By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – When people think of the Jews of Spain, they usually think of the Expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
But Andrée Aelion Brooks says that there is so much more to their story.
On Sunday, April 2 at The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford, Brooks will discuss the unique and rich culture of the Jews who lived in Spain over a period of 1,500 years. Adding to the flavor of the evening will be a kosher Spanish-themed meal preceding Brooks’ talk.
The event is sponsored by both the Emanuel and the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.
“This program is a continuation of the Historical Society’s ‘Jews Around the World’ series that we have offered for many years,” said Estelle Kafer, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society. “‘Jews of Spain’ is of particular interest to the group of travelers that participated in the Society’s trip to Jewish Spain in 2015 and will hopefully share some of their insights. In the past we have had scholars speak about the Jews of Italy, India, Greece and Cuba to name a few. We always try to include a themed kosher dinner, music and slide show with the presentation.”
Brooks, a journalist, author and lecturer, is a former contributing columnist for the New York Times. A resident of Westport, she is now an associate fellow at Yale University and founder of the Women’s Campaign School of Yale. Her books include The Woman who Defied Kings: The Life and Times of Doña Gracia Nasi, a biography of the 16th century Jewish woman who ruled one of Renaissance Europe’s foremost banking houses; and Russian Dance, about a Bolshevik spy. She has also developed “Out of Spain,” a multi-media educational program on Sephardic Jewish history for day schools.
Born in London to a Greek-Jewish father and French-Jewish mother, Andrée Aelion Brooks’ background does include ancestors from Spain – the name Aelion is a derivation of the Spanish town of Ayllon.
But that part of her personal history is not what drove her to study the Jews of Spain. A Jewish historian for the past 20 years, Brooks delves just as passionately into the history of the Jews of Persia, the Jews of India, the Jewish community of Cuba, and the Buhkarian Jews – Jews of Central Asia, who may be descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Brooks has researched the Jews of Spain intensively.
“They probably first settled there in antiquity – very early as they were spreading through the Mediterranean as traders and they began to create small communities in some places in Spain and other places along the rim of the Mediterranean – small trading communities.”
Jews eventually settled all over Spain, she said.
“They spread out and were particularly known for their artisanal skills and as traders,” she said. “They didn’t go in for buying up huge swaths of land. They didn’t want to be landowners because there were always periods of time when people maybe wanted to expel them. And it wasn’t a good idea to own a lot of land.”
Jews were often highly regarded at the court of whoever happened to be the current ruler.
“I wouldn’t say that the local aristocrats embraced them. But they were very prominent at the court because of their skills,” Brooks explained. “They had language skills, they had trading skills, and they had the ability to reach out to other countries in a way that many of the locals didn’t. And they didn’t have a power base within the aristocrats that the others had, which made the ruler a little bit more comfortable with them. They weren’t going to challenge his rule.”
Brooks said that at the April 2 dinner in West Hartford, she will talk about daily lives of the Jews of Spain. “I’ll be discussing how they lived, what happened to them, their better times, their difficult times.”
During the good times, the Jews of Spain were noted for their excellence in medicine, science and the arts. Brooks said that one of the reasons the Jews were so learned was that “they were living in a Muslim environment most of the time.”
“Muslims at that point in time, around 900 and 1200 were the most sophisticated, educated, advanced people around,” she said. “Their scientific advances were centuries ahead of the West. So they picked up on the Muslim learning and became very much a part of that learned environment.”
The Jews of Spain made a lasting impression on the country.
“I think they were very instrumental in helping to make it a vibrant, cultural place… but it was the tri-parte – Christians, Muslims and Jews living and working together that made it a very vibrant society. Some of the finest cities in Europe were in Spain. [People] were in awe when they went and travelled to Spain. It was a very sophisticated culture … I don’t know that you can separate the Jews out from the rest of [them] in terms of accomplishments.”
During her talk, Brooks will also touch on when things went bad for the Jews in Spain, including what led to their expulsion.
“And that didn’t mean they all left,” she said. “You have to realize that at least a third of them – but no one is quite sure – stayed. They stayed because they accepted conversion. They were allowed to stay if they became Catholic. And hundreds of these ‘Crypto-Jews’ said, ‘Alright, you want me to be baptized, okay, I’ll be baptized. But I will still have my Jewish family and friends, and I will still have my Jewish rituals.’”
What followed was the arrest and persecution of many “Conversos” during the Inquisition. Brooks says that the Jews were really persecuted for financial reasons.
“They were arrested if they were found. But what was essentially a religious excuse wasn’t. It was greed.”
“We are delighted that Andrée Aelion Brooks will be our scholar for this evening,” Kafter said. “Her numerous honors and awards for her programs, writings and publications along with her expertise on such a wide array of Jewish history topics is very impressive. I am confident her presentation will be fascinating and participants will enjoy a very special evening.”