The Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal: Survival of an Imperiled Culture in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries

McFarland & Company Inc Publishers

Reviewed by Ron DuncanHart

Although the title and subject matter of The Sephardic Jew of Spain and Portugal make it sound like a traditional history book in fact this book shows Dolly Sloan’s skill as a story teller More than half of the book narrates the personal lives of four of the most important people in history of Sephardic Jews: Isaac Abravanel Abraham Zacuto Luá­s de Santángel and Doña Gracia Nasi The remainder of the book discusses subjects ranging from Jewish life to work clothing entertainment and the experiences of Sephardic Jews in the Diaspora

Don Isaac Abravanel was a prominent financial adviser to the Catholic kings Ferdinand and Isabelle and he had lobbied strongly against the Expulsion Proclamation He was a prominent philosopher and Biblical scholar and wrote extensively on these subjects The Abravanel family had left Spain following the 1391 attacks that wiped out complete Jewish communities Later they faced new problems in their adopted country of Portugal and Don Isaac and his family returned to Spain itself After a decade of success they left Spain in 1492 along with the other Jews who choose exile rather than staying and converting to Christianity After last minute appeals to the King and Queen were denied Don Isaac Abravanel and his family sailed to Italy where they lived the remainder of their lives

Abraham Zacuto was a prominent Jewish scholar astronomer and inventor of navigational equipment who was also forced into exile by the Expulsion Proclamation He had been the only Jewish professor at the University of Salamanca and it was his navigational inventions that permitted Columbus to sail to the Americas and Vasco de Gama to the East Indies It can be said that the Spanish Empire could not have developed without the foundation in navigation that Zacuto created In one of the ironies of history as Zacuto sailed from Spain into exile Columbus was leaving on his famous voyage to the west guided by the very instruments of navigation that Zacuto had developed When Zacuto left Spain with his son in 1492 the insecurity of travel led to their being captured by pirates and held in captivity on two different occasions It was seven years after the Expulsion that they were finally freed and arrived to Tunis where he lived out the rest of his years in a quiet life of scholarship

The family of Luá­s de Santángel took the route of converting to Christianity from Judaism during the time of the Disputation of Tortosa when thousands of Jews converted under pressure This was a family of wealthy merchants and Luá­s carried on that tradition as a textile merchant who settled in the Aragonese port city of Valencia which was convenient for his frequent travel to Italy on business Although he was a favorite official at the court of Ferdinand and Isabelle and had wealth and power he lived under the shadow Inquisition as did all New Christians As evidence of his influence at Court he seems to have been the one who convinced the monarchs of the value of Columbus’ proposed voyage to the west when it had been all but lost

The story of Doña Gracia Nasi is among the most compelling She was born into a wealthy family of anousim in Portugal and married into the equally wealthy Mendes family of bankers and traders Eventually she and the family were able to leave Portugal for the more tolerant environment of Antwerp and after her husband died she assumed control of the family businesses becoming one of the wealthiest women of that age which included Queen Elizabeth Mary Queen of Scots and Catherine d’Medici among others Cecil Roth called her one of the outstanding figures of all Jewish history Even after the family left Portugal they had to continue as secret Jews Eventually she led the family to the newly emerging Ottoman Empire where they lived openly as Jews

Prof Sloan’s book tells the stories of Sephardic Jews and the choices they were forced to make as they went through the throes of being rejected and expelled by their home country She follows them into the Diaspora looking at what happened to those who went east to the Ottoman Empire and those who went west to Portuguese Brazil More than a textbook this is a storyteller’s account of what happened to the Spanish Jews who were expelled and built new lives outside of the Sefarad that had been their home for more than 1500 years It is recommended for general readers and college level students of Spanish Jewry

Ron DuncanHart
Research Associate
Latin American and Iberian Institute
University of New Mexico
Former Editor of HaLapid 

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