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Sephardic Jewry: Not Built in a Day

December 17, 2013
by Jane Mushabac from the Autumn 2013 issue of Jewish Currents Discussed in this essay: After Expulsion: 1492 and the Making of Sephardic Jewry, by Jonathan Ray. New York University Press, 2013, 224 pages. 951_001The story of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula is well-known and dramatic. They lived on the peninsula for over a thousand years, enjoyed remarkable prosperity, and produced an exceptional intellectual culture. When Spain, the last major home of the Jews in Western Europe, expelled them in 1492, they were instantly transformed — presto! — into Sephardim. The last part isn’t so. It’s that presto that Jonathan Ray unpacks in his illuminating history, After Expulsion: 1492 and the Making of Sephardic Jewry. The creation of Sephardic Jewry didn’t happen on the day the Jews were forced to leave Spain or convert, August 3rd, 1492. Rather, the creation of this identity was a vast and often harrowing process that took until late in the 16th century. During those decades, Jews moved incessantly in search of physical survival and financial solvency, and established mercantile and other networks through an enormous array of individual and communal initiatives. They moved repeatedly to cities in Portugal, North Africa, Italy, Northern Europe, and the Ottoman Empire. In large numbers, they shifted religious identification as well, experiencing forced conversions, returns to Judaism, and re-baptisms upon reentering Spain. Ray is the Samuel Eig Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University. Drawing on a great many primary and secondary sources, he tells us that it took two or three generations and more for the descendants of Iberian Jews to consolidate themselves, individually and organizationally, to achieve the established cultural identity we know as Sephardic. Ray focuses on the context of the Mediterranean world — itself transforming from medieval to early modern — and the byways and highways of the geographical and cultural dis- and re-locations; the Jews were only one of many peoples on the move. His history goes back to 1391, when massacres and forced conversions destabilized Iberian Jewry. But in addition, Ray more generally introduces the pre-Expulsion Jews of Iberia and demonstrates clearly that they were far from being a unified cultural or religious group that would continue as such upon their sudden dispersal. In fact, Iberian Jews were divided by region, occupation, social class, status, and religious response, practice, and belief. Rivalries and stresses of many kinds were, if anything, the rule, and as a whole, Ray points out, these people did not submit easily to religious direction; they “had a complicated and often combative relationship” with their rabbinic leaders. Tears happyWe learn by the end of the book that while this contentiousness was a hindrance during the 1500s, it was, ironically, along with cultural pride, what helped them manage the shifting shapes of society and gave them power and advantage as they navigated continual change. The very willingness of Iberian Jews to question, dispute, and argue eventually translated into a remarkable independence of mind, Ray says, which characterized the Sephardim when they were more settled into their identity by the end of the 1500s. After Expulsion is a rich and compelling history that focuses on process and on great numbers of people rather than on stand-out figures such as the powerful businesswoman Gracia Nasi. Ray’s broad picture emerges from many brief descriptions and analyses, while occasional examples of the experiences of specific individuals give fuller glimpses into the calamities and difficulties Jews and conversos faced in their quest for survival. With so many individuals so widely seeking their fortune, we can hardly find it strange that, as Ray notes, the era produced picaresque fiction — which in turn, I must add, would generate the form of the novel itself. Luis, for example, a young weaver whom Ray introduces, could be a protagonist in a picaresque tale; starting at age 8, he fends for himself in Buitrago, Illescas, Toledo, Algiers, Venice, Genoa, Ubeda, Rome, Bologna, Ferrara, Naples, Valona, Salonica, Adrianople, Istanbul, and Alexandria, and faces unending travails. Ray’s discussion of Joseph Ha-Kohen’s 16th-century chronicle of the bleak realities of refugee life, The Vale of Tears, provides another glimpse of individual experience. Ray is taken with the way Ha-Kohen emphasizes pragmatism, the value of legal documents of protection, and the critical importance of individual Jews selflessly taking on leadership roles in securing protection from Christian and Muslim overlords. Was there ever calm during the years of the 16th century that Ray chronicles? Given the terrifying upheaval and shocking turnaround in lives and fortunes Jews and conversos suffered in this era, the answer is no. Or was any feeling of continuity provided by Judaism itself? Did a single Jew anywhere feel the reassuring ordering of the seasons or of the week that is at the core of Jewish ritual, for instance, in the observance of shabbat? Most of Ray’s chronicle focuses on the upheavals in Portugal, Italy, and North Africa, where the ground was constantly shifting under the Jews because of political volatility, wars, famine, and disease. Ultimately, it was the Ottoman Empire that offered hope for stability and protection and became where the majority of the surviving refugees ultimately went by about 1550. Both sides of my family were among those Jews who found a haven in the Ottoman Empire for centuries. I’m not surprised that Ray notes the worldview of this new, ambitious multi-ethnic empire, and the opportunities it presented to Jews. Ray says very little, however, about those Jews he describes as having “managed to avoid conversion in their emigration from Iberia.” He emphasizes tales of those who go from Jew to converso and back, and back again — reflecting a desperate need for the financial stability beckoning from Catholic Spain. He notes the way Spanish royal officials called back those who wished to return and accept baptism, and even defended them, caustically and bizarrely, against their critics (the Spanish people themselves were decidedly hostile). As for those who remained Jewish (or returned to the faith), it’s as if Ray were planning another book on the particularism of Jewish spirituality itself, beyond the terrible demographics of the refugee experience and the universal story of extraordinary resourcefulness and resilience. A small clue on how that story might unfold is in Ray’s teasingly brief mention of an oral culture of proverbs and ballads that developed among Ottoman Jews. His focus on conversos feels right, however, because he is finely attuned to the process of transformation, not to what follows. He emphasizes the lands where desperate Jews went first, Portugal, North Africa, and Italy. One note mentions that these places have more 16th-century sources available for scholars to study than the Ottoman Empire has. Ray also indicates a paucity of sources on women’s spirituality, as well as on mass culture, which no doubt made it difficult for Ray to give a portrait of Judaism itself beyond its social, organizational, legalistic, and hierarchical aspects. But no book has to do all things. For those intrigued by this history, I suggest, as a first step, reading Marc Angel’s 2006 book on Ottoman Sephardic spirituality and his 2009 book on Maimonides and Spinoza. Also, read very different books alongside Ray’s, for instance the Mexican writer Homero Aridjis’s wild 1991 novel, 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile, and then the spare brilliant anonymous Spanish picaresque prototype from 1554, Lazarillo de Tormes. Look at Yael Halevi Wise’s book, Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History and the Modern Literary Imagination; read online about Gracia Nasi in the Jewish Women’s Archive; and read the novels of A.B. Yehoshua. So much to read, so many stories. While many today have thought of Sephardim as an exotic minority off in a corner of the Jewish arena, in the period we are looking at, Sephardim were on Judaism’s main stage. With its intense focus on one century, Ray’s book makes a distant time and trauma painfully vivid and immediate to the reader. He also tells a fascinating story of the impact of “the social and political upheaval of the 1490s.” Ray says, “By the close of the 16th century, the mercantile reach of the Sephardic Diaspora stretched around the world.” Perhaps the most dramatic statement in Ray’s book is that by the time the Sephardic Jews regrouped after the expulsion from Spain, they had achieved a mercantile network so extensive that it gave trepidation to the English. And when we count in that important characteristic Ray notes — independence of mind — we’re not surprised to find ourselves thinking of great Sephardic thinkers like Baruch Spinoza who, a mere half century later, when Sephardic Jews were establishing Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam, Jewishly asked questions that would reverberate for centuries. Ray’s book prepares us to understand a diaspora society that was creating a bridge between East and West, and between the early modern and modern worlds. Jane Mushabac has received a Mellon Fellowship and other grants for her writing about Sephardic culture. Her Ladino short story, “Pasha,” has appeared in the original and English. She won a 2012 Leapfrog Press award for her novella about a Turkish Jew, The Hundred Year Old Man. Her Mazal Bueno: A Portrait in Song of the Spanish Jews has been performed by Tovah Feldshuh on NPR. Dr. Mushabac’s writing has been translated into Russian, German, Bulgarian, and Turkish. She is professor of English and a former Scholar on Campus at City University of New York.