Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos
Back in the 1970s, there was a TV show called Sanford and Son. The sitcom told the story of an African- American father and son who owned a salvage/junk business. I saw the reruns in the 1980s. Today such a show is without question, politically incorrect. At the time, however, many of my African-American friends watched it and enjoyed it. It was oddly enough, a source of bonding between us.
The father, Fred, was elderly and feisty. In one episode he had a toothache and had to go to a dentist. The first dentist he met was a young African-American dentist. Well, you guessed it, Fred didn’t think that the young doctor was the right person for the job. He wanted a “more experienced” doctor. The implication was clear, however.
He wanted a dentist from another racial background. A white dentist was brought in and reviewed Mr. Sanford’s situation. After a few minutes, he explained that the situation was more complicated and he would need someone with more extensive training to deal with this tooth. You guessed it again. To Fred’s chagrin, the original African-American doctor walked in and performed the surgery.
The 1970s were a long time ago, but there is something about this story that still bears true today. I can tell you from personal experience that many Hispanics that claim Converso heritage do not want a Hispanic rabbi to guide them through the process of a Jewish education. Many Hispanics want a “real Jew,” you know someone who is Ashkenazic or Israeli.
Someone perhaps, who quite frankly doesn’t look like them. More importantly, they often want someone who is outside of their cultural heritage to tell them what they are supposed to do.
I am not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s the fact that “one of their own” telling them what is acceptable or not according to Jewish Law doesn’t sit well. Perhaps it’s even the “who does he think he is?” factor. Yes, he studied at a Yeshiva. Yes, he has various degrees in Jewish studies, but why is he expecting me to make so many hard changes? Why can’t he understand that things are tough and my family is not necessarily on the same page?
He should understand. He should be more flexible. If he is not, then I prefer someone from a different background telling me what to do. Better yet, I prefer someone else to tell me what to do…even if I ignore it.
Now all of this may seem comical, but it is based on multiple experiences. The conversations and interaction are real. I may be wrong about the motivations and challenges that people face, but having spoken with other Hispanic/Latino rabbis, the challenge seems similar to what they have faced. There isn’t a resolution here, just observations. I may have to go back and watch a politically incorrect Sanford and Son to see how the episode I mentioned ended.
Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education. For a more complete review of Iberian Jewish history and the Crypto- Jewish Experience see Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism.