Spanish Jews honored in pre-Inquisition Netflix series

By Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — The “Heirs to the Land” series that dropped on Netflix last month looks, at first glance, like another installment in the growing genre of Spanish period dramas.

In some ways it is, with the familiar blend of romance, violence and a liberal dramatization of key historical events in medieval Spain that have made several recent Spanish productions such as ‘Isabel’ international hits. and “El Cid”.

But “Heirs to the Land” also dives deep into what it was like to live as a Jew in Spain back then, when the strictly Catholic country began its descent into organized persecution of minorities that culminated in the Inquisition.

The series reflects a growing appetite in Spain for exploring local history in general, especially its oft-overlooked Jewish chapters.

“There is a growing awareness in Spain that Sephardic history is not about ‘them’ but ‘us’,” said David Hatchwell Altaras, former president of Madrid’s Jewish Community and one of the co-founders. of the Jewish community of Madrid. museum.

The show’s creators said they wanted to go beyond the dramatic scenes of execution and violence typical of Spanish productions dramatizing Sephardic Jewish history.

“You have multiple references to the Inquisition and anti-Semitism in recent historical production, but I wanted to go beyond that and show the texture of a Jew’s life in Spain just before the expulsion,” said executive producer Jordi Frades, who is not Jewish.

Probably the most Jewish production of its kind in Spain, the 8-episode second season of “Heirs to the Land”, based on a novel by Ildefonso Falcones, follows the life of Hugo Llor, a fictional character born in Barcelona in the 14th century century. .

The illiterate son of a cleaning lady, Llor has trouble with the law and finds refuge in a Jewish family who teaches him to become a winegrower, thus opening the way to the upper echelons of society.

Her journey offers a window into how hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews would have reacted to the tightening of the noose that finally ended their presence as a vibrant community on the Iberian Peninsula.

While previous productions about the Inquisition — including the Netflix series “The Cathedral of the Sea,” which Frades also directed, and the Netflix movie “Coven of Sisters” — briefly and primarily portrayed Jews as unfortunate victims, “Heirs to the Land” digs much deeper.

It depicts a Jew learning of the massacre of the Jews in Valencia in 1391 even as he maintained his faith in the government and the king, who at that time sometimes intervened to protect the Jews from lynchings – but at other times the ignored or encouraged them.

Jucef Crescas, a character loosely based on real-life Jewish philosopher Hasdai Crescas and his student Joseph Albo, adopts external Christian customs such as carrying a cross and changes his name to Raimundo. But he pursued neither Christian theology nor Jewish theology, devoting himself instead to science.

Another protagonist, Regina Llor, is a Jewish doctor who sincerely wishes to convert to gain the acceptance she always wanted and marry Hugo, the protagonist, who is not Jewish.

“In addition to being Jewish, I am a person. A woman. A physicist. I’m tired of being ignored. To be spat on in the street. To be humiliated. I’m tired of being Jewish,” said Regina, played by famous Spanish actress Maria Rodríguez Soto, in a memorable scene.

Elsewhere, Dolça, a Jewish woman who was Hugo’s first love, chooses death over conversion. A lynching mob executes him in one of many gory scenes that have earned this series a mature ratings. In an earlier scene, she dismissively refers to a non-Jew as “just a Christian” – an acknowledgment of Jewish isolationism and feelings of superiority.

The execution scene was ‘the first time this tragic part of Jewish history has been shown on television’ in this way in Spain, according to Reconectar, a nonprofit that seeks to connect people of descent. Sephardim with Judaism.

Drawing on multiple consultants and experts in Sephardic history, the show also attempts to realistically explore how non-Jews treated Jews at the time. Even the noble and courageous protagonist, played by superstar Yon González, says at one point of his ex-wife, who had mainly converted so she could marry him: “I wish that damn Jew had stayed out of my life.”

There is also an attempt to capture Jewish communities and professional circles at the time, ranging from Jewish doctors performing abortions on Christian women (enabled by Judaism’s more permissive stance on terminating pregnancies) to the production of kosher wine exclusively with Jewish labor, as required by the Jewish authorities. right.

(There are also some slip-ups, such as several scenes in which supposedly devout Jews publicly say “Jehovah” – a serious no-no in their circles.)

Frades said the new series attempts to do for the Inquisition what “Schindler’s List” did for the Holocaust.

“I must admit that I found references to explain what happened during this period in what you can see in ‘Schindler’s List’,” he said.

The reception of “Heirs of the Land” has been good, Frades said. Since its April 15 release, the series has cracked Netflix’s top 10 list in 50 countries, including Israel and France, he said, citing information provided to him by Netflix.

“It’s amazing to me because there’s been so little active promotion and the show was made on such a low budget,” Frades said.

Hatchwell, the co-founder of the Jewish Museum in Madrid, isn’t surprised by the public’s interest in the series.

The 2013 law passed in Spain giving citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews has “shined the spotlight on the Inquisition,” Hatchwell said. Portugal also passed such a law in 2013. Tens of thousands of descendants of Sephardic Jews have been naturalized in both countries under these laws.

The government’s promotion of Jewish heritage sites could also fuel interest in the show, he added.

“There’s a growing awareness that Sephardic heritage is Spanish heritage,” Hatchwell said, citing a 2008 study in which Sephardic genes were seen in about 20% of approximately 1,000 Spanish men tested.

Taboo in Spain until the death in 1975 of pro-fascist dictator Francisco Franco, the study of Jewish ancestry in Spain has been made easier by the advent of the internet and social networks.

For Hatchwell, the current interest in the Inquisition is part of a wider interest in history at a time when Spain “is experiencing an identity problem”, fueled by tensions around separatism in Catalonia and the crises around Basque nationalism.

The emergence of Jewish themes in Spanish popular culture is potentially a boon for groups like Reconectar, which attempt to build bridges between the descendants of Sephardic Jews and the Jewish world.

“It’s about popularizing an important period in history that hasn’t been fully discussed due to historical circumstances,” said Ashley Perry (Perez), president of Reconectar. This trend benefits multiple initiatives, including the digitization of Inquisition-era archives for genealogical research and Spain’s joining Portugal to establish a national day of remembrance for victims of the Inquisition.

Politics aside, Frades says his motivations are solely related to storytelling.

“It’s about breaking down a big political narrative, a statistic, into individual stories,” he said.

“There is a Jewish saying to save the world by saving one person,” Frades added. “Well, in the same vein: if you tell the story of one person, you tell the story of a whole world.”

Main photo: ‘Heirs of the Land’ was filmed in Spain in 2020. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Edward K. Thompson