Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History and the Modern Literary Imagination

Edited and with an introduction by Yael Halevi-Wise. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford University Press, 2012

Reviewed by Ralph Tarica

While not exactly a neologism, the term “Sephardism” will probably require some explanation for many American readers.  It does not refer to the “extraordinary length and diversity of the Sephardic experience” (p. 8) but rather to how that experience has been used by others for purposes of their own national or cultural agendas.  It is, as the editor here notes in her densely informative overview of the subject and in the twelve “case studies” that constitute this anthology, a cousin to medievalism, hispanism and orientalism – that is, a rich prism allowing for the definition of the self by comparison with the Other.  Readers should therefore not expect to find a history of the Spanish Jews here or anything resembling genealogical connections to Spain.  It is, rather, as one of the contributors puts it, a metaphor “through which to express ongoing preoccupations with political diversity in a variety of environments.”

The particular ‘shape’ of Sephardic history – that is, moving from a relatively ‘happy’ period of convivencia in Spain with its mutually beneficial and rich cultural and intellectual life shared symbiotically with Muslims and Christians, to a period of expulsion, life in exile, nostalgia for a ‘lost paradise’ and the modern paradigm of redefining identity – is well suited as an instrument with which to study a variety of subjects.  Writers in different historical periods and geographical locations have chosen to interpret either the pre- or post-1492 situation of the Jews for their own purposes.  Ismar Schorsch, for example, uses a historical-cultural approach to look at how the German Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment movement] in the 19th century “drew much of its validation, if not inspiration,” directly from pre-exilic Spain (p. 38), in opposition to the pull of Polish Jewish orthodoxy; Judaism needed the “myth of Sephardic Supremacy” as a tool of prestige with which to enter the modern period.  In other essays we are reminded that the period of convivencia is more a myth than a historical reality, with pogroms occurring as early as the 11th century during Muslim domination, long before the Christian reconquista.

Historical fiction and drama are well represented here.  Michael Ragussis examines the positive effects of figures such as Rebecca in Scott’s Ivanhoe and Daniel Deronda in George Eliot’s novel by that name, as opposed to other representations of the Jew as a marrano, a devious and treacherous figure (what better way for Disraeli’s enemies to represent him!), in the context of the British Empire in the 19th century.  Likewise, Diana R. Hallman’s study of the 19th century French opera La Juive is placed in the political context of the period, while Jonathan Skolnik traces the various representations of the medieval Sephardic Abarbanels in Germany, “from Heine to the Holocaust.”

The study of “real” Sephardic figures is not, of course, excluded from this collection. Bernard Horn, for example, studies the nature of Sephardic identity in A.B. Yehoshua’s novels, and Stacy B, Beckwith examines how the works of another Israeli writer of Sephardic descent, Yehuda Burla, along with a non-Jewish Spanish playwright, Antonio Gala, exhibit a politics of reading Spain’s medieval past “with a deliberate panorama of contemporary national reconstitution in mind” (171). In her contribution on Latin American literature, Edna Aizenberg looks at Sephardic writers, as well as Sephardic “mythology” (how the Sephardic experience has been interpreted by writers) and “neo-Sephardism” in Latin America (if even Ashkenazi writers in Argentina, for example, have become imbued with Hispanic language and culture, may they not then be considered to be neo-Sephardic?). Judith Roumani’s piece also deals with real Sephardic figures who write in French, including Albert Memmi and Albert Cohen, while maintaining and expressing distinctive notions of a Sephardic identity. 

Reading these essays, it soon becomes apparent that Sephardism can indeed be a rewarding “prism” through which to study many complex literary, historical and cultural ideas. Yael Halevi-Wise, for example, examines the picaresque novels of three modern Latin-American writers of diverse ancestry who use the figure of the pícaro -- an earlier invention, by both converso and Old Christian writers in Spain, depicted as an “orphan” of likely old Jewish ancestry -- to represent a “half-outsider” figure that can be used as an instrument of social commentary for their own societies.  The possibilities for this sort of approach are vast.  As Dalia Kandiyoti points out in her study of four Latina writers of converso background, Sephardism can be a “connective mode through which to retell stories of borderlands, diaspora, and the Americas” (p. 148).  

The multi-cultural dimension of Sepharad is obviously well suited to studies in post-modernism.  Efraim Sicher’s study of Salman Rushdie, for example, leads him to conclude that by “mapping India onto Sepharad” Rushdie warns that a similar decline may befall India “if it follows Spain’s insistence on homogeneity and purity” (264). Let it be said, however, that several of the essays are so densely written in the academic language of current postmodernist criticism that they risk losing the general reader along the way -- and that would be much to be regretted.

A review such as this can only hint at the abundance of rewarding analysis that went into each of the articles presented here.  Each of them can stand on its own merits as valid independent scholarship.  Happily, the fact that they have been brought together here by the commonality of the Sephardic theme adds further weight to their perspectives. The book concludes with what amounts to a book review of a recent work on Spinoza as a further example of how Sephardism can be a useful critical approach.  A selected bibliography will point the reader to further related material.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800