Commentary Magazine

The Real Grandees

An aura of special glamor—all those exotic-sounding names perhaps, Rodriguez, Carvalho, Lopes, Pereira Mendes—seems to attach itself to the Sephardic Jews, that segment of Jewry which traces its origins to medieval Spain and Portugal and among whose ancestors, it is often claimed, can be found advisers to royalty, distinguished scholars, scientists, statesmen, and adventurers who flourished in the Iberian peninsula prior to the late-15th-century expulsions. Be that as it may, in many a circle Sephardic Jews are regarded as a superior species, more “aristocratic” than their Ashkenazic co-religionists and certainly of a tonier social cut. The recent publication of Stephen Birmingham’s The Grandees: America’s Sephardic Elite1—the very title sets the blue blood racing—affords an opportunity for a discussion of where Sephardic yichus properly resides. I shall focus my attention, as does Birmingham, on the American aspect of the phenomenon, making whatever detours of time and space the subject—a vast and complicated one, I fear—dictates.

The first community of Sephardic-Jewish families known to have settled anywhere in what later became the United States of America was established by the twenty-three refugees who, in 1654, arrived in New Amsterdam harbor aboard the St. Charles. The truth is that, far from being members of an elite, they were a rather sorry company, men and women of no particular distinction or learning and of very modest pretensions. Escaping from a Dutch colony in Brazil which had been captured by the Portuguese, they were trying to make their way to Holland when they fell into the hands of Spanish pirates. They were later rescued at sea by the French captain of the St. Charles, who then brought them to New Amsterdam.

When some of the descendants of the St. Charles refugees at last acquired enough wealth, after two or three generations of increasingly prosperous trade, to emerge from the near-incestuous tangle of intermarriage to which they had at first been reduced by their geographical isolation, they began to marry into a few Sephardic families that already enjoyed wealth and prestige in the West Indies and even in London. In this respect, it is significant that two of New York’s most prominent Sephardic families, the Solises and the de Solas—of whom more below—whose members have long been among the more vociferous claimants to an aristocratic ancestry, first appeared on the New York scene more than a hundred years after the arrival of the St. Charles (which eventually, of course, came to be known as the “Jewish Mayflower”).

For all that, Birmingham unquestioningly accepts the myth of the grand lineage of the St. Charles passengers: their ancestors, he writes, had “lived as princes of the land” and had been “poets, philosophers, physicians, judges, astronomers, and courtiers.” Many a Jew who lived in medieval Spain or Portugal is described as having been a “Don,” as if this were some form of hereditary title of nobility and not merely a polite Spanish form of address generally used in conversation with an older, wealthier, or more learned man.



In one of his concluding chapters Birmingham discusses, in a somewhat patronizing and disparaging manner, the “other” Sephardim, those who emigrated from Spain and Portugal to North Africa or the Ottoman Empire and whose descendants began to settle in the Americas only in the early years of the 20th century. These Sephardim, we are told, were “poor and unsophisticated” and had “lacked the adaptability that would have allowed them to accept conversion.” From this one must conclude that the real distinction of New York’s Sephardic haut monde consists in its being descended from conversos, that is, Jews who accepted baptism under the Inquisition and thus managed to marry into the Christian aristocracy of Spain and Portugal before escaping abroad and reverting to Judaism and, in many cases, finally shuttling back into the Christian fold by marrying into America’s Protestant elite.

There is, however, massive historical evidence to prove that many of Spain’s most distinguished Jewish families had either retreated with the defeated Moors to North Africa, where they founded wealthy and learned communities, especially in the cities of Fez, Meknes, and Tetouan; or else, anticipating Ferdinand and Isabella’s decree expelling all practicing Jews, emigrated to Portugal, Italy, or North Africa before the expulsion order became official. Most of Spain’s other leading Jewish families, with very few exceptions, then followed suit, organizing the mass emigration of whole communities, mainly to North Africa and to the Ottoman Empire.

The Abravanel family, for instance, first went to Portugal and then to Italy before finally settling in the Ottoman Empire. The equally distinguished and wealthy Benveniste family is reputed to have chartered ships to transport poorer Spanish Jews to Salonika, where Benvenistes continued for over five hundred years to engage in banking and to assume responsibilities as community leaders. Today, the president of Salonika’s decimated community is David Benveniste (he recently sponsored the publication of a particularly fine illustrated Haggadah, with text in Hebrew, Ladino, and modern Greek). Before its near-total extermination by the Nazis, the Jewish community in Greece boasted many of the great names of medieval Sephardic scholarship and communal leadership: Abravanel, Abulafia, Aboav, Ainkaoua, Belinfante, the aforementioned Benveniste, all the way through the alphabet to Tovelem (which is but a Hebrew translation of Belinfante) and Zacuto.

Rich or poor, learned or “unsophisticated,” all those Sephardim of Spain and Portugal who remained firm in their Jewish faith sought to escape from the Inquisition to countries where they might find existing Jewish communities and live and educate their children openly as Jews. Thus, in addition to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, Sephardic families also found their way to Italy, the Rhine-land, Prague, and even to Poland and the Ukraine, where such names as Peretz and Perutz became the phonetic transcription of a Spanish Perez and Portuguese Pires, and Brandes or Brandeis of a Portuguese Brandao or Brandaos.

In Spain and Portugal themselves, there remained, after various measures of expulsion or forced conversion, only converses and crypto-Jews. Of course, many of these “New Christians,” or their descendants, also escaped abroad, though generally much later, when the Inquisition, after a period of grace which lasted about a generation, began to threaten them again—this time as “Judaizing heretics,” rather than as Jews. The immensely wealthy family of Joseph Nasi, to cite one example from this later period, escaped from Portugal to Antwerp and ultimately to Constantinople. Their escape occasioned a series of financial crises in the 16th century as the family’s enormous funds were gradually withdrawn from various royal exchequers across Europe and moved to Turkey. Under the Ottoman Sultan, Joseph Nasi then held court as the Duke of Naxos and even sought to avenge himself on the Inquisition by organizing an alliance of Moslem and Protestant powers to defeat Catholic Spain and Portugal.



New York’s earliest Sephardic settlers—the hapless twenty-three—also appear to have belonged to this later migration of former conversos and their descendants. Although they may have first settled officially in Portuguese Brazil as Christians, they openly reverted to Judaism during the brief period when the more liberal Dutch established a colony there (only to flee when the Dutch settlement was recaptured by the Portuguese).2 But who could such conversos have been? As we have seen, the wealthier and more cultured refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition generally escaped elsewhere—to the Ottoman Empire or to Europe. It was only the most desperate who found themselves reduced to seeking their fortunes in the Americas, or in the other overseas colonial areas. Until the end of the 19th century, in fact, few truly distinguished Jewish families were tempted to seek refuge or to settle in the wilds of the Americas, where a devout Jew could not be assured of finding proper religious instruction for his sons. When my own grandfather emigrated to Boston from Constantinople, close on a hundred years ago, his family had lost its fortune in Turkey as a consequence of disastrous wars in the Crimea and the Caucasus—but there were wealthy and prominent relatives in Turkey, Egypt, Italy, England, and France. In their eyes, his emigration to America seemed unnecessarily adventurous.

Jewish families with traditions of learning in Spain or Portugal had nearly all settled in the more liberal cities of Italy, especially in Genoa, Venice, Leghorn, Ferrara, Modena, and Ancona, or else in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire; some famous Kabbalist families even settled under the protection of the Ottoman Sultans in Safed, today a showplace of ancient Sephardic culture in Israel. As for the more affluent Sephardic families of Spain and Portugal, whose wealth was derived from trade with overseas colonies, they found their way mainly to such commercial centers as Bayonne, Bordeaux, Rouen, Amsterdam, London, and the Hanseatic cities of the North Sea. The rise of the Dutch, English, French, and Danish East-India Companies was indeed due, to a large extent, to this influx of Sephardic capital and business skill. Amsterdam in particular became, within a couple of generations, a great center not only of trade and finance, but also of Jewish learning, the home of Manasseh ben Israel, of Spinoza, and of the Belinfante family of printers and publishers. The wealthy Jewish merchants and bankers of Holland imported Jewish scholars to tutor their sons from the whole Sephardic Diaspora, from as far away as Morocco. (Morocco was also the source of certain picturesque Jewish beggars, attracted to Amsterdam by the wealth of its Jewish community; they can be recognized in Rembrandt’s paintings and drawings by their distinctive headgear.) When well-to-do or learned families began to move from Holland to England, the economist David Ricardo was one of the first to distinguish himself in England’s intellectual life.



Large-scale private trade with the Americas began to be truly profitable only in the late 17th century, two hundred years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Birmingham’s description of the role played by New York’s and Newport’s Jewish pioneers in the pre-Revolutionary American trade in slaves, furs, wheat, and other goods reveals how modestly it began, but also how rapidly it expanded. The twenty-three Sephardim who originally disembarked from the St. Charles were paupers or debtors, entirely dependent on local charity for their immediate subsistence and on the protection of Amsterdam’s distant Sephardic magnates in order to overcome Peter Stuyvesant’s unwillingness to accept them as settlers. Within four generations some of their descendants had prospered spectacularly and by 1750 were already marrying, as noted, into the well-established Sephardic families of London, Holland, and the West Indies.

Still, the Sephardim of New York and Newport, however wealthy, appear to have failed to gain acceptance into the truly great Sephardic families of Western Europe or of the Ottoman Empire. Nowhere in the complex genealogies that Birmingham has appended to The Grandees can one find a single direct connection with a Pereire from Bordeaux, a Rodriguez from Bayonne, a Teixeira de Mattos or a Lopes Suasso from Amsterdam, a Mocatta, a Montefiore, or a D’Avigdor-Goldsmid from London, a Donati from Italy, a Benveniste from Salonika, or a Camondo from Constantinople. On the other hand, the tiny Sephardic communities of America seem to have absorbed a number of pioneer Jewish families that had come to America from Germany or from Poland. In addition to the famous Haym Salomon—a Polish Jew who prospered as a financier in Revolutionary America but advised his European relatives not to follow him because they might find the milieu insufficiently Jewish—Birmingham’s roster of America’s Sephardic elite also includes a number of suspiciously Ashkenazi names such as Etting and Franks.

In other respects, too, Birmingham’s chronicles and genealogies will disappoint a seeker after evidence of true yichus, as Jews have traditionally understood the term. On the basis of the few families with whose history he is concerned, it would seem that America’s Sephardic elite failed to produce, throughout the whole of the 19th century, a single scholar, writer, or artist of note, with the exception of the minor poet Emma Lazarus (of Statue-of-Liberty fame) and the little-known portrait painter Jacob Hart Lazarus, both of whom Birmingham ticks off in a line or two.3 A reader of The Grandees might thus conclude that America’s Sephardim totally refrained from association with the nation’s intellectual and artistic elite, this in an age when Disraeli and Grace Aguilar were respected as writers in England, when Isaac da Costa was counted among Holland’s most outstanding Romantic poets, when the Pereire and Rodriguez families in France were patrons, respectively, of the economist Saint-Simon and of the painter Delacroix, when Camille Pissaro was already one of the leaders among the French Impressionists. It is therefore all the more regrettable that Birmingham should have failed to include, among others, such 19th-century American Sephardic figures, prominent in the arts and letters, as Sabato Morais (1832-97), one of the founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and author of the scholarly study, Italian Hebrew Literature (recently reprinted by Hermon Press); or Solomon da Silva Solis (1819-54), a co-founder, in 1845, of a precursor of the Jewish Publication Society of America; or the painters George de Maduro Peixotto (1854-1937) and Ernest Clifford Peixotto.



A key figure in the Birmingham survey is the late Miss Elvira Nathan Solis of New York (who died in 1953), the legendary Aunt Ellie, in whose oral accounts of past family grandeur, lovingly recalled by present-day members of her numerous clan, the author places unremitting trust. Aunt Ellie may indeed have had a phenomenal memory—she certainly had formidable “connections,” being related to a bewildering array of Nathans, Seixases, Cardozos, and Hendrickses—but her mental data-bank seems to have stored mainly the kind of gossip, legend, and rumor that could feed her incorrigible snobbism. And as the reader untangles his way through this Oral Scripture, so to speak, it becomes apparent that the Aunt-Ellie variety of socially-prominent New York Sephardim has insisted all too much on its unproven aristocratic origins while relegating to oblivion friends or relatives in the arts.

The absurdity of their pretensions attains a peak of sorts in Birmingham’s transmission of the information that “a certain Marquesa Lopes,” who lived in 15th-century Spain or Portugal, was “undoubtedly a distant ancestor of Aaron Lopez,” the 18th-century Newport slavetrader (whose business activities, incidentally, Birmingham sets forth in detail). Should we then believe that the French philosopher and essayist Montaigne, whose mother in Bordeaux was also a Lopez, was likewise “undoubtedly related” to the Newport worthy? The names “Lopez” or “Lopes” are as common and widespread throughout the Iberic world as are “Smith” or “Jones” in the English-speaking world, where no historian would dare suggest that all Smiths or Joneses are “undoubtedly” related.4

Mere family names, in the absence of additional documentary evidence of genealogical relationship, can indeed be very misleading. The American descendants of a certain James de Fonseca-Brandon (1764-1843) have thus claimed to be related, according to Birmingham, to the “Dukes” of Suffolk, who were actually only Earls, and whose family name also happens to be Brandon. But the fact is that all Sephardic Brandons are descended from Portuguese-Jewish families originally named Brandao before the name was anglicized and spelled and pronounced like that of the Earls of Suffolk. Because the Portuguese plural of this name is Brandaos, it has also been transformed, in Germany and Poland, into Brandes and Brandeis. No American Fonseca-Brandon, however, has yet been known to pride himself on any blood relationship with the famous Danish-Jewish writer Georg Brandes, or with the late Justice Louis D. Brandeis, though both may also be descended from a common Portuguese-Jewish ancestor of James de Fonseca-Brandon.



The Solis and de Sola families of New York are perhaps the most conspicuous and zealous advertisers of their “distinguished” Sephardic lineage. Repeatedly, they have claimed as ancestors a number of scholars, statesmen, physicians, and financiers who happened to have borne the Solis and de Sola names in medieval Spain or Portugal without necessarily even being related to each other. Nor can the American de Solas and Solises produce indisputable proof of being descended from any of these vaunted forebears. The genealogies that they adduce contain mysterious gaps that sometimes extend over two or more generations without any explanation.

Actually, both Solis and de Sola have never been unusual names in the Spanish-speaking world. In 1515, a navigator named Juan de Solis was the first to discover the Plata estuary in South America (where he was later killed and eaten by cannibals). In the Golden Age of Spanish drama, Antonio de Solis y Rivadeneyra (1610-80) wrote a play that has survived and a History of the Conquest of Mexico. But it has never been proven that either of these de Solises was of Jewish extraction. In the Autumn 1970 issue of Books Abroad, an international literary quarterly published by the University of Oklahoma, I now find reviews of Graciela de Sola’s Julio Cortazar y el hombre nuevo, published in Buenos Aires, and of El léxico de Camilo Jose Cela, published in Madrid, by Sara Suarez Solis. Are these two contemporary Hispanicists, as well as the distressingly edible navigator and the 17th-century dramatist and historian, all necessarily related to or “connected with” Aunt Ellie and her status-hungry clan?

The far-flung de Sola family in Holland, England, the West Indies, Latin America, Canada, and the United States can indeed prove its descent from a certain Carlos de Sola, an 18th-century converso of unknown parentage who escaped from the Portuguese Inquisition to London where he reverted to Judaism. But several generations later some of his descendants began to claim that he in turn was a direct or collateral descendant of all the other medieval Spanish and Portuguese de Solas of any distinction whose names caught their fancy—although there is no proof that all these other de Solas are necessarily related to each other. Some of the misunderstanding may stem from the fact that the converso, as Birmingham correctly notes, “felt the need to advertise his new faith . . . and often selected the name of a Catholic saint.” There was a good reason for this: a converso was obliged to abandon his Jewish name when he accepted baptism. He was then generally given the name of the saint of the day of his conversion and would assume, at the same time, the family name of the Christian godfather who thus adopted him. This last custom, in particular, has led to a great deal of confusion among historians and genealogists, especially since the descendants of wealthy conversos who had aristocratic godfathers have often claimed the latter in good faith as their forebears. Some-times, however, the godfather of a converso was an ecclesiastic or a religious, in which case he would give his godson the family name, such as Santa Maria, Espirito Santo, or de la Cruz, which he himself had adopted “in religion” when he had been ordained or had taken vows.



Finally, like most other popular accounts that touch on the history of the Jews in medieval Spain and Portugal, The Grandees has inherited a number of romantic illusions regarding the privileged status of Jews under the Christian kings who ruled over areas reconquered from the Moors. The fact is that under Arab rule the Jews of Iberia had enjoyed a privileged position as middle-men, interpreters, administrators, and scientists; under Christian rulers, individual Jews still managed to prosper, but the general condition of the Jews continued to deteriorate until the final expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella.5 But then, as should be by now apparent, one cannot look to The Grandees for historical accuracy. What one will find—and this I say in the book’s favor—is a very readable compendium of facts (and fantasies) concerning a little-known area of America’s social petite histoire. As for the Sephardic elite, it continues to consist, as always, of the great names of the Sephardic tradition, those of men of learning, philosophers, physicians, scientists, theologians, poets, Talmudists, and Kabbalists who flourished in Spain mainly during the years of Moorish rule. Their descendants, if any still bear their names, might now be found among the offspring of those Jews who fled from Spain to Morocco and to the various lands that were part of the Ottoman Empire; they are not to be found among the descendants of those Jews who in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, drifted to New York and Newport via Brazil, Holland, the West Indies, or England; and most certainly, except perhaps through later marriages, not among the latter’s descendants.




1 Harper & Row, 386 pp., $10.00.

2 Birmingham writes that “Sephardic communities can be found today virtually wherever the Dutch had outposts—Guiana, Polynesia, the West Indies.” Birmingham is mistaken about Polynesia which never contained any Dutch settlements; he may have had in mind Indonesia or Western Melanesia. At any rate, no Sephardic communities were founded further east than Cochin, on the Malabar coast of India, where an ancient Jewish community was already in existence for at least ten centuries, and in the Dutch East Indies island of Java.

3 Lazarus’s wife, however, Amelia Barnard Tobias Hart Lazarus, is the recipient of five full pages. She apparently owes this largesse to her having once been “one of New York’s great authorities on the intricacies of the calling-card ritual.”

4 A further example of such absurdity is the claim of the Seixas family of American Sephardim to be related, on the basis of fanciful etymology, to the family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; but this was only the geographical name of the German principality that this latter family once ruled and was never its actual family name. No Seixas of “Grandee” provenance has yet claimed, however, to be related to the Portuguese Surrealist poet Cruzeiro Seixas, who was surprised when I recently told him in Lisbon that his name is also a Jewish one.

5 It should not pass unremarked that even Alfonso the Wise of Castille and Leon (1252-84), who is always being cited, and by Birmingham as well, for his generous patronage of Jewish astronomers, mathematicians, cartographers, and scientific translators, allowed those Jews whom he gathered at his court special privileges only because their skills might serve his dynastic ambitions. The majority of the Jews of Aragon, however, best knew him as the monarch who imposed severe limitations on their freedom.

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