First Hispanic? Judge For Yourself

First Hispanic? Judge For Yourself

Hispanic-Americans have been basking this summer in the glow of Sonia Sotomayor, the judge sworn in last week as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first member of their community on the High Court.

They may be kvelling 77 years too late, some mavens say.

Following Sotomayor’s nomination by President Obama in May, and the immediate ethnic bragging rights, some Jewish historians put forth the claim that Benjamin Cardozo, the second Jewish justice on the Supreme Court, was also the court’s first member of Hispanic heritage – although the term Hispanic was not in common usage when Cardozo served from 1932-38.

Born and raised in New York City, Cardozo was the grandson of Jews who had migrated to the United States from England before the Revolutionary War and were descended from families, who, according to tradition, had fled Portugal during the Inquisition. His forebears were founders of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Manhattan; Cardozo, who served a distinguished 18-year tenure on the New York Court of Appeals and was named to the Supreme Court by President Hoover, considered himself an agnostic-but-identified Jew.

“He was identified with the Sephardic community,” says Rabbi Mitchell Serels, spiritual leader of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Scarsdale and former director of Yeshiva University’s Sephardic Studies Program.

Members of the Sephardic community consider Cardozo – cousin of the poet Emma Lazarus – Hispanic as well, but haven’t taken up his cause since Sotomayor’s nomination. “No one wants to take away from Sotomayor’s day in the sun,” Rabbi Serels says.

Jewish and Hispanic? “We don’t hold that they’re mutually exclusive,” he says. “You can be Hispanic and be Jewish.”

Sotomayor’s background is Puerto Rican; Cardozo’s putative Portuguese roots aren’t clearly in the Hispanic sphere, according to some Hispanic leaders.

Claims of Cardozo’s ethnic precedents “doesn’t take away from the accomplishments of Sotomayor,” Rabbi Serels says.

The Ladino dialect spoken by many Sephardic Jews is a form of Spanish. To offer congratulations, Ladino speakers say “Para bien” – may it be good, the rabbi says. “It’s Spanish too. That’s what we wish Sotomayor.”

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