Ger­man Jew­ry and the Allure of the Sephardic

John M. Efron
  • Review
By – March 7, 2016

Chal­leng­ing, invig­o­rat­ing, and inspir­ing, Pro­fes­sor John M. Efron’s study opens up a swath of Jew­ish cul­tur­al his­to­ry that is famil­iar to few schol­ars and few­er gen­er­al read­ers. He is con­cerned, though he wouldn’t use such a for­mu­la­tion, with a spe­cial man­i­fes­ta­tion of Jew­ish self-hate as defined by its pro­posed remedy.

The set­ting is pri­mar­i­ly Ger­many of the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the time of the Euro­pean Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment, a move­ment known as the Haskalah. Those most con­cerned are the Ashke­nazi cul­tur­al and intel­lec­tu­al elite, the Mask­il­im. They fear asso­ci­a­tion with the Poles and oth­er East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, con­sid­ered coarse on sev­er­al lev­els: phys­i­cal­ly, lin­guis­ti­cal­ly, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, spir­i­tu­al­ly, and creatively.

Rev­el­ing in a rel­a­tive­ly lib­er­al time­warp that seemed to promise accep­tance into the high Ger­man main­stream, the Mask­il­im were at pains to cap­i­tal­ize on that pos­si­bil­i­ty by recon­struct­ing the image, and per­haps the real­i­ty, of Jews as indi­vid­u­als and as a civ­i­liza­tion. They planned for a more dig­ni­fied future by look­ing back to the glo­ry days of Jew­ish achieve­ment and sta­tus on the Iber­ian penin­su­la: the so-called Gold­en Age when Jews spoke well, looked attrac­tive, had refined habits, and gen­er­al­ly invit­ed accep­tance and admiration.

Efron neat­ly cat­e­go­rizes and exem­pli­fies the con­cerns of these thinkers. Jews from East­ern Europe (or too many such Jews) seemed to be hand­i­capped by ugli­ness in phys­iog­no­my and behav­ior. The Mask­il­im per­ceived an ugli­ness as well in the spo­ken lan­guages of Yid­dish and Ashke­nazi Hebrew, so infe­ri­or to the crisp Sephardic sound­ings and rhythms.

Efron cen­ters his dis­cus­sion on the blos­som­ing of Ori­en­tal-style Jew­ish syn­a­gogues in Ger­man-speak­ing Europe. He ana­lyzes the influ­ence of Moor­ish archi­tec­ture and the icon­ic Alham­bra in one of the most con­vinc­ing proofs of the Phi­lo-Sephar­di ten­den­cy writ­ten to date, hint­ing that the Mask­il­im may have been delu­sion­ary both in how they imag­ined the Sephardim of past times and in how they imag­ined a log­i­cal con­nec­tion between the means and like­ly ends of their self-improve­ment programs.

Addi­tion­al sub­jects mine oth­er bod­ies of evi­dence. Most com­pelling is the dis­cus­sion of how — and how fre­quent­ly — Ger­man-Jew­ish authors of fic­tion fash­ioned pos­i­tive nar­ra­tives of Sephardic Jews. These nar­ra­tives were simul­ta­ne­ous­ly enter­tain­ing and pro­pa­gan­dis­tic. Was the Sephardic past glo­ri­ous? His­to­ries writ­ten dur­ing this peri­od of ame­lio­ra­tive pro­pos­als for Jew­ish uplift cer­tain­ly share a rosy view: Efron’s care­ful read­ings of major his­to­ries by Abra­ham Geiger, Hein­rich Gratz, and Ignas Goldz­i­her show that they echo such fic­tion­al pre­sen­ta­tions in sev­er­al the­mat­ic ways.

The lat­ter chap­ters of the book are com­pli­cat­ed by con­cerns about the rela­tion­ships between the Jew­ish Bible and the Quran — or should we say Judaism, Islam, and the rela­tion­ship between the two. When the Jews of Sepharad lived under Mus­lim rule, they lived, for the most part, fair­ly well. How was this pos­si­ble? Could such a coex­is­tence come about in the twen­ty-first century?

A valu­able schol­ar­ly book is valu­able because its author per­ceives and fills a need. Its worth is all the more increased when it is exhaus­tive in its research and strong­ly per­sua­sive in apply­ing that research. Efron’s fine study, at once eru­dite and acces­si­ble, can be expect­ed to appear on many lists for hon­ors and awards.

Acknowl­edg­ments, bib­li­og­ra­phy, epi­logue, index, intro­duc­tion, notes.

Relat­ed Content:

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions