Discovering hidden pasts and living legacies
By Janet Scherberger
Featured image above: Moshe Labi is the descendant of Rabbi Shimon Labi, who was born in the Zargoza area of Spain. When the Jews were expelled in 1492, Rabbi Labi settled in Fez, Morocco. He was a cabalist and famous for composing a liturgical song called Bar Yohai, which is sung every Shabbat by many communities in Africa.
The intersection of the Jewish and Hispanic communities of Miami took center stage with two panel discussions hosted recently by Sephardi Voices, an organization creating an audio-visual archive of Jews with roots in Islamic lands.
“Legacies of the Spanish Inquisition: Florida’s Converso & Sephardi Jews in Conversation” explored human rights, hidden pasts, migration and building new lives in the United States.
The first panel, in May 2021, focused on “converso” Jews. These are individuals, descended from Jews forced to convert to Catholicism before the 1492 Spanish Inquisition, who reclaimed their Jewish roots after being born into the Christian church.
The second panel, in June, dove into the experience of Jews driven from their homes in the Middle East and North Africa after the UN vote to create Israel in 1947.
“You have two different stories, but they both ended up in Miami with a Jewish, Spanish, Islamic heritage,” says Dr. Henry Green, executive director and founder of Sephardi Voices and professor of Religious Studies and former director of Judaic Studies at the University of Miami.
Dr. Green says he was inspired to create Sephardi Voices in 2009 after visiting Steven Speilberg’s famed Shoah Foundation institute at the University of Southern California where he discovered that of the tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors interviewed for that project, only about 100 featured Sephardi voices.
“We are always thinking of the Jewish population as being Ashkenazi, with an Eastern European background,” he said. “But here in South Florida we have 50,000 Sephardis. It’s an enormous population. Why isn’t that story told? Why aren’t we aware of their journey?”
And so Sephardi Voices was born. To date, the international organization has conducted 450 interviews in English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian and Judeo-Arabic and supplemented the personal stories with a portrait of interviewees, historic photographs and archival documents.
The panel discussions, delivered via Zoom and supported by a $1,600 Community Project Grant from Florida Humanities, offered another opportunity to bring the stories to light.
Author Genie Milgrom, past president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami, moderated “Desde la Inquisicion Española hasta Miami: Historias personales de Hispanos en Miami”/ “From the Spanish Inquisition to Miami: Personal Stories of Hispanics in Miami,” facilitating a conversation among three converso Jews from Brazil and Cuba who grew up in Christian families before discovering their Jewish heritage. Milgrom was born Roman Catholic in Havana, Cuba, but returned to Judaism in 1991 after tracing her maternal lineage 15 generations to pre- Inquisition Spain.
Dr. Green moderated “The Forgotten Exodus: Hispanic Jews from the Islamic World” featuring panelists with Moroccan, Turkish and Egyptian roots who moved to Miami after living in Cuba and Spain.
The story of Sephardic Jews in Florida is not new. Moses Levy, the father of David Levy Yulee, was born in Morocco and came to Florida in 1819. David Yulee, whose mother was born in Spain, went on to represent the Florida territory in Congress, becoming the first Jewish person elected to the U.S. Senate.
Dr. Green postulates that Pedro Menendez Marquez, governor of the Florida territory from 1577 to 1590 and 1592 to 1594, was a converso Jew.
“What we have is Jews in Florida for 500 years,” he says. “It’s not just the Ashkenazi Jews coming down from the snow belts. There’s this history that’s been going on forever.”
The panel discussions are available for viewing at sephardivoices.com
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