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Sephardi Jews

Who are the Sephardim?

Sephardim are Jews with a Spanish or Portuguese heritage who were expelled or fled from the Iberian Peninsula from the end of the 15th century. A Sephardic diaspora followed. They found refuge across the Mediterranean basin, including the Ottoman Empire where they lived for centuries in the countries we now know as Morocco, Algeria, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia and Bulgaria. Sephardim also settled, in the Netherlands, England and in the Americas. We can see now that the dispersed communities arrived in their new countries with a Judeo-Iberian culture. In some cases, this was lost; in others, strong traces remain.

When did Sephardi Jews settle in England?

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Jews from Normandy arrived in England with William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, in 1066. They were transported to serve the monarch and his nobles as moneylenders.  Medieval Christian England never treated Jews as equals. From 1217, King Henry III ordered Jews to wear a badge and, in 1275, King Edward ordered them to wear a yellow patch which the Nazis later emulated. Medieval archives and drawings reveal murders and atrocities against Jews. Geoffrey Chaucer, celebrated as the father of English Literature, propagated a blood libel in The Prioress’s Tale. When the Jews became destitute, and were no longer useful to royalty, King Edward expelled them in 1290. They were forced to leave on pain of death. Many were murdered as they approached the boats that were to take them to the continent. Officially there was no Jewish population in England between 1290 and 1656.

However, a small number of Sephardi Crypto-Jews, outwardly perceived as Christians while secretly continuing their Jewish faith, did settle in London and Bristol from the late 15th century. They were fleeing the horrors of the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. After the execution of King Charles I, when Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protectorate of England, Jews were considered more favourably.

Cromwell, and some of his fellow Puritans, were expecting the world to end in 1666. Apocalypse-fever infected many religious sects during his regime. The Book of Revelations promised the Second Coming of Jesus under certain conditions. One was the return of the Jews to the four corners of the earth. With this in mind, Cromwell supported  the idea of Jews being allowed to enter England and settle. He was petitioned by the Dutch Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, and as a result, Cromwell approached The Whitehall Conference in 1656. He asked parliamentarians to overturn the monarchy’s expulsion of the Jews. Parliament refused. Despite this interdiction, Jews returned secretly and were allowed to practise their religion discreetly. The first small synagogue was opened, and in 1657, a burial ground was inaugurated. This is known as the Velho cemetery in Mile End. The importance of the burial ground encouraged settlement and Jews trickled back on to English soil. Bevis Marks was built as the first synagogue in 1701. 

What is Ladino?

Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, is a language derived from Castilian Spanish and enriched, over the centuries, by influences from other languages including Hebrew. Although its use sharply declined during the 20th century, Ladino is still spoken by Sephardi communities in more than thirty countries around the world. It is recognized as a minority language in Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Turkey, and Israel.