Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews In Ashkenazic Lands

Migrations and settlements of Sephardic Jews following the 1492 expulsion from Spain. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jews are Mediterranean and Middle Eastern including Ashkenazim. I wrote about the Levantine origins of Ashkenazi Jews in a previous blog post for TOI. The shared ancestry of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews did not end when we were exiled from or voluntarily left the Land of Israel. There were lines of communication between the great Jewish learning centers in the East and West — Israel, Babylon, Spain, Poland, Apulia and Hachmei Provence.

The story of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews who migrated to Ashkenazic lands has not been fully told and is important to understanding the history of the Jewish Diaspora.

Even before Jews in Southern Italy and Southern France migrated north to the Rhineland region of Germany where Ashkenazim developed about 900 years ago with the help of Talmudic scholars from the Kalonymos family, there were Mizrahi Jews in Europe.

According to the book “A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People: From the Time of the Patriarchs to the Present” by Eli Barnavi, during the early Middle Ages Syrian Jewish merchants were recorded in Tzarfat (Hebrew for France). Later, during the Carolingian period, Jewish merchants from Israel and Babylon arrived in Western Europe.

In the 8th century CE Rabbi Natronai traveled from Babylonia to Spain, bringing the Talmud Bavli to Sephardic Jewry. Communications between the Jews of Spain and Portugal and the Jews of Babylon continued. Babylonian Talmudic scholarship possibly reached Narbonne under Charlegmane. There is a legend of Babylonian Jewish scholar Makhir ben Yehudah Zakkai of Narbonne being the nasi (leader) of the Jewish Kingdom of Septimania but this version of history has been questioned by scholars.

There is however later evidence of communication between the Ashkenazi center of Jewish learning in Krakow, Poland in the 16th century and the Sephardic and Mizrahi world. The book “Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry: From the Golden Age of Spain to Modern Times” by Zion Zohar states that Jewish scholars in Italy and the Ottoman Empire “corresponded with Ashkenazi masters of Poland and central Europe.” This increased communication was because Eretz Israel, specifically Safed in the mountains of the Upper Galilee, “regained the function of the pivot and center of Torah for the entire Jewish world.”

It was during this time that Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain in 1492 began to make their way north to Poland from Italy and the Ottoman Empire. There were also Portuguese and Spanish Jews who established Sephardic communities in Paris, London, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Vienna and other areas of Western and Eastern Europe as well as in the Americas and North Africa.

Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews were scattered across the Ottoman Empire, which under Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century included Hungary and Romania, reaching the border with Austria and Poland.

According to the YIVO Encylopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, Sephardim were possibly the majority of Jews in Hungary and Transylvania under Turkish rule. The Sephardic Jews who migrated to Eastern Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries not only included Spanish Jews but Italian Jews, Romaniote (Greek Jews) “and Arabic- and Persian-speaking Jews who were often identified as Sephardim in Eastern Europe.”

Starting in 1567, Sephardic Jews settled in Galicia in the southern region of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (modern Poland and Ukraine) including Kraków, which was the Polish capital in Western Galicia, and the town of Kazimierz next to Kraków. Sephardic Jews settled in many other areas of Poland and Ukraine. Sephardic Jews from Venice and the Ottoman Empire settled in Zamość in the Lublin province of eastern Poland in 1588. According to the website eSefarad, “intermarriages between Zamość’s Sephardim and Ashkenazim started in the 1640s.”

About the Author
Joshua Robbin Marks is a Jewish journalist based in Southern California. He has written for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Washington Jewish Week and many other publications.
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