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Hispanic, Sephardim, and Eidot ha-Mizrah

There has been much talk about how Sonia Sotomayor, if appointed, will be the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. A number of commentators were quick to point out that the first Hispanic Justice may have been Benjamin Cardozo who was of Portugese-Jewish ancestry. The problems lies in how narrowly or broadly you define “Hispanic.” Does it only apply to countries that were once ruled by Spain? Does it apply to any country where Spanish is spoken?

A similar conundrum exists with the use of the Hebrew word ספרדי/Sephardi. To whom should such a description apply? Many people use it to describe any Jew who isn’t Ashkenazi without distinguishing between Jews whose origins are in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. (See here where Marc Shapiro explains that ס”ט does NOT mean ספרדי טהור.) The one time that I was at the Academy of the Hebrew Language I remember seeing in a display case a number of letters which had been sent to the Academy over the years. One of them was from President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. He was complaining about the problematic use of the term Sephardi. According to Ben-Zvi, there had to be a distinction drawn between people who are from Spain and Jews who adhere to the Sephardic-Jewish tradition. He called for the country Spain to be called by the name איספניה and its citizens איספנים. He based himself upon the Aramaic translation of the biblical ספרד (Ovadiah 20) which was אספמיה. Apparently Ben-Zvi’s suggestion was accepted by one committee but never made it any further, with the confusion continuing until this day.

2 Responses to “Hispanic, Sephardim, and Eidot ha-Mizrah”

  1. 1

    I remember once hearing a YU Rosh Yeshiva, who lives in Washington Heights, say during the course of a shiur in Hebrew:
    “ani gar be-shekhuna Sepharadit”. The Americans in the audience cracked up, and the Israelis just didn’t get it.

  2. 2

    Although, one would question whether a Jew of Portuguese descent would be considered “hispanic” since they don’t speak Spanish in Portugal. I believe that the asmakhta is that Cardozo described himself as being of Spanish-Portuguese descent.

    It reminds me of my step-sister’s parish when she was growing up. They were a largely Spanish-speaking parish, so they lobbied for a Latin American priest. The diocese finally gave in, and Father Rodrigues came in (note the spelling). Father Rodrigues came from Brazil and spoke not a word of Spanish, but his Portuguese was flawless.




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