In an interview that I conducted in the Tel Aviv home of the renowned Israeli historian of the Hasidic movement Dr. Isaac Alfasi , the latter recounted to me an exchange he once had with Israeli Prime Minister David ben Gurion. Alfasi, who served as President of the Israeli branch of Bnai Brith in the 1950s, was asked by the elder statesman, “Are you a Sephardi or an Ashkenazi?”
“I am a Sephardic Jew from Poland,” came Alfasi’s reply.
Ben Gurion was incredulous, Alfasi recalls. “How can one be a Sephardi from Poland?” Alfasi then explained to the man that indeed Sephardim had settled in various parts of Poland and that he happened to be descended from one of those families. (Secondary source: “Sippurei Chassidim” by Hanani Bleich, Shevii, Kav Itonut Newspaper 12/19/12)
In an article posted on the Israeli online news site YNET (March 13, 2007), the genealogist Orit Lavie explores the roots of her Alfasi forbears from Krakow, Poland. According to Lavie (translation mine):
My connection to the Sephardic diaspora begins in the second half of the 19th century…[my ancestor] Yaakov Alfos was a descendant of Rabbi Avraham Alfos-Alfasi of Opoczno, Poland. The surname Alfasi denotes origins in Fez, Morocco and the reader might ask what connection could there possibly be between Alfasi and Poland? One of the most-well known members of this family was the famed Talmudist Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, known also by the acronym “RIF.” He was born in Algeria and eventually relocated to Fez, Morocco. At the end of his life, he resided in Spain and one of his descendants apparently ended up in Poland.
Lavie pointedly concludes her piece:
The saga of this family indicates that the perceived divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is not as wide as it seems and the distance between these two Jewish Diasporas is a lot closer than is commonly thought.
I was reminded of these tidbits when I read Alexander Beider’s article on “faux” Sephardim entitled Many ‘Sephardic’ Jews Aren’t Actually Sephardic
Far be it from me to engage in debate with one of the world’s most renowned experts on Ashkenazi surnames. However, I must stridently disagree with several of his statements and assessments and take issue with what I perceive to be several errors of commission and omission.
“But most of all, we did not know what many people don’t know: that no group of Sephardic Jews ever migrated to Germany, with the exception of a single Sephardic community that made its way to Hamburg.
That just isn’t accurate. Sephardic Jewish communities sprung up and flourished in several other parts of Germany such as Berlin, Altona, Glückstadt, Leipzig, Poznan and Offenbach/Frankfurt among other places. Additionally, there were 3 Sephardic Temples in Copenhagen and they also established communities in other large cities in Western and Central Europe such as Prague and Vienna (see also this and this). In 1662 a converso turncoat testified before the Spanish inquisition as to the existence of a community of Portuguese returnees to the Jewish faith in Danzig/Gdansk in Poland (which had a majority German population) among other places.
(Source: Archivo Historico Nacional de Esapagne, Inquisition archives, Liber 1127. I am indebted to the Dutch researcher Ton Tielen for this particular piece of information).
In Poland, the city of Zamosc, midway between Lvov and Lublin, is perhaps the foremost place that comes to mind when speaking of Sephardim in Poland itself. The famous writer Y.L. Peretz (to whom I will return later) hailed from that city.
According to Beider, “The mistaken belief that many European Jews are Sephardic is based almost invariably on surnames borne by members of their families.” But this is simply not true. While many Eastern European Jewish families with Sephardic-sounding family names stake a claim to Sephardic ancestry, many, if not most, who make this claim, do not in fact have Sephardic surnames (this is a good time to note many names that do “sound Sephardic,” are of Latin/Romance origin – and often are not Sephardic at all. Examples include Alemani, Morpurgo, Luzzato, Delmedigo et al). Often the claim is that the name had undergone “Ashkenazification” (typical of these would be the German equivalent to a prior Spanish surname, ex: Belmonte>Schoenberg).
While surnames can often be misleading , at other times they are clear indicators of a lost Sephardic past. According to the Israeli writer and historian Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon-Fischman, the patriarch of his family, namely his grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Hacohen of Satanov, Ukraine was the first to utilize the name Maimon. This was allegedly done because when the Czarist Russian authorities made it mandatory for Jews to choose surnames, the aforementioned Rabbi Mordechai-whose wife Malka maintained a tradition of descent from the famed Maimonides-chose a name that would reflect that particular family tradition.
(Source: Geula bat Yehuda, Harav Maimon Bedorotav, p.34)
Will the Real Sephardi Please Stand Up?
The most reasonable thing to do is to divide all Ashkenazi claimants to Sephardic ancestry into three categories: the first are those who clearly have no connection to Sephardim. The second are families whose descent has yet to be verified, and finally there are the Ashkenazim of certain Sephardic descent.
The reasons for the existence of the first category are many and varied. The first is a sincere belief borne out of a misunderstood cultural or onomastic indicator. For instance, I have seen all to often Jews who initially research their Eastern Europeans forbears exclaim in excitement that their forebears were most assuredly Sephardim. The proof? A particular ancestor was a member of a congregation called “Anshei Sephard,” which literally translates to the “People of Sepharad.” In reality of course, this term was used by people who prayed in the Chassidic rite, as the Chassidic rite of Eastern Europe was based on the modified Sephardic rite of the master Kabbalist, Isaac Luria
Another reason why someone would make this sort of claim is financial. Recently the governments of Spain and Portugal have guaranteed citizenship to any Jew who can provide documentation that one of his ancestors was expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.
Additionally, there was a time in the US when Sephardim were potential beneficiaries of government policies meant to benefit minorities. One somewhat bizarre episode is mentioned in Ian Ayre’s book Pervasive Prejudice? Unconventional Evidence of Race and Gender Discrimination (p.400):
two much publicized (but nonrepresentative) instances of “whites” seeking to pass as minorities in order to qualify for affirmative action benefits…The status of the Lieberman family (which claimed Hispanic status as Sephardic Jews to qualify for an FCC affirmative action program) stands however on a much firmer footing. While the FCC’s finding that the Lieberman’s qualified as Hispanic has been decried as a racial hoax by commentators and judges, see Metro Broadcasting, Inc. v. FCC, 497 U.S. 547, 633 n.1 (1990) (Kennedy,J., dissenting) (“The [FCC], for example, has found it necessary to trace an applicant’s history to 1492 to conclude that the applicant was “Hispanic” for purposes of a minority tax certificate policy.”); Ronald D. Rotunda, Modern Constitutional Law 544 (4th ed. 1993) (The Lieberman family “qualified as Hispanic because they traced their family to Jews whom the King had expelled from Spain in 1492. If you assume 20 years to a generation, there were over 24 generations from 1492 to the [present]. That means that Mr. Lieberman was as closely related to 16,777,216 ancestors.”), the FCC found that Adolfo Lieberman and is sons Jose, Elias, and Julio were “regarded by both themselves and their community as being Hispanic.” Their native language was Spanish which “they still speak a majority of the time.” The family members had lived together in Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica before coming to the United States and becoming naturalized citizens”.
Another reason to claim Sephardic descent is the subject of John Efron’s excellent book German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic. According to Efron, when the German Jews embarked upon the quest for legal emancipation and social acceptance, they also undertook a program of cultural renewal. Part of this renewal was the casting off of an unwanted identity and the taking on of what they deemed to be a superior Jewish identity. In the mind of many an enlightened German Jew, Ashkenazim represented insularity, backwardness and moral -and even physical degeneracy. By contrast, the Sephardim of old Andalucía were seen as worldly, morally superior and intellectually and physically superior. Efron provides numerous examples in his book of Ashkenazi public figures who laid a claim to this legacy for the reasons enumerated above. Just one example would suffice for now.
No one better exemplifies the romantic tendency to venerate the Sephardim…than Theodore Herzl. With his vivid imagination and highly developed theatrical sense, this Budapest-born resident of Vienna construed for himself an imaginary lineage, wherein he claimed to be descended of Sephardic Jews. In one…his paternal great-grandfather, A Rabbi named Loebl, had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. After fleeing the Iberian Peninsula, Loebl emerged in Constantinople, whereupon he openly returned to Judaism…for his own sense of self and his own self-image Herzl concocted this fantasy wherein Loebl was no longer the Slovenian Jew of reality but the Spanish Jew of Herzl’s desires…Herzl longed to be anything but an Ashkenazic Jew from Central Europe.
Instructively, Efron notes,” Lest one think that Herzl’s invention reflects a decidedly 19th century sentiment, in the course of writing this book, I had conversations with a surprising number of Ashkenazi Jews who declared to me that their families had originally come from Spain.” Efron dismisses this out of hand. Although in a personal correspondence he does concede that some Sephardim did make their way to Eastern Europe but overall the claims of Sephardic descent are, in his words, “a desperate cry for Jewish yikhus” [noble descent].
Oddly enough, at a recent conference on the famous Sephardic Halakhist and mystic, Rabbi Joseph Caro, the Israeli researcher, Dr. Mor Altschuler, author of a biography on Caro, mentioned in passing that Theodore Herzl was a “Sephardi from a Sephardi family.” Altschuler then added – amid expressions of incredulity from the audience – “And there is a tradition-although it has yet to be verified-that he was a direct descendant of the Sephardic Kabbalist Joseph Taitazak of Salonika (a close rabbinic colleague of Caro)”.
This tradition was apparently first recorded by the Hasidic historian and Zionist Aharon Marcus. Marcus claimed that he heard this from Herzl’s mouth himself. It was again repeated by the late Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in his writings (see שיחות הרצי”ה, עיטורי כהנים, 126, וכן לנתיבות ישראל חלק ב’, מאמר “להצדיק צדיקים).
It should be noted, however, that in the Hebrew Encyclopedia, Paul Diamant (a cousin of Theodore Herzl) wrote:
“בין אבותיו הספרדיים הקדומים יותר של הר’ מציינים את יהודה ירוחם, ישראל טאיטאצאק ויהודה אמיגו, אלא שעדיין לא נמצאו מסמכים לאישורן של קביעות אלו.”
“Among the earlier Sepharadic Herzl’s ancestors, are mentioned Yehuda Yerucham, Israel Taitachek and Yehuda Amigo, but meanwhile no supporting documents have been found to substantiate it”. Meir Amigo was indeed the community leader of the Sephardic Jewish community in Timisoara in the second half of the 18th century. His son was Abraham Amigo who later took on his father’s name, Meir or Mayer as the family surname. As mentioned, there has been no substantiation so far for this linkage.
Even more intriguing is the fact that the name Taitaczak (the surname of the alleged ancestor of Herzl) appears in Hungary (chiefly in Timisoara) (!), see for instance, Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames by Guilherme Faiguenboim, Paulo Valadares and Anna Rosa Campagnano.
Efron rightly points out, many Ashkenazim in the 18th and 19th centuries looked to the Sephardim of “Golden Age” Andalucía as the ideal archetypal Jews worthy of emulation. Claiming ancestry from Sephardim became in vogue.
There was a trend among some Ashkenazim to claim “exotic” ancestry. This was not necessarily always a desire to claim a linkage with Sepharad specifically (one charlatan that comes to mind is the Belarusian Zusia Zussman [a.k.a. Shlomo Yehuda Friedlander], the infamous forger of the Jerusalem Talmud; calling himself “Friedlander-Algazi” he claimed to be a member of a respected scholarly Sephardic family from Turkey-and gained the short-lived respect of many Eastern European Orthodox Jews). Others desired to link themselves to Karaites (this seems to be the case with the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin who claimed Crimean Karaite ancestry on his maternal line). One Eastern European Jewish family even claimed descent from a “lost tribe of Israel!
The Abarbanel (or Barbanel) family from Eastern Europe is another interesting case. It is worth mentioning that quite a few eastern European Ashkenazim maintain a tradition of descent from the famed Spanish statesman and Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel. Aside from the many Jews in Poland and Russia with the surname Abarbanel, there are others who claim indirect descent; in personal correspondence to me, the noted expert on American-Jewish history, Dr. Jonathan Sarna – whose family hails from Lithuania – wrote that his family maintained such a tradition (“my father proudly spoke of his descent from Don Isaac Abarbanel” [Dr. Jonathan Sarna to Joel Davidi Weisberger-December, 7, 2008]) .
Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago, hailed from a family of Odessa Jewish intellectuals who claimed descent from Abarbanel. His Sephardic lineage may have been claimed via his maternal grandmother who carried the Sephardi surname “Camondo.”
The famous Zionist activist, Hungarian-born Dr. Max Nordau was so taken with this particular family tradition that, according to his biographer, Jakub Zineman, his father, a nominally Orthodox Hungarian Jew with the surname “Siedfeld” kept the tradition of Sephardic ancestry alive by teaching his children Ladino and holding on to an over-sized house key which had allegedly been passed from father-to-son for generations -since the family’s expulsion from Spain in 1492. Nordau himself records in his diary the overwhelming emotional experience of returning to visit his ancestral home in Iberia.
Whether all of these traditions and stories are 100% true is impossible to prove at this point with certainty, what we do need however is more nuance and open-mindedness. Some of these claims are most assuredly bunk while others are very much legitimate.
Then you have several sources which claim that the famous Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz is said to have Sephardic ancestors, likely due to numerous Sephardic Jews called Perez or Peres
This is no mere rumor or hearsay; Y.L. Peretz’s Sephardic ancestry has been the subject of much discussion over the years. The respected Yiddish literary critic, S. Niger Charney in a tribute article to Peretz published in the 1952 Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Science devotes considerable space to this particular family tradition. While Charney does calls call his Sephardic ancestry “a theory” and wishes there was documentary substantiation, he notes:
Though it has to this date not been definitely substantiated, Rosa Peretz Laaks, a close relative of the poet, tells in her memoirs that “the Peretz family possessed a genealogical document which states that the family originally came from Spain.”
Charney cites two other prominent Yiddishists who speak of Peretz’s Sephardic heritage including Zalman Reyzen and the playwright Aaron Zeitlin who himself quotes the respected Jewish historian Dr. Ignac (Yitzhak) Schipper to the effect that “there was a definite tradition in Peretz’s family regarding their Sephardic ancestry.”
Charney seems convinced enough of the veracity of this claim and writes:
The two great currents of the last two thousand years of Jewish history- the Sephardic and the Ashkenazic- thus converged and became one in the person of Peretz…Peretz- a Sephardic-Ashkenazic Jew! What unity this would provide to the duality of his person! To his aristocratic intellectualism on the one hand and to his deep democratic attachment to the masses on the other. Peretz, a great grandson of the Jews who brought forth Samuel Hanagid, Ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi, the Ibn Ezras and Maimonides; and Peretz, the typical representative of Polish Jewry before it was liquidated- what meaning such duality of origin would give to his role as one of the creators of a new Yiddish folk literature and to his continues aspiration to raise it to the level of a truly national literature!
Likewise, J. Bielinsky in an article entitled “Historical Curiosities; On the Oriental-Hispano origin of certain Russian Jews” published in the French-Jewish Periodical Le Judaisme Sepharade in 1936 writes, “Some people do not know that the greatest Yiddish writer Y. L. Peretz was born Sephardic. He was born in 1857 in Russian Poland to a Judeo-Spanish family, and before adopting the Yiddish vernacular, he wrote in Hebrew. But it was he who created in Poland in 1905 the first Yiddish daily Der Weg. He died in the midst of war in 1915, and if the Yiddish press in Paris wants to commemorate the anniversary of his death, Pariser Haint [a Yiddish daily that was published in Paris geared toward Polish Yiddish-speaking immigrants-J.D.W.] might remind its readers of a seemingly paradoxical fact that it was a Sephardic Jew who founded the first Yiddish daily in Eastern Europe”.
The Sephardic Community of Amsterdam sends Sephardim to…Poland
During the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam (its governing body was referred to as the mahamad), considered one of the wealthiest Sephardic Jewish communities in Europe (if not the world) would often hand over some money to poor indigent Sephardim and send them to settle far away (these were referred to in Portuguese as despachos).
Although most of these people were sent to places that had well-established Sephardic communities, some of them were also sent to overwhelmingly Ashkenazic Poland.
I thank Ton Tielen for extracting from the archives of the Spanish and Portuguese community in Amsterdam the names and details of five persons who were dispatched to Poland in the manner described above.
What follows is the Hebrew year, the names and the destinations of five such despachos(which they all have in common, namely Poland):
5448, Merari Belogrado Polonia
5455, Nieto de H.H. Usiel Polonia
5461, Mordehay Cohen Polonia
5462, Rahel Cuna Polonia
5474, Abraham Israel Guer Polonia (apparently a proselyte to Judaism).
One of the names, Usiel is of particular interest. He is referred to as a descendant of Hakham Uziel. This, according to Tielen, must be Hakham Isaac Uziel who died and was buried in Amsterdam in 1622. Uziel went to Poland in 1752 according to the archival document cited above. From another archival document, this time a list of Sephardim who migrated to Zamosc , Poland in the years 1588-1650, we come across one Abraham Uziel (whose name appears in the official documentation in the polonized form, “Uzelowicz”).
It is more than tempting to ponder whether the Uziel family – now well established in Zamosc – would not on occasion experience the arrival of family members. This would indicate that the Sephardic community in Zamosc did not die out soon after it was established – as many historians claim – but it rather continued to exist well into the 18th century. It would otherwise be difficult to understand why the mahamad would for all practical purposes dump a member of a prominent Sephardic family in middle of Poland.
This becomes even more apparent when we recall that the mahamad strictly proscribed Ashkenazic-Sephardic intermarriage and even expelled not a few members for violating this clause. One rightfully wonders, why why they would send a prominent member of their community to a locale where the end result would be certain assimilation into the Ashkenazi majority population. This may be solid proof that Sephardic communities – albeit small – did exist in Poland with occasional boosters in the form of financial help and human material from larger and more established communities.
Above all, we must recall, as I did in my opening passage citing from Ms. Lavie, the distance between Sepharad and Ashkenaz is not all that vast in the grand scheme of things.
Lavie mentions her Alfasi antecedents arriving in Poland from the Sephardic diaspora at some point in the distant past. One must recall that Jewish Diasporas were rarely stagnant; there were constants comings and goings from Sephardic centers to Ashkenazic centers and vice versa. As early as the 11th century, there was travel by Spanish scholars to Germany as well as by German and French scholars to Iberia . One of the most famous Ashkenazi scholars to settle in Spain was Rabbi Asher ben Jechiel who relocated from Germany to Toledo in the 14th century (see for instance “Relations Between Spanish and Ashkenazi Jewry in the Middle Ages” by Avraham Grossman in The Sephardic Legacy by Haim Beinart).
One of the most surprising things (to me at least), were the DNA results of what was thought to have been one of the oldest Ashkenazic clans, namely the Katznellenbogen family from Italy. The results suggest that the “ashkenazification” of some Sephardim began much earlier than previously thought-and again hammers home the point that the differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim are somewhat artificial.
Interesting to note as well, as late as the 19th century, a Jewish girl from Lodz, Poland journeyed to the Jewish Mellah of Marrakech, Morocco to wed her fiancée. The girl’s name was Rina Lutzki and the groom was David Aldaudi, the scion of a prominent local family that claimed Davidic descent through the Exilarchs of ancient Babylonia and Spain. The match came about as a result of the mercantile activities of the Lutzki family. The latter ran a successful clothing and furniture business and were commissioned by the Sultan of Morocco to furnish his palace. It was due to these travels that the Lutzki brothers were made aware of the eligible Aldaudi bachelor and before long they proposed their sister as a suitable match. Rina relocated to Marrakech where she experienced some difficulty acclimating to her new surroundings. Before long however, the Moroccan-Polish couple decided to immigrate to the Land of Israel where they gave birth to a son. The product of this union would later grow up to be the prominent Rabbi Makhlouf Aldaudi (1825-1909) who served as the Hakham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) of the Jewish communities of Acre, Safed and Tiberias from 1889 to 1909.
Jewish history is replete with these types of migrations. Few Jewish Diasporas were “pure bred”; most Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities are a result of a mishmash of ethnicities – not to mention rites and customs.
A large prominent Sephardic clan from North Africa surnamed Sarfati maintains descent from the preeminent Ashkenazi sage, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, better known as Rashi who was born in Troyes, France. This is due to the fact that when the Jews were expelled from France in the 13th century, many of his descendants relocated to Spain and North Africa where they soon became Sephardicized.
Other Jews in Poland have maintained very interesting traditions of Sephardic descent. Rabbi Yosef Wallis who heads the Israeli Orthodox Arakhim organization recently led a delegation back to the home of his tragic direct ancestor Rafael Valls on the Spanish island of Majorca. Valls was one of 37 secret Jews burned at the stake there in 1691 for refusing to renounce their Jewishness.
According to a profile in the New York Times:
Rabbi Wallis, 64, who was born in Israel and raised in New York, is the son of two Holocaust survivors from the Dachau camp. His father [a scion of Hasidim of the Gerrer sect from Pabianice, Poland], he said, remembered an old family Bible, lost during World War II, with the name of Rafael Valls at the top of the list of ancestors with birth and death dates that listed him as burned at the stake.
One finds it difficult to believe that Wallis invented this ancestry out of whole cloth.
Quite famously, in 1588, the Polish count Jan Zamoyski published his charter of rights for the Spanish and Portuguese Jews that he invited in his newly built city of Zamosc. The document is still extant in the Latin original (in the archives of Krasnistow) and in its Polish translation. Similar documents were granted to Sephardim in Troppau (Polish: Opawa) and Karniow in Silesia in 1612. The first recorded Jew in Zamosc was Moses de Mosso Cohen. He was the son of the merchant Abraham de Mosso who was, in turn, an agent of the prominent Sephardic merchant and diplomat Don Joseph Nassi. Among the dozens of names that has come down to us from Zamosc, a Sephardic Rabbi referred to as Doktor and a prominent community head named Shmuel Barzel are noteworthy.
From a letter dated 1587 by de Mosso Cohen we learn that “the councilor only wants frenkim to settle there and does not desire the local Jews.” This discrimination in favor of imported Sephardim continued under Zamoyski’s successor who extended the 1588 injunction for newly arrived Sephardic settlers from Holland and Flanders. The Jewish cemetery in Zamosc is still extant and much research still remains to be done.
The Wooden Sephardic Synagogues of Lithuania
Dr. Rose Lerer Cohen, formerly of South Africa and now Jerusalem, has been researching Sephardim in Lithuania. Her interest in the topic was stirred when she says she met a man who referred to himself as a “litvishe frank,” a Litvak Sephardi.
In Lithuania authentic Sephardic congregations seem to have existed. Shlomo Katzav in a booklet Hasefardim be’eretz Lita lists Sephardic congregations in places like Otian, Biraz, Dolhinov, Heidozishok, Vilkomir and Kopishok. Katzav lists several congregations with the name Alsheikh (in Horodna and Shavel). There are also two Alfas congregations, one in Tabarig and and the other in Lida.
Arthur Menton in The Book of Destiny: Toledot Charlap recounts the saga of his Sephardic forbears, the Don-Yichye and Charlap families who arrived from Spain and settled in the Baltic states. He also mentions one Lithuanian town whose Jewish community was said to have been founded by Sephardic emigres, namely Vilkaviskis (Vilkovishk). The community kept accurate records and as recently as 1920, a massive tome containing information about 400 years of Jewish life in Vilkaviskis was cited by several researchers. The book is now housed in Israel’s National Library but has never been transcribed to my knowledge.
According to Menton, “The book indicated that a Jewish settlement existed there at the beginning of the 16th century…Princess Bora Sforges made a gift of lumber to the community to build prayer houses and the copper domed synagogue known to its last days as “the old shul”. Its ark… housed the profusely embellished Sefer Torahs which originated in Spain”.
The Sephardic Baal Shem from Poland
One of the more curious Jewish figures that came out of Podolia, the Polish-Ukrainian province (that was under Ottoman-Turkish rule from 1672-1699) , was Samuel Jacob Hayyim Falk (1710-1782). His portrait is often mistaken for that of the Baal Shem Tov (himself from Podolia). Falk was, according to Rabbi Hermann Adler, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, a Kabbalist and a suspected Sabbatean. Most interesting to us is the likelihood that he was a Sephardic Jew. In the formers’ biographical sketch of Falk in Transactions of the Historical Society of England, Adler writes that Falk who was a miracle worker and known as the “Baal Shem of London” (where he later immigrated) referred to himself in his personal book as the “son of Refael the Sephardi.” While initially exercising caution and theorizing that Falk was perhaps referring to the fact that his father prayed in the Hassidic rite, he eventually concedes that he was in fact the son of a Sephardic Jew (the conflation between the Sephardic rite and the so-called Nusakh Sefard is a subject that deserves further research). Moreover, the fact that he prayed in the Sephardic pronunciation, ate Sephardic food, and recorded his name as “Laniado” lends further credence to this.
It is worth noting here that the Early Modern Period saw a reshuffling of large parts of the “Jewish world”. As Dr. Elisheva Carlebach put it, “pieces of a cultural mosaic that had been placed precisely and not moved for centuries were suddenly shaken up and scattered about in entirely new combinations”.
In a recent DNA study of the Hassidic Twersky Rabbinical dynasty from Ukraine, the Sephardic ancestry of that clan is claimed to have been established with certainty.
Sephardim in Hungary, Romania and Transylvania
As we move further south in Eastern Europe, the preponderance of evidence for Sephardic settlement increases. In Hungary, some Sephardim arrived almost immediately after the expulsion. As late as the 19th century the Synagogue of the frenkim (a term that derives from the Turkish, meaning “Western faringi/frengi”, a loanword from frank, etc.) was located in Budapest. According to Kinga Frojimovics and Géza Komoróczy in Jewish Budapest; Monuments, Rites, History Isaac Almuslin who lived in Pest in the last decades of the 18th century was a frenk too. Adolf Agai (1836-1916, a Hungarian writer, journalist and editor reminisced about his Sephardic grandfather. “My late grandfather [Agai refers to him as Don Yitzhak in other places], founded the frenk Synagogue in Budapest in the 30s . These Sephardi Jews dispersed from Spain all over the world, retained their mother tongue, Spanish, with great love and care. The older generation still speaks it at home. Old Castilian and ancient Andalusian chants and zemirot sounded at my grandfather’s table on holidays, where we used to eat an ethnic pastry filled with spinach.”
Adolf Agai, “About my great-grandfather”, 1907 as cited in Jewish Budapest p. 33
Ancient records also indicate that Buda at one time had a “Syrian community” (kehilla siriatike) which probably maintained its own Synagogue (Ibid, p. 33).
The last traces of real Sephardi Jews in Budapest were found in 1944. The Spanish ambassador’s deputy (Angel Sanz-Briz), leaving Hungary, reported to his government on December 14, 1944:
“The undersigned managed to establish the fact that there were a limited number of Sephardi people living in Budapest. They had migrated there from the former Ottoman Empire and had preserved their Spanish language. They number 45. We issued a regular (Spanish) passport for them, in which we recorded the 45 persons mentioned above. (…) I expounded to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry that the protection of the Sephardim had always been the traditional policy of the Spanish authorities and that this had always been respected by the countries in which the Jewish question was raised”
According to The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, a Sephardic presence was also documented in Eger, an important trade center that attracted Turkish Jews after 1569 as well as Gyongyos, Jaszbereny, and Vac in the north. Szekesfehervar in the northwest had an important Jewish community between 1544 and 1688; many Sephardic Jews came from the Ottoman Empire as well as from Buda. In central and southern Hungary, Sephardic settlements were attested in the 16th century in Kecsemet, Paks, Tolna and Mako. In Porumbacul de Sus near Fagaras in southern Transylvania, Sephardic Jews are credited with introducing glass manufacturing to the region. In Targu-Mures, Sephardim are mentioned from 1582; a permanent community was founded in the nearby village of Naznan-Falva. The first known communal leader was Moshe Aizik Frankel, heir to a Converso family (Yivo, “Sephardim” p. 1689).
A word about the Frankel family. Some have posited that it is a toponym and it denotes the family’s origin from German region of Franconia. No large-scale DNA tests have yet been undertaken and it is possible that there are several different unrelated Frankel families. Many members of the Frankel family- who were prominent Rabbinic personalities in Hungary from the 18th century and on- would append (some still do!) to their surname 2 or 3 letters ב”ח or מב”ח which stands for: מבית חלפון literally, “From the House of Halfon”. Nobody seemed to know who this apparent ancestor named Halfon was but the onomastic data suggests that this name was used by Jews in Spain and later in Provence (later also in North Africa). Combined with the fact that Frankel is said by some researchers to derive from the term frenk, a once common-term used for (and also used by) Sephardim, it is logical to conclude that this family is indeed of Sephardic origin.
Alexander Scheiber in his Jewish Inscription In Hungary cites Sephardic inscriptions as well as Sephardic tombstone epitaphs from Hungary under the Ottomans.
In Transylvania, the old Jewish cemeteries of Alba Iulia (Karlsburg) and Timisoara (Temeshvar) contain the names of Sephardic sages and laymen who settled these territories. Bucharest, Romania had a functioning Sephardic community up until World War II (the scholar Jacob Geller wrote an excellent hebrew monograph on Romanian Sephardim; The Sephardic Jews in Romania; the Flourishing and Decline of a Community (Tel Aviv University, 1983) [Hebrew]). For Transylvania, see “The Decline of a Sephardic Community in Transylvania” in Studies in Honor of M.J. Bernadette.
Rabbi Yechezkel Paneth served as the Chief Rabbi of Karlsburg (Alba Iulia) from 1823 until his passing in 1845. Paneth’s grandson, Yissachar Dov Friedman wrote a biography of his grandfather entitled Toldot Mareh Yechezkel.
In the book Friedman records several interviews he conducted with several elderly Sephardic members of the community who recalled Rabbi Paneth with great reverence and fondness (Rabbi Paneth, though a staunch haredi Ashkenazi conservative, would make it a point to pray every other Shabbat at the Sephardic Synagogue). Friedman recalls how with tears in their eyes, the elderly Sephardic men reminisced about their departed Rabbi, “we are not worthy of mentioning his holy name, there has never been and there never will be one like him. All Jews-Sephardim and Ashkenazim-alike were equal in his eyes. He would pray in our Synagogue every other Shabbat and give a sermon. He would also attend services by us on the first two nights of Passover because we recite Hallel after the evening prayers [Rabbi Paneth, though originally a practitioner of the Ashkenazic rite, took on Chassidic customs]. He also prayed by us on the eve of Shemini Atzeret because we conduct Hakafot then. His face shone like an angel from heaven as he danced with the Torah scrolls. The community raised both him and the Torah and danced with them around the Bima [Tebha] 7 times”. See תולדות מראה יחזקאל בהקדמה לשו”ת דרך יבחר
The recently deceased Skulener Rebbe who was surnamed Portugal also maintained a tradition of Sephardic descent. His own father would append to his signature the hebrew legend “from the exiles of Portugal”. The family originated from the Bessarabian town of Sculeni which had once been under Ottoman Turkish rule. Interestingly enough, in that region of Romania, the surnames Portugal and Portugali were quite common, lending further credence to the theory regarding their ancestry (it is also interesting to note that quite a few other Chassidic Rebbes had Sephardic surnames and or traditions of Sephardic descent, see for instance here and here)
In the former Yugoslavia, the existence of Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities side-by-side is well known. Zemun, Serbia is where Herzl’s paternal family came from. It was Theodore’s grandfather, Simon Loeb who was close with the Serbian Sephardic Rabbi Judah Alkalai (although Herzl himself may not have been Sephardic –as mentioned above, however it is more than interesting to note the often intimate relations between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in that region). In fact, the Balkans experienced several waves of migrations of Jews from Hungary and Poland fleeing persecution. These Jews often assimilated among the Sephardic population, although they did manage to form and maintain a separate communal existence in large cities such as Istanbul and in Salonika. In places like Bulgaria there was such significant mixing between equal parts Ashkenazim and Sephardim that the name of the community was officially hyphenated and called “the holy community of Ashkenazim-Sephardim.” See Dr. Shimon Marcus’s article, “Al Ashkenazim-Sephardim v’al Ashkenazim Stam b’Bulgaria” (I am indebted to my friend Dr. Gabriel Wasserman for this information).
One can perhaps draw an analogy between Sephardim in eastern Europe and ethnic Armenians who arrived en masse to Poland where they were heavily engaged in commerce. In Lviv (Lemberg) for instance they constituted a significant percentage of the city by the 16th century. However, by the 17th century, they had begun to adopt Catholicism and rapidly assimilated among the overall Polish population. They would eventually lose their dominant position in international trade to Jewish merchants.
The Sephardim of Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe came at the invitation of several powerful local leaders. Sometimes they followed their Ottoman patrons to newly acquired Ottoman territories in Eastern Europe. The Ottomans would eventually retreat but they would often choose to stay. Eventually, some would return to their points of origin while others would assimilate among the Ashkenazic majority. Some would “ashkenazify” their names while others would choose to retain their original surnames.
Beider decisively concludes that “very few” Sephardim made it to Eastern Europe, I contend, in light of the evidence-only some of which I have presented above- that a significant number of Sephardic Jews did indeed make it to Eastern Europe. I further believe that their history deserves thorough examination and study (to his credit, Alex Beider has since come around to an extent and readily admitted that that he was too hasty and dismissive in some instances, see here )
Most importantly, many of the descendants of those Sephardic immigrants in Eastern Europe are aware of their background and have expressed a desire to reconnect to the heritage and identity of their Iberian-Jewish forbears. They should not be subjected to expressions of incredulity or derision.