The problem of Sephardic representation at the present time

Because so little is known about Sephardic history and culture, its creativity and innovation have been negated and not deployed in the context of the current Jewish dysfunction.

Isaac Revah a Bergen Belsen survivor lit a candle in the Spanish Senate in Madrid (photo credit: CENTRO SEFARD-ISRAEL)
Isaac Revah a Bergen Belsen survivor lit a candle in the Spanish Senate in Madrid
(photo credit: CENTRO SEFARD-ISRAEL)
In the course of my work as a teacher of the Sephardic Jewish heritage, I often encounter a debilitating problem, or complex set of problems, when it comes to the manner in which the expansive and vigorous Jewish discussion in the media and the world of Jewish institutions deals – or better, does not really deal – with Sephardic culture and history
A recent case in point is a very strange exchange from the American Jewish newspaper The Forward.
The paper recently published a rambling 15,000-word article by Josh Nathan-Kazis on his trip to Spain in search of his Sephardic roots.
The article looks at the current attempt by Spain to entice Jews with Sephardic ancestry to return to the country to live. It examines the current Spanish scene and delves into the writer’s history as a scion of a very prominent New York Sephardic family.
But the article never seeks to engage the larger Sephardic heritage to give the reader any real sense of history, culture, and identity. The great literary and religious icons of the Sephardic tradition are never discussed. It is very much a personal “search for roots” that ends in a very cynical and menacing tone lacking in cultural coherence.
Most important to note is the way in which a division between Ladino and Arabic is presented. There is no real attempt to deal with the Islamic heritage in Iberia and how Arabic civilization, as the late Yale scholar Maria Rosa Menocal has shown in her indispensable 2002 book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, served to nourish and fortify Jewish civilization by expanding its intellectual horizons.
The many writings of Professor Menocal have restored to us a strong sense of who the Sephardic Jews were and what role their culture plays in the larger context of Western civilization.
I have paid tribute to Menocal in a special edition of my Sephardic Heritage Update newsletter.
It is also worthwhile to take a look at the excellent 1967 article “Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue” by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin that presents Sephardic culture in a more political context.
Ms. Weiss-Rosmarin addresses Jewish-Muslim alienation and the Arab-Israeli conflict from the standpoint of culture and history.  She finds that the older cultural symbiosis can be fertile ground for a transformation of what has paradoxically become both a moribund and contentious discussion.
In his article Mr. Nathan-Kazis elides this rich history and instead provides his readers with an exotic travelogue informed by personal concerns rather than cultural matters.
As one reader of the article told me, it was a lost opportunity to present Sephardic culture to a predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish audience.
The day after the article was first posted, Forward editor Jane Eisner wrote an even more confusing and confused piece about Jewish identity as an addendum.
The Forward has in the past been quite insensitive and even hostile to the Sephardic heritage.  So when I saw this very curious attack on ethnic identity – published in a paper which proudly extols its Yiddish roots and publishes an endless stream of articles on Ashkenazi identity and its lineal ancestry – I was reminded of the way in which Sephardim have been passed over and demeaned on many occasions by the paper.
To better understand the context in which Sephardic history has been marginalized and even silenced by the paper, we can point to a series of articles dealing with the famous letter of George Washington to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island from 1790.
It was in the wake of this investigation that Ms. Eisner advocated with great passion for the “return” of the letter to the Jewish community:
In the course of these discussions on a critical piece of American Jewish history we can clearly see a vigorous defense of parochial Jewish interests based on ancestral concerns. The basic aim was to reassert control over Jewish history by affirming the rightful place of our progenitors in the larger context of American history.  But this defense does not at all extend to the more specific issue of Sephardic Jews and their role in American civilization.
By presenting the matter of Washington’s letter as a generically Jewish concern the discussion ignores the Sephardic element and ultimately serves to silence Sephardic voices. It was Moses Seixas, a prominent leader of the American Sephardim, who wrote the letter on religious freedom and his reliance on the traditional values of Religious Humanism as expressed by generations of Sephardic rabbis from Moses Maimonides to David Nieto is apparent from the language of the missive.
For those who wish to better understand the concepts and values of Sephardic Religious Humanism:!msg/Davidshasha/d9Q4PNeOS0U/L8JjvNmL0cIJ
In another collection of articles I have highlighted the contributions of the American rabbis Sabato Morais and Henry Pereira Mendes and their central role in this noble heritage:
As an excellent illustration of Sabato Morais’ Religious Humanism and his place in American Jewish culture there is this piece from the scholar Marc Saperstein that shows the intimate connection between Sephardic values and American ideas of freedom as formulated by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address.
Because so little is known about Sephardic history and culture, its creativity and innovation have been negated and not deployed in the context of the current Jewish dysfunction.
As we can see, The Forward has an abysmal record of insensitivity to the Sephardic place in American Jewish history. So it is indeed curious that the paper’s editor decided to attack Sephardic identity specifically rather than making a larger point about ethnicity and Judaism in general. The attack was prompted not by anything to do with the paper’s usual promotion of Ashkenazi identity – a given for a paper grounded in Yiddish culture – but by an article on a Sephardic Jew going back to Spain.
I do not know what Ms. Eisner’s motivations were in writing her attack on Jewish ancestry, but it makes for some very unsettling reading as it continues to point to a certain hostility towards Sephardim and Sephardic culture which has helped to further marginalize Iberian Jewish civilization and its possible role in addressing many of the contentious issues that we are dealing with at the present time.
David Shasha is the founder and director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York designed to raise awareness of the history and culture of Arab Jews.  He publishes the Sephardic Heritage Update, a weekly e-mail newsletter available on Google Groups.  He has written for publications such as the Huffington Post, Tikkun magazine, The Progressive Christian, and The American Muslim.  You can contact him at