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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

According to Jewish tradition, Jews arrived in Spain after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (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 in Spain 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 Sephardic" tradition.

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 custom.

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:

1: Turkey and the Balkans; 2: The Middle East; 3: North Africa; 4: Western Sephardim; 5: The New World.


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 and Hungary.

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 culture.

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 Israel.

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 hymns).

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.

Among 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 America.

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 London preached 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.

During the Holocaust, the Western Sephardic communities on the mainland of Europe suffered heavy losses.


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 America.

Sephardic Jews also emigrated to the United States and Canada during the past half century. These were Jews from North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey, and Jews fleeing from persecution in Europe.

This article was prepared by Dr. Marc Angel, Historical Curator .



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