Sephardic Jews

Sephardic Jews

Sephardic Jews (Sephardim) are generally held to be Jews of non-Ashkenazi origin, mostly from the Mediterranean region and including North African, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian Jewries. However, the term Sephardim, derived from Sepharad, a toponym first used to designate the Ibe-rian Peninsula in the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, specifically refers to Jews who trace their ancestry to medieval Spain and Portugal. (North African Jews are often classified separately as Maghre-bim or together with Middle Eastern and Central Asian Jewries as Mizrahim.) Dis-persed following expulsions in the 15th and 16th centuries,

Jews and some Jewish con-verts to Christianity (conversos) fleeing the Inquisition formed two main groups outside the Iberian Peninsula: Eastern Sephardim in cities of the Ottoman Em-pire and a smaller contingent of Western Sephardim, mostly former conversos, in western European cities. Italy served as a crossroads between the two. Western Sep-hardim utilized normative Portuguese and Spanish because they maintained contact with Iberia, whereas Eastern Sephardim de-veloped a distinct language, called Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), based on medieval Cas-tilian and other Iberian dialects with ad-mixtures of Hebrew, Turkish, Italian, and French, and written in Hebrew characters.

From the 18th century, the paths of the two groups further diverged: those in Western Europe came to be overwhelmed demo-graphically by an influx of Ashkenazim, whereas the dissolution of the Ottoman Em pire and emergence of successor nation-states splintered Eastern Sephardim. The Holocaust decimated Sephardic communi-ties throughout Europe.Jews inhabited the Iberian Peninsula during the Roman era, Visigoth period, and Arab conquest (711). The forma-tion of a Jewish courtier class, equipped with commercial, administrative, and dip-lomatic skills, represented a legendary golden age (10th–12th centuries). Promi-nent Jews included statesmen Hasdai ibn-Shaprut and Samuel ha-Nagid, and poets and philosophers Moses ibn-Ezra, Sol-omon ibn-Gabirol, Judah ha-Levi, and Moses Maimonides.

The Almohad in-vasion (1148) resulted in forced conver-sions; Jews fled northward to Christian kingdoms pursuing the Reconquista and helped administer territories conquered by Christian kings. Jewish scholars also de-veloped the kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and compiled its central text, the Zohar (13th century).Anti-Jewish animus accompanied the Reconquista. The preaching of Dominican friars, compounded by economic crisis, provided the context for the massacre and forced conversion of Jews in Seville (1391). While many converted Jews (conversos or “New Christians”) became devout Catho-lics, others persisted in practicing Judaism secretly. Pejoratively labeled Marranos (“swine”), conversos became the target of “purity of blood” statutes and attacks, first in Toledo (1449).

The Spanish Inquisition (1478) sought to combat the heresy of “ju-daizing” among conversos. Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews (1492) to pre-vent them from encouraging conversos to judaize.Approximately 100,000 –150,000 Jews fled Spain in 1492. Some settled in North Africa. Many went to Portugal; they were forcibly baptized en masse (1497) and suf-fered a massacre in Lisbon (1506). Since Portugal did not establish its Inquisition until 1536, crypto-Judaism, the secretive practice of Jewish rituals, became com-mon. Converso religiosity frequently com-bined beliefs and practices from Judaism and Christianity. Some conversos and their descendants, some fleeing the Inquisition, became involved in trans-Mediterranean and trans-Atlantic trade.

They consti-tuted the Western Sephardic dispersion, referred to themselves as Hebrews of the Portuguese nation, and traded wine, wood, and sugar from the New World and dia-monds and spices from Asia. Mercantile policies and the toleration on the part of the Calvinist Dutch Republic made Am-sterdam the center of the Western Sep-hardim; 3,000 resided there (1675), where they readopted the normative practice of rabbinic Judaism.Its Ets Ahaim Yeshiva trained rabbis, who also served satellite communities in London, Hamburg, Bor-deaux, Bayonne, Curaçao, and New Am-sterdam. A dowry society (Dotar) linked enclaves of Sephardim in Western Europe and Italy and aided young women in their marriage preparations.Iberian Catholic, Dutch Calvinist, and Sephardic Jewish intellectual currents that converged in Amsterdam impacted the lit-erary production of Western Sephardim.

Menasseh Ben-Israel operated an impor-tant printing press and sought to convince Cromwell to readmit Jews to England. Daniel Levi de Barrios wrote numerous plays in Spanish. Baruch Spinoza, ex-communicated for his heterodox beliefs (1656), composed major philosophical works. Some Western Sephardic families served as patrons to the Dutch masters and subjects of paintings by Rembrandt.The Eastern Sephardim in the Otto-man Empire formed the demographic core of Sephardic Jewry after 1492. They ar-rived from Iberia in the immediate wake of the expulsion, and during the 16th and 17th centuries, either as conversos from Portugal or after sojourning in Italy or North Africa.

Permitted under Islam to worship and maintain communal auton-omy in exchange for taxes, Jews settled in newly conquered Ottoman cities, such as Istanbul and Salonica, where they formed congregations named after the regions in Iberia or Italy from which they came and organized their living quarters around shared courtyards, or kortijos . Other cen-ters of settlement included: Izmir, Edirne, Bitola (Monastir), Sarajevo, Belgrade, Zagreb, Skopje, Sofia, Bucharest, Rho-des, Safed, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Aleppo.

Bringing important skills and technolo-gies they served as translators, merchants, tax farmers, and doctors; established the first printing press in the Ottoman empire (1493); and developed the textile industry, producing uniforms for the janissaries, the sultan’s military.Sephardic Jews assimilated smaller, long-established populations of Roman-iotes, Greek-speaking Jews resident in the Mediterranean basin since antiquity. Some communities of Romaniotes, such as in Io-annina, Greece, retained distinct traditions until the 20th century.Renowned Sephardic rabbinic centers, led by Joseph Taitazak, Samuel de Med-ina, and Moses Almosnino, flourished in Salonica, Istanbul, Edirne, and Safed. Jo-seph Caro wrote the Shulhan Arukh, ad-opted by Sephardim and Ashkenazim as the standard rabbinic legal code. Ladino translations of the Bible appeared in Is-tanbul (1547) and Ferrara (1553).

Caro, Moses Cordovero, Isaac Luria, and Sa-lomon Alkabes also developed kabbalah. Alkabes composed a Sabbath hymn, Lecha Dodi, still chanted today in synagogues of all denominations.Until the 20th century, Eastern Sep-hardim conducted a portion of their lit-urgies in Ladino, in addition to Hebrew, based on melodies adopted from Ottoman high court music. Eastern Sephardim also developed an extensive repertoire of ro-mansas , or secular ballads, sung in Ladino especially by women. Sephardi women also adhered to a distinctive sartorial code, characterized especially by several styles of headdress, such as the tokado in Izmir and Rhodes or the kofya in Salonica, be-lieved to have origins in medieval Iberia.

The eschatological implications of the expulsion, combined with the dissemina-tion of kabbalah, sparked the messianic movement of Sabbetai Sevi of Izmir (1665) that drew wide support. Sevi converted to Islam and undermined his support base. Some followers converted to Islam and formed a distinct group ( dönme ). The failure of the Sabbetean movement coin-cided with Ottoman military defeats and economic downturn, which adversely im-pacted Eastern Sephardim, who took a sec-ondary role in commerce behind Greeks and Armenians.

In the 18th century, the trajectories of Western and Eastern Sephardim further diverged. Western Sephardim replaced Spanish and Portuguese with the national language wherever they resided. Those in southwestern France became the first Jews in Europe to receive full civil rights (1790). A massive influx of Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe during the 19th cen-tury overwhelmed Western Sephardim, who became a small minority of the total Jewish population.In the Ottoman Empire, measures to incorporate Jews into the Ottoman polity did not yet emerge. Eastern Sephardim de-veloped print culture in Ladino. Most fa-mously, Jacob Huli’s Meam Loez (1730) made rabbinic knowledge accessible to the masses. Ethical literature ( musar ) pro-liferated. Contributing to the Jewish En-lightenment, David Attias advocated that Ottoman Jews study secular subjects and foreign languages.

The reorganization of the Ottoman ad-ministration, the introduction of modern schooling, and the advent of Ladino news-papers transformed Eastern Sephardic life in the 19th century. Reform decrees (1839, 1856, 1869) sought to centralize Ottoman authority, grant equal rights to non- Muslims, and develop Ottoman citi-zenship, although without state-sponsored education. Filling this void, the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle established Jewish schools throughout the Ottoman Empire that sought to regenerate the im-poverished classes, taught religious and secular subjects (in French), and trained artisans and craftsmen.

New cultural forms of expression emerged in the vernacular, such as belles lettres, the theater, and La-dino newspapers, like El Tiempo (Istanbul) and La Epoka (Salonica), which supported modern education and served as forums for competing political ideologies, includ-ing Zionism, diaspora nationalism, assimi-lationism, and socialism after the Young Turk Revolution (1908).

The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire ruptured the center of the Eastern Sep-hardim. Around 1900, there were 177,500 Jews living in the Ottoman Empire: the largest concentrations were found in the cit-ies of Salonica (75,000), Istanbul (60,000), Izmir (25,500), and Edirne (17,000). The Ottoman loss of Sarajevo (1878), Sofia (1908), and Salonica (1912) reduced Ot-toman Jewish communities to the bound-aries of present-day Turkey. Many Jews emigrated to France, the Americas, and Palestine. The majority, who remained in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, were subjected to nationalizing linguistic and economic policies. Anti-Jewish senti-ment also increased: pogroms erupted in Salonica (1931) and Edirne (1934).

The Holocaust destroyed the Eastern Sephardim. Jews in Serbia, under German control, were executed in labor camps or murdered in gas vans (1941–1942). The Ustaša of Croatia collaborated with the Nazis; 6,500 of 9,000 Sephardim in Sara-jevo perished (1941–1943). Jews in Greece suffered one of the highest mortality rates of any Jewish community in Europe (87%). Forty-eight thousand Jews from Salonica were deported to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen (1943). Bulgaria, allied with Germany, deported “foreign” Jews from occupied Thrace and Macedonia to Treblinka (1943); few survived. Neutral Turkey compelled non-Muslims (includ-ing Jews and dönme ) to pay a capital tax (1942–1944). Of Eastern Sephardim who immigrated to France, 10,000 were de-ported under the Vichy regime. The Holo-caust also decimated Western Sephardim: 4,300 in the Netherlands were deported to Nazi camps; 800 survived.

With the creation of the State of Is-rael, 35,089 Jews from Bulgaria, 30,657 from Turkey, 6,596 from Yugoslavia, and 1,540 from Greece immigrated (1948–1949). Few remain today in the Eastern Sephardic heartland, with the exception of 25,000 in Turkey. Few speak Ladino (about 100,000 worldwide). The last La-dino newspaper published in Hebrew characters folded in 1948, and postwar generations have been educated in the languages of the countries in which they reside. Communities in Istanbul and Sa-lonica maintain synagogues, schools, museums, and choirs. Emigration, inter-marriage, and anti-Semitism continue to challenge group identity. Western Sep-hardim have had even greater difficulty in preserving their identity. Their syna-gogues, museums, or cemeteries can be visited in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Curaçao, and New York. Institutions for the study of Sephardim operate in Israel, Spain, France, and the United States.

Devin E. Naar

Further Reading

Benbassa, Esther, and Aron Rodrigue. Sep-hardi Jewry: A History of the Judeo-Spanish Community, 14th–20th Centuries . Berke-ley: University of California, 2000.

Gerber, Jane. The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience . New York: Free Press, 1992.

Harris, Tracy. Death of a Language: The His-tory of Judeo-Spanish . London: Associated University Presses, 1994.