Jaime Kardontchik
Jaime Kardontchik

A Brief History of the Jewish People

How to compress 3,500 years of “History of the Jewish People” in a few pages, for students in a compulsory “Ethnic Studies” course in California’s K12 schools?

First things first:  do not let an ignorant, posing as an “educator”, confuse you: Jews are not divided between the “oppressed” American Jews of Sephardi or Middle Eastern origin (whose status in the latest “Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum” in California was upgraded to “Jews of color”) and the “white” oppressing American Jews of Ashkenazi or European origin.

And now, my Brief History of the Jewish People:

The banality of evil: “Do not buy from Jews” campaign in Germany, 1933. In 2019 the German Parliament designated the “Boycott and BDS Israel” movement as anti-Semitic. [Photo from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum]
Sephardi, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews

Who are the Sephardi Jews?

Historically, the Sephardi Jews were for centuries the “aristocracy” of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, due both to their higher cultural as well as economic status. The first Jews that settled in America were Sephardi Jews, back in year 1654. They settled in New Amsterdam, what is today part of Manhattan, New York.

I happen to read fluently Ladino, the daily language of the Sephardi Jews: the classic Spanish Literature course I took in High-School in Buenos Aires, included reading original works by Spanish writers and poets from the 14th and 15th centuries. Theirs was the daily language spoken by the Jews in Spain, before they were expulsed in 1492, creating the Sephardi Diaspora (“Sepharad” is the Hebrew name for “Spain”). A few years later, in 1496, Jews were expelled from the adjacent Portugal. Jews whose origin can be traced back to Spain and Portugal are called collectively the Sephardi Jews. The Ladino Jewish songs and melodies are beautiful and share the sensuality of the old Spanish culture. Sephardi Jews had also their great scholars and philosophers, like Maimonides and Baruch Spinoza. Closer to our times, we have Noble Prize Physicists like Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and Serge Haroche. Cohen-Tannoudji was born in Constantine, Algeria. His family had moved to Algeria in the 16th century after having fled Spain during the Inquisition. Cohen Tannoudji won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. Serge Haroche was born in Casablanca, Morocco. He came from a Jewish family with mixed Sephardi and Ashkenazi origins. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2012, for his work on the fundamentals of Quantum Mechanics. His experiments succeeded in bringing alive the famous “Schrodinger cat”.

Whereas Sephardi Jews originated in Western Europe (Portugal and Spain), Ashkenazi Jews came from Central and Eastern Europe. And both branches originated from the ancient Jews living in the Land of Israel, dispersed initially along the Mediterranean [and Middle East countries, to be more accurate and include the third branch of Jews, the “Mizrahi” or “Oriental” Jews] by intermittent wars with the large imperial powers of the old era: Babylonians, Greeks and Romans first, and then, from the 7th century, Arabs spreading originally from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to the Mediterranean countries in Africa, and conquering everything in their way, up to Spain. One could say that, being a small people, the Jews were carried by the wind, and some of these winds were quite strong and they ended up everywhere.

Who are the Mizrahi (‘Oriental’ or ‘Middle East’) Jews?

Perhaps the most known Mizrahi Jews are the Babylonian Jews. Their origin dates from the times when the Babylonian Empire conquered the first Kingdom of Judea (the one founded by the biblical Jewish kings Saul, David and Solomon) and destroyed their Temple in Jerusalem, in year 586 BCE. The Babylonians had a unique way to conquer lands, especially those inhabited by rebellious people: they captured the intellectual elite and transplanted it to Babylonia (what is today Iraq), leaving the conquered land without leaders. In 1950 there were 125,000-160,000 Jews in Iraq. One year later, in 1951 – 2,500 years of the Jewish community in Iraq came to an abrupt end: almost all were forced to leave, totally dispossessed of everything they had. [1]

The most notable contribution of the Babylonian Jews was the Talmud, completed about the year 500 CE, an encyclopedic collection of the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis on a large variety of subjects covering all the aspects of Jewish life, including philosophy, religious customs and folklore. The Talmud was later studied by Jews all over the world: I studied parts of the Talmud when I was a teenager and attended a secular Jewish day-school in Argentina. This Jewish school occupied the whole second floor of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires. The AMIA was located en la calle Pasteur, in the center of Buenos Aires, three blocks away from the Facultad de Medicina of the Buenos Aires University.

The AMIA – a five story building housing also the IWO library in its fourth floor, a large library of Jewish books I used to visit – was completely destroyed by a bomb in year 1994, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds. The perpetrators, linked to the Iranian regime, were never brought to Justice, most probably because they were aided by some members of the military intelligence services of Argentina, well known for not liking the Jews.

The Ashkenazi Jews

Yiddish was the daily language spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews. It was the language spoken at home by my parents. And, as other Jewish kids in Argentina, I learnt Yiddish too. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed reading the hilarious stories of Sholem Aleichem in their original language, Yiddish. Everyone knows today Sholem Aleichem’s story of “Tevye and his daughters”, made famous by the Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof”.  Ashkenazi Jews have also had their share of great scholars. One of them was Jonas Salk. Salk was born in New York city, a son of Ashkenazi Jews. He developed the first successful polio vaccine that helped eradicate poliomyelitis from the world. Another famous Ashkenazi Jew was the Physicist Albert Einstein, born in Germany. In 1933, with the rise of Nazism and the “Boycott the Jews” campaign launched that year in Germany, he left that country for good and moved to the US. Everyone knows Einstein because his equations of General Relativity predicted the Big Bang origin of the Universe and the existence of Black Holes.

For centuries Ladino and Yiddish were the daily languages spoken by Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews in the Diaspora. Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews shared a third language, Hebrew, which was used for sacred matters: prayers at the synagogues and the study of the Bible – the written history, philosophy and poetry of the ancient Jews living in the Land of Israel.

There is one interesting difference between Ladino and Yiddish: whereas spoken Ladino is “old spoken Spanish language from centuries ago” and spoken Yiddish is “old spoken German language from centuries ago”, they differ essentially in the written language: written Ladino just uses the letters of the Spanish alphabet (which makes Ladino plainly identical to the old Spanish language, both spoken and written) whereas written Yiddish uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This made it easier for Yiddish speaking Jews to mix sacred and other original Hebrew words with secular old-German words during their daily common life conversations: Ashkenazi Jews used to “spike” Yiddish in their secular conversations with plain Hebrew words. Words like “chutzpah” (audacity) that you frequently hear from Ashkenazi Jews made even their way into the gentile English-speaking people, like when one says: “You can’t help but admire the sheer chutzpah of the man”. “Chutzpah” is not a Yiddish word: it is plain original Hebrew!

Jews in Modern Times

Ladino and Yiddish literature are part of the great secular Jewish culture, as well as it is the modern secular Hebrew literature renovated and created by writers and poets in Israel, like Aharon Megged and Amos Oz. Megged and Oz were both Ashkenazi Jews. I still remember the misty atmosphere of Jerusalem, the city in the mountains, described by Amos Oz in his romantic novel “My Michael” (“Mijael Sheli”, in Hebrew, as pronounced in Spanish), and the disappointing feeling of lost pioneering and sacrificing spirit within the Israelis when life went back to “normal”, after Israel’s 1948 independence war was over, described in Aharon Megged’s short story “Bountiful rain” (“Gueshem Nedavot”, in Hebrew, as pronounced in Spanish). I read both the novel and the short story in their original Hebrew when I lived in Argentina. One of Israel’s past Presidents, Yitzhak Navon, was a Sephardi Jew. Navon was born in Jerusalem, and belonged to a Sephardi family living in Israel since the 17th century. He composed two musical plays based on Sephardi folklore: “Sephardic Romancero” and “Sephardic Garden”. And, of course, we have the novelist Agnon, who in 1966 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. For understandable reasons, both the Yiddish and Ladino usage in Israel declined, in favor of the unifying Hebrew language, known to both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews.

It is estimated that more than 95% of the Jews living in the US fall into the two categories of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews Their integration in the US society, a long process that began in the 17th century, with the first Sephardi Jews arriving in New York and accelerated massively at the end of the 19th century, with the arrival of the Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the pogroms and the extreme poverty in Eastern Europe, is quite complete: both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews feel that the US is the land where – if you work hard enough – your dreams will come true, and is the place where Jews and their children can feel safe (until quite recently, of course).

Less can be said about the integration of the tens of thousands of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews that lately arrived from the Arab countries following the 1948-1967 Israeli-Arab wars. Perhaps, they – as many other new immigrants from many other countries to the US – would prefer to be defined as “people of color”, with the advantages that this category lately offers to their advancement in the US education system and society. Some in this community might believe that the present adopted “Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum” in California is good for Jews. They are naïve and wrong. It only makes the Jews more vulnerable, by separating and trying to differentiate between a minority of recently arrived “Jews of color” (the “good” Jews, worth of protection and encouragement) and all the “other Jews”, the “European” white Jews, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, integrated long ago in the US society, who should repent for their whiteness. And, of course, the Jews living in Israel, who should be boycotted.

A Jew is a Jew, and it does not matter whether he/she claims to come from Spain, Germany, Russia, Morocco, Libya, Syria or Israel. Antisemitic people do not care about these minor details.

Who am I?

This “Brief History of the Jewish People” would not be complete if a short background of the writer and his personal story is not given too. It adds perspective. Here it is:

I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I do not know much about my parents, except that they were kind to me. I knew that my father, Isaac, had been an orphan from young age and lived with his uncles in a small town of Ukraine, Eastern Europe. I had heard that when he was about 16 years old, he escaped Ukraine crossing a dangerous river. He ended up somewhere in Western Europe and from there took a ship to Uruguay, a small country next to Argentina: Uruguay had a liberal policy regarding migrants from Eastern Europe. Shortly afterwards, he entered illegally Argentina in the mid 1920’s and for some years worked as a bracero in the northern province of El Chaco, about 700 miles from Buenos Aires. Somehow, he ended up moving finally to Buenos Aires. He quietly became a naturalized citizen of Argentina about 30 years later, I think that thanks to some friends who helped him get the citizenship.

My mother, Clara, was born in Romania. Her whole family, her parents and about 10 children, emigrated to Argentina around the end of World War I, and upon arrival to Argentina they were taken directly from the ship to the remote province of La Pampa, to settle in a small town called Bernasconi, about 500 miles from Buenos Aires. They were very poor. I think they lived there from farming. The whole province of La Pampa was in the middle of nowhere, practically a desert. She went there to elementary school but I do not think that she finished school (not clear if there were real schools over there). With the passing of time, part of the family moved to the small coastal city of Bahia Blanca, others remained in Bernasconi, and my mother ended up finally in Buenos Aires.

I was born in Buenos Aires. For as far as I remember we always lived in the same small rented apartment in Buenos Aires, in the barrio of Colegiales. The street was called “14 de Julio” and the number was “1389”. We lived in apartment “B”.

My teenage years were very simple: Monday-Friday mornings – public secondary school, afternoons – secular Jewish school for Hebrew Teachers, evenings – working at home on my homework at the dining table in the small kitchen. Saturday evenings going out with friends. Sundays were my free day. My last year at High School was particularly intense because I had to pack also an additional 90 minutes of daily classes between the public school in the mornings and the Jewish school in the afternoons, to attend a Preparatory Course (Geometry, Math, Chemistry and Physics) for admission at the Buenos Aires University offered at the Facultad de Ingenieria, located en la Avenida Las Heras, in the center of Buenos Aires (fortunately close to my Jewish school, so I could make it in time for the latter.) This last year was quite demanding: one Friday morning, while attending High School, the History teacher caught me slightly napping. To her question I answered: “Because the lesson is boring”. I was a straight-A student. She was so startled that she did not react: usually, this impertinence would earn the student an amonestacion and send him directly to the principal’s office.

Hopefully, you will receive this brief 3,500 years of Jewish History more graciously.

Reference

[1] Carole Basri, “The Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: An Examination of Legal Rights – A Case Study of the Human Rights Violations of Iraqi Jews”, Fordham International Law Journal, Volume 26, Issue 3, 2002

https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/ilj/vol26/iss3/6/

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To the Reader: The above article is included in my recent book “Boycott of Israel is Wrong: How to fight it”. The book was originally published in June 2021.  A recent, Revised Edition of the book, was published this month, August 2021. You can read the complete updated book and download it for free from the ResearchGate website:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/352573399_Boycott_of_Israel_is_Wrong_How_to_fight_it

The book is also available at Amazon, in electronic and paperback formats.

About the Author
Jaime Kardontchik has a PhD in Physics from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. He lives in the Silicon Valley, California.
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