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Books About Jewish History and Culture

by Sandra Cumings Malamed

The Return to Judaism
Descendants from the Inquisition Discovering Their Jewish Roots
by Sandra Cumings Malamed
ISBN 978-1-56474-504-0
336 pages, cloth, $32.50

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During the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal many Jews were forcibly converted to the Catholic faith. These Conversos, as they were called, were required to give up their religion, their traditions, and in some cases even their names.

During the 1990s, historian Sandra Malamed conducted a series of probing interviews with people of Spanish and Portuguese descent, who considered themselves Christians or even non-believers, but who nonetheless practiced various Jewish traditions—often without knowing where the traditions came from. When she explained to them what these customs were all about, they were fascinated to learn that Judaism might be part of their families’ history. The word spread, and before long people from all around the country and beyond began to contact Malamed.

Included: a brief history of the Inquisition, the interviews with 50+ descendants of Conversos, a survey of Sephardic Judaism worldwide today, lists of Sephardic surnames, timelines, glossary, bibliography, index. Illustrated with black and white photos throughout.
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The Jews in Early America
A Chronicle of Good Taste and Good Deeds
Sandra Cumings Malamed
ISBN 1-56474-408-6 • 224 pages, cloth, $25.95
ISBN 1-56474-407-8 • 224 pages, paperback, $15.95

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Twenty-one articles, illustrated with photos and other art, about the Jews in early America, from the first permanent Jewish settlement in 1654 to the eve of the Civil War. This book tells how the Jews lived, how they made their livings, how they formed a community based on shared faith and common values, and how they interacted with and contributed to the rest of early American society.
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1. Your book, The Return to Judaism: Descendants from the Inquisition Discovering Their Jewish Roots, begins with a brief history of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Why is it important for people today to know about the Inquisition, which flourished five hundred years ago?

A: The persecution of the Jews under the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal officially lasted from the late fifteenth century until the early nineteenth century, but in fact it only “legitimatized” the Catholic Church's practice of encouraging anti-Semitism. Now, although the Inquisition is officially over, religious intolerance still exists in many places throughout the world. To better understand this problem, it is important that we learn about the Inquisition, an iniquitous chapter in human history.

2. You say in your book that when the Sephardic Jews and Conversos fled Spain and Portugal, they took with them many Jewish customs and values, which they spread throughout the world. What are some of those customs and values?

A: A good example of the values spread throughout the world by Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal is the practice of Tzedakah, or organizing charities and benevolent societies to take care of the sick, elderly, widowed, and orphaned members of both the Jewish and general societies in which they dwelt. Customs preserved over the centuries include not having milk and meat on the same table at the same time; burying the deceased within twenty-four hours to protect the soul; and covering all mirrors in the house after a death, so the mourners will concentrate on the mourning of the deceased, not on their own vanity.

3. The book begins with a long prayer called “Kol Nidre.” What is the significance of that poem? Also, please explain the meaning of the word “Teshuva,” which is the subject of Part Four of your book.

A: The Kol Nidre prayers are repeated three times at the beginning of the twenty-four-hour period on the day of Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, when Jews repent for the past year's misdeeds, both to God and to one's fellow man and family members. Jews at this time also ask to be given another year of life. Kol Nidre is called “The Chant of Ages.” Teshuva means “to return,” and my book is about descendants of Sephardic Jews returning to their Jewish roots.

4. Are you descended from Sephardic Judaism? How did your ancestors come to live in America?

A: I am descended from Ashkenazic Jews, but I am an adopted Sephardic Jew because of all of my work on the Inquisition and the plight and diaspora of the persecuted Jews who came from Spain and Portugal. My family on three sides came from Russia, and on one side from Poland. Most of my ancestors came to America because they were running from persecution in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

5. How did you get interested in the Sephardic diaspora? Have you met many descendants of Sephardim in your travels in the United States and abroad? How did you find your interviewees?

A: Because of my scholarly interest in the contributions of Jewish people in early America, most of whom, at the beginning, were Sephardic, I became interested in their history. I have met literally hundreds of Sephardic Jews all over the world. Most of the people I have interviewed were brought to me by recommendation of others, or by people finding out about my work on the many Internet websites where I am now seen.

6. How long did it take you to gather your interviews? How long did it take you to write your book?

A: The gathering of the interviews in the book took about ten years; but I am still interviewing people who are interested in the subject, even though the book is now published. It took me about five years to research and to write the parts of the book other than the interviews.

7. If your book, The Return to Judaism, could accomplish one important goal, what would that goal be?

A: I hope that people of Iberian descent will read this book if they are interested in discovering that their own roots-their ancestors-might have been Jewish during the period of the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal, and their colonies. These descendants of Sephardim have a right to know about the heritage that was stolen from them.

About the Author
Sandra Cumings Malamed
is the author of The Return to Judaism: Descendants from the Inquisition Discovering Their Jewish Roots and The Jews in Early America: A Chronicle of Good
Taste and Good Deeds
. She has lectured throughout the United States and abroad at historical societies and museums and has been a scholar in residence for many private organizations. She has served as visiting curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the American Jewish Historical Society in Waltham, MA. She lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.

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