Who Is a Sephardi Jew? Just Check Their Sabbath Meal

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Hamin.Credit: Vered Guttman

This just might be the hottest question Jews around the world are dealing with these days: Who is a Sephardi? When a promise for a grand prize of Spanish citizenship is at stake (an EU passport! Think of the possibilities!) this question became crucial. Turns out it’s not that easy to know who is a Sephardi and Spain is still debating how to turn their promise into reality and decide who is who among the hundreds of phone calls and emails they’ve been getting ever since announcing that Jews are welcome back to one of the cruelest places in Jewish history.

It’s a good opportunity to get things straight about the Jewish diaspora. The general division between Ashkenazi and Sephardi is too general and is actually wrong. Ashkenazi Jews are those who came from Germany and Northern France and their descendants who spread over Eastern Europe. Sephardiare those whose origins are from Spain (Sepharad in Hebrew) and the Iberian Peninsula. And then there are other communities that stayed in one place for two millennia, like the Iraqi Jews (and trust me, I did double check last week, just in case I’m eligible for a Spanish passport as well. Iraqis are still not Sephardim), the Jews of Yemen, the Roman Jews (Italkim) and the Jews of Georgia.

A list of Sephardi family names that supposedly was published by Spain turned out to be fake. Some suggested checking whether the passport candidates can speak Ladino, a Judaeo-Spanish language that was spoken by the Jews of Spain until the expulsion in 1492. It was then kept alive in Sephardi communities, from Turkey through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Israel. But sadly, this might be the last generation to speak it; many authentic Sephardi Jews do not know a word of Ladino.

But there is a much easier way of finding who is a Sephardi and I wonder why the Spanish government hasn’t thought about it yet. All they need to do is look back to how their ancestors determined who was Jewish, before they executed or burned them to death: They checked their food.

The Spanish inquisition sent out instructions at the time in order to help neighbors and servants identify Conversos who were still secretly observing their Judaism. People were instructed to look for those who were “cleansing or causing meat to be cleansed... cutting away the nerve or sinew from the leg... not eating pork, hare, rabbit, strangled birds, conger-eel, cuttlefish, nor eels or other scale-less fish... And upon death of parents... eating ... such things as boiled eggs, olives and other viands. ... Or who celebrate the Festival of unleavened bread, beginning by eating lettuce, celery or other bitter herbs on those days.”

Trial protocols from the time provide us with further examples of how Jews were detected during the inquisition. Juan Sanchez Exarch was accused in 1484 for keeping the Shabbat and eating the traditional Jewish dish called hamin ceremonially. He was also eating matza, celery and lettuce on Passover. Juan Sanchez Exarch was condemned to death in 1486. Pedro de la Caballeria was reported in 1492 to “eat... the Jewish meat and Sabbath stew and red eggs (huevos haminados, hard boiled eggs that were cooked with onion skins, olive oil and ashes). Rodrigo de Chillon’s wife was identified as Jewish in 1513 after serving a casserole of eggplant, fish and eggs on Shabbat. Mayor Gonzalez and her husband, Pedro Nunez Franco, were turned in by their maid in 1511. “On Fridays, [the maid] used to make casseroles of fish and carrots and eggs, and she made them because her mistress ordered her to, and her mistress and master used to eat them on Friday night and saved [some] for Saturday which they ate cold.” Mayor Gonzalez was sentenced to life in prison and her husband was sentenced to be burned at stake.

All the information and quotes above are from the excellent cookbook, A Drizzle of Honey, the Life and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson.

So if huevos haminados helped convict Jews five hundred years ago, it seems only fair to me to use the same scientific method today. Do you add huevos haminados to your hamin on Shabbat? You’re a Sephardi Jew. Does your grandmother serve medias, burekas, minas and albondigas? You’re definitely a Sephardi. Bumuelos, boyikos and bombonikos? Same. (Doesn’t matter what bombonikos are, I want two of then now!)

Adapted from Cooking Ladino (Gizar Kon Gozo) by Matilda Koen-Serano

This Sephardi recipe for almond candies comes from Sarajevo.

Ingredients:

9 oz. ground almonds

1¼ cups powdered sugar

2 egg whites, whipped

Directions:

1.  Oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit.

2.  Mix ground almonds with ¾ of the sugar and ¾ of the whipped egg whites to create a hard dough. Roll the dough to form a long log, about half inch thick.

3.  Mix the rest of the sugar and egg white to create a glaze. Brush glaze over the almond log. Cut log diagonally to small candies.

4.    Arrange candies on a greased baking sheet and bake until dried.

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