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5 centuries after expulsion, Sephardic Jews in US attracted by Spanish citizenship offer

Elias Barrocas grew up thinking of Spain as a beloved ancestral home, but one that painfully rejected his Jewish family five centuries ago.

Now, he is waiting expectantly for a long overdue homecoming.

The Spanish government presented a bill last month that would grant citizenship to Jews forced into exile from Spain by the Inquisition in 1492. The plan, expected to pass easily in Parliament, aims to right a past wrong and honor the loyalty of communities that "do not hold a grudge" against a country that forgot them, according to the bill.

For Barrocas and many other American Jews of Spanish descent the emotional link with the Spain of their forefathers was never broken.

His parents first taught him Ladino, a language spoken by the expelled Jewish communities that was derived from Old Spanish. He sang Ladino songs, observed traditions passed on for generations and heard stories of a people that either faced expulsion, conversion to Catholicism or death at the stake during the Inquisition.

Barrocas, 63, only visited Spain once — in 1982 — but a Spanish passport would make official what he has always felt.

"I love Spain because my roots are there," said the South Florida resident, who is a U.S. citizen.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 3 million Jews of Spanish origin. They are known as Sephardic Jews, for the Hebrew word for Spain, though some Sephardic Jews' ancestors herald from other nearby countries or North Africa. The Spanish government expects most of the new applications to come from Israel, where crowds have lined up outside the Spanish Embassy and consulate to request more information, or from Turkey and Venezuela, home to large Sephardic communities.

Many Sephardic Jews in Miami and New York have directed queries to organizations like the American Jewish Committee, which the Spanish government consulted during the drafting of the bill.

"There is a lot of interest," said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the committee's Latino and Latin American Institute.

For many Sephardic Jews in the United States, the draw of Spanish citizenship is mainly symbolic, though it would give them access to residency and jobs across the European Union, she said.

Sara Slomianski, a 49-year old housewife of Mexican origin who lives in Miami, said she is content with her U.S. citizenship, but her sister in Mexico is considering applying so she could move to Europe in search of a better life. Most of the United States' roughly 5.5 million Jews are of Central and Eastern European heritage, but as many as 300,000 have Sephardic roots. Many descended from Jews who fled from Spain to North Africa, the Middle East or other European countries and centuries later moved to the New World.

Over the centuries, Sephardic Jews scattered in communities around the world have preserved their distinct language, prayers, songs and traditions.

In congregations such as Temple Moses, in Miami Beach, members pray and sing in Ladino.

Abraham Lavender, a Florida International University professor of sociology and Judaic studies, said the emotional attachment many Sephardic Jews have with Spain has defied the passing of time.

"It's almost like a lingering love that hasn't been fulfilled," he said.

According to Spain's bill, to be eligible for dual citizenship, applicants will also have to take a Spanish culture test and have their ancient ties to the nation vetted by experts.

The Spanish government is expecting a massive response, according to reports in the Spanish news media.

Jonatas Da Silva, 33, a Brazilian artist who migrated to the United States 20 years ago and is in the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship, says he has no plans to move to Spain but will apply for Spanish citizenship because it has a sentimental value for him. Da Silva, who lives in South Florida, has researched his family history and its journey over the centuries from Spain to Portugal, Germany and Brazil.

"It took me 16 years to find out about my past. I do have pride in my link to Spain," he said.

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