Recently, history came full circle when over 100,000 descendants of Sephardim around the world applied for Spanish citizenship under legislation aimed at repatriating a population expelled over 500 years ago. They squeaked in ahead of Spain’s September 30, 2019, deadline, but the citizenship process in Portugal is still open for individuals who can prove their Sephardic Jewish lineage.
The 1492 Edict of Expulsion in Spain forced Sephardic Jews to convert to Christianity or leave, prompting a dispersion to locations including the Americas and the Middle East. Within Spain and its newfound American colonies, some conversos, or Jewish converts, kept their original faith in secret, under threat of discovery and punishment from the Inquisition.
The closing of the application window for Spanish citizenship marked an opportune time for the October 24 screening in Madrid’s El Centro Sefarad of a new documentary about the past, present and future of the Sephardim: “Children of the Inquisition,” by award-winning filmmaker Joseph Lovett.
“This film challenges everybody’s ideas about history and identity,” Lovett told The Times of Israel last month. “For many people, it challenges ideas about their own identity.”
Premiering earlier this year at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, the documentary follows the many paths taken by the Sephardic Jews after they were ordered to convert or leave in both Spain and neighboring Portugal. Shot across 12 cities in four continents, Lovett interviews descendants of conversos as well as academic experts. In August, the film won the Hearts, Minds and Souls award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and it has recently been invited for inclusion into the Library of Congress.
Asked about the issue of citizenship, Lovett recalled the journey taken by the ancestors of his recently departed sister-in-law Sylvia Moubayed — from Spain to Izmir to Rhodes to Alexandria to Lovett’s home state of Rhode Island. Despite these ancestral voyages far from Spain, Lovett said that his sister-in-law had gotten Spanish citizenship in the 1960s.
“I think, apparently, it was always possible,” he said. “As things are, it’s become very uncomfortable in the US. Obviously, more and more people than ever are probably looking toward European citizenship.”
The film took about a decade to shoot and edit; its backstory goes back even longer. Lovett began thinking about its subject in 1958, as a 13-year-old growing up in Providence. He was intrigued when his rabbi, William Braude of Temple Beth El, visited Franco’s Spain seeking to interview descendants of conversos, and upon his return gave a sermon entitled “Todos Catolicos,” or “We are all Catholic.”
“No one [in Spain] would speak to him,” Lovett said. “They literally [said] ‘We’re all Catholic, we’ve always been Catholic.’”
Even hundreds of years after the edict that forced Spanish Jews to convert or depart, “the shadow of the Inquisition hung so heavily over Spain,” Lovett said. “Nobody could dare consider having a drop of Jewish blood.”
And yet, he recalled, anecdotal evidence indicated that some kept a remnant of their ancestral faith by not going to church, refusing a priest at their funeral, or covering mirrors at home during periods of mourning, a traditional Jewish practice.
An Ashkenazi Jew, Lovett was intrigued by the story of the Sephardim, and over 20 years ago he conceptualized the idea for the film. Meanwhile, he was accumulating experience working in TV, including on the news program “20/20,” where he honed his investigative skills addressing subjects such as the AIDS crisis.
Since then, he has become a documentary filmmaker. While he said he felt he was “skilled enough” to take on “Children of the Inquisition,” he was aware that it represented “a very ambitious project.”
The complex experiences of the Sephardic Jews and their descendants have been described in terms of varying connotations. As the film explains, those who converted to Christianity were called conversos; conversos who secretly kept practicing Judaism were called the derogatory term marranos, or pigs; another term, Nuevos Cristianos, or New Christians, distinguished Jewish converts to Christianity from people who had always been Christian.
“It was very daunting,” Lovett said of the film project, describing the subject matter as “sometimes incomprehensible, with changes of names, identities, faiths. It’s very, very hard to follow.”
Lovett also explores the story of crypto-Jews, or converts to Christianity who practiced Judaism in secret, and the anousim, individuals who were forcibly converted from Judaism and are now seeking to reconnect. Lovett screened clips of the film in Netanya at the first conference on the anousim, and he also screened the then-unfinished film at the Knesset Caucus Conference in 2015.
Remembering the forgetting river
Several years into the project, Lovett found a through line for the film when he met New York Times journalist Doreen Carvajal. While reporting from Europe, Carvajal realized that her own family background represented a story. In a video on the film website, she discusses being raised Catholic before learning that her last name is “an old Sephardic Jewish name.” Finding reluctance in her extended family to address the subject, Carvajal embarked on research of her own that became a memoir, “The Forgetting River.” As it turned out, her ancestors had been among the prominent Avilas Davila family of conversos in Segovia who were part of a show trial in the 15th century.
“Oh my God, we could have done the whole story on her,” Lovett said, calling her family narrative “a window we would take through history.”
Lovett and Carvajal researched her family background — first in Dallas, Texas, at the Center for Crypto-Judaic Studies. Then, the duo traveled to Spain for further research in centuries-old archives with scholar David Gitlitz, whom Lovett describes as a brilliant scholar and expert on Carvajal’s family, including its branches in both Spain and Mexico.
“Her 16th grandfather became a priest,” Lovett said. “We all got to know him through research into [events] 500, 600 years ago. He became a living, breathing, very interesting man… All of a sudden, history became personal, very personal.”
As the narratives of Carvajal and others accumulate, the film keeps track of their families’ many destinations on a map. “People love maps,” Lovett said. “It helps keep them on course, if you will.”
Some Jews left for the Ottoman Empire, welcomed by sultan Bayezid II to worship openly. “For the most part, they were protected through the Ottomans,” Lovett said. “The world was different. Jewish-Muslim relations were different.”
In what was then the Ottoman city of Salonika (today Thessaloniki, Greece), Jews formed what was probably the world’s largest concentration of Sephardim, according to the film. Later history would prove tragic: The community was destroyed in the Holocaust, with 45,000 of Salonika’s Jews deported to Auschwitz between March and August 1943. Researching this community, Lovett interviewed scholar Devin Naar, an expert on Sephardim and their language of Ladino, whose own family background reflects the vicissitudes of history. In the film, Naar’s great-grandfather is shown wearing an Ottoman fez in Salonika. A generation later, Naar’s grandfather’s oldest brother and his family were among those deported from Salonika to Auschwitz.
New world, same story
As some Sephardim headed east, others — nominally Christian — voyaged west to the New World, hoping that the Inquisition would not be as strong across the Atlantic. These included three crewmen on Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Their coreligionists were initially welcomed in Portugal after the Spanish edict was passed, but in 1497 Portuguese Jews were ordered to convert as well.
The film looks at the fate of Sephardim in the then-Portuguese colony of Brazil — including Branca Dias, a woman prosecuted by the Inquisition for practicing Judaism in secret; her Brazilian descendant, artist Carlos DeMedeiros, is interviewed by Lovett.
Citing statistics that 25 percent of New World colonists were Jewish, and that 25 percent of all people in Latin America carry Jewish DNA, Lovett said that “this diaspora changed the world.”
In El Paso, Texas, the filmmaker interviewed Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B’Nai Zion.
“Ten percent [of his congregation] were Mexican-American,” Lovett said, describing these individuals as being raised Catholic and coming from converso families, including a young man from Juarez, Mexico, who began looking for more information about his heritage after his mother stopped lighting candles when his grandmother died.
The film depicts other descendants of conversos at B’Nai Zion who are grappling with questions of identity — including Guadalupe Ramos, who ultimately decides to immerse herself in a mikve, or Jewish ritual bath, in a sign of formal conversion to Judaism.
Traveling to Jamaica for a conference on the Portuguese Jewish diaspora helped Lovett understand further complexities. Lovett interviewed Jamaican Jews such as community leader Ainsley Cohen Henriques and his daughter, artist and writer Anna Ruth Henriques, whose 1997 work “The Book of Mechtilde” is a paean to her late mother, Sheila Mechtilde Henriques, a former Miss Jamaica of Chinese and Afro-Caribbean background. In the film, Lovett speaks with Afro-Caribbean Jamaicans who are Jewish or who are exploring Jewish identity, including Cantor Winston Mendes Davidson, and playwright Angela McNab.
“All of a sudden, being Jewish took on a different color,” Lovett said, describing Jewish cemeteries where “you could see white Jewish families — a father, mother, and children beside them, Isaacs, Rachels, Rebeccas — and right behind the father lay his African wife and her children. It’s the same cemetery, the same family plot.”
By showing the diverse paths of diverse individuals reflected in the Sephardic diaspora, and the many ways these individuals relate to their faith today, Lovett hopes audiences will come away with a new understanding of Judaism.
“There’s a lot of disparity in how people see each other,” Lovett said. “All Jews are not blue-eyed, blond Europeans, nor are they all olive-skinned, brown-eyed Mediterraneans… As the world changes… it’s very important to be respectful towards people’s attitude toward Jewishness.”