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.
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