LOOKING FOR THE SEPHARDIC ROOTS OF MY ANCESTORS:
THE “CALLE” LAST NAME.
By Horacio Calle Restrepo
from Halapid, Winter 2000
My name is Horacio Calle Restrepo. I was born 65 years in my home state of Antioquia, Colombia. What follows is part only of my very own and very personal search for my Jewish, Sephardic identity. This is not an academic paper, it is a human effort to find out where do I come from.
I was born and raised in devout Catholic family and I was very Catholic until the age of eighteen, when, because of my reading, I became romantic freethinker. In Antioquia there has been for generations, a belief that most of our families were formerly Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism. Some historians accept this idea, but others reject it openly. The controversy goes on generation after generation. But I myself did not pay much attention to it and the issue was never touched upon in my family, as far as I know or recall. So, I am not giving hard facts. There are none.
When my grandparents died, they did not give me a secret envelope written in old fashion Hebrew stating that we were Jews. But, I am sure that if when I was a teenager had I had the information that I have now, the conversation with my father or with “Papa Jesús”, my father’s father (I understand that this is a Sephardi way: to call your grandparents “papá or “mamá”) would have been very different. Just three years ago. When I was already deeply motivated to find out about my Sephardic Identity, I did ask one of my aunts, “Aunt Magola, Do you remember if anything was mentioned in our family about our being Jews?” And she looked at me and said, “It was known so, and I am very proud of it.”
So, what follows is but a presentation of the little bits of information I have found during the past four years concerning the Jewish origin of the Calle last name. I offer it with the hope that some of you can add some more light on this, or that the little I have to show can be of help to any of you. My mother’s last name, Restrepo, is a different and fascinating history, but that will be some other time.
A Calle Arrives from Spain
At the very beginning of the 18th century a young man arrived from Spain by the name of Juan Perez de la Calle. According to him, he was the son of Juan Perez de Palacios and Angela de la Calle y Estrada and born in Armaño, Reino de León “cristianos viejos, de noble sangre e hijosdalgo notorios” (Old Christians of noble blood and notorious hijosdalgo or noblemen). According to the statement, I was wasting my time and effort. There was nothing Jewish to look for in this man. He was an “Old Christian.” But then, why did he drop his last name Perez? Why, ten generations later, was my aunt Magola Calle telling me that we were of Jewish origin?
I decided to keep looking. There is a strong motivation within myself to read everything I can on Judaism, its history, its worldwide view, its message to mankind … Spinoza, Mila 18, Golda Meir, Kibbutzim, Herzl, Ben Gurion, Uriel Acosta, Sabetai Sevi, Rambam. And here and there I was finding little bits of evidence on the Calle or de la Calle last name as a Jewish one and very much Sephardic in origin. What follows is a presentation of what I have found
The first evidence appeared while reading the biography of Cristobal Colon by Salvador de Madarriaga, who openly supports the Jewish identity of Colon. And it happens that in the crew of his first trip there was one Alfonso Calle, the treasurer of the expedition. Like others of the crew he was a New Christian or converso. It is known that when Colon went back to Spain (Sefardad should we say?) he left behind a group of his men and he found all of them dead when he came back on his second trip. According to Madarriaga, Alfonso Calle was one of them. Maybe Alfonso was the very first Jew to die in the New World! But in Howard Sachar’s book “Farewell España” it is said that the converso Alfonso Calle died later as a colonist in Santo Domingo.
Antonio Calle was a Playwright
Some time later I was reading a very moving and real history about Sol Hachuel, a young Jewish woman from Morocco who was decapitated in 1834 accused of having betrayed Islam into which she had supposedly converted. The history is found in Pardes (Paris) (4-1986) and written by Sarah Leibovici. This martyrdom “made headlines” in its day. And a Spanish playwright by the name of Antonio Calle wrote a play on this motif.
“At this point we will stop as necessary to remark that the last name is Jewish, indicating with no doubt, not the “street” but kahal (gathering of Jews)” Writes Leibovici. “Such was the name of the juderias in Catalonia, in the Baleares. Then a certain Alonso Calle and his brothers who participated in the first trip of Cristobal Color, are found among those suspected of Judaism, or marranism, that embarked with him…” (page 41)
I was deeply moved! I knew beforehand that many Spanish last names like Lopez, Mendez, Bernal, Correa and so on had been used indifferently by Jewish or Gentile families alike, but here I was with a truly and pure Jewish last name!! So I was not Horacio Calle at all, but Horacio Kahal!! And if my Baal Tshuva process is accepted I have decided that will be my Jewish last name!
Then about two years ago I found a book by the American anthropologist Kenneth Moore, Those of the Street: the Catholic Jews of Mallorca And there it is explained that the Xuetas (The derogatory term for Jew in Mallorca) were simply called los de la calle just because they lived in the street of the Jews with no reference to Kahal. But what was bothering me so much and still does, is this, if my last name is a Jewish one why have I never found it mentioned in any of the books I read? I mean as a Jewish last name of today, like say, Levy, Kohen, Carasso, Perez, Mendez, Benveniste, Correa? It became an obsession with me. Every time I open a book or magazine that has to do with Judaism, I look right away in the alphabetical index in search of “Calle” to no avail!!! If you look in the authors index of AKI YERUSHALAYIM (a beloved Israeli publication in Judeoespanyol) you find only one “Calle”… But it is me. I even wanted to write a letter to the Yad Vashem archives to find out if there was any victim of the Shoa with my last name. I never did. I have been reading several books on the history of Salonica and my last name is never mentioned. In all the records I have searched of the Inquisition I have not found a single victim with this last name. Even worse, in Spain there was a Supreme Judge of the inquisition by the name of Don Gabriel de la Calle Heredia! What a shame! For me it was the end of the line. But Heredia is a converso last name! There were conversos within the Inquisition. Shame on him and let’s keep looking.
At this point I feel it necessary to clarify that I make a living as a university professor, but I do not live in a city. I love nature and I live in a small country cabin fifty-four kilometers away from the university and from the Sephardic Synagogue in Bogotá. I used to attend the Synagogue on Friday evenings to receive the Shabbat. But my Judaism revolves around book reading and the computer, sort of an electronic Judaism, and of course, letters. I had correspondence with Israeli historian Mordechai Arbel who has been very nice to me. And one day he sent me a letter with a copy of “La letter Sepharde” (March 98) in which appears an in depth article concerning the request made in February 1773 to the king of Spain, Charles the Fourth, by the representatives of 300 families of conversos, Xuetas from Mallorca, people called de la Calle. They are petitioning the king to have them treated on terms equal with the rest of the vassals of the king, diespite the fact that they are of Hebrew origin (estirpe Hebrea), because they are Christians and Catholics like the rest. I want to quote part of this request:
“We, with Jewish roots, but of Spanish nationality and of Catholic profession, we have tolerated by many years and with a lost of patience, the exclusion of the honors of high level employment. Receiving in return the despising name of Xuetas.” (My translation from French to English).
Xuetas Called De La Calle
They were converts. These so called people de la Calle or Calle recognized that their parents and grandparents were converts. As the document is dated 1773 that makes for at least two generations of converts going backwards. Converts, yes, but very proud of their Jewish ascendancy they say, “A convert, besides his great faith in his new religion, is and remains a descendant of those chosen by God, a statement that no descendant of gentiles is in a position to affirm.” Two years later (according to the article by Madame Choukroun in La Lettre Sepharade) came the answer from the royal Supreme Court. My ancestors de la Calle were openly told and in very clear cut terms as to leave no doubt, “.. don’t believe that because of your conversion you are entitled to the nobility and the good position of the majority of Christians. It is necessary to believe very little in the sincerity of these conversion.” Then the Royal Supreme Court describes the Catholicism of thee converts:
“They practice the (Catholic) religion with a puerile and hypocrite devotion. Inside the church they cry and sob with affected exclamations, in their homes, they sit on the sidewalk by their house doors in order to pray the rosary with more ostentation than devotion, but they fool neither the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition nor the people of Palma (Mallorca)…How can a good Christian speak with respect and sincerity to someone who says that one of his ancestors was Jewish? Those de la Calle are very wealthy and their neighborhood of Sagell is full of gold. It could be a terrible shock for the people of Mallorca if the royal justice puts them in equal terms with those individuals de la Calle.
So, the request of my ancestors de la Calle, not to be ostracized any longer by the Christianos Viejos was finally denied. Let us remember that all this was happening in 1773, one generation before my first ancestor in Colombia, Don Juan Perez de la Calle, had arrived here already and had married on the nineteenth of March, 1703. What were his innermost feelings? Why did he drop the last name Perez but not the de la Calle which was very much Jewish? What did he tell to his sons and daughters? My aunt Magola died a few years ago. She knew we were of Jewish ancestry. Did my own father, Don Conrado Calle, know anything about it? I do not know for sure. I have read that the tradition among conversos was not to mention these topics to their children until they were grown. I remember that my father had planted an apple tree in our backyard. When the first apple appeared, I was just too willing to eat it and I grabbed it when it was not even ripe enough. My father admonished me and I remember it clearly, “you are not supposed to eat the first fruit of my tree!” Did my father know it was a Jewish custom? I don’t think so. In our culture we still have some practices without the knowledge that they are Jewish in origin.
I want to close these personal notes with a quote from Simon Weisenthal translated into Spanish with the title Operacion Nuevo Mundo: La mission secreta de Cristobal Colon (Operation New Wold: The Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus):
Whole regions of Central and South America have a Jewish characterr… So, the inhabitants of the Colombian province of Antioquia (my homeland) descend from Spanish converts, they have a lot in common with the Xuetas from Mallorca. Their dialect is characterized by peculiarities as those of the Ladino spoken by the Sephardies.
So I am a Xueta. But, the question that keeps bothering me is: what happened with the last name Calle as a Jewish last name? Why did it disappear from the scene?
One year ago I received from France a book on Salonica. Inside was a little strip of paper advertising a book on photography by Madam Sophie Calle. Of course I was more than curious about her and I got the little book: photos of daily life with short stories underneath. Who was Sophie Calle? And then I had the chance to get another one of her little books. This time it was more interesting because the photos were all related to a special wire boundary in Jerusalem that demarcates an area in which you can move on Shabbat without breaking the Law. Maybe Madame Sophie Calle had something to do with Judaism! I got her address and I wrote to her, but the only answer I ever received, about one year ago, was a very polite invitation to a gala exhibit of her pictures in Paris. I still keep that invitation. I have never been to Europe and chances are I will never go. It just does not bother me. Earlier mentioned that I have become an electronic Jew and I get a lot of mail and information from Kulanu. Recently an unknown person wrote to me, “Mister Calle, do you know that a Jewish woman French photographer by the name of Sophie Calle will be opening an exhibit in New York soon?” So she is Jewish! She is the first person with the Jewish last name, Calle that I know of so far.
Myself? I am sort of a crypto-Jew, crypto-Xueta. I am very much a loner and proud of it. I live alone in a county cabin and I do understand that Judaism is very much a matter of family and community life. It is not for hermits. I have been told that and I do not resent it. I practice all I can and all I understand of Judaism, including series of daily life practices that I learned as a member of my family and that we still practice without our knowing that they are Jewish in origin. Let’s see what is the future. I do what I honestly can. If anyone of you feels like getting in touch with me you can do it through my email or airmail address. They are listed below. I would appreciate it very much.