A Plurality of Bridges: The Sephardic Scholar as Literary Archeologist
By Judith Roumani1

Part 1

Who -- or what -- is Sephardic? For many of us self-identifiers the answer is a self-evident I am. There is even a proud first-person-plural for this among speakers of Ladino: Los Muestros.  But for scholars, unsurprisingly, the question is more complicated, and the answers are plural.

It's true that in 1900 (or even 1950) a Sephardic Jew from Izmir would feel him- or herself to be of 'European culture' because he speaks Judeo-Spanish/Ladino/muestro espanyol/Judezmo (the language has many names). He or she would feel culturally superior to the 'Arab Jews' of Morocco, the rest of the Maghreb, Egypt or Syria. We know that historically they may have the same origins, but most 'Arab Jews' or Mizrahim have forgotten any Spanish their ancestors spoke and have switched to Judeo-Arabic over the centuries.

Around 1900, new educational opportunities were opening up for Sephardim around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, due to the ubiquitous Alliance israélite universelle schools, or in some places Italian or British schools.

Those who came to America, particularly New York, received somewhat patronizing attention, according to Aviva Ben-Ur and Jane Gerber, at the Lower East Side Settlement House organized by the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.2 The immigrants were offered piano lessons and lessons in correct Castilian Spanish, to correct their 'jargon'. Rather than being received as equals by the 'Uptown Sephardim', the Western Sephardim who by now were heavily influenced by Ashkenazi and American culture, the newcomers were referred to  as 'Oriental' Jews. This is how most non-Ashkenazim, such as Romaniotes, and Jews from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, were designated.

But now we had minorities among minorities. Such extreme fragmentation in their community organizations in America gradually exposed the need for more cooperation among non-Ashkenazi Jews, leading to the eventual founding of the American Sephardi Federation in 1972. But—lo and behold—the American Sephardi Federation included not only the once Ladino-speaking Western and Eastern Sephardim, but also those designated as Mizrachim, Jews from across the Middle East, from Morocco all the way to Iran. Sephardic congregations throughout the United States now bring together all of these groups. Very few, perhaps only in Brooklyn or Seattle, still cater to Jews originating in a single country or town.

Some, however, are uncomfortable with this state of affairs, seeing it as enforced closeness imposed by small numbers. My husband's family came from Libya in 1963 to Boston. They had to pray in Ashkenazi synagogues except for the High Holidays when the Brookline Sephardic Congregation was open for services. For decades they thought they were just about the only Jews from Libya living in the USA. They never had the advantages of, say, Halabi Jews in New York, who maintained the same family ties, business relationships and rabbinical authority as they had had in the old country. So, they identified with the very mixed local Sephardic synagogue, in Boston, and later in Washington DC.

Here I would like to suggest that it is not easy to make a neat division between Sephardim and Mizrachim. Apart from a preference for Ladino/Judeo-Spanish etc. or various forms of Judeo-Arabic, origins were not only in Spain, but reached back before Iberia (in which for 700 years many Iberian Jews were living in Islamic societies) to common cultural origins in Babylon.

But there were Romaniotes in Greece and Ashkenazim and Dohnme in Turkey who spoke Ladino, MIzrachi Moroccan Jews who spoke Haketiya, and other permutations and complications. Morocco is the westernmost part of the West, the Maghreb, but for some reason Moroccan Jews came to be called Mizrachim. Syrian Jews have a mixture of Spanish and Babylonian origins. The term 'Mizrachim' seems to be based on a geographical concept, yet its predecessor, the term 'Oriental', was considered cultural and derogatory. Sephardi, Sephardic, Sefaradi, seems to be more of a cultural term, yet it is often taken to mean 'the Jews from Spain'. Perhaps we should in fact de-emphasize geography, and pay more attention to culture.

What defines Sephardic culture? One can think of many ways to define it, but several authors define it according to halakha (not needing Moshe Isserles' Mapa to interpret the Shulchan Aruch) minhag [customs] and nusach [liturgy], the way of praying, the order of prayer and melodies used. All over the world Sephardim in the broad sense use similar piyutim, pizmonim, bakashot and slichot, many of which are poems composed by Saadia Gaon in Babylon, or in Spain by Spanish Jewish poets of the Golden Age. Listening to the slichot of Elul in a Sephardic synagogue is to be transported back to medieval Spain, to Babylonia, and to Egypt, all at once. Here, in the world of Hebrew poetry, you can sense the unity of Sephardic culture in the broad sense, arguably with more of an Arabic than a Spanish tinge.

The emphasis on Spain may be an instance of Sephardism—reflecting back on oneself an artificial concept of identity, in the case of Sephardim themselves, or of looking at the history of Jews in Iberia as a politicized literary metaphor for other concerns, in the case of other writers, as Yael Halevy-Wise describes.

If one digs deeper into Sephardic identity to search for its components, perhaps we'll find that they are more than two, that reality is more complicated than we thought, and that there are several sub-ethnic identities within the Sephardic one.
Thus we might, for example, need to rebuild the bridges that linked Iberia to the Eastern world. Dunash Ben Labrat, the bearer of Arabic poetics to Spain from Babylon, in the mid-tenth century may have had to leave Spain and his young wife and son in a hurry, as Peter Cole suggests3—but where did he go? The records fail us here, but he would have felt comfortable in many places—whether he went back to his birthplace in Fez, to Egypt or to Baghdad and the Babylonian academies where he had previously studied.

Part 2

Such considerations have led me to a concept of literary archeology, which I find fascinating because it tries to uncover the confusing relationship between fiction and history.

Giorgio Bassani, in his 1962 novel Garden of the Finzi-Contini,4 provides us with several pretexts to go digging, and he does actually begin his novel with a meditation on archeology.  The Garden of the Finzi-Contini is one of several novels that make up the multi-volume Il Romanzo di Ferrara—the Novel of Ferrara, the city where he grew up, lovingly described in all its detail, down to the mosquitoes, the city becoming almost the protagonist of his novels. Today Ferrara is overrun with foreign students, and it is hard to grasp any hint of the atmosphere of Bassani's  day (pre-war, Fascist period, immediate post-war). What we have to imagine are the divisions, distinctions, minor snobberies, that governed the nuances of class relationships and inter-ethnic relationships in his time. Within the Jewish community, distinctions and reticencies reigned in relations between the three small communities of Sephardim or Spagnoli, Italiani, and Ashkenazim or Tedeschi (originally five ethnic groups). In Ferrara today, only one synagogue is still in use and shared by all Jews, that of the Ashkenazim. Upstairs in the same building is that of the Italiani (not fully restored since the war and now used for lectures) and down the block and around the corner is a plaque on an apartment building telling us that here was the Sephardic synagogue. The Jewish community of Ferrara has been much reduced by the Holocaust, by assimilation, and perhaps aliyah, and all three synagogues had been wrecked and looted by Fascists in 1941 and 1944. In Bassani's novel, set in a period just before this, Jews are being forced together often against their wishes and their class instincts by the 1938 Racial Laws. Bassani expresses this in the innovative tennis matches on the Finzi-Contini private court and by situating all three synagogues in one building (as we do find in other Italian cities). In the novel, Professor Ermanno Finzi-Contini has recently renovated the Scola Spagnola in a sort of community attic, and it is described in a memorable scene near the beginning of the novel.

The real Professor Silvio Finzi-Magrini had done something similar in the 1930s. Our anonymous narrator, who must bear some resemblance to Giorgio Bassani himself, describes the birkat kohanim in the Scola Spagnola, the refuge of the descendants of the community's elite. Under their fathers' tallits, old, worn with age, full of holes, the children of the two extremely different Sephardic families eye each other. Thus, the claustrophobia of the small dusty synagogue, the top floor or attic, separated from 'normal' 'Ashkenazi' or 'Italian' Jews (whose rite has become too 'churchy' for the purist Sephardim) is increased by the requirement on the boy to stay under the musty old tallit with his father's hand on his neck, but subverted by the children making faces at each other through the holes. What this ought to mean for the future of the Sephardim (due to the developing attraction between the narrator and Micol) is frustrated not only by the Nazi cataclysm but also by their own snobberies, ambiguities, and class distinctions.

Later in the novel the garden, tennis court and house come to the fore, described over and over again. The real Finzi-Magrini family lived in an apartment (it's true away from the ghetto, on the other side of town) with a rather dingy courtyard.5 The magnificent but neglected fictional house and garden, according to Guido Fink,6 are actually based on the Villa Torlonia in Rome, which Bassani visited after the war was over. There is much irony here because the deported Jewish family of the novel inhabited the house and garden that Mussolini requisitioned and lived in with his family for almost twenty years. A further irony is that archeologists had discovered ancient Jewish catacombs in the grounds, which Mussolini turned into an air raid shelter. One last twist of fate for the Villa Torlonia—it is now in the process of being turned into the national Museo della Shoa, the new Italian Holocaust museum, aimed at integrating knowledge of the Shoah into Italian consciousness.

I find this archeological kind of approach fascinating. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert 7has called it “the new spatial turn in Jewish studies.”  I like to think that literary archeologists can approach Sephardic literature in a spatial way, digging down through the layers and also perhaps recovering bridges that link together the disparate parts of Sephardic culture.


1. Judith Roumani is the editor of Sephardic Horizons. This paper was presented at the annual Modern Language Association convention in Boston, January 2013, as part of the session of the Sephardic Studies Discussion Group entitled “Bridges between Past, Present and Future Sephardic Cultures, Literatures and Identities.”

2. Aviva Ben-Ur, Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2009), passim. Jane Gerber, “Sephardic and Syrian Immigration to America,” in Margalit Bejarano and Edna Aizenberg, eds., Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas; An Interdisciplinary Approach (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012), pp. 38-65., esp. pp.54-55.

3. Peter Cole, trans. & ed., The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 23-27.

4. Giorgio Bassani's novel was first published in 1962 (Turin, Einaudi, 1962) and has seen many editions, a film version and a future opera. There are at least two English translations, of which William Weaver's, with a literary introduction by Tim Parks, is the most recently published (New York: Knopf, 2005).

5. See my “In Search of the Garden of the Finzi-Continis, finding the Courtyard of the Finzi-Magrinis, Sephardic Horizons 1:2 (2011), www.sephardichorizons.org .

6. Guido Fink, “Growing up Jewish in Ferrara: The Fiction of Giorgio Bassani, a Personal Recollection,” Judaism (Summer, 2004), http://findarticles.com . Also Marco Ansaldo, “La Vera storia dei Finzi-Contini,” La Repubblica June 13, 2008, http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/republibblica/2008/06/13/r2-la-vera-storia-dei-finzi-contini .

7. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, “The New Spatial Turn in Jewish Studies,” AJS Review 33 (2009), 155-64.

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