My Spanish Inquisition: Part 8 The First 23

Can Sephardic Jews go home again - 500 years after the Inquisition?

The Forward
Josh Nathan-Kazis
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The Forward
Josh Nathan-Kazis

Abraham de Lucena is at the center of our family mythology. I learned his name before I learned the names of most of my great-grandparents. He is our link to the ultimate genealogical trump card, the hallmark of true New York Sephardic aristocratic authenticity — a blood connection to the original 23 Jews to land in North America.

That first boatload arrived in New York the year before de Lucena in 1654, from Recife, in Brazil. Recife had been part of a Dutch colony that was taken by the Portuguese earlier that year. The Portuguese brought the Inquisition with them, so the Jews set out to return to Amsterdam. They wound up in New Amsterdam instead; both pirates and a shipwreck have been blamed, though no one knows what actually happened.

We claim descent from the 23, though we have always known the claim is a little tenuous. The presumption, I think, was that de Lucena married one of the original 23 or one of their daughters. Either way, the claim relies on a connection to de Lucena.

De Lucena was an important man in the early Jewish community in New Amsterdam. In March of 1655, soon after he landed, he defied the colony’s authorities by keeping his store open on Sunday. Later, his name appeared at the top of the handful of petitions the colony’s Jews sent back to Amsterdam demanding, and eventual receiving, rights in the colony similar to those they had enjoyed back in Amsterdam.

Our claim to de Lucena is through one of Luis Gomez’s sons, who married de Lucena’s granddaughter. Their descendants were rich. Really rich. Until 1786, the Gomez wives and daughters had a special fenced-in area reserved just for them in the women’s gallery of Shearith Israel, the synagogue led until recently by my uncle. The family owned huge amounts of property in Manhattan, including large sections of what’s now Greenwich Village.

The day job of De Sola Pool, the author of “Portraits Etched in Stone,” was as rabbi of Shearith Israel, the leadership and membership of which was heavily populated by descendants of Gomez. All this is taken into account in the section of the book on Abraham de Lucena.

Abraham de Lucena is a tricky case, de Sola Pool writes. There are records of a gravestone for an Abraham Haim de Lucena, a trader and Jewish minister who died in 1725, but none for Abraham de Lucena. Abraham Haim de Lucena is the man whose daughter married a Gomez. The connection to the 23 relies on Abraham Haim de Lucena being Abraham de Lucena’s grandson. According to de Sola Pool, however, that connection is more-or-less wishful thinking.

It is “attractive” to imagine the two men as grandfather and grandson, de Sola Pool wrote. “One would fain trace the story of these families in direct line of their demonstrable ancestor the Reverend Abraham Haim de Lucena to the leader of the original Jewish community in North America, Abraham de Lucena.”


This de Sola Pool book has been on my parents’ shelf my entire life. It’s fat and expensive. The dustcover is crumbling. There’s one on my grandparents’ shelf, too, and probably one on my great-uncle’s shelf. These are all bookshelves that I’ve spent a lot of time browsing. And I’m interested in de Lucena. But somehow, I never read that passage until I landed in Madrid with a photocopy of it in my backpack. All of a sudden, our whole first-Jews-in-North-America shtick was starting to sound like something cooked up a few generations ago to humor us.

How much of our Sephardic identity relied on that claim? Would we care so much about Shearith Israel and the portraits and the family trees without the ultimate legitimacy of a tie to the original 23? Would I even consider myself Sephardic if someone, some number of generations ago, hadn’t decided that Abraham Haim de Lucena was actually the grandson of Abraham de Lucena? Would I have noticed the citizenship offer? Would I have come to Lucena?

Click here for Part 9: A Jew visits Lucena or here to go back to the main page.

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My Spanish InquisitionCredit: Kurt Hoffman / The Forward
The author’s family tree dating back to 1654. Courtesy of the American Jewish Archives, via the Forward.
Shearith Israel: The Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Manhattan, founded in 1654. Photo via Wikicommons.

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