An Illuminating Path at the Crossroads of Sefarad

By Jenny Silber

When you think of what it means to be Jewish, lox and bagels on a Sunday morning or matzah ball soup on Passover may be some of the first things to come to mind. The commonality of sharing these traditions can make us feel like we know a Jewish person before we even meet them. However, many of these traditions come from having an Ashkenazi background. Sephardic Jews hold a different history and set of customs that some of us may not fully comprehend.

The new exhibition at the Bernard Museum of Judaica, At the Crossroads of Sefarad: In the Footsteps of the Crypto-Jews explores the history of the Sephardic Jews on the Iberian Peninsula, their prosperity and growth under different governments, and their eventual expulsion starting in 1492. After this exodus, Jewish people found ways to survive by migrating to the New World and Europe, or converting and practicing Judaism in secret, becoming known as Crypto-Jews. Even many years and generations after the expulsion, Crypto-Jews continued to covertly keep their Jewish traditions alive. Many kept Shabbat or didn’t eat pork, even when they had no context as to why. Some groups of Crypto-Jews were so removed from the outside Jewish community that they thought they were the last Jewish people on earth.

This exhibition was created by ANU – Museum of the Jewish People in partnership with the Jewish Heritage Alliance. Warren Klein, curator of the Bernard Museum of Judaica, organized Temple Emanu-El’s showing of it in just six weeks, a task that would usually span over a year if he had started from scratch. Yet, there is no part of this exhibition that one would ever think was rushed. With around 70 panels and striking visual elements, all museum visitors will learn new insights about our shared history as Jews.

Klein is excited for people to learn more about the global Jewish community and to delve deeper into the Sephardic journey, with the help of featured objects, like a book published by a Sephardic community in France in the 18th century. However, according to Klein, there is another reason this exhibition feels very different from the ones we have hosted in the past.

“It’s so meaningful to me as we reopen to see people in the museum,” he says. “Our community, our religious school, visitors from the outside. That makes the museum come alive to me. I know that sounds cheesy or corny, but I do really feel it.”

At the Crossroads of Sefarad: In the Footsteps of the Crypto-Jews is on display at the Bernard Museum until November 15, 2022. Museum hours are Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM. The full exhibit takes around 30 minutes to complete.

This article was originally published in Volume 93, Issue 3 of the Temple Bulletin, Summer 2022.

The Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum is grateful to temple member and artist Rhoda Altman for her recent donation of four intaglio etchings: Festival, Shalom, Tiberius II and “I shall not die, but live, to declare the works of the Lord.” These beautiful, detailed pieces will be on display in the Museum this Fall.