Sephardim Real and Imagined: A Response to “Many Sephardic Jews Aren’t Actually ‘Sephardic’” by Alex Beider

By Joel S Davidi Weisberger

Photo by By Olivier Lévy

In an interview with a local Jerusalem weekly newspaper, the renowned Israeli historian of the Hasidic movement Dr. Isaac Alfasi , recounted an exchange that he once had with Israeli Prime Minister David ben Gurion. Alfasi, who served as President of the Israeli branch of Bnai Brith in the 1950s, was asked by the elder statesman, “Are you a Sephardi or an Ashkenazi?” “I am a Sephardic Jew from Poland,” Alfasi’s replied. Ben Gurion was incredulous, Alfasi recalled, and he asked, “How can one be a Sephardi from Poland?” Alfasi then explained to the man that indeed Sephardim had settled in various parts of Poland, and he happened to descend from one of those families that had retained this particular vestige of their ancestral culture.

In an article posted on the Israeli online news site YNET (March 13, 2007), the genealogist Orit Lavie explores the roots of her Alfasi forbears from Kharkov, Russia (now Ukraine). According to Lavie using my own translation:

“My connection to the Sephardic diaspora begins in the second half of the 19th century … [my ancestor] Yaakov Alfos was a descendant of Rabbi Avraham Alfos-Alfasi of Opoczno, Poland. The surname Alfasi denotes origins in Fez, Morocco … One of the most-well known members of this family was the famed Talmudist Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, known also by the acronym “RIF.” He was born in Algeria and eventually relocated to Fez, Morocco. At the end of his life, he resided in Spain and apparently one of his descendants ended up in Poland.”

Lavie pointedly concludes her piece:

“The saga of this family indicates that the perceived divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is not as wide as it seems and the distance between these two Jewish Diasporas is a lot closer than is commonly thought.”

I was reminded of these tidbits when I read Alexander Beider’s latest article on “faux” Sephardim entitled  Many ‘Sephardic’ Jews Aren’t Actually Sephardic

While I feel that the article was interesting and enlightening, I do feel the need to point out what I perceive to be several errors of commission and omission.

Beider:

“But most of all, we did not know what many people don’t know: that no group of Sephardic Jews ever migrated to Germany, with the exception of a single Sephardic community that made its way to Hamburg.”

Sephardim also established communities in other large cities in Western and Central Europe such as Prague and Vienna. In 1662, for instance, the converso turncoat Isaac Aboab testified before the Spanish inquisition as to the existence of a community of Portuguese returnees to the Jewish faith in Danzig/Gdansk in Poland among other places.

The mistaken belief that many European Jews are Sephardic is based almost invariably on surnames borne by members of their families.

While many Eastern European Jewish families with Sephardic-sounding family names stake a claim to Sephardic ancestry, many, if not most, who make this claim, do not in fact have Sephardic surnames. Often the claim is that the name had undergone “Ashkenazification” (typical of these would be the German equivalent to a prior Spanish surname, ex: Belmonte>Schoenberg).

Beider is correct that many Ashkenazim are mistaken in their belief that they are of Sephardic descent. I have come across quite a few American Jews who initially research their Eastern European forbears and often mistakenly conclude that since a particular ancestor was a member of a congregation called “Anshei Sephard,” which can literally be translated as “People of Sepharad,” their ancestor must have been Sephardic. In reality of course, this term was used by people who prayed in the Chassidic rite.

Another reason to claim Sephardic descent is the subject of John Efron’s excellent book “German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic.” According to Efron, when the German Jews embarked upon the quest for legal emancipation and social acceptance, they also undertook a program of cultural renewal. Part of this renewal was the casting off of an unwanted identity and the taking on of what they deemed to be a superior Jewish identity. In the mind of many an enlightened German Jew, Ashkenazim represented insularity, backwardness, moral, and even physical degeneracy. By contrast, the Sephardim of old Andalucía were seen as worldly and morally, intellectually and physically superior. Efron provides numerous examples in his book of Ashkenazi public figures who laid a claim to this legacy for the reasons enumerated above.

Efron:

“No one better exemplifies the romantic tendency to venerate the Sephardim…than Theodore Herzl. With his vivid imagination and highly developed theatrical sense, this Budapest-born resident of Vienna construed for himself an imaginary lineage, wherein he claimed to be descended of Sephardic Jews. In one…his paternal great-grandfather, a Rabbi named Loebl, had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. After fleeing the Iberian Peninsula, Loebl emerged in Constantinople, whereupon he openly returned to Judaism…for his own sense of self and his own self-image Herzl concocted this fantasy wherein Loebl was no longer the Slovenian Jew of reality but the Spanish Jew of Herzl’s desires…Herzl longed to be anything but an Ashkenazic Jew from Central Europe.”

Instructively, Efron notes, “Lest one think that Herzl’s invention reflects a decidedly 19th century sentiment, in the course of writing this book, I had conversations with a surprising number of Ashkenazi Jews who declared to me that their families had originally come from Spain.” Efron dismisses this out of hand. Although in a personal correspondence he does concede that some Sephardim did make their way to Eastern Europe but overall the claims of Sephardic descent are, in his words, “A desperate cry for Jewish yikhus [noble descent].”

Beider:

“Then you have several sources which claim that the famous Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz is said to have Sephardic ancestors, likely due to numerous Sephardic Jews called Perez or Peres.”

This is no mere rumor or hearsay; Y.L. Peretz’s Sephardic ancestry has been the subject of much discussion over the years. The respected Yiddish literary critic, S. Niger Charney in a tribute article to Peretz published in the 1952 Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Science devotes considerable space to this particular family tradition. While Charney does calls call his Sephardic ancestry “a theory” and wishes there was documentary substantiation, he notes:

Though it has to this date not been definitely substantiated, Rosa Peretz Laaks, a close relative of the poet, tells in her memoirs that “the Peretz family possessed a genealogical document which states that the family originally came from Spain.”

Charney cites two other prominent Yiddishists who speak of Peretz’s Sephardic heritage including Zalman Reyzen and the playwright Aaron Zeitlin who himself quotes the respected Jewish historian Dr. Yitzhak Schipper to the effect that “there was a definite tradition in Peretz’s family regarding their Sephardic ancestry.”

During the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam (referred to as the mahamad), considered one of the wealthiest Sephardic Jewish communities in Europe (if not the world) would often hand over some money to poor indigent Sephardim and send them to settle far away (these were referred to in Portuguese as despachos).

According to Inquisition archives, with the help of  Ton Tlelen, Although most of these people were sent to places that had well-established Sephardic communities, some of them were also sent to overwhelmingly Ashkenazic Poland.

What follows is the Hebrew year, the names and the destinations of five such despachos(which they all have in common, namely Poland):

5448, Merari Belogrado Polonia
5455, Nieto de H.H. Usiel Polonia
5461, Mordehay Cohen Polonia
5462, Rahel Cuna Polonia
5474, Abraham Israel Guer Polonia (apparently a proselyte to Judaism).

One of the names, Usiel is of particular interest. He is referred to as a descendant of Hakham Uziel. This, according to Tielen, must be Hakham Isaac Uziel who died and was buried in Amsterdam in 1622. Uziel went to Poland in 1752 according to the archival document cited above. From another archival document from Poland, this time a list of Sephardim who migrated to Zamosc in the years 1588-1650, we come across one Abraham Uziel (whose name appears in the official documentation in the polonized form Uzelowicz).

Did the Uziel family in Zamocs occasionally experience the arrival of new family members? This would indicate that the Sephardic community in Zamosc did not die out soon after it was established – as many historians claim – but rather that it continued to exist well into the 18th century. It would otherwise be difficult to understand why the mahamad would for all practical purposes dump a member of a prominent Sephardic family in middle of Poland.

Above all, we must recall, as I did in my opening passage citing from Ms. Lavie, the distance between Sepharad and Ashkenaz is not all that great in the great scheme of things. Lavie mentions her Alfasi antecedents arriving in Poland from the Sephardic diaspora at some point in the distant past. One must recall that Jewish Diasporas were rarely stagnant; there were constants comings and goings from Sephardic centers to Ashkenazic centers and vice versa. As early as the 11th century, there was travel by Spanish scholars to Germany as well as by German and French scholars to Iberia . One of the most famous Ashkenazi scholars to settle in Spain was Rabbi Asher ben Jechiel who relocated to Toledo in the 14th century.

Other Jews in Poland have maintained very interesting traditions of Sephardic descent. Rabbi Yosef Wallis who heads the Israeli Orthodox Arakhim organization recently led a delegation back to the home of his tragic direct ancestor Rafael Valls on the Spanish island of Majorca. Valls was one of 37 secret Jews burned at the stake there in 1691 for refusing to renounce their Jewishness.

According to a profile in the New York Times:

Rabbi Wallis, 64, who was born in Israel and raised in New York, is the son of two Holocaust survivors from the Dachau camp. His father [a scion of Hasidim of the Gerrer sect from Pabianice, Poland], he said, remembered an old family Bible, lost during World War II, with the name of Rafael Valls at the top of the list of ancestors with birth and death dates that listed him as burned at the stake.

As we move further south in Eastern Europe, the preponderance of evidence for Sephardic settlement increases. In Hungary, as late as the 19th century the Synagogue of the Frenkim (a term that was commonly used by Ashkenazim to describe Sephardim) was located in Budapest. According to Kinga Frojimovics and Géza Komoróczy in “Jewish Budapest; Monuments, Rites, History, Isaac Almuslin” who lived in Pest in the last decades of the 18th century was a Frenk too. Adolf Agai (1836-1916, a Hungarian writer, journalist and editor reminisced about his Sephardic grandfather. “My late grandfather [Agai refers to him as Don Yitzhak in other places], founded the Frenk Synagogue in Budapest in the 30s [1830]. These Sephardi Jews dispersed from Spain all over the world, retained their mother tongue, Spanish, with great love and care. The older generation still speaks it at home. Old Castilian and ancient Andalusian chants and zemirot sounded at my grandfather’s table on holidays, where we used to eat an ethnic pastry filled with spinach.” Adolf Agai, “About my great-grandfather”, 1907 as cited in Jewish Budapest p. 33

I would be remiss if I omitted mention of recent DNA studies that have established the Sephardic origin of two very prominent Ashkenazic Rabbinic families, namely the Hassidic Twersky dynasty from Ukraine, and the Katznellenbogens, a very old family that was originally thought to have immigrated to Italy from Germany in the 16th century.

One can perhaps draw an analogy between Sephardim in eastern Europe and ethnic Armenians who arrived en masse to Poland where they were heavily engaged in commerce. In Lviv (Lemberg) for instance they constituted a significant percentage of the city by the 16th century. However, by the 17th century, they had begun to adopt Catholicism and rapidly assimilated among the overall Polish population. They would eventually lose their dominant position in international trade to Jewish merchants.

The Sephardim of Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe came at the invitation of several powerful local leaders. They engaged heavily in all manners of trade. Eventually, some would return to their points of origin while others would assimilate among the Ashkenazic majority. Some would “ashkenazify” their names while others would choose to retain their original surnames.

Beider comes to the conclusion that “very few” Sephardim made it to Eastern Europe, I contend, in light of the evidence-only some of which I present here- that a significant number of Sephardic Jews did indeed make it to Eastern Europe. I further believe that their history deserves thorough examination and study.

Joel S. Davidi Weisberger is the founder of the Jewish History Channel and a historian specializing in the history of Medieval Jewry and the Sephardic Diaspora. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Exiles of Sepharad that are in Ashkenaz,” which explores the settlement of Sephardic Jews in various parts of Eastern Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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