I’m writing you from Spain. The past week, I stayed in Almería, a small city in the southeast corner of the country. This is my fourth visit to Spain. When I was 13, I came with my school. When I was 21, I did research here for my thesis (including a fair bit of research on Spanish beaches 😉 ). This past year, I realized my dream of re-visiting Catalonia after having learned Catalan. And now, I’m chilling in the south of Spain.
Spain has always been an important place for me. Spanish is the first foreign language I learned and Spain is the first country I visited without my abusive family. At a time in my life when I was suffocating, Spain and its wonderful, warm people gave me room to breathe. And have fun.
I fell in love. I majored in Spanish in college. By accident. I was supposed to major in sociology but my university closed the department midway through my studies (yes, that’s a thing). And I so loved Spanish that just by virtue of my desire to learn it, I had already taken enough coursework to put together a major. Follow your heart, not the curriculum.
Every language is a source of richness. I speak a bunch, including minority languages like Catalan and Yiddish (and have studied Irish and Basque). Sometimes people shit on these languages for not “being useful”. As far as I’m concerned, the way you feel about a language (or accent) is mostly about what you feel about its speakers. Every language, like every culture, has something to offer, to make you grow, if you choose to see it that way. Perhaps that’s why subconsciously I chose to wear a Catalan t-shirt at the Alhambra on Spain’s National Day. An unintentional but loud statement in Andalucía, where dissing Catalans is as common as eating Gazpacho.
What enchants me about Spanish in particular is how I fit in. Most of the time. Because of my olive skin and Semitic features (Spaniards are also very Mediterranean-looking and have a lot of Jewish blood), I often am seen as Spanish. Or Latino in America. Sometimes people overlook Mediterranean/Middle Eastern people, but we look different than the Swedish people in Minnesota or the Irish Americans in Boston. We look ethnic. In Belgium, people think I’m Arab (including Arabs). And I’ve actually had people tell me I don’t look American. Not the nicest thing, but maybe there’s some truth to it. Most people in Abercrombie ads don’t look like me.
But in Spain, people think I’m one of them- or at least a native Spanish speaker. Partially because I’ve got a great accent, but people over the past week thought I was anything from Catalan to Venezuelan to Chilean. In America, someone once called me a “Spic” on the Metro. I’ve had multiple cases where people I’ve already known discover I’m not Hispanic, tell me how surprised they are, and suddenly want to be friends with me. Here, I feel a little more at home.
In Israel too I often felt that physically I more fit in. My appearance, indeed my DNA (I’ve run tests that show my makeup is closest to Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians), is from there. Trust me, nobody in Hungary mistook me for an ethnic Hungarian. Even though my great-grandparents were from there. Israeli clothing models, politicians, rabbis, studs at the beach look a lot more like me than Channing Tatum. But don’t get me wrong, I do like Channing Tatum 😉 .
In Spain, I’ve met some incredible people. I met a Spanish man who told me how proud me was of his town’s judería, or Jewish quarter. I met a Russian guy married to a Taiwanese woman who owned a bubble tea store. Who spent 10 minutes looking up directions for me to a Sephardic heritage site. I told an Afghan baklava seller I was from Israel- and spoke some Farsi with him. His eyes lit up. 🙂 I ate amazing Moroccan bastilla and chatted with the owners in Arabic. I even met a very Catholic young man marching in a Semana-Santa-style procession who directed me towards the local Jewish museum.
There’s also a lot of ignorance. Not necessarily outright prejudice, but for sure ignorance. A lot of people have no idea where their town’s Jewish quarter is- even when the local municipality has developed it as a tourist attraction. And it’s been there for over a thousand years. This particularly struck me yesterday on El Día de la Hispanidad, the day “celebrating” Columbus’s “discovery” of the “New” World. The same year Spain kicked out its Jews.
On this day, I saw a massive Catholic procession which (although it is not actually connected) looks like a much more elaborate and classy KKK march. Even Spaniards joked with me about it. It really does look similar, but it is not a hate parade. I will say it momentarily jolted me.
Spain is known for being the most (or one of the most) anti-Semitic countries in Europe according to the Anti-Defamation League’s polling. Not surprising given the legacy of the Inquisition, although neighboring Portugal had that too, and moreso than Spain, is undergoing a kind of Jewish renaissance, including a burgeoning philo-Semitism. Strong ties with both Israel and the Jewish community make it a much more comfortable place to be a Jew, right next door.
Spanish municipalities, particularly those governed by left wing parties, have tried over and over again to boycott Israel. Something I find ironic, at best, in a country covered with the blood of my ancestors. Where I’ve seen synagogues turned into office buildings, where thousands of people fill the streets celebrating Christopher Columbus. A man by all accounts a genocidal maniac. Incidentally likely the descendant of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism by Spain. Hired by the royal family celebrated during this week’s holiday. The family who ethnically cleansed my people from this land.
To return to the issue of these Catholic processions, I’d like to share my experience in Alicante, another city in Spain. In the province of Valencia.
I was walking down the street and asked someone to explain the meaning of everything. I’m a curious guy so I listened patiently as someone explained about the various teams that put together the saints displays. Like I mentioned, some Spaniards like to joke about how it looks like a Klan rally (long robes, candles, crosses…). I agreed it was a bit of a culture shock, and the rather nice Spaniards I spoke with said: “yeah, it has nothing to do with violence.”
But actually, that’s wrong. Catholicism in Spain (frankly, Catholicism for most of its existence) has until recently been about violence. Towards Jews, towards Muslims, towards apostates. And while today, religious processions are mostly a cute cultural custom (it’s cool to watch, the music is neat too). Not too long ago, they were a way for the church to impose its will on the people. Including countless Jews it forced to convert or abandon this land under penalty of death.
After a relaxing bus ride up the coast to get here (the scenery in Spain is spectacular), I went out tonight. It was a Saturday night and I wanted to talk to people. Traveling alone can be so rewarding, I’m learning so much about myself. And sometimes it’s nice to take a break and be with people.
I met an interesting mix of people just by chatting on the street. Spaniards are known for being friendly and they live up to their reputation. There are few better places I’ve visited for someone traveling alone. Everyone is ready to chat.
I spent the night with a mix of Spaniards, Americans, Ukrainians, and one Argentinian man.
When I said I was from Israel, everyone was cool. In fact, the Spanish guy knows his family has Jewish roots and he wants me to bring him to a synagogue. And if you saw his cute punim, you could see he wasn’t lying. He’d fit right in on a kibbutz.
The only person with a problem was the Argentine. He said to me- to my face- “how do you feel as a Jew, controlling the world’s economy?”
I wish I could say I was surprised, but there was something in his silence when I said I was from Israel that told me he’d be an anti-Semite. Perhaps a defense mechanism I’ve developed after dealing with so much bigotry.
I told him point blank: “that’s an anti-Semitic question based on stereotypes.”
He didn’t accept it. When I tried to explain (as if you can reason with someone this insane) that actually Israel has a lot of poor people with one of the widest wealth gaps in the OECD, he pushed back:
“The Jews in Argentina control everything.”
I gave him a deep stare, told him I actually spent two weeks helping poor Jews in Argentina after the economic crisis, and reiterated that he was being anti-Semitic. And to my great credit, he asked for the check and left. Two hours later, he came back with free wristbands to go to a nightclub- for everyone in the group but me. He said: “you don’t get one.”
I still love Spanish. I love every language I learn. Every culture has richness to share.
But I don’t fit in here. For a visit, sure. I suppose on some level I always thought I could be Spanish or in the words of my former coworkers at a Hispanic advocacy group, an “honorary Latino”. Before moving to Israel, I spent most of my college years and professional career working for Latino and immigrant rights. And I’m proud of it. It reflects my values as a Jew and as a human being and a lover of Spanish-speaking cultures.
In the end, though, it’s not mine. At least it can’t replace my Jewish identity, though at times I wished it would. It felt easier- what an amazing global community to be a part of. There’s a reason everyone’s listening to reggaeton these days- it’s infectious. For all the wars and coups and discrimination and poverty and dictatorships, being Latino is fun. I love French and I speak it when I want a sense of calm. But let’s face it- when people want to get down, they put on salsa, not French folk music. Although I listen to that too 🙂 .
I wish I could say my experience with the Argentinean man was unique, but it’s not. In fact, when I visited Argentina, I saw authentic Nazi war medals being sold at the local fruit market. My middle school Spanish teacher taught us that in her country of Guatemala, to call someone a Jew was to call them a “burro”, an “ass”. As she laughed. At a gay club in Spain, men excitedly guessed where I was from and when I finally said “Israel”, two of them fell silent and turned away. One Spanish woman compared me to an Islamic terrorist because I don’t eat pork. In Granada, I asked the tourist info booth why the Jewish museum was closed on Friday morning, even though it was listed as being open until 2pm that day. And the woman sassily snapped: “you have to respect, it’s the Sabbath, that’s why they’re closed, it’s their norms.” As if I couldn’t possibly know- or be Jewish. I explained I was Jewish and that Friday morning is not the Sabbath- they chose to list the museum as open then. The woman couldn’t care less as she ignored me and moved on to her next task. Her much nicer colleague grimaced. And tried to help me. When I worked for a Latino advocacy group in Washington, they refused to give me Yom Kippur off in exchange for Christmas. I appealed to the president of the group. And got my vacation back almost a year later.
It’s not because all Latinos or Spaniards are anti-Semitic. There are people here, as in all cultures, who are curious about Judaism. Some who love it. And some who are indifferent or ignorant but not hostile. Some Latinos are Jews.
I’ve also experienced a deep strain of anti-Semitism in Spanish-speaking cultures. No doubt a product of hundreds of years of Catholic-church-sponsored hate and Inquisitions. Today, sometimes repackaged by far-left parties as anti-Israel fanaticism. A kind of new religion in which Jews remain all-powerful and in need of constant reprimand.
In the end, I’ll always be a Spanish speaker. It flows off my tongue better than any other, maybe even more than Hebrew. The language is filled with warmth. The people such friendliness. The culture such a diverse and interesting history. One in which Jews have always played a part. Our blood flows through the veins of its people, our ruins dot the town squares. Like the former synagogue in Guadix I visited that’s now an unemployment office.
Tonight, my best conversation was with an Algerian man. Feeling distraught about the Argentinian anti-Semite as well as some homophobic comments I heard, I wanted a taste of home. Shwarma.
I talked to the man in Arabic, and he was surprised. “Where are you from?”
“Tel Aviv? Palestine?”
“Israel. Palestine. The Land.”
“Oh, you’re Palestinian?”
“No, I’m Jewish. I’m Israeli.”
“But you speak Arabic!”
“I do, I love it. It’s a beautiful language. And I like Algerian Rai music and I have Algerian Jewish friends in Israel.”
“Wow!! Rai?!? And your friends- do they still eat couscous?”
“Yes they do. Every Shabbat.”
Perhaps the world expects me to have more fun with a bunch of young Spaniards and expats at a bar. Telling me how progressive and open they are, while spewing bile about Jews and gays after a few drinks. Perhaps belying what they really think.
But my favorite conversation tonight was with an Algerian falafel man. Because I’m the first Israeli he’s ever met. And my language, my heart, brought him a smile from ear to ear.
So in the end, I’m not Latino, I’m not Spanish, and I don’t really want to be. But I am a Spanish-speaker, an Arabic-speaker, and most importantly, a person who uses language to warm hearts.
Expel us, boycott us, ridicule us in a bar. But Judaism is as Spanish as paella.
Queen Isabella could have never imagined me staring down an anti-Semite on the streets of Alicante 500 years later. And winning. Let alone a Jew and a Muslim speaking in Arabic.
Confuse me for a Latino, I don’t care. Once it would’ve made me scared that you won’t like me. Or I’d defiantly wear my honorary Latino badge, proud to be different. Now, I just feel I’m a human being. I’m a Jew- who I am and what society makes me. And I’m happy to explore all cultures and stand with kind-hearted people no matter who they are. I’ve learned to love my olive skin more. And I’m grateful to have places like Spain where I look normal.
Libi bamizrach. My heart is in the East, I’m in the far West. And the person who brought me there was an Algerian shwarma man.
Yehuda Halevi would be proud.
This picture is of a door in Granada’s Jewish quarter where you can still, 500 years later, see the marks of a mezuzah. We’re everywhere. Scatter us like seeds, but we sprout back up wherever we’re planted.