Philadelphia’s Secret Hispanic History
While Sephardic Jews are the minority within the Jewish community currently in Philadelphia, they were essential to the success of the War of Independence, and the founding of the United States.
Descendants of those Sephardic Jews still live here today. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sunset on September 20. Philadelphians of Hispanic heritage will find the language and food of the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah celebration very familiar.
Sepharad is the biblical name of a place mentioned in the Old Testament (Obadiah 1:20). Since the time of the Roman Empire in the 2nd Century, Jews have identified Sepharad as Hispania, or the Iberian Peninsula. Sepharad is the Modern Hebrew name for Spain. “Sephardi” means “from Sepharad,” which is why Jews descended from the Jewish families of the Iberian Peninsula are called “Sephardic Jews.”
The history of the Jews in the Americas begins with the Alhambra Decree of 1492. This edict ordered the expulsion of the Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The Jews had until July 31 to depart, and until August 2 to convert to Catholicism. Those who did not leave or convert would be killed. Jews who converted to Catholicism are called “conversos.”
The Alhambra Decree was issued during the Age of Exploration. Prince Henry of Portugal initiated this period in 1418 when he was searching for alternative routes to the Indies. His ships explored the Atlantic coast of Africa, and discovered a route to the Indian Ocean. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Castile and Aragon were not about to cede the lucrative trade with the East to Portugal. They decided to support Christopher Columbus in his endeavor to discover a western passage to India.
Perhaps coincidentally, Christopher Columbus embarked on his voyages in 1492, the same year that the Alhambra Decree was issued. His financiers were two conversos, Louis De Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez, and Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, financial manager of Queen Isabella. Some academics theorize that Columbus was hoping to find safe haven for the Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. Many of the people aboard his ships were forced converts, such as Marco, his surgeon, Maestre Bernal, his doctor, and Luis de Torres, his interpreter. An analysis of his correspondence has led some scholars to conclude that Christopher Columbus was also a converso. Just as the period permitting Jews who remained in Castile and Aragon to convert ended, they set sail. The ships departed on August 3, 1492, and landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492.
Many Sephardic Jews who left Spain as a result of the Alhambra Decree migrated to the Netherlands, France, Italy, and England. They joined expeditions to America as colonists, merchants, or traders for their new countries.
One of the first places that these Jews settled was New Holland, the territories in Brazil ruled by the Dutch. They established a community in Recife, in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco. They built America’s first synagogue there in 1646, and named it Kahal Zur Israel.
In 1654 the Portuguese conquered Brazil from the Dutch, and brought the Spanish Inquisition with them. The Dutch had previously founded New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Part of the Jewish community of Recife fled to North America, to the seat of the colonial government of New Netherland. Peter Stuyvesant, its director, tried to prevent the Jews of Recife from settling there. The directors of the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam, which financed the colony, sent him a letter informing him that the Jews were Dutch citizens and that they would stay.
In 1656 Abraham de Lucena, Salvator Dandrade, and Jacob Coen were the first Jews to travel from New Amsterdam to trade with the Native Americans and the Swedes along the Delaware River. A small community grew slowly there, and Jews were already present when William Penn was given possession of the land that became Philadelphia in 1681.
The Jewish community of Philadelphia expanded with an influx of Spanish and Portuguese Jews from England, the Netherlands, and the West Indies. Land for the first Jewish cemetery was purchased in 1740, and the first Jewish congregation, named Mikveh Israel, was organized in 1745. When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1776, many Jewish patriots came to Philadelphia from New York, which had been captured by the British forces.
The most famous Jew to relocate from New York to Philadelphia was Haym Salomon. Haym Salomon was a Sephardic Jew whose family left Spain and Portugal in 1492 due to the Spanish Inquisition. He lived in Poland and Western Europe. He was educated in Hebrew, and was fluent in German and several other languages. In 1795 he immigrated to New York, and founded a brokerage business to serve international traders.
Haym Salomon believed in American Independence and joined the Sons of Liberty, a secret society that was organized to protect the rights of the colonists. They coined the slogan “No taxation without representation.” He was arrested by the British forces and forced to work for the British army as a translator for their mercenary Hessian troops. He took advantage of this opportunity to help prisoners of the British army flee from their captors. Salomon also persuaded some Hessian troops to desert the British.
In 1778 Haym Salomon escaped to Philadelphia. He reopened his brokerage business, and raised money for George Washington’s war effort. He personally paid for James Madison and James Wilson to be able to participate in the Continental Congress. When the war ended, he helped several heroes of the American Revolution restart their businesses. Haym Salomon was never repaid by the United States government for his generosity and died bankrupt, at age 44, leaving behind a young family.
The Jewish community of Philadelphia continued to grow, absorbing approximately 200,00 Jews from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th Century. The descendants of the Sephardic Jews, who were now the minority, continued to speak medieval Spanish and Portuguese at home and within their community. Some sayings still in use will be easily comprehensible to modern Spanish speakers. For example, “Antes de que te cases, mira lo que ases,” which means, “Before you marry, see what you are doing.” While no longer widely spoken in the home, medieval Spanish is still a language of choice for proverbs.
Sephardic Jews brought their almonds, pomegranates, olive oil, chickpeas, lentils, dates, grapes, and fava beans with them to the New World. They also brought their family recipes. One Rosh Hashanah specialty is a savory meat pie called a pasteliko. It is made with a wheat crust and ground beef or lamb filling, and baked until golden-brown. Pastelikos are the Jewish version of the empanadas that originated in Galicia, and still eaten in Spain today. Many iterations of this empanada have spread all over Latin America.
At the conclusion of the festive Rosh Hashanah meal, Sephardic Jews wish each other an “Anyada Buena, Dulse I Alegre!” “A good, sweet, and happy New Year!”