The competitive rivalry between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, while more ancient than that between Litvak and Galitzianer, is of the same character: an attempt among Jews to establish an internal aristocracy. Is the centuries-old claim of the Sephardim to be somehow inherently superior to the Central and Eastern European Jew grounded in fact or myth? Cecil Roth, the distinguished British historian, here traces the legend of Sephardi aristocracy through its various tributaries to some of the sources.
“You must be a Sephardi,” a silly woman once said to my wife. “It’s so much more chic.”
As a matter of fact, I far prefer the Sephardi ritual, and have attended Sephardi synagogues and services on four continents. (I haven’t done so on the fifth partly because I’ve never been there, partly because no Sephardi synagogue exists on it.) I venture even to think that, with my work on the Marranos, on certain Italian communities, and on the Duke of Naxos, I have made rather more ample contributions to Sephardi history than the average historical scribbler. But every now and again I find my enthusiasm damped by the claims made (frequently by Ashkenazi “converts”) on behalf of the Sephardim as the “aristocracy” of the Jewish people. The Rabbis said, I think, that all Jews are sons of princes. Anyway, they are all equally so, and these pretentious assertions appear to me objectionable. Further, they are historically unjustified.
What is a Sephardi? The prophet Obadiah (verse 20) foretold that at the time of the great restoration of the Jewish people “the captivity of Jerusalem, which is in Sepharad, shall possess the cities of the South.” Sepharad here refers probably to one of the maritime lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, at some distance from Palestine; an ancient tradition identified it not unreasonably with Apamea, in Asia Minor, sometimes written “Aspamia.” It seems that, through a confusion between Aspamia and Ispania (i.e. Hispania) the identification was transferred to Spain in the early Middle Ages, when the mass of the Jewish people had begun to swing from East to West. Inevitably, Zarepath, which is mentioned in the same verse (but apparently as a place on the Palestinian border) became identified with the contiguous country, France. Other place names mentioned in the Bible were applied to various other areas of Europe: the only one that need interest us here is Ashkenaz—originally the name of a northern people descended from Japhet who were to take part in the destruction of Babylon (Genesis 10:3; Jeremiah 11:27), and now identified with Germany. In the Middle Ages, these names (and many others like them) were almost invariably applied to these countries in Jewish usage.
The Sephardim were therefore the Jews of Spain (or at the most of the Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal) and their descendants; to apply the term as is done today to Mediterranean and southern Jewry generally (in fact, to all Jews who are not Ashkenazim) is very wide of the mark.
Spanish scholars fond of Biblical quotation (Moses Maimonides himself is a case in point) used to refer to themselves in all innocence as belonging to the “captivity of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad.” Later on, this began to be interpreted strictly, and in some cases snobbishly and exclusively: it was assumed that the Spanish Jews were descended from the elite of the Jewish people—the inhabitants (or even the nobles) of Jerusalem, deported to the Iberian Peninsula by Nebuchadnezzar on the destruction of the First Temple (and therefore, the community of Toledo is reported to have claimed, wholly innocent of all responsibility for the Crucifixion). The Jews of other lands were hence thought to be descended from an inferior stock.
Ironically, in historic fact, one could establish a far more impressive case for the reverse thesis, if one wished to make an artificial differentiation between one branch of the Jewish people and another. One cannot very easily trace with any degree of confidence the channels of migration whereby the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean became transferred to Western Europe. But obviously to some extent this migration followed the same line as the transference of cultural traditions, which can be defined with some precision. The Palestinian tradition (as reflected in liturgy, hymnology, pronunciation of Hebrew, synagogal architecture, and many other aspects of cultural and religious life) was transferred, via the Byzantine Empire and Italy, over the Alps into France and then Germany and Poland, thus giving birth to the “Ashkenazi” tradition of today. The traditions followed in Spain, on the other hand, were influenced (whether through direct immigration, or through the exceptionally close cultural relations with Bagdad at the time of the Caliphate) by those of Mesopotamian (Babylonian) Jewry, which during the course of the ages had developed in its own, to some extent divergent, fashion. Thus, so far as can be ascertained, the Sephardi legend is diametrically contrary to the facts. It is the Ashkenazi Judaism rather than the Sephardi which preserves for good or ill the pure fountainhead of the Palestinian tradition, with all that it implies.
I do not think that in the Middle Ages we find any important traces of a social differentiation between the Jews of Spain and those of Northern Europe. And if there was anything of the sort, it was here too, in part at least, in the opposite sense. The Jews of France, Germany, and England were basically what may politely be termed financiers and capitalists, living on interest payments; the artisan element was very small. In Spain, on the other hand, the minority of financiers and professional men at the head of the community was more than counterbalanced by a very large artisan element: metal workers, dyers, textile operatives, and so on. Northeast Spain, it is believed, was by far the most densely populated area of the Jewish world at this period, just as Poland was to be some centuries later. Moreover, the economic structure of Jewish life in Spain did not afford the same leisure for the study of the basic Talmudic literature as was the case north of the Pyrenees, where the Sephardim were therefore regarded as being intellectually retrograde.
Finally, it is a historic fact that in times of persecution the Jews of the Rhineland showed themselves more steadfast, to the point of death, than their southern coreligionists, who, whether in the face of Visigothic intolerance in the 7th century or Islamic in the 12th or Catholic in the 15th, tended in large numbers to compromise their consciences rather than to “sanctify the Name” by accepting martyrdom. We cannot tell how we would ourselves act in the same circumstances. But if, as Zunz said, “the duration of sorrows and the patience with which they are borne ennoble,” the Ashkenazim took precedence over the Sephardim—and even in the days of their greatest degradation they were proud of this.
I am here using the term “Ashkenazim” in its more general sense. At the close of the Middle Ages, the Jews had been driven out of France (“Zarepath”), hitherto the greatest center of Northern European Jewry, and the former Franco-Jewish traditions became centered in Germany (“Ashkenaz”). From Germany emigrants colonized the lands to the east, particularly Poland, and overwhelmingly influenced the culture of the “autochthonous” Jews whom they found there (who probably constituted in fact the vast majority of the amalgam that now took the primacy). Henceforth, the great mass of Jews, from the Rhine to the Vistula, followed in their prayers and liturgical practices the German or Ashkenazi rite, and became known loosely as Ashkenazim. (It would perhaps have been more logical to designate them, after the medieval name of France, as “Zarphatim.”)
At a slightly later period, at the end of the 15th century, there took place the tragic expulsion from Spain and Portugal, which scattered the Jews of Spanish origin through the southern and eastern Mediterranean seaboards, where they implanted the Spanish, or Sephardi, tradition. But there was this difference: whereas a certain proportion of the Ashkenazim continued to live in those scattered districts of Germany where Jews were still tolerated, henceforth there were no Sephardim in Sepharad.
This delocalization, and geographical expansion, of Sephardi Jewry was accompanied by the beginning of what may be termed a process of annexation. We have seen that the German immigrants from Germany may have “Ashkenazized” (if one may use the term) the autochthonous elements whom they found in Poland. There can be no doubt about a parallel achievement on the part of the Sephardim. With their superior relative (if not absolute) numbers, and their superior culture, they exercised an overwhelming influence on the native Jews, and on other immigrant elements, in many of the lands where they found refuge—especially in the Balkans (in particular at Salonica) and the Turkish Empire generally. This influence was reinforced by the new discovery of printing. Formerly, there had been all manner of local traditions in matters liturgical, which were easily perpetuated. But with the spread of printed books, the “Sephardi” rite swept the board. “Sephardi” now began to be applied to the ritual followed rather than to national origin: it is curious to consider that “Askenazi” and “Sarfati” are now regarded as typically Sephardi names! This annexatory tendency has continued into modern times: it was only in the 19th century that (for example) the very ancient Persian Jewish rite of worship was finally submerged, and the Persians too became “Sephardim.”
Geographical expansion, however, was accompanied by a contraction in other respects. If one reads the history of the Jews in the Middle Ages, one finds that generally a good deal more space is devoted to Spanish than to Northern European Jewry, and this no doubt reflects the relative numerical importance of the two elements: the Sephardi and Oriental communities, combined, probably constituted a vast majority of the Jewish people. With the emergence of Polish Jewry in the 16th century a sort of balance was achieved. Thereafter, “Ashkenazi” Jewry raced ahead (either because of the integration of hitherto unrecorded masses, or as the result of an unexampled demographic expansion), until in the 19th and early 20th centuries it constituted probably some nine-tenths of the entire Jewish people. The balance was somewhat redressed in recent years, owing to the fact that the Germans were able to carry out their policy of annihilation more sweepingly in the Ashkenazi than in the Sephardi world. But the general picture is still unchanged; and in Western Europe and America, the Sephardim (in the wildly loose sense in which that term is now generally applied) enjoy something of the romantic prestige of a dwindling minority.
Of course, this is not universally true. There are some Sephardi elements who do not fit into this elegant pattern: the itinerant carpet dealers from the Levant, the poverty-stricken Syrians and Moroccans who set up their separate congregations in New York and elsewhere in the United States, the Spanish-speaking peddlers from Turkey and Greece who endeavored to squeeze out a living in Mexico and the Central American republics, some of the recent arrivals in certain African communities, even a considerable proportion of the newest wave of proletarian immigration into Israel.
I do not believe that any great social differentiation was discernible between Sephardim and non-Sephardim at the period of the expulsion from Spain. Hordes of penniless refugees are hardly likely to expect or to be accorded any special deference, in any case; and if the refugees sometimes objected to their hosts’ uncouth Hebrew composition, the latter no less criticized their guests’ retrograde Rabbinics. It is true that the Sephardim comprised amongst their number some persons of distinguished antecedents such as the Abrabanel family, and others who (like Joseph Nasi, Duke of Naxos) subsequently attained social distinction. But these were by no means the norm; and it must be remembered that the Jews of Poland and the neighboring lands had not yet become pauperized, as was to be the case later on, so that in this respect there was generally no sharp contrast. In the Mediterranean lands there was indeed a slower and perhaps more dignified tempo of life than in the north; but in those days this hardly came into consideration. Certainly there was no greater virtue in the teeming mellahs of Northern Africa than in the corresponding Judengassen of Germany; nor is there anything inherently more romantic in the preservation of medieval Spanish by the Jews of the Balkans than in the preservation of medieval German by the Jews of Lithuania. In the 16th century, the legend of Sephardi aristocracy had not yet been born.
The origin of this legend is to be traced to a new facet in Jewish life which began to emerge shortly after. When the professing Jews were expelled from Spain, there remained the large body of so-called Marranos—persons of Jewish origin or extraction who remained faithful in secret to their ancestral religious traditions though outwardly professing Christianity. In the course of the late 16th and 17th centuries, as is well known, Marrano refugees founded a chain of new Jewish communities in the various countries of the Atlantic seaboard, on both sides of the ocean, centering in the Old World in Amsterdam, London, and Hamburg. It was a highly selective emigration, for a very obvious reason. Spain and Portugal were remote, they were isolated from the rest of Europe by the wide expanse of France where no Jews were allowed, and the Inquisition was constantly on watch to forestall flight; so that the Marrano emigrants tended to be either men of wealth who had special facilities for the transference of money, or merchants who, having established themselves abroad, threw off by slow degrees the disguise of Christianity. These were followed sometimes by persons who could actually claim some degree of aristocracy in the technical sense: members of Marrano families which had intermarried with the Spanish and Portuguese aristocracy, or even risen to it. There were, to be sure, some poorer elements as well, but it was the others who set the tone (and provided the finances) for the newly founded communities. By reason of their antecedents, the Marrano elements were all provided with family names—still uncommon among northern Jewry—generally those of families which had stood their sponsors at baptism. Some of these names were indeed noble; in the Peninsula, the distinction between the original bearers of the names and their “New Christian” godchildren could be preserved easily enough, but abroad it tended to be obscured. Others were very ordinary names, like Mendes or Lopez, which, though they may sound to us more euphonious, are not inherently more distinguished than Schmidt or Meyer.
Once these Marrano pioneers had opened up new areas of settlement, German, and later, Polish Jews followed. Some of these, too, were affluent merchants, though since they had lived uninterruptedly loyal Jewish lives they tended at the outset to be less polished, or less “Europeanized,” than the Spanish and Portuguese settlers; but the vast majority belonged to the lower classes, driven to emigrate by the Polish massacres and the pauperization of Eastern European Jewry. They had this advantage over the poorer elements among the Marranos—that they could reach their destinations overland by begging their way from community to community; so far as England was concerned, the short sea passage cost little, and could often be manipulated free of charge.
Thus by the side of the Spanish and Portuguese upper crust of the new communities (with a sprinkling of Ashkenazim), there grew up a vast proletariat of Germans and Poles (with a sprinkling of Sephardim) mainly dependent for their livelihood on peddling, petty trading, or less. It was now that the legend of the Sephardi “aristocracy” began to emerge. It could not be maintained in every particular. Many of the Sephardim too were petty hawkers, and the record of 18th-century Jewish criminality was by no means (as is generally imagined) an Ashkenazi monopoly. Anyone who has read the autobiography of the 18th-century Anglo-Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza, which was recently republished, can hardly think of the Sephardim at that time as being an “aristocratic” or “hidalgo” element. On the other hand, there was not much to differentiate the upper crust of the Ashkenazim—the equivalents, relatives, and correspondents of the Court Jews of Germany, or the wealthy brokers, factors, and gem merchants—from their opposite numbers among the Sephardim. Francis Salvador, of North Carolina, may have resented the politics of David Franks, of New York, but he could hardly have looked down on him as a plebeian. Benjamin Levi, the virtual founder of the Ashkenazi community in London though one of the most lavish contributors to the construction of the new Sephardi synagogue built in 1701 (he was also one of the original Proprietors of New Jersey, and had very close American associations), actually warned his son in his will against marrying a member of the Sephardi group. This is the only formally expressed instance of this spirit of exclusion that I happen to have found, but it is in the reverse direction to what is usually believed.
Nevertheless there was a considerable difference between the average economic (and therefore social) levels of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi sections of the newly established communities, the Ashkenazim being proportionately far more numerous among the poor. The disparity was heightened by the greater cohesion among the Sephardim, who, partly because of their smaller numbers and their close family connections, were able to organize themselves in a more exclusive spirit. They showed this originally, not as regards the Ashkenazim only, but against all who were not of their own “Spanish and Portuguese nation.” In England, for example, not only the tudescos (Germans) but also the berberiscos (North Africans) and the italianos were long excluded from synagogal functions and honors.
But in due course this attitude became modified. This was partly because the newcomers in many cases tended to approximate in ritual and other matters—e.g., the pronunciation of Hebrew, a very important factor—to the Sephardi tradition; partly because their vernacular (Ladino or Italian) was not wholly alien (though this did not apply, of course, to those who normally spoke only Arabic); partly because the numbers involved were not overwhelming; and partly because such an influx, in moderation, was useful for reviving the sluggish circulation of the community and providing a synagogal proletariat, which in certain circumstances had its advantages. Hence the gates of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues were opened a little more widely, especially in England, which was at this time a significant center of immigration. Thus it happened (to take only one example) that the Italian family of Montefiore, deriving from the neighborhood of Ancona and originally following the Roman (i.e. Italo-German rather than Spanish) synagogal tradition, was not merely accepted into the London Sephardi community, but came later on to symbolize in a special sense its aristocratic and patrician quality. Those branches of the family left behind in Italy, on the other hand, remained undistinguished. In the American colonies, owing to the relative sparseness of the original Spanish and Portuguese element and the fact that the later arrivals were not sufficient in number to establish a separate organization, this assimilatory tendency went still further, the Ashkenazim too being absorbed into the Sephardi community. Dr. David de Sola Pool in his recent book, Portraits Etched in Stone, has shown that the Ashkenazim formed the numerically preponderant element even in the first part of the 18th century; and a majority of the handful of old families which still devotedly rally round the Shearith Israel synagogue in New York, founded just three hundred years ago, bear names which unequivocally exclude Spanish and Portuguese ancestry in the male line.
As I have suggested, a few Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families could reasonably claim some degree of actual nobility, in the technical sense: for example, the family of the Barons de Belmonte, or that of Lopez Suasso, Barons of Avernas le Gras. But it might as well be pointed out that these did not stand alone, and were indeed anticipated some generations earlier elsewhere in the Jewish world. The first Jew to be formally ennobled in Christian Europe is said to be the Ashkenazi Jacob Basevi, of Prague, who was made Freiherr of Treuenberg by the Emperor Ferdinand II in 1622. The Italian Jacob da Fano was created Marquis of Villimpenta about the same time. These titles of nobility were as early, and certainly as authentic, as those of any of the Marrano “hidalgos” settled in Amsterdam.
But the legend went on, gaining strength as the successors of the more enterprising Marrano merchants of the earlier generation began to live on their investments and thus to qualify for the title of “gentleman.” To some extent the legend may have been fostered by a kind of “inferiority complex” among the Sephardim—a realization that their economic hegemony had passed, and an attempt to seek moral compensation in another direction; a determination to maintain internal solidarity, for fear of being utterly overwhelmed. This was the period when in many Sephardi synagogues Ashkenazim were not permitted to intermingle with the general body of the worshippers; when the Sephardi who married an Ashkenazi was disowned by the synagogue and almost put under the ban; when the Bordeaux Jews invoked the assistance of the government to prevent an Ashkenazi influx; when the cultured Isaac de Pinto replied to the venomous attacks of Voltaire by admitting more or less the justice of his strictures as regards the tudescos, while maintaining that he himself and his like, the Portuguese Jews, belonged to a wholly different and unquestionably superior element. It is told how a London Sephardi of this period used to have his chairs dusted after an Ashkenazi had sat down in them; but I think that this must have been either an unhappy witticism, or a natural reaction to the lower orders of any synagogal, or ecclesiastical, rite. Zangwill’s delightful pastiche, The King of the Schnorrers, traps something of the ridiculous spirit that sometimes prevailed, but I think it is quite wrong in one respect: in the 18th century, the spirit of snobbery which Zangwill describes had affected as yet only the upper class of the community; it was only in the 19th century that the legend of the Sephardi Hidalgo really became established. Its spread was to some extent the achievement of the writings of that arch-romantic, Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, who, in order to establish for himself an origin which would qualify him to act as a leader among the British aristocracy, managed to persuade himself of the truth of the legend that he did so much to propagate. But as a matter of fact he utterly deceived himself, even as regards the details: he had among his ultimate ancestry only a small infusion of the Marrano or “Visigothic” blood on which he prided himself; of his four grandparents, two were of Italian and one of Levantine extraction.
The outside world, to be sure, did not always share the more flattering outlook. Precisely those same failings which the Sephardim sometimes imputed to the Ashkenazim were imputed to them by their Gentile neighbors at the time of their first arrival: that they were alien in appearance, uncouth in manner, questionable in method, unsanitary in their manner of life. When the Marranos first arrived in Venice, at the end of the 15th century, they were accused of overcrowding in just the same way as were the German and Polish Jews when they reached Western Europe many generations later—and no doubt with good reason, for refugees inevitably tend to overcrowd. The polemical pamphlets directed against the Spanish and Portuguese immigrants in England in the 17th and early 18th centuries anticipate very closely the general lines of the accusations made against the Ashkenazi arrivals later on—with the additional embellishment, obviously unjustified in the case of the Ashkenazim, that persons who had dissembled their faith were not deserving of overmuch sympathy.
Social differentiation expressed itself inevitably in synagogal organization and practice. The wealthier class among the Sephardim, used to the ways and values of the outside world, tried to introduce similar aesthetic standards into the synagogue; brought up as Catholics, they introduced to Jewish worship some of the formality of the Church; in Holland, maybe, they developed a certain slow and deliberate method of enunciation which henceforth characterized the communities of the Atlantic seaboard, in contrast to spontaneous ullulations which still prevailed in the Mediterranean. Hence the method of rendering the services of the Spanish and Portuguese communities—choral singing, a slow dignity on the part of the reader, a certain pompousness in ceremonial—accentuated the actual liturgical differences, which, except on certain occasions of the year, were not so great. There was a striking contrast between this and the fiery devotion, the over-vocal piety, the indecorous agitations, which characterized and in some eyes marred the neighboring Ashkenazi places of worship. As for the liturgy itself, it lacked the excrescences and distractions with which the Palestinian (and after them the Franco-German) hymnologists had obscured the more simple pristine forms, their place being taken by measured compositions of the Spanish school of poets—far more elegant, but far less moving.
The same is the case with the pronunciation of Hebrew. The general impression, that the Sephardi pronunciation is the more faithful, is apparently erroneous. It is the Ashkenazi that so far as one can tell is nearer to the ancient Palestinian pronunciation (witness many ancient transcriptions, and the rendering of the vowels according to the Yemenite tradition), the Sephardim following the Babylonian usage in this too. The choice of a simplified, modernized form of the Sephardi system for the modern revival of Hebrew was partly an accident, partly a mistake. This cannot indeed obscure the fact that it is more euphonious, that it has been adopted, that it has prevailed, and that in all likelihood it will in future come into universal usage, but all this does not make it retrospectively more authentic.
In the course of the past hundred years, there took place a vast expansion of Ashkenazi Jewry, largely due to the violent eruption westwards of the then illimitable reservoir of Jewish population in Central and Eastern Europe. In consequence, the old-established Sephardi communities were almost entirely overwhelmed. The primacy in the Jewish world was seized, almost rudely, by the Ashkenazim, and the Sephardi element was not only overtaken, but was to a great extent neglected—a fault for which tardy amends are now being made. Hurt, bewildered, the Sephardim—especially those of Western Europe and America—fell back on their residuary title to distinction—not their future hope, but their past record; not their achievement, but their ancestry. The Ashkenazi romantics now adopted and uncritically swallowed the Sephardi Legend: the Sephardim do not count for much in the Jewish world today, perhaps, but they constituted the aristocracy of the Jewish people, marked off from the rest of their coreligionists by their hereditary Spanish grandeza, their stately manners, and their “hidalgo” traditions.