The Southern Jewries

The Road from Babylon: The Story of Sephardi and Oriental Jews.
by Chaim Raphael.
Harper & Row. 294 pp. $22.95.

Chaim Raphael has in the past written on the Jewish response to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in The Walls of Jerusalem, commented on the Passover seder in A Feast of History, and, most recently, reflected on the dynamic interplay among the Hebrew Bible, the rabbinic tradition, and Jewish history in The Springs of Jewish Life. More than two decades ago he published a volume of reminiscences of his youth and war years (Memoirs of a Special Case, lately reissued by Rossel Books), and every so often there appears under the pseudonym Jocelyn Davey another in his series of detective novels in which the hero is rumored to be modeled on Sir Isaiah Berlin.

Now, in The Road from Babylon, a book written with his usual clarity, intelligence, and tact, Raphael summarizes recent scholarship concerning not only that particular Jewry which sprang up in Sepharad, the medieval Jewish term for the Iberian peninsula, but the whole orbit of Jewish cultures in North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, the Balkans, Iraq, and lands farther east with which the history of the Sephardim has been closely intertwined.

Until recently, the Jewries in the forefront of the confrontation with modernity have been “Northern”: the Netherlands, England, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, the United States. Thanks to an astonishing population growth after 1800, the vast majority of Jews in the world on the eve of World War II were descendants of East European Ashkenazim. Since the Holocaust, however, and as a result of a similar demographic upsurge in the “Southern” tier of Jewish communities, the Sephardim have become far more prominent than they had been for the last three centuries. In 1900 the Sephardim constituted perhaps 10 percent of the Jewish people; today they are 20 percent. In 1947 they were 23 percent of the Jewry of the land of Israel; in 1982 the figure had reached 55 percent. That Jewish history would have to be rewritten to give greater due to the Sephardi and Oriental component is understandable, inevitable, and just.

In the first part of his book, Raphael reviews the origins of the Jewish people and their religious tradition with an eye to the fateful role played by Mesopotamian culture and by the empires of Assyria and Babylonia. Abraham and his family were said to have come from there; biblical literature is shot through with Mesopotamian elements both as unacknowledged borrowings (the flood story) and as polemical targets (the tower of Babel). The massive Israelite exiles of 722 and 586 B.C.E. were decisive turning points in the development of the Jewish religion. Despite the return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, the Jews of Babylonia were to continue to play a central role in Jewish life for centuries—down to 1000 C.E. and even later.

In the second section Raphael devotes considerable attention to the impact on “Southern” Judaism of the creation of a vast Islamic empire, which facilitated new patterns of Jewish migration and the spread of the authority of the Babylonian Jewish institutions westward all the way to the Atlantic. Just as Ashkenazi Jewry was shaped by a Christian environment, Sephardi and Oriental Jewries developed in an Islamic matrix that exerted its own, quite different, political and cultural pressures.

Only in part three does Raphael deal with the true Sephardim: the Jews of the Iberian peninsula under Muslim and Christian rulers. Here he describes in loving detail the cultural flowering (and also the dark moments) of the so-called Golden Age of medieval Hebrew culture, tracing the story to its tragic end in 1492 with the expulsion from Spain and 1497 with that from Portugal. There was now a geographical and psychological “Sephardi Diaspora” within the universal Jewish Diaspora: a Western one (including many Marranos who escaped to revert to Judaism) in Amsterdam and other Atlantic ports, and an Eastern one in which Jews from Spain and Portugal settled alongside ancient Greek-speaking, Berber-speaking, or Arabic-speaking Jewish communities.

The Sephardim did not assimilate to these older Jewish cultures. In the Balkans especially they preserved—more accurately, they created—a unique folk culture expressed in the longings of romancero love songs and in the Ladino language which was the Sephardi vernacular there. Nor did the venerable communities in which the Sephardim settled assimilate to them. Instead there appeared a “working fusion between the old and new” that in the 16th and 17th centuries marked a new efflorescence of Jewish life in the Levant.

The newcomers from Spain and Portugal invigorated the old Jewries—and also the economy of the Ottoman empire. Istanbul, Salonika, Izmir, Aleppo, Safed were bustling centers of entrepreneur-ship and learning, at least until the messianic upheaval of the 1660's, centering on the figure of Shabbetai Zevi, precipitated a decisive Jewish cultural decline in the East. By the 19th century, the once energetic Eastern Jews had been outclassed by their economic and cultural rivals in the “North.” The storms of Enlightenment, secularism, and religious renovation which burst over the Jews of Northern Europe seemingly avoided the Sephardim.


By way of transition to the modern era, Raphael evokes the contrasting tones of the Jewries of the Aegean island of Rhodes; the folk Judaism of the Maghreb (especially Morocco); and representative Jewish lives of the old style in Baghdad, Turkey, and the Balkans. In the 19th century, in much of this “Southern” tier, the British, French, and Italian colonial regimes extended special protections to the Jews, and the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle organized a network of Jewish schools; the combined effect was to inaugurate an uneven process of emancipation—although, in contrast to the situation of Europe, it was an emancipation which only to a meager extent could be considered political. Raphael emphasizes the traumatic effect of the Nazi years even in these lands: in the Balkans and North Africa during direct occupation by German armies and indirectly in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East where the Nazis were admired as foes of the British. Raphael observes that the release of Arab hatred during the Nazi era shattered every assumed protection from the neighbors and intensified the traditional love of Zion in these Jewish cultures.

The longest and most analytic part of the book concerns the ingathering of these communities into Israel after 1948, the impact of Westernized Israeli culture on their as yet unmodernized elements, and the explosive resentments that have since been vented against the Ashkenazi establishment by some segments of Israel's Sephardi and Oriental population. Here Raphael's approach is to emphasize the positive: that “inter-ethnic” marriages have soared in Israel, that there have been conscious efforts to absorb elements of Sephardi culture into the mainstream, and that many individual Sephardim have made a place for themselves in the public life of the state. He concludes: “Mutual adjustments are difficult for the time being because of the socioeconomic circumstances which have made barriers difficult to lower; but the barriers can fall and, paradoxically, this will happen all the more successfully when the cultural differences of the past are given full weight rather than being passed over.”


The most useful lesson of Raphael's book is that there is no single Sephardi/Oriental Jewish subgroup at all. “Sephardi” refers to a congeries of communities, many of which are themselves heterogeneous. To be sure, the so-called Sephardi-Ashkenazi split in Israel is rooted in some current social realities and in the attempt to exploit tensions for political ends. But internal rivalries are nothing new in Jewish history. Indeed, the modernization of Jewry has brought about new and sharp divisions among Jews along economic and geographical, not just “ethnic,” lines. Yet modernity has been an even stronger crucible of Jewish integration and of a sense of a common Jewish destiny. In our own country there were several decades of abrasions and resentments when German and East European Jews found themselves at odds, but little remains of these old tensions now. There is no reason why a similar resolution cannot be predicted for Israel.

In any case, the major schisms in Jewish history have not been cultural or even socioeconomic, but rather have occurred over questions of religious authority. This promises to hold true for the next decades as well. Early in his book, Raphael observes that modern Sephardi religiosity often shows a “relaxed, almost humanist attitude, so that practices are enjoyed in a full-hearted way but without fanaticism.” Precisely because the Sephardi and Oriental communities, unlike their Ashkenazi brethren, have succeeded in avoiding a war between militant secularists and militant Orthodox, perhaps they will have something unique to contribute to the survival of Jewish fellow feeling into the next century.

For illuminating these issues and more, The Road from Babylon makes a graceful addition to Chaim Raphael's impressive list of books on Jews and Judaism, and confirms his reputation as one of the most skillful and best informed popularizers of these subjects in the English language.

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