When Spain decided to allow Sephardic Jews to reclaim their citizenship, Doreen Alhadeff, ’72, jumped at the chance. She recently earned a knighthood for helping others do the same.
If Doreen Alhadeff is any indication, you don’t have to wear armor, rescue damsels in distress or even slay dragons to be a knight. In fact, the 70-something Realtor from Seattle, who just became the most recent knight of the Order of Queen Isabella the Catholic, wasn’t alive in the Middle Ages, never jousted and probably never engaged in any crusades. Like many knights of yore, though, she has helped plenty of people in their quest to reclaim something that was stolen from them.
Their Spanish citizenship.
The crime may have occurred more than five centuries ago, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, which led to the expulsion of thousands of Jews from Spain in 1492, but when Alhadeff and Jennifer McCullum talk about it, the incident sounds much more recent.
“When you grow up as a generation of a diasporic people or culture, the grief of the homeland you’ve lost gets passed down [along] with the beautiful traditions of your family,” says McCullum, the assistant director of the UW’s Sephardic Studies program.
The 500-year-old tragedy became more of a current news story when the Spanish Parliament passed a repatriation law in 2015, giving Alhadeff, McCullum and thousands of Sephardic Jews the world over a chance to regain their citizenship. Both women jumped at the chance. “I felt it was very important. I’ve always had a strong affinity to Spain; it seemed more than just a great place. I knew what it meant to me. It was something that had been taken away, and I wanted to take it back,” says Alhadeff, ’72, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the UW. In 2016, she became the first American Sephardic Jew to gain Spanish citizenship after the country passed the law allowing repatriation.
After learning firsthand how involved the process was, Alhadeff decided to assist others who were following in her footsteps.
The accomplishment was no small feat. In addition to meeting the requirements other applicants faced, Alhadeff also had to provide proof of her ancestral ties to the country and certification of those claims by a recognized Jewish community organization where she lived. Once her documents were in order, she had to have them translated into Spanish and travel to Spain to have them notarized. She also had a limited time to do it. The law was initially set to expire in three years. After learning firsthand how involved the process was, Alhadeff decided to assist others who were following in her footsteps.
“I knew what it meant to me. I felt like I was this one person at the time who could help people get through the process,” she says. McCullum was one of many to benefit from Alhadeff’s expertise.
Not knowing where to turn, McCullum, a then-newcomer to Seattle, sought advice from Sephardic Studies Chair Devin Naar, who was able to provide evidence of her ancestry. He also told her, “The first call you have to make is to Doreen,” McCullum recalls. “She has truly been a confidante and a cheerleader. This process would not have been possible without her.”
To understand why Spanish citizenship is so important, a little explanation is in order. Jewish communities have existed across the globe. Often they are divided into two broad cultural and geographic groups. Ashkenazic Jews lived in Eastern and Central Europe and used Germanic-based Yiddish as a language that transcended borders. Sephardic Jews settled in southern Mediterranean countries like Spain, Portugal and later Turkey and Greece, and spoke Spanish-influenced Ladino.
During the Middle Ages, the Iberian Peninsula was a center for Jewish thought and culture under Muslim rule. For a brief period, it was also home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. Conditions changed as the Christians conquered what is now Spain. Jews were given an ultimatum in 1492: convert to Christianity or be expelled from Spain.
Many fled to other Mediterranean countries, including the Ottoman Empire (present-day Greece and Turkey). One of the next great migrations came 400 years later, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th century and many headed to the U.S. McCullum’s great-grandmother emigrated in 1915 to New York from Salonica, Greece, once home to the largest Sephardic community in the Mediterranean and the subject of a 2016 book by Naar. Alhadeff’s grandmother became the first Sephardic Jewish woman in Seattle in 1906 after leaving Istanbul.
In the years since, Seattle has become home to the country’s third-largest Sephardic population.
If someone had told 19-year-old international student Alhadeff that she would be knighted for her efforts to help Sephardic Jews regain their Spanish citizenship, she says she never would have believed them. It’s not just the unlikelihood of the idea, it’s also because there was no evidence of Sephardic culture when she arrived in Madrid in 1969.
“The knowledge of Sephardic heritage at that time was not at all present. People weren’t aware of it at all,” she said in a 2021 episode of the podcast “Power of Place.” Even so, Alhadeff said she felt an immediate connection to the culture and the language. It was the first of many trips to a country where she feels increasingly at home. Of course, it helps that she has also worked to forge bonds between Seattle and the international Sephardic community. After helping Madrid hold Erensya, an international Sephardic heritage conference, she persuaded the organization to hold a meeting in Seattle. She co-founded the Seattle Sephardic Network, which helps people find cultural resources in the Pacific Northwest. She was also named U.S. ambassador to Red de Juderias of Spain, which supports and publicizes a group of cities within Spain with Sephardic heritage.
She was in Madrid when Spain’s Parliament took up the issue of Sephardic repatriation. She wasn’t in the country when it came up for a vote, but she got up early just to watch its passage and started her application shortly after. She became a citizen within a year.
Once she dedicated herself to helping other applicants, she did more than answer queries from all over the world. She also helped make the process easier by lobbying for changes. For example, she pointed to the law’s requirement that all applicants take a language test and a cultural test, both written in modern Spanish, which is much different than Ladino.
“There were a few of us that said, ‘Nobody’s going to go learn a language at this point, and for many of those over 65, the language that they knew, that they grew up with, wasn’t current-day Spanish, it was Ladino.’ So, it was a little bit of a problem,” she says.
“I think it’s an incredible opportunity to offer repatriation for a 500-year-old injustice. ”
The government changed the rule, limiting the requirement to those over 18 and under 70, which also allowed Alhadeff to secure citizenship for her three grandchildren. In addition, applicants were also required to get a Sephardic authority in the country. Alhadeff helped her local synagogue, Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, get recognition from Spain to be an official signatory on such letters.
In McCullum’s case, Alhadeff’s advice made the biggest difference. “At every step, whether it was pointing me in the right direction, commiserating with me over three years without a word, text messages saying ‘Have you heard anything?’ her encouragement and faith in me meant everything,” McCullum recalls.
Like Alhadeff, McCullum was excited about the law. “I think it’s an incredible opportunity to offer repatriation for a 500-year-old injustice. How could I not pursue this as a way to return home to a place that my family had been told, ‘You can no longer be here’ 500 years ago?” McCullum says.
Unlike Alhadeff, McCullum faced a rockier road. She loved the part of the process where she learned more about her family and her grandmother, but she was not thrilled about being a victim of unfortunate timing. She began the process in 2016 and flew to Malaga in May 2018 to have her documents notarized and submitted. She was told that the Ministry of Justice would make a decision within a year. But then the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. Her application was rejected three years later.
“It was devastating,” she says. “It feels like the wound is still fresh. It was the closest I have come in this process to feel what my ancestors must have felt in being told you are no longer welcome in a place that is your home, in a place you know is your birthright.” She was rejected because she was missing a document that became a requirement after she applied. She was able to resubmit, but worried time would run out before her application would be reconsidered. So she sued the Spanish government. She got her citizenship the weekend of July 2, 2021. “I’m not sure it will feel really real until I have that passport in my hand,” McCullum says.
Now that they are Spanish citizens, they are eligible for free health care in Spain, they can vote in elections, apply for jobs throughout the European Union and even open a bank account. It also provides an escape should the political situation in the U.S. worsen.
“I just think it shows unbelievable change with people working at it and wanting it, that change can come about.”
“Years ago,” Alhadeff says, “when I was working in Madrid, a French gentleman who was getting his citizenship said something to my husband that sort of struck us. … Every Jew should have another place to go. They just never know.”
Alhadeff didn’t seek out knighthood. Instead, she was nominated by Luis Fernando Esteban Bernáldez, the honorary consul for Spain from Washington and Oregon, in honor of her “demonstrated loyalty in furthering Spain’s relations with the Americas.” He did so in recognition of her efforts to help Sephardic Jews in Seattle and throughout the U.S. acquire Spanish citizenship.
The knighthood did not come with a suit of armor, family seal or coat of arms, but it did come with a lapel pin and small medal. It may have also come with a bit of baggage, because the order is named for Queen Isabella, one of the rulers who ordered the Jews expelled from Spain.
But instead of being bothered, Alhadeff said she is encouraged by the name. “I think that’s the most important part of this because this is obviously centuries and centuries, and people still relate to her as being one of the responsible parties. I just think it shows unbelievable change with people working at it and wanting it, that change can come about,” she says. “I think that’s huge and if I can represent that, then that kind of change is possible.” As an example, she pointed to the change in attitude between her first trip to Madrid in 1969 and today.
“I see the difference from when I was there [first], because there was no awareness of the heritage of the Sephardic history. They didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t discussed, it wasn’t taught.Now organizations are speaking out about Sephardic heritage, restoring Sephardic sites, as well as teaching it in school. Things have progressed. It’s been very, very exciting, actually.
“That’s been quite a journey for me, but it’s also been quite a journey for Spain. It’s the odd occasion that I go [there] now that somebody doesn’t want to talk about it, they want to know what’s going on. Oftentimes they are convinced, or they think that they probably have some Sephardic heritage in their background.”
Now that the repatriation window has closed, Alhadeff still gets questions, but they are about her knighthood. Some people have asked what she gets for being a knight, others asked if a sword was used in her ceremony. Perhaps the most frequent question is about its significance.
Since it’s an honorary title, the knighthood doesn’t come with any privileges. Not even free admission to heritage sites or a discount at the Spanish equivalent of Denny’s. No actual swords were used in her October knighting ceremony at the Meydenbauer Center in downtown Bellevue. Instead, there were speeches and a musical performance by noted Spanish musician Paco Diez, who sang in Ladino and Castilian.
As for the significance of the honor, she says, “It just means that I’ve been recognized for the work that I’ve done. I still see it as ongoing. I hope I’m not done.”