Don't Mention the Chorizos: When You're Not Jewish Enough for the Other Moms at School

My husband and I enrolled our son in Madrid’s only Jewish school thinking he'd learn the religious traditions that we never had. What we weren't prepared for was a crash course in being Jews in a city steeped in anti-Semitic lore.

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Children play as they cool down in a fountain beside Manzanares river in Madrid August 17, 2014.
Children play as they cool down in a fountain beside Manzanares river in Madrid August 17, 2014. Credit: Reuters

My son’s teacher approached me after school recently with a sense of mission that would rattle any parent. She wanted me to know my six-year-old had received an especially offensive taunt. She assured me she'd spoken to the guilty party.

“He called me a ham eater!” my son, who was present, said of the other boy’s infraction. “He said I wasn’t a real Jew!”

Four years ago, my husband and I enrolled our son in Madrid’s only Jewish school thinking he'd learn the religious values and traditions that had been missing in our own childhoods.

What we weren’t prepared for was a crash course in being Jews in Madrid, a city steeped in anti-Semitic lore that pre-dates the expulsion.

I had moved to Spain years earlier from South Florida – land of mass-produced challah bread and Star of David bling-bling.

In Madrid, the unspoken codes of a precariously small, stratified religious world were another matter. My entry into the school’s parent circle was an education in genealogical parsing. The strictly observant Spanish Jews could trace their roots back to Toledo or the historic enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Among the South American immigrants, mostly from Argentina and Venezuela, all had lineage narratives, kept kosher homes and observed the Sabbath. A few snuck out for the occasional tapas every now and then. As far as the secular Israelis, nobody questioned their Jewishness – they were tribesmen by virtue of holy geography. A handful of converted wives couldn't have anything said about them without their convert status coming up.

And then there were unknown quantities, like us.

Did we pass as Jews? I’d asked myself this only once before – when my mother was buried in Jerusalem's Sanhedria cemetery in 1995, and the rabbis requested proof of her Orthodox conversion before they would admit her for burial. Before and since, I'd hardly questioned my Jewish "legitimacy" though I come from a family that didn't follow the rules. My father is a Jerusalemite of Sephardic origin whose family lived in Palestine long before Israel became a state. My great-grandfather is buried somewhere on the Mount of Olives.

Growing up in Venezuela, however, I attended secular schools and never learned Hebrew. Bacon was a Sunday-brunch staple. My family’s observance consisted of grudging visits to our synagogue for Yom Kippur, Hanukkah candle lightings and sprawling, festive Passover dinners for which my mother, a convert from Catholicism, made a lamb roast fit for a Roman feast. I have memories of liturgical chants and the shofar’s piercing blasts. My Jewishness was a vestigial thing that rattled loudly in my soul now and then.

I wanted more for my son.

At first it, it seemed, I didn’t have to out-pedigree anyone with my ancestral, mount-burial credential. My name, Abbady, had a solidly Sephardic ring to it, according to parent who informed me this had been the verdict in a conversation he’d overheard.

But whispered inquiries soon reached us about my husband's family name – Montañez - Uruguayans who made Aliyah to Israel decades ago. My husband had lived in Madrid for 35 years, but never involved himself in the city’s Jewish community. His first wife was a Catholic. When he met his mother-in-law in 1980, and was introduced as a Jew, she groped his head to feel for horns.

Montañez – not a Jewish name, the parent rumors suggested. Is he half-Jewish? A quarter? Goy altogether? Christian father who never converted, word got out. And, despite Judaism's law of matrilineal descent, my husband was outted. In this particularly exclusive diaspora community, he wasn’t a real Jew. And by association, neither was I.

We soon found ourselves on the fringe of the non-observant, and not just because we didn’t practice. A moderately observant friend, whose teenage son had for years been excluded from the parties and social events of his Orthodox classmates at the school, warned me of what we were in for.

“This is what religion does,” she said of her son, who was seeing a private counselor and had finally decided he wanted to attend a public school this fall.

How these religious divisions actually played out in the school community was a matter of nuance and politics.

Over the years, observant parents have demanded more emphasis on liturgical instruction at school. Secular parents have argued for less. On Sundays, one camp sends its kids to religious activities and the other to activities that promote team sports and pride in Israel.

When we first joined the birthday circuit in the pre-school years, we noticed that non-observant hosts prepared two food tables – kosher and non-kosher. One was laden with hard-to-find kosher-sealed snacks. The other was piled with drinks and cookies from the corner supermarket. Some of the parent hosts were surreptitious chorizo eaters, but there were never any pork products in sight.

Still, observant parents complained. They kept having to pull their children away from the non-kosher food. “It is so thoughtless!” one mother groaned at a party. After enough complaints, all birthday parties became kosher-only affairs. Including, of course, my son’s.

So, despite myself, and to spare my son from accusations of being a heathen, I became a public Jew – avoiding any casual references to my own taste for seafood paella when in mixed company, sending my son off to school with inoffensive cheese sandwiches for his morning snack, and nodding my head sympathetically when mothers described their fainting spells during the Yom Kippur fast. Other non-observant parents did the same, instructing their children not to advertise their non-kosher home lives. By these standards, we were all tolerably Jewish for the purposes of on-campus mingling.

Socially, both groups have largely stuck with their own, even if we greet each other warmly at the school entrance. No observant family could ever eat dinner at my non-kosher house, but I've had the privilege to accept a rare, cross-divide invitation.

The one commonality we might share – security concerns – is not often mentioned. Unlike U.S. Jews, ever vocal about anti-Jewish threats in the world, the daily vulnerability of Spanish Jews is not a matter of public solidarity. A 2010 poll by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs showed that over half of all Spaniards believe Jews control the economy and mass media.

In a block of schools, ours is the only one under constant police surveillance. Private Israeli guards man the gates. Articles on Israel spark a rash of anti-Semitic rants in the comment sections of mainstream newspapers. The latest Israel-Hamas war has resulted in an intensification of public vitriol. Little of this discourse specifically addresses the Israeli government's actions. An op-ed in El Mundo by famed author Antonio Gala begins, "The Jewish people could have done much good for mankind," uses medieval tropes to describe an "invisible community of blood," and ends by saying the historic expulsion of Jews from Europe was justified. In addition, pro-Palestinian marches draw hundreds of thousands and often include hateful rhetoric that makes no distinction between Israeli and Jewish.

Over generations, anti-Jewish sentiment in Spain has been absorbed into left-wing politics. The one time I encountered this thinly veiled historic grudge, the leader of a small literary group – a published author and respected psychologist – was subjecting me to an informal interview in front of the other members. I resisted her prodding about my name, until she finally asked. “Are you Jewish?”

When I confirmed this, she gave her fourth cigarette a hard, asthmatic suck.

“At least you’re not one of those Jews who goes around murdering Palestinians,” she said, and I was admitted into the group.

I've also bumped into more primitive attitudes. Recently, someone spray-painted a crossed-out Star of David and the popular Nazi-era slogan "Juden Raus!" in life-size letters across an empty storefront near our home. Police arrived within minutes when my husband reported it and the words were washed off.

At the same time, Spanish lawmakers are getting ready to pass a law that would expedite the process for Sephardic Jews worldwide to claim Spanish citizenship. Police have stepped up efforts to crack down on hate crimes and document racist incidents. Magazines such as Historia dedicate increasing amounts of space to the lasting influences of Sephardic culture, and a small but growing number of Spanish Catholics are learning that they're descended from Jews who were forced to convert during the Inquisition. In a dramatic reversal, some are returning to Judaism and reclaiming their Sephardic roots.

But these things are matters of historical circumstance in Madrid’s Jewish community. Its members prefer to keep a low profile. Current events are discussed in hushed tones, if they're addressed at all. They do not bind parents together.

For the observant, only ritual can do this.

The day we were invited to a traditional Sabbath dinner (as a token of gratitude after we’d brought back an Orthodox couple a supply of kosher snacks from a trip to Israel) my husband and I fretted over where to park the car so our gracious hosts wouldn’t see us driving. We knew they'd asked their previous guests to walk. That night, over prayer and the slow-cooked Sabbath dafina (stew), we let the wine do its job and enjoyed each other's company.

I don’t regret putting my son in a school where he is forging a Jewish identity, even if I’m forced to confront my own in unsettling ways. You don’t forget your religion in a city where the local pediatrician, scanning my naked son's body for any signs of ill health year after year, never fails to up in surprise with the observation, "Oh, I see you're Jewish!"

I assure my son we’re Jewish no matter what's on the dinner table, but he insists to his religious friends that his home is kosher. In the elementary-school playground, the world is composed simply of those who eat ham and those who don’t.

Sometimes, I forget this rift. On a recent park outing where both observant and non-observant parents enjoyed a stroll together, I stopped to buy a bag of popcorn from a vendor for my son. In an instant, one of his religious classmates was at our side, inspecting my purchase.

“That’s not kosher!” the boy yelled repeatedly, before running to his father to see if he could eat some of the popcorn.

He received a stern no. I got a stiff, disapproving glance. 

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