Book Review: "The Jews of Spain", by Jane Gerber

Jane Gerber’s “The Jews of Spain” is a superb and comprehensive look at the history of the Sephardim - one of the two major branches of Jewry, the other being the Ashkenazim. The Sephardim originated in Spain and today occupy a place of high prominence. While the Ashkenazim are better known, about sixty percent of Israel’s population consists of the Sephardim.

Two main qualities mark the Sephardim. One is common to all Jews, which is the ability to persevere and thrive against all odds through centuries. The other is more unique and was the flourishing of their numbers under Muslim rule. Except for Germany in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th, Jews have not thrived anywhere else so well after they were driven out from the Roman Empire.
The book starts with the miserable fate of the Jews in Spain under the Visigoths; the Jews had fled there after being persecuted under the Roman Empire. It was in 711 AD when the Arabs under Tariq invaded Spain and defeated the Visigoths that their fortunes changed. This was largely because of the tolerant, creative and far-ranging Umayyad Caliphate that moved to Spain from Damascus, with Abd-Al-Rahman I founding its branch in Spain. The Umayyad Caliphate marked one of the highlights of the history of Islamic Civilization, making its home in Cordoba at first and then in places like Seville and Toledo. Not only did it allow Jews to practice their religion freely but it employed them in almost all important professions. Jews still did not have all the same rights as Muslims, but they could trade, study medicine and the arts and sciences, compose poetry and music and generally take part in the political life of Islamic Spain to the fullest history. There were many notables among Jewish intellectuals, with perhaps the peak reached by Hasdai Ibn Shaprut who became vizier and foreign minister.
Politically, the most useful purpose the Jews of Spain served was to mediate between the Byzantine and Christian kingdoms and Muslim lands. In some sense, because they were equally loved and hated by both religions, the Jews could do this balancing act well as neutrals. The Jews of Spain assimilated Arabic and moved smoothly between Arabic and Hebrew, often translating texts between the two. Even more valuably, they translated important Greek texts on science and medicine into Arabic; later these Arabic texts were translated into Latin by Christian scholars during the translation movement of the 10th and 11th centuries. The Jews of Spain thus served as a critical conduit between the Muslim and Christian worlds, diplomatically trading and interacting with each world while performing valuable functions for both. Jews became great and far flung traders, braving pirates and trading precious pearls, textiles, spices and other goods. The Radhanites were a particularly prominent group of Jewish merchants who went back and forth between Spain and as far as India and China. Some of these Jews even made their homes in India and China, becoming for instance the Bene Israelites of Maharashtra in India.
This useful and productive existence came to an end with the Reconquista and the Christian invasions of Spain. After a period of more repressive and less tolerant Islamic regimes that included the Almoravids and the Almohads, the Jews started seeing a period of decline. After this brief resurgence, the Christians decisively defeated the Muslims in the Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212. Within the next few decades both Cordoba and Seville fell to the Christians, and only the Islamic Kingdom of Granada remained. When Granada fell to the Christians, the fate of Spain's Jews was sealed.
The next two hundred years marked a period of severe decline for the Jews of Spain. Many started converting under Christian pressure. But the real blow came when Isabella and Ferdinand of Aragon and Castile unified the country. At first somewhat tolerant of the Jews, in 1478 they approved the dreaded Spanish Inquisition that started hauling converted Jews before feared magistrates like Torquemada, torturing and extracting false confessions from then. Finally the watershed came in 1492 when Isabella and Ferdinand issued the famous edict of expulsion that gave the 300,000 Jews of Spain the stark choice between converting or fleeing. The foremost intellectual among those expelled was the scholar Maimonides whose Mishneh Torah and Guide to the Perplexed remain, even today, touchstones of Judaism. Maimonides found refuge in Egypat. But many others left Spain and went to Portugal, where the Portuguese Inquisition was even worse. So pernicious were its methods that many Jews became marranos - underground Jews who quietly practiced their religion so cryptically that nobody knew. These crypto-Jews evolved a form of their religion that would have been almost incomprehensible to their ancestors. From these marranos arose some of the most prominent Jews of later years, including Spinoza.
When Portugal also denied the Jews sanctuary they dispersed to other parts of Europe and the Middle East. By this time the plight of Jews in Europe had become even more dire. The Black Death of 1347 had created an atmosphere of acute paranoia in which Jews were accused of perpetuating the blood libel and poisoning wells. Even the Catholic Pope cautioned against such unfounded rumors, but it did not stop violent pogroms erupting in which Jews were massacred wholesale and burnt alive. England had already banned the Jews a long time ago, and apart from scattered pockets in France like Bayonne, they could find no respite. It was at this point that the Jews saw their second resurgence in the Ottoman Empire - in Turkey.
The remarkable story of the Turkish Jews is a story unto itself, but in Istanbul under the Ottoman Emperors Suleiman, Bayezid and others, the Jews achieved a prominence that they had only achieved under the Umayyad Caliphate. Interestingly, it was here that they met the Ashkenazim who had come from Europe, and for a long time the much more affluent and educated Sephardim looked down upon their Ashkenazim co-religionists as uncouth and poor. Most importantly, and as a testament to the freedom they enjoyed, they were allowed to establish their own printing presses in the 15th and 16th centuries. The printing presses allowed them to keep not just their religion but many of their religious books alive. Once again they served as mediators with Christians in Europe. One of the most remarkable among these was the Portuguese marrano Dona Gracia, a self-taught Jewish woman who became a wealthy Jewish trader after fleeing from Portugal, led an underground pipeline for Portuguese Jews who were being targeted by the Inquisition and successfully organized a boycott of an Italian port after Jews there had been targeted by the papacy.
Unfortunately once the Ottoman Empire weakened in the 17th century and the Christian Kingdoms imposed a series of harsh punitive measures on the Jews there, they had no choice but to flee. The last part of the book describes this flight. The Jews of Turkey went in two different directions. Some went to Southeastern Europe, Greece and the Balkans. The others went to the Netherlands which in the 17th century was the most progressive country in Europe. Here the Jews found plenty of opportunities for trading and banking. One of the most important Jews here was Spinoza who was ironically excommunicated by his own people at the age of twenty-four and had to spend the rest of his life as a lens-maker to support himself. Nevertheless, he became the father of the Jewish Enlightenment and inspired many other philosophers in Europe.
From the Netherlands some Jews made it to South America, especially Brazil. But once Brazil was threatened by Portugal, a small group of Jews started out on a journey in 1654 to a hitherto unexplored country where they would establish the most important Jewish community of modern times - the nascent United States. Over the next one hundred years, Jews became successful traders and professionals in a secular republic, fought in the American Revolution and established thriving communities in many states, even making it as far as the Ohio Valley. The United States was to see two other great waves of European Jewry, one in the mid 19th century and the other in the early 20th century. They were welcomed with memorable words written on the statue of liberty by Emma Lazarus, also a Jew. But the Sephardim got here first, way back in 1654.
Sadly, the plight of the other wave of Ottoman Jewry was much worse. Greece was taken over by the Nazis and tens of thousands of Greek and Macedonian Jews were sent to the death camps. Once the war ended, scattered bands of Jews from all over Europe, the Middle East and survivors from the concentration camps started making their way back, looking for family and friends. Shattered to find most of these missing, they made their way to the only place that would give them spiritual solace - Israel. Today the majority of Israeli Jews are Sephardim.
The Sephardim retained a love for their ancestral country that was striking. After the Bosnian war in the 1990s, many petitioned the King of Spain to give them refuge back into a country which their ancestors had left hundreds of years ago. The ties that bound them to Spain were deep and invisible. Today when the Middle East is a cauldron of ethic and religious conflict between Israel and the Arab Nations, it’s worth remembering that historically, Jews had been treated much better by Muslim kings than by Christian ones. Their history in Spain and in the Ottoman Empire is testament to their doggedness, the resurgent creativity and their sponge-like capacity to absorb critical elements of the surrounding culture while staying true to their roots. It’s a glorious and moving history, and Jane Gerber tells it well.


  1. The term "Sephardic" derives from a Hebrew name of Spain, and properly speaking, Spanish Jews did go East, to the Balkans and the Levant, following the Inquisition. But Sephardic also refers to the ritual used by all Eastern Jews, not just those who emerged from Spain. That ritual differs from the Ashkenazic ritual. I suspect that you might be confusing the two terms when you give your population statistics.

    Jews from places like Iraq and Persia did not, for the most part, emigrate from Spain, and are termed "Mizrahi" (Eastern) Jews, who can be genetically categorized separately from the (descendants of) Jews who emigrated from Spain. Following the creation of Israel, about 500,000 Jews had to leav Middle Eastern countries due to an uprise in persecution; for example, nine Jews were executed in the Damascus city square for collaborating with Israel which Jews in that country took to be a false story, given that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews were persona non grata in Israel at the time.

    Though I don't know how many of those exiled Jews were Sephardic in origin and how many were Mizrahi, I assume that many or perhaps even most of the 60% "Sephardic" Jews in Israel have Mizrahi origin. The Jews in the Balkans, Turkey, Lebanon, Northern Africa and Syria tended to be Sephardic, whereas those from Iraq and Persia tended to be Mizrahi.

    Of course, the Mizrahi Jews follow the so-called "Sephardic" ritual. Hence the possible confusion.

    -Peter Shenkin.

    1. That is interesting, thanks for the note. You know more about this topic than I do. I don't remember Gerber mentioning the term Mizrahi but let me go back and check.


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