Sisters from a prominent Sephardic family to get Spanish citizenship

It’s been more than 500 years since Yosef Elyashar, a rabbi in the Spanish town of Híjar, was expelled from his home country. Now, centuries later, two of his American ancestors are poised to become citizens again, thanks to a law passed one year ago by the Spanish government reaching out to Sephardic Jews.

“My whole life I’d heard about my family’s connection to Spain and how much my parents and my ancestors respected their cultural connection to Spain,” said Tamar Hurwitz, who, with her sister Sharón Eliashar, went through the last hurdle of the bureaucratic process to attain citizenship on June 2. Having completed the rigorous undertaking, the sisters have been advised by the notary representing the Spanish government that they will soon be conferred citizenship.

“It never occurred to me that I’d be able to return to Spain. It never occurred to me that we’d be welcomed back as Sephardic Jews based on our family’s history, and the fact that this law emerged sparked something in me,” Hurwitz said. “It was like lighting a match and having flames suddenly appear that connected me instantly and very strongly to my ancestral homeland.”

According to family lore — buttressed by official forms, timeworn letters and handwritten notations dating back hundreds of years — after being driven out of Spain in the late 15th century, Yosef Elyashar’s family wandered in exile in Europe until finally reaching the Holy Land. 

In Palestine, and eventually Israel, the Eliashars — a spelling Sharón prefers, though some descendants spell it Eliachar — have been a distinguished family for more than five centuries, featuring prominent rabbis, scholars and community leaders. Givat Shaul and Kfar Shaul, at the western entrance to Jerusalem, are hubs of Orthodox Jewish life; they were named in honor of Yaakov Shaul Elyashar, Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem from 1893 to 1904, when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. A street in downtown Jerusalem is named for Yaakov Elyashar, an 18th century rabbi of the same family tree.  

The Eliashar family thrived after being forced out of Spain, and like many Sephardic families, they don’t seem to have harbored resentment toward the country that exiled them. Instead, they took Spain with them. Among themselves, they spoke Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect. They ate buñuelos and sofritos, staples of Spanish cuisine. In their poetry, they conjured up medieval Spanish life. Even the name Sephardic evokes fond memories of their ancestral homeland: Sefarad means Spain in Hebrew. 

Spanish Jews also carried sacramental colors and shapes with them when they went into exile. Lucia Conte, an expert in the history of Spanish Jewry, has written that when she first stepped into one of the oldest synagogues in Safed, Israel, built in the 1500s, it struck her how similar it was to the still-surviving shul in Híjar, Spain, not far from the city of Zaragoza. The Safed shul’s bimah was the same blue as that inside Híjar’s shul, and had the same contours. Conte was thrilled to hear the guide explain that the shul was “probably founded by the first Spanish rabbi to reach Israel, someone named Yosef, who was known as ‘the Zaragozan’ because he came from a town near Zaragoza.” Conte has written that Yosef Elyashar, who had been rabbi at the shul in Híjar, was surely the same person who built and led a shul in Safed in the early 1500s.

Sharón Eliashar said that Conte’s published account was one of the many pieces of evidence that she and her sister presented to the notary representing the Spanish government in the recent hearings to determine whether the sisters had made a credible case for receiving Spanish citizenship. 

Under the recent law passed by the Spanish government, regulations were enacted to make it easier for Sephardic Jews to attain Spanish citizenship. The requirements, however, are still cumbersome.

“We had to pass a Spanish language test,” said Hurwitz, who lives in San Francisco and works for the city as an environmental educator in the school system. “We also had to pass a culture and civics test to show we understood the laws and culture and customs of Spain. We had to procure birth certificates, marriage certificates, family documents and otherwise prove our Sephardic lineage, and also prove that we were from that lineage. We had to get letters from the Sephardic community in the U.S. to show we were Sephardic. Everything had to be translated into Spanish. There were all sorts of things we had to do to make our case.” 

During this process, the Eliashar sisters — whose father is Joseph Hurwitz, a rabbi for many years at Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs — have had Barcelona-based Maya Dori, an Israeli-born lawyer and academic, helping them navigate through the red tape. Dori, herself of Sephardic background, has dedicated herself to helping Sephardic Jews get their Spanish citizenship. 

“By the time we got in to see the notary,” Hurwitz said, “Maya had already done her work. The notary had already been through the process with Maya, to understand all the connections. So Maya really made the case on our behalf, which is why we needed her.”

In a phone interview from her home in Barcelona, Dori said the Spanish citizenship request made by the Eliashar sisters was special to her. 

“You have to understand what family these sisters are from,” Dori said. “When I grew up in Jerusalem, I’d go to Givat Shaul and other neighborhoods that were named for people in the Eliashar family. This is a family that’s part of Sephardic and Jerusalem history.”

The Eliashar sisters made it clear that getting their Spanish citizenship will in no way compromise their Jewish identity or their love for Israel. Instead, becoming citizens of Spain is a way of reconnecting a crucial Jewish link that had been broken for hundreds of years.

“Meeting with the notary was a profound experience for me,” said Sharón Eliashar, a musician, singer and composer who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. “Our mother flew in for it, and our brother, as well. So it was a meaningful event for our whole family. They were there inside the room, as well, at the table with us. … The Eliashar family has had a Spanish identity for at least 500 years, handed from generation to generation, both as part of an oral tradition as well as in documents. It’s this identity that connects us to our ancestors, and each generation passed on the story of our having come from Spain. It’s almost like the haggadah, which passes on a story of origins and urges each new generation to keep the story alive.”

Though she doesn’t doubt the Spanish government’s sincerity in reaching out to Sephardic Jews, Dori said that “less than 15 people have been able to receive their Spanish citizenships under the new law during this past year. … According to the Spanish Jewish Federation, during the first year of the law, 1,026 people have been granted the certificates that will allow them to start applying for Spanish citizenship.” Dori said that the actual number of applicants who will go through the requirements will be “much lower.”

“So far, the number of people who have gotten their applications approved … is not very large,” Eliashar said. “We’re grateful that the Spanish government has offered us this opportunity, but we hope that they expand and extend it so that it has a real impact.”  

Brazil honors Jewish historian for her Inquisition research

Jewish historian Anita Novinsky, 94, was nominated for the “Woman Science Pioneers” award by the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development for her longtime academic and field research about Inquisition.

Recognized as Brazil’s most prominent specialist in Brazilian and Portuguese Marranos, or hidden Jews who practiced Judaism secretly at home and pretended to be fervently Catholic while out in public, Novinsky became one of 70 Brazilians to receive the honor so far.

Anita Novinsky was born in Poland but naturalized as a Brazilian citizen. Author of several books, she is founder and chairwoman of the University of São Paulo’s Laboratory of Studies on Intolerance.

Launched in 2013, the “Woman Science Pioneers” project aims at highlighting the stories of women who have contributed to the advancement of science, research and technology in Brazil and can inspire youths to pursue a scientific career.

The Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, or CNPq, is an organization of the Brazilian federal government under the Ministry of Science and Technology, dedicated to the promotion of scientific and technological research and to the formation of human resources for research in the country.

Spanish official gives first formal apology for Inquisition

A Spanish official has given what is being heralded as the country’s first formal apology for the Inquisition’s killing of Jews.

On the island of Mallorca, where 37 Jews were killed in 1691 for secretly practicing Judaism, the regional president offered the apology at a May 5 memorial service in the city of Palma.

“We have dared to gather here to recognize the grave injustice committed against those Mallorcans who were accused, persecuted, charged and condemned to death for their faith and their beliefs,” the Balearic Islands regional president, Francesc Antich, told a crowd of 130, according to an Associated Press report.

Spain’s Jewish federation told reporters it may have been the first such government-sponsored event in Spanish history.

The ceremony was suggested by Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, an Israel-based nonprofit that seeks out “lost Jews” around the world, the AP reported. Freund said he hoped it would inspire similar ceremonies elsewhere in Spain.

When the Inquisition was launched in 1492, Spain’s Jews either left the country or converted to Catholicism. Many “conversos” continued to practice Judaism in secret, and were punished severely if caught.

On Mallorca, 82 conversos were condemned in 1691. Thirty four were publicly garroted, and their bodies were burned in bonfires. Another three, including a rabbi, were burned alive.

It is beleived that about 15,000 descendants of conversos live on Mallorca today. Almost all are Catholic.

PBS docudrama to reveal secret files of Inquisition

Some 700 years after the Inquisition was established by the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II decreed in 1998 that its massive secret archives be opened for scholarly research.

The announcement piqued the immediate interest of independent, Seattle-based filmmaker David Rabinovitch, and he started the long, torturous road of recreating the history of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, from its beginning in the early 13th century to its final gasps in the late 19th century. The result is the four-hour miniseries, “Secret Files of the Inquisition,” which PBS stations will air May 9 and 16, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Filmed mainly at the medieval castles, cathedrals and villages of Spain, “Secret Files” presents a broad panorama — both visually and historically — of its subject.

One of the first calls Rabinovitch made after conceiving the idea of the docudrama was to an old friend and high Catholic dignitary in San Francisco. How would Catholics in general, and the Vatican in particular, feel about the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants making a probing film about the church’s questionable past, asked Rabinovitch.

“I know your ability and your integrity,” answered the dignitary. “Go for it.”

It is commonly assumed that Jews were the chief target of the church’s single-minded quest for theological uniformity and purity, but that was generally not the case. The first victims were Catholic dissidents, such as the Cathars of southern France, whose fate is chronicled in the first of the film’s four chapters, titled, “Root Out Heretics.”

The itinerant preachers of Catharism, known as “The Good Men,” believed that man had a direct relationship to God and did not need the intercession of priests and popes to achieve salvation. Dominican friars, charged by Pope Gregory IX with rooting out this heresy, did their job well, including the imprisonment of the entire population of Montaillou, the last stronghold of the Cathars.

In “The Tears of Spain,” the second segment, Rabinovitch retraces the more familiar story of the brutal Spanish Inquisition, which introduced such refinements as the auto-da-fe (act of faith), the public burning of heretics at the stake.

The chief targets were not Jewish “infidels” but “conversos,” who had nominally converted to Christianity but secretly retained their Jewish faith. The Spanish Inquisition climaxed — but did not end — with Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada’s own final solution, the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492.

In “The War of Ideas,” the story moves to the 16th century, when, with the arrival of the Renaissance, printing press and Lutheranism, the decadent papal court faced a new set of ideological problems. Despite these preoccupations, the fanatical Pope Paul IV found time to withdraw the papal bulls issued by his predecessors to protect the Jews of Venice and Rome.

He confined them in crowded ghettos, forced them to wear yellow conical hats and burned the Talmud.

The lingering “End of the Inquisition” came with Napoleon’s conquest of Europe. By 1809, the French emperor had largely emasculated the pope’s temporal power.

After Napoleon’s defeat, the Inquisition made a short-lived comeback. One of its last gasps was the notorious case of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy in Bologna, kidnapped and hidden by church authorities because he had been “baptized” as an infant by his Catholic nursemaid.

Rabinovitch, who has won numerous Peabody and Emmy awards, spent some three years on the wide-ranging, richly textured project, and employed 40 actors with principal roles and 600 extras — all on a budget of under $3 million.

The film combines lengthy extracts from the Inquisition files of some 85,000 minutely recorded trials and dramatic reenactments of incidents, with analyses by experts; impressive high-definition photography; music; and narration by actor Colm Feore.

One of the talking heads is the Rev. Joseph A. Di Noia, a New York-born, high-ranking theologian at the Vatican, who functions as a kind of defense attorney for the church.

Unfortunately, from a dramatic point of view, he is a pale figure, repeating again and again that the Inquisition’s viewpoint and methods must be judged in the context of their time.
That’s a valid point, but it is delivered with little emphasis and conviction.

For more information or to order a DVD of the film, go to

One minute at the Inquistion Museum in Lima, Peru.
Click the BIG ARROW.

Ahoy, mateys ! Thar be Jewish pirates!

There’s no arrr-guing that pirates are in.

As of last weekend, Disney had plundered $1 billion worldwide with “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” and International Talk Like a Pirate Day — that’s Sept. 19, for you landlubbers — has gone from an inside joke between two friends to a mock holiday celebrated in more than 40 countries.

Yet tales of Jewish piracy, which stretch back thousands of years, aren’t in the public’s consciousness, and Hollywood even has been known to remove a pirate’s Jewish background. As a result, we’re stuck with portrayals of pirates as wayward English seamen on a murderous rampage.

But now a forthcoming book hopes to change that image by focusing on Ladino-speaking Jews whose piracy grew out of the Inquisition.
“The Jewish pirates were Sephardic. Once they were kicked out of Spain [in 1492], the more adventurous Jews went to the New World,” said Ed Kritzler, whose yet-untitled book on Jewish pirates will be published by Doubleday in spring 2007.

Jewish piracy has been around since well before the Barbary pirates first preyed on ships during the Crusades. In the time of the Second Temple, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus records that Hyrcanus accussed Aristobulus of “acts of piracy at sea.”

Kritzler has studied pirates for 40 years, and said that the public is fascinated with them because they’re “rugged individuals in a world of conformity. They carved their own identity, independent of the rules and strictures of society.”

But determining the exact number of Jewish pirates is difficult, Kritzler said, because many of them traveled as Conversos, or converts to Christianity, and practiced their Judaism in secret.

While some Jews, like Samuel Pallache, took up piracy in part to help make a better life for expelled Spanish Jews, Kritzler said others were motivated by revenge for the Inquisition.

One such pirate was Moses Cohen Henriques, who helped plan one of history’s largest heists against Spain. In 1628, Henriques set sail with Dutch West India Co. Admiral Piet Hein, whose own hatred of Spain was fueled by four years spent as a galley slave aboard a Spanish ship. Henriques and Hein boarded Spanish ships off Cuba and seized shipments of New World gold and silver worth in today’s dollars about the same as Disney’s total box office for “Dead Man’s Chest.”

Henriques set up his own pirate island off the coast of Brazil afterward, and even though his role in the raid was disclosed during the Spanish Inquisition, he was never caught, Kritzler told The Journal.

Another Sephardic pirate played a pivotal role in American history.
In the book “Jews on the Frontier” (Rachelle Simon, 1991), Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman recounts the tale of Sephardic Jewish pirate Jean Lafitte, whose Conversos grandmother and mother fled Spain for France in 1765, after his maternal grandfather was put to death by the Inquisition for “Judaizing.”

Referred to as The Corsair, Lafitte went on to establish a pirate kingdom in the swamps of New Orleans, and led more than 1,000 men during the War of 1812.
After being run out of New Orleans in 1817, Lafitte re-established his kingdom on the island of Galveston, Texas, which was known as Campeche. During Mexico’s fight for independence, revolutionaries encouraged Lafitte to attack Spanish ships and keep the booty.

But in the 1958 film “The Buccaneer,” starring Yul Brynner as Lafitte, any mention of the pirate’s Jewish heritage was stripped away.


For more information on Talk Like a Pirate Day, visit

Click here for a pirate talk translation of this article

Top Ten Halachic Questions for a Jewish Pirate