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.”