Danny Lobell // Brooklyn, NY
Over my ten-year career as a stand up comedian, I’ve had the privilege of being able to travel the world to do my comedy. Last year I was taken to Spain, one of the pork capitals of the world. To some people, going to Spain may be like going to just another European country like France or Italy. For me, Spain held a very different significance since my ancestors were expelled from there over five hundred years ago.
The inquisition is not spoken about much these days. When people talk about the Jews being oppressed, they tend to highlight the Holocaust and the Exodus from Egypt or other atrocities such as the Crusades and the Pogroms. The word “inquisition” seems to imply that the Jews were politely asked to leave Spain. This was not the case at all.
Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand set the Inquisition into motion as early as 1478. For three hundred years Jewish people were persecuted for their beliefs and forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Those who refused to comply were subject to unspeakable torture and often death. Those suspected of being crypto-Jews in hiding were arrested, taken to the center of town, humiliated and more often than not murdered. It was common to force suspected Jews to eat pork. If they refused, it stood to follow that they were Jews (or Muslims). The government even passed a law mandating the incorporation of pork and shellfish into almost every meal, making pork the national food of Spain that it still is to this day.
When expelling the Spanish Jews, Isabella and Ferdinand didn’t account for the fact that the people of Spain would now have to suffer with sub par comedy clubs. That’s why “returning” to Spain felt like a personal conquest. Five hundred and thirty three years after my family was forced to leave their homes and lives in Madrid, one of their descendants was paid to come back to tell jokes.
My shows in Spain were a lot of fun and I did enjoy the culture and the country, but it was incredibly difficult for me to find places to eat that did not have jamon (pork) on the menu. I don’t eat pig today and have never even at my least religious periods. It’s the least I can do after what my ancestors went through to avoid it. The lack of eating options heightened my awareness to my Judaism as I walked down the Spanish streets.
During one of my shows I riffed on how angry I was that all the menus were still so Jew-unfriendly and that those were not just pigs legs hanging up everywhere but special Jew deterrents. A girl came up to me afterward to explain that she had been studying abroad in Spain and that she was Jewish. She tried avoiding ham for as long as she could, she told me, but eventually wound up eating it by accident. After a few times she found she had developed “a taste for it.” She now considers herself a ham connoisseur and told me that she absolutely loves it. Isabella and Ferdinand’s plan was still working, I sadly thought.
Towards the end of my trip, my friends and I went to a diner. I ordered some mushrooms thinking they’d be a safe option. A few bites in I noticed there were tiny little pieces of meat floating around in my dish. What do you know? Jamon! It got me too. A lifetime of avoiding pig, only to wind up eating it in the very place that my ancestors escaped to avoid it.
Danny Lobell is a well-respected performer and comedian who tours internationally. He is currently the host of “Real Talk with Danny Lobell” on Yackit.com and writes a weekly humor column for the Greenpoint Gazzette. Danny’s debut album, “Some Kind of Comedian,” will be released this spring. He was most recently heard on the “Reap What You Sow” episode of This American Life. He tweets as @dannylobell.