Sign In Forgot Password

Who Are the Sephardim?

"Sephardic" is derived from Sepherad, the Hebrew word for Spain. The Sephardim are descendants of the 200,000 Jews who were expelled from from Spanish lands by order of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. These exiles settled in countries along the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, the Balkans, Italy, Syria, and Palestine. Others made their way to Brazil and Holland, as well as to communities in the New World, including those in New Amsterdam (now New York). Mexico, and Curacao. 

The era of Muslim rule in Spain was the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. Intellectual and spiritual life flourished. Jews were writers, poets, philosophers, and courtiers. Ibn Esra, Ibn Gabriol, Judah Halevi, and Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) were leading figures in this vibrant culture.

Jews interacted with Muslims and slowly absorbed some of the cultural traditions of the Muslim neighbors. They translated Arabic poetry into Spanish and Greek, and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Arab melodies enriched Jewish songs. The clothing of Jews was similar to Muslim dress, although they were not allowed to wear certain embellishments, such as fur; later, Jewish males were made to wear a yellow turban.

Jews lived in Spanish lands for 400 years. When the Christians wrested Toledo from the Muslims in 1098, the influence of Jews was reduced, but only gradually, until in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella expelled all Jews who refused conversion to Christianity. Those who converted became known as Marranos, or crypto-Jews, because they continued secretly to rear their children according to the principles of Judaism. 

Spanish Jews who had settled in nearby Portugal, where to be Jewish was not an immediate danger, found themselves imperiled in 1497, and many converted to Christianity. The Sephardi diaspora began in earnest when significant numbers began moving to the Ottoman Empire, especially Turkey and Greece, where they continued to nurture the language of their Spanish origins, Ladino, the combination of Spanish and Hebrew that is still spoken today in parts of Latin America and Israel.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Sephardic women began to be recognized for their contributions to Sephardi culture. They became active music, poetry, theater, and fashion design, and many were authors of well-regarded fiction and non-fiction. The professions and the halls of academe would include Sephardic women professors, but prior to the end of WWII, their gender was a barrier even more than their religion and ethnic origin. 

Large Sephardic communities developed in Venice and London. In North Africa and the Ottoman Empire they were second class citizens, but they could practice Judaism openly and unrestrained. Years passed, and Mediterranean Jews developed close ties to the rich customs and traditions of their host communities.

One of the most vibrant representations of Sephardic influence occurred in the 19th century. The Sassoon family's merchant dynasty stretched from their native Baghdad to Shanghai, Bombay (Mumbai), and London. The patriarch, David Sassoon, began his professional life as treasurer to the pasha of Baghdad, and when Jews were expelled from Ottoman Iraq, he became a successful trader in Bombay. He was a devout observer of the mitzvah of tsedaka; all  his life he supported organizations of relief for Iraq's poorest Jews. His heirs continued the practice of philanthropy.  

In the twentieth century, the establishment of the State of Israel adversely affected the amicable relationships enjoyed by Jews in Muslim countries. The solution for many seemed to be relocating in Israel. Most new Sephardic immigrants, however, were assigned to tent cities, and with limited education found it difficult to move out of poverty and into the economic mainstream. Only after decades of striving did Sephardim begin to occupy positions of influence in government and in the world of commerce. Moroccan politician David Levy was famously the first Sephardi to be named to the Israeli Cabinet in 1977. 

Twenty-first century Sephardic Jews have a solid base in the United States; some 138 congregations in 21 States identify as Sephardic, according to the American Sephardi Association. Sephardim cling to their traditions, but they continue to be open to social progress and to celebrate and draw on their diversity. Warmth and generosity are hallmark of the Sephardic character.  

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784