Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What does Sephardic mean?

This article from the Forward, about Spain and its Jewish heritage, is interesting, but it left me with some questions and comments.

Certainly all of the 40,000 Jews now living in Spain are "Sephardim" in a certain sense--that is, they all live in "Sepharad" (the Hebrew term for Spain since the Middle Ages). How many, however, are Sephardim in the sense of being immigrants or children of immigrants from Sephardic diaspora communities in North Africa, Turkey, or elsewhere? And how many are Ashkenazim? I would guess that a good number of contemporary Spanish Jews come from Morocco, as does the current president of Federation of Jewish communities, quoted in the article, and are "Sephardim". I would guess that a certain percentage come from elsewhere in the European Union and some of these are Ashkenazim. I would also guess that there are a certain number from Latin America, the overwhelming number of whom are children or grandchildren of Ashkenazic immigrants from Eastern Europe to Mexico or Argentina or elsewhere in the New World. But the article does not say, and I would expect the reporter to have paid some attention to this question.*

Secondly, the article suggests that most of the "renaissance" in interest in Spain's Jewish heritage is driven not by the presence of a Jewish community in Spain but by the tourist industry. Thus, the lead-in emphasizing the Jewish community seems a bit misplaced.

Finally, what is the time-frame here? Like nearly all newspaper travel features, things are a bit vague.** Since the death of Franco in 1975? "especially over the past decade", i.e. since 1996? Certainly, it's been a gradual process. But why isn't 1992 mentioned? Either this was the watershed year that sparked things (that perhaps only got underway after 1995), or--contrary to expectations--the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain was not such a big deal in the on-going resurgence of interest in things Jewish in Spain. Either way, strange that it wasn't mentioned.

*I spend a lot of time when I teach medieval and modern Jewish history explaining to my students the changing meaning of the terms "Sephardic" and "Ashkenazic" over time.
(Brief version: Jews from Yemen are not "Sephardim" despite what some Israeli tour guide may have told you once.)

**What I mean by this is best seen by the New York Times which discovers that Philadelphia and Boston are undergoing cultural renaissances approximately every two years (on an odd-even cycle: e.g. Philadelphia in 97, 99, 01, 03, 05 and Boston in 98, 00, 02, 04, 06.) High turn-over among the travel-writing freelancers? Ingrained literary trope in travel feature-writing?

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