Survival of the Fittest / La Ley de Supervivencia (Q & A)

Queridos lectores, he recibido el siguiente mensaje en castellano y por eso yo queria presentar mi respuesta – este articulo –  en castellano antes que en ingles, pero ningun de mis traductores estan disponibles y escribo muy, muy despacio (y mal) en castellano.  Por eso, os presento todo en ingles y apenas posible la traduccion (y con accentos!) — JA

Hola Janet,  es un placer haber encontrado tu Blog, estoy estudiando cocina en París, y realmente me gustaría aprender y conocer mas sobre la cocina Sefardí y como, no solo ha sobrevivido durante siglos, sino que hoy día es una realidad.
Una cosa muy graciosa es que, en mi casa estamos bien familiarizado con el cuajao, pero en este caso es de pescado, mi Abuela Petra todavía lo cocina.
mil gracias y felicitaciones por tu trabajo

Hi, Janet. 

It’s a pleasure to have found your blog.  I’m studying cooking in Paris, and I really would like to learn and know more about Sephardic cooking and how it has not only survived for centuries, but today is a reality.   A funny thing is that in my house we’re very familiar with cuajado, but in this case it’s made with fish; my Grandmother Petra still makes it. 

A thousand thanks and congratulations on your work.



 Dear Nerwin, 

Many thanks for your kind words and for asking such a good question.  I thought the best way to answer you would be with a brief lesson in Sephardic history (which makes for a long blog entry). 


Really there is no mystery at all as to how Sephardic cuisine has survived over the centuries – especially if you’re Sephardic.  To begin to understand, you need to know first and foremost that Judaism is a culture as much as a religion and that, despite the concerted efforts of los Reyes Catolicos and the Spanish Inquisition, ours is not a vanished civilization.  The Jews of Spain did not disappear five hundred years ago, neither from the face of the Earth nor from the Iberian peninsula.  The vast majority who converted to Catholicism were pragmatists.  They converted to be able to remain in the land of their birth, to keep their homes, their jobs, their property, and they continued to practice their religion and to live their culture as best they could behind closed doors.  With no place left to safely worship, the Jewish religion did for the most part eventually disappear in Spain (only to begin to grow again centuries later).  However, a family recipe is a family recipe and these are passed from generation to generation.  Especially when it’s something delicious.  This would explain how your grandmother makes cuajado.          


 Five hundred years may seem to you like a long time for a culture to exist underground, but in 1492, the Jewish people had been living in Spain already for two thousand years.  They weren’t just passing through.  As for the Jews who did leave Spain, roughly half of them (numbering, I believe, in the hundreds of thousands) emigrated to countries throughout the Ottoman Empire, where they maintained thriving communities pretty much until World War II.  Sephardic culture endured precisely because huge populations of Spanish Jews resettled together and were able to remain intact. 


 Sephardim settled in many, many countries, as diverse as Morocco, Italy, Holland, Hungary and Lithuania.  Jews sailed with Columbus on his first voyage to the New World, which coincided with the Edict of Expulsion.  They settled throughout the Americas and as far aways as the Phillippines.  The oldest Jewish congregations in the United States are Sephardic (the first was established in New York in 1655).  The story is longer and more far-reaching, but you get the idea.


Sephardic food is not just food.  It is an integral part of Sephardic culture, born out of and reflecting our religious dietary laws, social customs, history, tradition and geography.  It is just one of many elements linking our people to one another, and a very profound one at that.  This explains why Sephardic food was seen as such a threat by the Spanish Inquisition and used as damning evidence against conversos. There is an interesting book on this subject (although I don’t recommend the recipes) called A Drizzle of Honey, by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson (St. Martin’s Press, New York), and Inquisition testimony is a matter of public record that anyone can read at municipal archives throughout Spain.


Percentagewise, there are far fewer Sephardic Jews today than in past centuries, but this is more directly a result of the Holocaust than of the Spanish Inquisition.  All the more reason for us to seek one another out, which we do.  We feel bound by our history, we view our culture as a shared experience despite its many permutations and we take pride in both.  With its connections to these things, to our roots not just in Spain but a history that spans thousands of years and the entire globe, Sephardic food is one of the most enduring, unifying and joyful expressions of our identity.


And that, as I said, is the short answer!


1 Comment

Filed under Escrito en castellano, History, Other Reading, Your Questions Answered

One response to “Survival of the Fittest / La Ley de Supervivencia (Q & A)

  1. jan van der brugge

    Dear Janet,
    just to let you know about the Sephardic community of Curacao being older that the one in N.Y. I quote the Mikvé Israel Curacao web site:

    “1651 There is no evidence of an actual Jewish community being established on Curaçao until 1651 when a Portuguese Jew, Joao Ilhao (or d’Illan), founds an agricultural settlement along the northern shore of the Santa Anna Baai in Curaçao.

    And so it is that Sephardic Congregation Mikvé Israel (i.e.” The Hope of Israel”) is founded, making it, today, the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas.”

    When asked about their Sephardic food habits, I was told that they prefer: “Kosher light”!

    You do a great job!
    jan van der Brugge

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