The Almanac of Sephardic World History: Resuming a Historical Alliance

After nearly 15 years of research on Sephardic Jewry I felt that I never wanted to stop writing on what I felt most passionate after all these years. Yet I felt all the books that I have written or assisted in publishing are no where near the magnitude of what I seek to cover in the history of Sephardic Jewry. From authoring five books, writing over 50 articles, traveling to dozens of cities, hosting political events for Sephardic Jewry in Parliament, Capital Hill, and the Kings Palace in Morocco still did not cut it for me. Nearly fours years ago I embarked on one of the most daring commitments for Sephardic Legacy Series — Sephardic Encyclopedia. Call it a Sephardic Encyclopedia, Almanac of Sephardic World History, Sephardic World History, and the list goes on… Yet Sephardic Jewry through out antiquity had to be written accurately, and historically to its highest degree. I planned to document the history and untold narrative of Sephardic Jewry of which includes such countries: Algeria, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Morocco, Spain, Egypt, India, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Turkey, Italy, United Kingdom, Greece, Bulgaria, Bukhara, Uzbekestan, Kafkaz, Kurdistan, and many others.

I had a goal in mind, structure in place and a team to assist me. Nonetheless, I needed major assistance until I finally came across an expert, and a brilliant individual whose mind, clarity for research and articulation of words all combine into a single masterpiece. That individual was none other than Brocha Speyer of Jerusalem.

They say there are no coincidences in life… Well, after one reads the following piece written from Brocha Speyer than there are no coincidences in life.

* * *

The Almanac of Sephardic World History: Resuming a Historical Alliance

I saved the Lebanon research file and glanced outside the thick library windows at the pervading darkness with a sense of deep fulfillment. It was 9:00 P.M. – forty five minutes to lights out and closing – and I’d been ensconced in the reading room on the fifth floor of the Mt. Scopus Hebrew University for some eight hours, wading through the sea of Lebanese Jewish history from the time of Hiram the Phoenician king who upheld alliances with Kings David and Solomon, through breathtaking accounts of the affluence of 20th century Beirut’s Jewish community, to the bloody civil wars that brought Lebanese Jewry to an anticlimactic end. The silent energy that permeated the university library had a way of revitalizing the introvert in me, and the hours of immersion in Jewish history invigorated me with the sense of connection to something bigger.

It would be silly to begin another country now. But I had this sense of anticipation that my research was almost done, and that I would soon be on to the next stage of the excitement, working the raw material into readable prose. How many countries did I have left? A few clicks on the keyboard brought up the Google document, indicating that of the countries assigned to me, there were a mere three left to tackle: Spain itself, the source of it all; India, about which I knew nothing, but whose exotic undercurrents tickled my imagination… and England.

England? What was that doing on the list? I mean, I knew a lot of people from England, but none whom I could recall were Sephardic. And though it was reasonable to assume that a Sephardic congregation had existed in England somewhere, sometime – as in most other places throughout the Jewish Diaspora – this didn’t seem to warrant its inclusion in our almanac of Sephardic communities. I mean, I happened to know that Germany had some Sephardic communities, too, at various points. But that was definitely not going to earn it a place in the book. Though I’d come to recognize Yehuda (Allen) Azoulay – with whom a few serendipitous twists of fate had bound me in collaboration on this historical-literary enterprise – as the authority on all things Sephardic, I couldn’t fathom why he’d chosen to include England.

But my husband, with whom I shared my conundrum later that night, was the first to burst my bubble of ignorance.

“What do you mean England is not at heart a Sephardic country?” Raphael was genuinely dumbfounded. “There was a huge and glorious Sephardic community in England. And my great-great grandfather, after whom I’m named, incidentally, was a Chief Rabbi of that community. Rabbi Raphael Meldola, author of the Hupat Hattanim. You’re for sure gonna run into him in your research…”

Rabbi Raphael Meldola (1754 – 1828)

“Wow. Right…” I’d forgotten. With a surname like Speyer – inherited from one of those three infamous Rhineland communities, Speyer, Worms and Mainz, whose Jewish populations were razed during the People Crusade of 1096 – it was easy to forget my husband’s Sephardic ancestry. But his paternal grandmother, a Pinto before her marriage, had hailed from distinctly Sephardi lineage.

So I embarked on my research of England with a fresh sense of intrigue, eager to discover exactly who this ancestor of ours had been, trace whatever character resemblances I could find between him and our family, and learn the role he had played in the Sephardi community of England.

The first fascinating fact I discovered in the context of the England-Sephardi connection, which delivered a good blow to my ego by really driving home the inadequacy of my historical knowledge, was that the original Jewish community to establish itself on English soil pursuant to the approximate three hundred years of the land’s all but “Judenrein” state, consisted of marranosin flight from the Portuguese Inquisition. The Ashkenazi communities in England, it turned out, were little more than an afterthought…

Moreover, it was of great personal interest to me to learn that my husband Raphael had apparently inherited quite a bit from his namesake. It was from Rabbi Meldola, it seemed, that Raphael had derived his strength of personality, his fiery spirit, his intellectual bent, his congenital intolerance for departure from halacha, and even his somewhat quirky obsession with the minutiae of Hebrew grammar in the context of prayer and Torah reading.  His grandfather had engaged in extensive international correspondence over the” scandal” of the London cantor Hazan Almosnino’s deliberate reading as a sheva nach of what Meldola’s tradition asserted was a sheva na– in the word “matze’u” that appears in Parashat Beshalach (read in the synagogue twice a year). It seemed only natural to me, then, that his great-great grandson should earn his reputation as one of the most pedantic ba’al korehs to be had. And his eyebrow-raising proficiency in the text of the Aleppo manuscript (Keter Aram Soba), generally believed to have been the version of the Bible used by Maimonides? Well, surprise, surprise, it’s in his genes!

Another discovery I found eye-opening was our ancestor’s pivotal role in bridging what had hitherto been a vast divide between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities. When my husband had called my attention to his family’s hybridity, I had wondered about what seemed to me the unlikely union between our grandmother of Sephardic provenance, Margaret (Ruth) Pinto, and her distinctly German Jewish husband, Simon Speyer. The question had crossed my mind whether that sort of interbreeding was standard practice and accepted by the couple’s respective families and communities as a matter of course, or if the prospect of their nuptials had been challenged by opposition of some sort.  Now, my research unfolded that by no means had this sort of intermarriage always been accepted in London, yet it was Margaret’s very ancestor who generated the change of climate that ultimately legitimized the marriage that brought my husband into being.

Up until Rabbi Meldola’s tenure, I learned, a gaping schism divided the two communities in London, and intermarriage between their respective members had been utterly taboo. In one rare instance in 1745 that the gabay of the community, one Jacob Israel Bernal, resigned his office to undertake the daring feat of marrying a Tudesca (a derogatory name for Ashkenazim), the ma’amad (the community board of directors) convened the community’s elders to help them decide this “momentous case.” Though the community authorities ultimately granted a begrudging consent to the marriage, the slew of restrictions they imposed, including their refusal to hold a celebration, however small, at the synagogue, kept their staunch disapproval tangible.

Rabbi Meldola, however, with his typical broadminded outlook, had barely arrived in London before forming a deep friendship with the city’s Ashkenazi rabbi, Solomon Herschel (whom he later describes as having been like a brother to him). The two men then solemnly undertook to do everything in their power to keep their congregations’ differences at bay.  Thanks to Rabbi Meldola’s vision, cross-community marriages – such as the one that ultimately took place between my husband’s grandparents – had become commonplace by the end of the decade, when a Montefiore son married into the Ashkenazi Rothchild family.

But beyond the historical perspectives, and the personal nuggets of information my research turned up, it also revealed that my collaboration with Yehuda (Allen) Azoulay on the Sephardic Encyclopedia project was not the first historical instance of a joint enterprise undertaken between our families. Our inter-family alliance actually goes back more than 200 years, to the late 18th century, when my husband’s ancestor, Rabbi Raphael Meldola from Livorno, Italy, was awarded semicha (rabbinical degree) in 1796 by his  rabbi, Haim Yosef David Azoulay, the Hida – a direct ancestor of Yehuda Azoulay, founder of the Institute for Preserving Sephardic Heritage. An anecdote indicative of Rabbi Meldola’s esteem for his teacher, Azoulay’s great grandfather, relates that when the news of the Hida’s passing arrived in England in 1806, a year after Rabbi Meldola took office as community rabbi there, he ordered all Jewish shopkeepers to close down their stores as a sign of mourning while he delivered an obituary. It was his rabbi, the Hida, after all, who had prepared him for his lifelong mission of upholding authentic Sephardi Judaism in England.

Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulay  (1724-1807)

Wonder of wonders. Today, the destinies of two lone descendants of these ancient Torah leaders intertwine, as we unassumingly engage in a passionate enterprise – writing up the glorious momentous heritage of Sephardi Jewry for posterity. Unbeknownst to us, in our modest attempts to disseminate the legacy of Sephardi Jewry, we have been upholding an age-old family alliance of dedication to sacred work, merely picking up where our ancestors left off.

A privilege and duty to which history demands that we pledge eternal allegiance upon the completion of the Almanac of Sephardic World History, and now repeating history all over again.

— Brocha Speyer

About the Author
Yehuda (Allen) Azoulay is the founder of the Sephardic Legacy Series – “Institute for Preserving Sephardic Heritage." Yehuda is Co-founder to Ezrat Achim (Sephardic Resource of Toronto). He is a young and passionate noted scholar, educator, columnist, speaker, author, political activist, and entrepreneur. He is the Vice President of Concrete Mortgage Capital Inc. and as well head of Investor Relations for Queen Funding LLC.
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