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Sephardic Comunities

Prince of Asturias Award for Concord 1990

The Sephardim is the name given to those Jews who, after living in Spain for several centuries, were expelled by the catholic Monarchs in 1492 at the request of the Inquisition. There were more than one hundred thousand people who, five hundred years ago now, had to leave the Iberian Peninsula for professing a religion other than the dominant one at that time.

Initially, in the hope of returning to their homeland soon the Sephardim settled in Portugal, North Africa, and other nearby countries. When return was by then impossible, the Sephardim spread all over the world, forming major communities in Italy, the Low Countries, the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere.

Many of the descendants of those jews expelled from Spain still preserve today, five centuries later, the customs, the traditions, and the very language of their ancestors. Judeo-Spanish, the language of the Sephardim, is basically Old Castilian Spanish (prior to the phonetic and grammatical evolution of the Golden Age), mixed with terms from Hebrew and other tongues.

Strictly speaking, the Sephardim are only those Jews expelled from the Peninsula in the 15th Century, expressly excluding the Ashkenazim (an ethnic branch of Judaism with a different origin) and Jews of other branches, and who have preserved the Hispanic cultural characteristics, most especially the Judeo-Spanish language.

After a first stage, immediately after their expulsion from the Peninsula, in which the Spanish jews sought a new place to settle, during the 18th and 19th centuries the Sephardic communities went through a period of relative stability, until, in the 20th century, their arose a new migratory movement to younger countries. Nowadays, the large Sephardic Communities are no longer to be found in Morocco or the Eastern Mediterranean, but in the United States, Spanish America or Israel.

From the 16th to the 18th century, translations of the bible into Spanish, forbidden in the Peninsula by the Inquisition, were almost exclusively in the hands of the expelled Jews. The oldest of these is the "Constantinople Pentateuch", published in 1547. Another of the most famous, the "Ferrara Bible", was published in 1553 in Roman characters.

Sephardic literature has produced such important works as the "Me´am Lo´ez", a detailed commentary of the books of the Bible in the form of an encyclopedia, the verses, the books of proverbs, folk tales and ballads. The "Cancionero tradicional sephardí" ("Collection of traditional Sephardi songs") is also very well-known; and nowadays, in Istanbul, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, newspapers and magazines written in Judeo-Spanish are still published. The "Kol Israel" radio station continues broadcasting Sephardic-language programmes from Jerusalem.

In Spain, there is a major centre for Sephardic studies in the Arias Montano Institute, a subsidiary of the Higher Council for Scientific Research ("Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas"), as well as a Sephardi Museum located in the well-known Sinagoga del Tránsito in Toledo. On the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, in 1992, different commemorations were prepared both by public (Grupo "Sefarad 92", forming part of the Fifth Centenary Commission) and private (International Jewish Committee for "Sefarad 92") initiative.

The Cervantes Institute in Istanbul regularly imparts Judeo-Spanish courses in collaboration with the Sephardic community living in the city. The Francisco Cantera Burgos Foundation in the Spanish city of Miranda de Ebro has the largest library on Sephardic and Hebrew themes in Europe and is one of the largest of its kind worldwide.

Since 1982, Spain has formally recognized the naturalization of Sephardic Jews who can demonstrate a clear link with the country. Applications for naturalization are processed in an exceptional manner via agreement of the Council of Ministers. Via ordinary procedures, the period for Sephardic Jews to acquire Spanish nationality by reason of their residence in the country is two years, the same as for nationals from Latin American countries, Andorra, the Philippines, Equatorial Guinea or Portugal and eight years less than for other non-nationals.

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