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Sephardic Jews and Stereotypes

Emory University Professor Hazel Gold visits BYU to discuss depictions of Jews in 19th-century Spain—and how one writer went beyond the stereotypes.

Spain has been home to many peoples and religious traditions over the years. Its modern-day population is primarily Christian; but in the past, Muslims, Visigoths, and Romans have all controlled the Iberian Peninsula for long spells. However, a people less recognized—yet ever present and often persecuted—in Spanish history are the Sephardic Jews, a diasporic Jewish population dating to ancient times.

A recent week-long mini course for students and faculty (as well as a public-facing lecture on March 2) taught at BYU by Emory University’s Associate Professor Hazel Gold explored the depiction of Sephardic Jews in Spanish novels and how these depictions demonstrate Spain’s complex relationship with its Jewish population.

Juan Valera, born 1824

Gold’s lecture focused on the works of Juan Valera, a writer from 19th-century Spain who was one of the first to offer nuanced, favorable depictions of Jews in literature. However, Valera was not always entirely progressive—at times he upheld common Jewish stereotypes and promoted an exclusionary, nationalistic view of Spain. Gold explained that Valera’s writing demonstrates his grappling with a question about Sephardic Jews as they fit into Spain’s identity. “Were medieval Jews merely foreigners on Spanish soil, or were they woven into the nation’s fabric?” Gold asked. “Valera, like many of his compatriots, has a lot of vacillation on this point.”

Many of Valera’s reservations about the Jews were tied to economic concerns, associating the Jews with timeworn stereotypes of hoarding wealth. “While Valera defends the principle of religious freedom,” Gold explained, “he dismisses outright that an influx of foreign Jews would be a boon to the Spanish economy.”

Despite these reservations, Valera strongly defended Jewish contributions to Spanish science, art, and culture. “Valera is unequivocal in his judgements regarding the importance of la ciencia arabico-judaíca [Arabic-Jewish science],” Gold said. Valera also lamented that great Jewish philosophers and writers of the Middle Ages were not mentioned among their Christian contemporaries.

In particular, one short work of fiction that Valera wrote seems to offer a more conciliatory view of Judaism—one which goes beyond stereotypical characters and plot points. In the story, titled Garuda o la cigüeña blanca (Garuda or the White Stork), an Austrian princess denounces her royalty after falling in love with an exiled Sephardic Jew, and they run away to America together. They become a happily married and prosperous couple, free of their cultural and religious baggage.

Professor Hazel Gold lectures at BYU as part of the week-long mini course.

Gold explained how this story allowed Valera to explore Judaism not only in Spain but in a broader cultural context. “[The plot points] are interwoven with the European, but not Spanish, intolerance of Jews,” Gold said. “By geographically displacing the story’s scenario to Central Europe, Valera makes his characters much more novelistic . . . while simultaneously exonerating contemporary Spain from religious and racial hatred that historically characterized the nation.”

Gold concluded that Valera is “an author who interestingly seems to have chosen to remain on the sidelines, resisting the straitjacket that 19th-century ideologies—whether conservative or liberal—imposed on the intellectual elite.”

Given the country’s long history and different component subgroups, present-day Spain’s identity is complex. Though some of Valera’s views on Jews were antiquated, he dove headfirst into grappling with how this marginalized subgroup fit into the Spanish identity—by doing so, he and writers like him paved the way for the country’s current cosmopolitan landscape.