Diario Judío México - On the way back to the hostel that night, I found myself worrying about  slaves.

I had brought with me to Spain a few photocopied pages from David de Sola  Pool’s “Portraits Etched in Stone,” a 1953 history of New York’s early Sephardic  Jews. On the subway from the airport the day before, I had read the book’s short  biography of Luis Gomez, the Madrid-born ancestor I had discussed with Royo. The  book questions the claim that he was born in Madrid, saying it was more likely  that he was born in Lisbon — something I had chosen not to mention to Royo.  Better to not confuse things, I figured. There was something more troubling,  however, towards the bottom of the biography: a quote from his 1730 will. “I  Louis Gomez, of New York, merchant, being in good health… leave to my sister  Elenor Gomez, £25 a year,” he wrote. “I also leave her a negro wench.”

Slave ownership was common in New York among wealthy families, and Gomez did  well once he arrived from Europe, establishing himself as a trader and buying  thousands of acres in Orange County and Ulster County upstate. The fact that he  owned slaves, then, was not a surprise.

But what if he traded slaves? His sons, also merchants, married women from  Jewish communities in the Caribbean, which meant they had contacts in the  massive slave markets there. If Gomez was a wealthy early 18th century merchant,  wasn’t there some chance that he had participated in the biggest business of the  era?

I had assumed that the logic behind the Spanish passport bid was, at some  level, about reparative justice: Spain did this to our ancestors and has now  proposed to give us citizenship in recompense. It would certainly throw off the  moral calculus if the ancestors I was using to make that claim had gone on to  trade slaves. I had just used Gomez’s name to make my citizenship claim to Royo.  If he was a slave trader, would the claim still feel valid?

Earlier in the day, I had sent a few emails with questions about Gomez. That  evening, I had a response.

My hostel was in a huge old apartment on Calle Atocha. I sat at the small  desk and opened my laptop. There was an email in my inbox from Eli Faber, a CUNY  professor who had written a 1998 book, “Jews and the Slave Trade.” The book  pitches itself in its introduction as a corrective to the Nation of Islam’s “The  Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” which argued that Jews were  particularly complicit in the transatlantic slave trade. Faber’s thesis was  that, though Jews owned slaves, they did not own slaves in disproportionately  large numbers, and that very few were slave traders. I’m not sure whether that  was supposed to be comforting.


It was clear by now that Spain’s Jewish community couldn’t care less about  my Sephardic identity crisis.


Gomez, Faber said in his email to me, was probably not a slave trader. “There  were, here and there, a few slave cargoes shipped by Jews — I know of none such  by Luis Gomez (and I am quite certain he had none)” he wrote.

Okay, so probably not a slave trader, though definitely a slave owner, though  probably not a disproportionately large-scale owner of slaves. How was my  historic guilt quotient doing?

Some bar in the side street outside my window seemed to be having a British  Invasion-themed karaoke party. I fell asleep to the sound of a drunk Spaniard at  the karaoke bar downstairs singing along to “Mother’s Little Helper.”

The next morning was a Saturday. I got up early, put on a suit and headed to  the café down the block. I had a ticket booked on a fast train to Córdoba in the  late afternoon, but I figured I had better go to Shabbat morning services before  I left town. I dawdled for a while over a plate of pan con tomate,  feeling like the only man in Madrid in a tie.

I bought a copy of ABC, a right-wing paper, thinking it might be less of a  downer than El País. It turned out to be a different kind of downer: more misery  over Basque terrorists freed from prison and less over canceled scholarships,  but misery all the same.

Madrid’s main Sephardic synagogue is next to the public library on Calle  Balmes, a little curlicue off a side street near the Iglesia subway stop. The  story here was much the same as elsewhere: A few old Jews, no young ones. The  men who founded the synagogue left Morocco around the time of that country’s  independence in 1956, worried that the new postcolonial regime would expel the  Jews just as Nasser had in Egypt. Spain, still fascist, seemed a safer  option.

Services were efficient and sparsely attended. Afterwards, there were peanuts  and olives and beer at a kiddush downstairs. I had lunch at the home of the  local Lubavitch rabbi, who lived with his wife in an apartment building around  the corner. Their living room had at least nine pictures of the late Lubavitcher  Rebbe. The rabbi and his wife asked another visitor if she had any personal  stories about the Rebbe; she told two, one of which amounted to her passing him  on the street one day. The rabbi pestered me not to travel to Córdoba until  after Shabbat ended, going into another room to dig out a printed train schedule  to show me that there were trains after sunset. I resolved to reinstate my  previously unbroken rule of not having lunch with Lubavitch rabbis.

Back outside, it was a beautiful Saturday in Madrid. The weather had warmed a  bit; there were college-age kids drinking beer and talking politics in the park.  I had a little while before my train, so I went back to my hostel to change out  of my suit.

It was clear by now that Spain’s Jewish community couldn’t care less about my  Sephardic identity crisis. They had their own problems, far more serious than  the ones the government imposed when they said they wanted to offer Sephardic  passports.

Those Sephardic passports, however, were still my problem, and I wasn’t much  closer to figuring out why they had been offered. I couldn’t get any more out of  Madrid’s Jews. In Córdoba, the center of Spain’s Jewish tourism industry, with  the smell of American Jewish tourist cash in the air, I thought that everyone’s  motivations would be more apparent.

I headed to Atocha and got on the train.

Source: http://forward.com/articles/191376/can-sephardic-jews-go-home-again–years-after/?p=all#ixzz2t352OgoG

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