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In The Familiarity of Strangers Francesca
The Familiarity of Strangers
By Francesca Trivellato
Yale University Press
Trivellato has accomplished something special - a brilliant description of a family, of a nation, of a period of history, of an economy and of a culture. The period she focuses on is the Mediterranean between the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the conquest of northern Italy by Napoleon in 1796. She chooses to examine the micro-history of two Sephardi families, the Ergases and Silveras, whose business headquarters was in Livorno. The author traces the history of these families' business partnership from its origins in the 1590s to its bankruptcy in 1746.
This book is not a derring-do history of family intrigues, mistresses and murders. Partly this is because the Ergases and Silveras were not the Borgias, the infamous 16th-century Italian noble family known for their rapacity, adultery, simony, incest and intrigue. The Ergases and Silveras were wealthy Jewish merchants, and whatever intrigues did go on are not revealed in the sources, which consist primarily of business letters. Secondly, the book concentrates not on the scandalous but on the practical.
Trivellato is a professor of history at Yale University who has produced a profoundly academic work. Therefore the book's parlance is, at times, laden with jargon that is primarily interesting to other scholars and their obscure debates. Readers are confronted with confusing terms such as "communitarian cosmopolitanism." We hear about "liberal-pluralistic models of assimilation" and "multiplex relationships." If one can persevere through this aspect of the text, he or she will find that the author has merely devoted a passing few pages of each chapter to assuage the gods of academia, leaving the majority of the book accessible to a wider audience.
The Ergas family arrived in Tuscany in 1594 and settled in the port town of Livorno. They described themselves as "Levantine Jews." This was a term applied to Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 or who had left afterward and made their way to the Ottoman Empire. More than a hundred years later, David Silvera arrived in the same town. His family were "New Christians" or Jews who had converted to Christianity after 1492. They had been quite famous in Lisbon and in 1632 several of them had served as bankers to the king of Spain in Madrid.
The history of the Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain is not always as black and white as many would like to believe. Many Jewish families remained in Spain or returned to Spain after 1492, usually passing themselves off as Christians. Some of these families lived as Christians for more than 100 years before returning to Judaism outwardly. One Silvera family member confessed to the Inquisition that he had come and gone from Spain by crossing the Pyrenees and that it was in this way he had established his family in Amsterdam in the 17th century.
Trivellato reveals an entire Sephardi world that many are not familiar with. The Sephardim who fled Spain established themselves throughout the Mediterranean, in the Ottoman Empire, in London and Amsterdam. In Italy their principal settlement was Livorno. Livorno was something unique in history. Cosimo de' Medici of Tuscany purchased the town from Genoa in 1421. He changed it from a sleepy fishing village to a major port from which he hoped merchants would help Tuscany compete with Venice and other Italian city states. The author describes it as a "social experiment."
To populate the new city, the Tuscan rulers invited people from all over the Mediterranean and the city teamed with Armenians, Greeks and others. One British sea captain believed the city to have been half Jewish in the 1790s. In fact the Jewish population was 11 percent, around 4,000 out of 36,000, in 1778. But this meant that it had a large Jewish population and was the "second largest Sephardic settlement in the West after Amsterdam." Special laws enacted in the 1590s gave Jews unparalleled rights, making them citizens and granting them almost complete equality with their Christian peers.
The Sephardim of Livorno became very wealthy in trade. In some ways they assimilated, creating coats of arms for themselves and shaving their beards. They also looked down on their Ashkenazi brethren, who were less cultured at the time and much poorer. From Italy to Amsterdam, the Sephardi families refused to intermarry with Ashkenazim, although they prayed beside them at a time when both groups shared synagogues in many places.
The author examines the entire world of the Sephardim throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It is a world that is often forgotten, especially its European settlements. Who recalls that Sephardim were once the majority of the Jewish community in Hamburg?
In the end it was a giant 62-karat diamond that brought down the Ergas-Silvera partnership. Anyone interested in Jewish history would be remiss not to read this excellent and fascinating work that takes the reader from the diamond stalls of Amsterdam to the docks of Goa in India. This is one of the best and most original books on Jewish history published this year.
The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog.