Jewish Art in America: The Sephardic Journey: 1492-1992 by Rabbi Marc Angel
Jewish Art in America: The Sephardic Journey: 1492-1992
Volume 4 , Issue 1
(Sept, 1990 | Tishrei, 5751)
According to Jewish tradition, Jews arrived in Spain after the destruction of the First Temple
(586 B.C.E.). The tradition maintains that the aristocratic members of Judea
were exiled to Spain, where
they established Jewish communities throughout the Iberian
Peninsula. The first definite historical evidence of Jewish life
is a tombstone inscription dating back to the 3rd Century C.E. The history of
Jews in Spain
thus spans many centuries of good times and bad, under Christian rule as well
as under Moslem rule.
Medieval Sephardic Jewry is noted for its high level of religious and general
culture; its vital and creative role in Spanish society; and its brilliant
scholars and authors. Many figures of this time continue to play a dominant
role in Jewish intellectual life: Shelomo Ibn Gabriol, Yehudah
Halevy, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nahmanides, Rabbi Shelomo ben Adret, Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel ? these, and many more.
With the expulsion of Jews from Spain
in 1492 and the forced conversion of Jews in Portugal
in 1496, open Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula
came to an abrupt end. Many Jews continued to live in Spain and Portugal after having converted to
Christianity. These "new Christians" were subject to the harassment
and persecution of the Inquisition. Over the next few centuries, a number of
them fled to safe havens in the Ottoman Empire
and tolerant European cities where they rediscovered their heritage. These
returnees to Judaism in Western Europe established the "Western
With the expulsion decree of 1492, large numbers of Sephardic Jews left Spain, seeking
new homes where they could live according to Jewish traditions. The Ottoman Empire welcomed these refugees, who
re-established themselves in the domains of the Sultan. Indeed, during the
several generations following their expulsion from Spain,
the Jews of the Ottoman Empire enjoyed a
"golden age." This was the period in which Rabbi Yosef
Karo flourished, first in Turkey, and later in Safed. Eminent rabbinic figures ? Rabbi Moshe Almosnino; Rabbi Shemuel de
Medina; Rabbi David ibn Abi
Zimra ? left a lasting legacy to the Jewish people.
This was the era of Dona Gracia Nasi
and the illustrious Don Yosef Nasi,
both leading political, economic and intellectual figures in the 16th century. Kabbalistic studies reached a pinnacle in the Kabbalistic circles in Safed,
Salonika and Istanbul.
Sephardic exiles also found refuge in North Africa ? in Egypt, Libya,
Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia ? where they found existing
Jewish communities. There were some initial clashes between the established
communities and the Sephardic newcomers; however, the general pattern of
Sephardic life eventually came to dominate in most of the communities where the
Sephardim settled in significant numbers.
Sephardic merchants and adventurers came to the New
World during the 16th and 17th centuries. A number of "new
Christians" also traveled to South and Central
America in order to escape the constant surveillance of the
Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Jews who came with the Dutch West India
Company founded vital communities in such places as Surinam,
Curacao, St. Thomas and Jamaica. A
small group arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654, and became established in North America. Indeed, all the Jewish congregations in
North America during Colonial days were founded as Spanish and Portuguese
synagogues, following the Western Sephardic
In the first quarter of the 20th Century, many Sephardim migrated from their native communities
in the Levant to the United States,
Latin America, Eretz Israel,
and various portions of Europe and Africa.
Large numbers of Sephardim have settled in Israel since the establishment of
the Jewish State.
The exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum
entitled The Sephardic
Journey: 1492 - 1992, will
focus on the diverse Sephardic experience following the expulsion from Spain in 1492,
emphasizing Jews descended from medieval Iberian Jewry. Viewers will have the
opportunity to gain unique insight into the various Sephardic communities, from
religious, cultural, social, economic, communal, and intellectual standpoints.
In general, it may be fairly stated that Sephardim have had a strong
sense of personal and communal pride; a fine sense of beauty, grace and
dignity; a piety which combined halakha and kabbalah; and a natural, optimistic view of life.
The exhibition will be divided into five major areas:
and the Balkans; 2: The Middle East; 3: North Africa; 4: Western Sephardim; 5:
The New World.
TURKEY AND THE
Many of the Sephardic refugees from Spain
found haven in the Ottoman Empire. Sephardic
communities developed throughout Turkey
and Greece, as well as in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria
During the late 17th Century, the economic life of the Jews in these
areas declined. The 18th and early 19th centuries witnessed the general
intellectual and cultural decline, although there still existed a high level of
rabbinic scholarship and Torah learning. It was also a period of rich folk
During the latter half of the 19th century, a wave of European modernism
swept into the Sephardic communities. The Alliance Israelite Universelle established schools in various communities,
teaching French and emphasizing Western culture.
The modern period also brought with it a development of Judeo-Spanish
secular literature - newspapers, drama, poetry, fiction.
During the early 20th century, many Sephardim from Turkey and the Balkan countries migrated to the United States, Latin America, Israel, and cities in Europe and Africa. During the Holocaust, Sephardic communities in Greece and Yugoslavia were decimated by the
Germans and their accomplices.
The Turkish community today still numbers some 20,000 individuals; there
are several thousand Jews in Salonika and a significant number in Athens, where the Jewish
Museum of Greece is housed.
Exiles from Spain went
to various locations in the Middle East, particularly to Eretz
Among the mystics, halakhists and ethicists of
Safed are the illustrious names of Rabbi Yosef Caro; Rabbi Hayyim Vital
(the main student and disseminator of the words of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria); Rabbi
Moshe Corduvero; Rabbi Eliyahu
de Vidas, etc.
This was the period in which Rabbi Yaacov Berab attempted to re-establish rabbinic ordination (semikha) in order to reconstitute the Sanhedrin, and
restore Jewish sovereignty in Israel
with the advent of the Messiah. Don Joseph Nasi
attempted to establish industry in Teveriah.
Many Jewish pilgrims from throughout the world traveled to the Holy Land over the centuries. In addition, emissaries
from the Holy Land traveled to Jewish
communities in the Diaspora to raise funds.
Sephardim continued to play vital roles in the development of Eretz Israel
throughout the centuries.
They also helped establish the State of Israel, following which there
was vast migration to the Jewish homeland.
Many great Sephardic sages lived in Israel throughout the centuries.
Leading 20th century figures include Rabbi Yaacov Shaul Elyachar and Rabbi Benzion Uziel.
The Jews of the various North African countries were
influenced by the control of European colonial powers. Many of the Jews were
not only at home in Jewish Arabic culture, but were also quite comfortable with
French language and culture. These communities produced poets and musicians
throughout the centuries and developed many customs, including a hiloula, a special observance at the grave of a saintly sage,
and the singing of piyyutim (religious
The Jews of Libya suffered greatly during the period of World War II,
being subjected to strict and severe anti-Jewish legislation. A number of
Libyan Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel, North African Jews
came in vast numbers, and have played an enormous role in the development of Israel.
the rabbis of North Africa were Rabbi David Ibn Abi Zimra;
rabbis of the Duran family; rabbis of the Berdugo
family; Rabbi Yitzhak Bengualid; Rabbi Abraham Gabison; Rabbi Hayyim Ben Attar;
and the Abu Hatseira family.
During the 16th and even during the 17th centuries, conversos
left the Iberian Peninsula and returned to Judaism in communities in Western
Europe, e.g., in Italy,
France, Holland, and Germany. In the mid- 17th century, a community of Western
Sephardim was established in London.
Rabbi Menassen ben Israel was a rabbi and publisher in Amsterdam who was instrumental in working for the return
of Jews to England.
Rabbi Isaac Abohab de Fonesca
was an Amsterdam rabbi who became the first
rabbi in the New World when he went to serve a community in South
The impact of Shabbatai Zevi
was very strong among Western Sephardim, as among almost all other Jews. Rabbi Yaacov Sasportas was one of the
few, outspoken critics of the Shabbatian movement.
In the late 17th century, Haham David Nieto of
a sermon which some claimed was Spinozaistic. The Haham Tsevi wrote a responsum defending Haham Nieto.
Western Sephardim were engaged in wide-ranging commercial activity and
were involved in the commercial enterprises of the Dutch West India Company in
the New World.
the Holocaust, the Western Sephardic communities on the mainland of Europe suffered heavy losses.
IN THE NEW WORLD
The early Jewish settlements in the New World
were created by Western Sephardim. They established Congregation Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam ? later to be called New
York ? as well as later congregations in colonial America, i.e., in Philadelphia, Newport,
Savannah and Charleston.
In 1760, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal was founded.
Emigration of Sephardic Jews to the New World continued in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries ? to South, Central and North
Jews also emigrated to the United States
during the past half century. These were Jews from North Africa, the Middle
East and Turkey, and Jews
fleeing from persecution in Europe.
article was prepared by Dr. Marc Angel, Historical Curator .