call home. Benarroch does both, writing about the "immigrant's lament". Carrying a suitcase, so to speak, is to always be ready to leave – and to never know when one might have to. It reflects a deep anxiety stemming from the very real persecution Benarroch, his family, and his people lived through. Does being Sephardic, or more generally, to be Jewish, mean always having a bag packed?

What are Benarroch's toys? Are they symbols of joys that are gone but not forgotten? Or as Benarroch was born in 1959, are they of a robbed childhood, a generation that grew up with upheaval, persecution, and migration? The dichotomy between memories and a "people without a past" is particularly poignant and difficult to interpret, evoking perhaps a people who never were allowed to fully set down roots. Or, it could suggest a tendency among Sephardic Israelis to try to forget their pasts out of trauma or assimilation.

While Benarroch and other Sephardic writers explicitly write about their exile, others seep this theme into mainstream works through metaphors. In fact, the Sephardic experience of triple exile has made its way into one of 2017's most popular movies, the Academy Award-winning Call Me By Your Name. Though lauded for its complex portrayal of youthful queer sexuality and romance, it also pays homage to another identity: Sephardic. It is based the book of the same name by André Aciman, a New York-based Sephardic professor who was expelled from Egypt along with his family in 1965, at age 14. In the book and movie, the American leads are the only Jews in a small Italian town. At 17, the younger of the pair is just a few years older than Aciman's was at migration, and is in the painful era of coming to terms with his identity. He falls in love with his father's 24-year-old graduate student, who is more open with both his gayness and his Jewishness. As Aciman said in an interview,

"They have one thing in common, and it’s very important. It’s their Jewishness. In other words, their Jewishness becomes their bond that’s already implicit. It is also a metaphor for the thing that is not revealed, and in this case, it is the metaphor for homosexual desire." - André Aciman

Aciman thus draws on his childhood memories of hiding his Jewish identity from his classmates in Alexandria. This practice of discretion was adopted by his greater community, creating a guessing game of sorts in which one had to proceed very carefully to identify a fellow Sephardic Jew. To this day, he strives to recognize other Jews, who even in an era of relative tolerance keep their identities quiet. In this act of recognition between strangers, Aciman invokes the power of Sephardic bonds despite persecution. As he explains, this ritual is echoed by gay men, who exist in a similar dichotomy of integration and persecution. The "thing that is not revealed" is not just homosexual desire but rather desire for human connection with those who hold similar experiences. Amidst rampant persecution, both Jewish and LGBT people fall in love, build communities, and live out their identities, even if discreetly.

Further sources

The voices in this project represent just a sliver of the diverse Sephardic voices in contemporary poetry, literature, theatre, film, and more. To complement this, I have listed resources for further discovery.

Bibliography to follow on a separate document