Sephar­di Lives: A Doc­u­men­tary His­to­ry, 1700 – 1950

Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abre­vaya Stein, eds.

  • Review
By – December 22, 2014

Sephar­di Lives presents the read­er with an out­stand­ing col­lec­tion of pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments por­tray­ing a broad spec­trum of expe­ri­ence in the lives of the Judeo-Span­ish pop­u­la­tion expelled from the Iber­ian penin­su­la dur­ing the late four­teenth and fif­teenth cen­turies. In con­trast to oth­er doc­u­men­tary his­to­ries, this com­pi­la­tion focus­es not only on the polit­i­cal, the famous, and the infa­mous, but also on the every­day affairs of the peo­ple. It high­lights ele­ments as diverse as children’s lessons, diary entries, a woman’s griev­ances in the face of evic­tion, and the laments of Jew­ish con­scripts in the Ottoman army. It recounts crit­i­cism of women singing on the Sab­bath, expres­sions of hope for the redemp­tion, mem­o­ries of Holo­caust sur­vivors, and pleas for the study of Ladi­no in Mexico.

High­light­ing major region­al and world events and the man­ner in which Sephardim inter­act­ed with the sur­round­ing pop­u­lace (both Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish), these doc­u­ments give the read­er insights into the Sephardic world. The appoint­ment of the new Chief Rab­bi of the Ottoman Empire (Rab­bi Haim Nahum Effen­di) and the sub­se­quent dis­missal of the parochial rab­bis who had pre­vailed for so many gen­er­a­tions aroused both acclaim and harsh crit­i­cism. With the devel­op­ment of the Zion­ist move­ment and the cre­ation of the State of Israel, the Sephardim detect­ed a per­sis­tent dis­crim­i­na­tion, not­ing that the gov­ern­ment and the His­tadrut, two dis­tinct orga­ni­za­tions, have joined forces in order to exclude Mizrahi Jews as well as Sephar­di Jews from civic lead­er­ship and from any nation­al admin­is­tra­tive positions.”

Con­flict lay not only between Ashke­naz­im and the Sephardim; dis­putes arose among the Sephardim them­selves. When the cre­ation of a World Sephar­di Fed­er­a­tion was under dis­cus­sion by Sephar­di lead­ers in the ear­ly decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, some — for exam­ple, the chief Sephar­di Rab­bi Ben­zion Meir Uziel (1880 – 1953) — fought vig­or­ous­ly for the cre­ation of the orga­ni­za­tion. Oth­ers, among them the Yugoslav Rab­bi Isaac Alcalay (18821978) (lat­er to become a promi­nent fig­ure among the Sephardim in Amer­i­ca) were ambivalent.

Rich and het­ero­ge­neous, this won­der­ful com­pi­la­tion is an out­stand­ing endeav­or to pre­serve a his­to­ry and cul­ture that might oth­er­wise be lost. With notes and exten­sive index, Cohen and Stein’s col­lec­tion of doc­u­ments are essen­tial to the study of the Sephardim, and to the under­stand­ing of cul­ture and its synthesis.

Relat­ed content:

Ran­dall Belin­fante has served as the Librar­i­an of the Amer­i­can Sephar­di Fed­er­a­tion for more than 13 years. He has tak­en a tiny col­lec­tion of 200 books and built an assem­blage of over 10,000 items. Mr. Belin­fante holds degrees in var­i­ous aspects of Jew­ish stud­ies, and dur­ing his tenure at ASF, he has inves­ti­gat­ed a vari­ety of top­ics, pre­sent­ing papers on such diverse top­ics as the Mizrahi Jews dri­ven from their homes in Islam­ic coun­tries and the cryp­to-Jew­ish Mash­hadis of Iran. He has also writ­ten many book reviews on books of Sephar­di / Mizrahi interest.

Discussion Questions