A Critical Evaluation of the Historic Aspects of The Grandees: A Look Into the Historical Significance of the Sephardim, their History and Culture

by Prof. Mair Jose Benardete

A Lesson: This is the fourth review the Foundation is publishing on Stephen Birmingham's book, "The Grandees", America's Sephardic Elite, New York, Harper and Row Publishers, 368 pp.

This book has no intrinsic merit yet the author and publishers are making good money, for the book has been appearing on the best seller list for the past two months or so. Are the people who buy the book and read it foolish and unenlightened? How about the very good reviews it has received throughout the country? There is nothing wrong in reading about the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who came at first by accident to New Amsterdam in 1654. Christopher Lehmann-Houpt in the New York Times for March 17, 1971 credits the author with skill in telling his story and that the subject itself has an illustrious history. But for us the Sephardim of Hispanic Levantine origins, the book is shabby and sleazy. The twenty-first chapter devoted to us is utterly biased, malevolent and unfair. The bulk of the book, devoted to the ex-marranos from Portugal land Spain who returned to the faith of their forefathers in Holland, gives a very unflattering overall picture of a minority of men and women who appear to the discerning reader as sanctimonious, snobbish, callous to the merits of others and above all obnoxious as philistines.

This book would not have been worthy of serious consideration if it did not disguise itself as a book based upon documents and scholarly work. Its bibliography, entitled "Sources", covers three pages and what is a bigger joke the "Index" is as long as 13 pages. A searching look into the book reveals that Birmingham read books and has interviewed all kinds of people. Some of the descendants of the pioneers of 1654, men and women, and people supposedly in a position to hand out information and gossip. There is a professor in Yeshiva University in charge of a program subsidized by well wishes who want to educate the benighted Hispano Levantine. The Slavonic rabbi and professor has in common with Sephardic culture only the "S" that appears in his ethnic origins and in the word "Sepharad." A Jewess, a Greek-speaking Jewess, a reputable translator of Cavafy, the modern Greek poet from Alexandria, who, though she has moved among the Sephardim from countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire, to this day has not learned any kind of Spanish, old or new. She is a professor of English literature and knows much about theatre, nonetheless her opinions on Sephardic culture as culture, are lopsided. A Hispano Levantine who is secretary to the Congregation, the citadel of the ex-marranos in New York knows his background, has been in the service of the Grandees but just the same, he has no special training to be an authority on the Sephardim. The above people characterized here may not be the source of misinformation and misinterpretation. To the best of our knowledge no one mentioned by Birmingham has issued any statement as to his innocence or responsibility. Silence may be wisdom, but at this hour of telling the truth, they wronged us by not acknowledging their approval or their dissent.

The dust jacket of the book shows a stylized woman, middle aged holding an open green fan and two adolescent children, one to her left and the other to the right. Probably she symbolized the transmission of the myths; half true and half wrong, the legends of the heroic past of the Grandees. In Judeo-Spanish we would call the fairy tales mixed up in the history of that people, as told by the old women, "bavazadas de vavas", or old wives tales. En Passant, Shearith Israel has a member of the congregation, a young professor, who though not of Sephardic ancestry, has been brought up in the tradition in Amsterdam, and he is the only one that we know who is trying to relive and actualize in alert consciousness the whole history of the Sephardim, particularly putting emphasis on the marrano phase. We don't see his name mentioned in the book. What an irony! Birmingham, it seems, did not consult Herman Prinz Salomon.

What is most disturbing to the student of Sephardic history and culture is Birmingham's lack of curiosity, dull sensitivity and indifference to the contents of the text prayer books and achievements of the two branches of the Sephardim, of their descendants: those who chose expulsion and exile in 1492, and those who remained behind trying very hard to fit within an implacably rigid Catholicism and those who had their arriere-pensee, marking time, judaizing and waiting for the hour of escape. It seems that the author has nothing to say of the Shearith Israel liturgy, of its decorum, its hymns, its chants and the whole religious atmosphere prevailing at the services. James Michener in "The Source" tells us how it was his custom to visit synagogues of Jerusalem, to listen to the psalms and pizmonim of the innumerable traditions of the Yemenite, Syrian, Moroccan, Ashkenazic and Hispano-Sephardim, sung by them on the eve of the Sabbath. One Friday evening he visited a small synagogue and there he heard the XVIth century Pizmon, sung in such a manner and with such fervor, that he felt transposed into ecstasy., It was the Lecha Dodi that he heard. The Catholic in him did not prevent him from being emotionally porous and he was rewarded by that memorable event. But there is nothing remotely approaching Michener's response in Birmingham's book.

Inadequacies of Birmingham's knowledge of Sephardic History

A word or two on the names given to the Iberian Peninsula. The Arabs called Islamic Spain, Al-ANDALUS. No matter how little of that Spain survived, the territory, its government and its religion were embraced by the denomination of Al-Andalus. The Romans called that western land Hispania which very late in European history came to be known as Espana. There is nothing mysterious about the name the Jews of Spain gave to Iberia. With the loss of national independence the Jews of the Diaspora had no way of assimilating the names of sections of the world and those of the different peoples into Hebrew. Not to lose their identity, Biblical nomenclature was used for the geography and history of the peoples in the world. When the need arose to refer to the Iberian Peninsula in Hebrew, and it was at the time when the Jews there achieved full awareness of definiteness of place and time, it occurred to the learned among them, that the verse 20 in the prophecy of Obadiah: "The captivity of Jerusalem that's in Sepharad shall possess the cities of the South" referred definitely to Spain. Centuries after the Jews of Spain called their geographical world Sepharad, the Jews of the Rhine country called their territory Ashkenaz, and France was to be known as Sarfat for those versed in Hebrew writings. Sepharad became at first a general term for Iberia but since the Jews had no country of their own, Sepharad did not escape from Hebrew books and could not be used by non-Jews. Sepharad for all ends and purposes came to be the Spain of the Jews of that country. As a tag of identity, as a frame of reference, Sepharad became a religious designation with the emotional accompaniment that poets, thinkers, and people in general, bestowed upon it.

Sephardic history may be divided into the following chapter heading:

I. Sephardic history and culture under Peninsula Islam (711 to the middle of the thirteenth century)

II. The demographic dislocation from Al-Andaluz to the Castilian meseta and the northern Christian lands (from the middle of the twelfth century to the fifteenth)

III. The fifteenth century, a century of crisis, disarray, threats, the expulsion in 1492. (from 1391, year of pogroms and conversion to the liquidation of the Jewish problem in 1492)

A. Under threat of extermination, a large percentage of Sephardim were converted to Catholicism.

B. Disputation between clergymen (many of Jewish origin) and rabbis at Tortosa 1412-1414. Calamitous results -- Hundreds of thousands converted.

C. Priests and populace persecute marranos. Establishment of the Inquisition in 1480.

D. A century of anguish for the Jews who resisted conversion and chose exile rather that forget the religion of their forefathers.

For Birmingham this pattern of Sephardic history is a jumble of names and dates that give no idea of what happened to whom and why. First we will try to give the samples of his overstatements that dishonor us instead of assessing judiciously situations, events and achievements connected with the Sephardim.

When someone honors us beyond our merits, he is not our friend. To degrade our enemies, without looking into the periods and epochs where we were the beneficiaries of their protection and tolerance is to create bad blood between the two parties.

A. "It is hard, even today, for a Spaniard to accept the fact that the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula was the first conquest since the Roman times of an inferior land by a superior people......the men who, in 711, overcame the scattered city states of Spain were the bearers of the great Islamic culture which had flourished in such sophisticated cities as Damascus and Alexandria."

1. An observation or two:

a. Visigothic Spain was not divided into city states, as far as we know.
b. Alexandria did not become a great city in Islam, known for anything outstanding.
c. Muhamad died in 630; Spain was conquered in 711. It is obvious that Damascus or any other center of Islamic civilization could not have developed in eighty-one years into anything "sophisticated" and magnificent.

B. Jews under the Umayyads

1 - To Belittle the Moors of Spain in present day New York is easy because it flatters those who need no flattery.
2 - Sweeping statements on the overall importance of the Jews in Islamic Spain without any evidence, or any basis of fact, is a distortion of history. The Jews did not conquer Spain, nor did they build the wonders of Islamic architecture, and what is more, they were not the imitators of the whole Islamic civilization of Al-Andalus. "For six hundred years, from roughly the eighth through the thirteenth centuries the Jews were Spanish history.
3 - Exaggeration's on the opulence and well being of the Jews in Moorish Spain: "The Jewish quarters such Spanish cities as Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba were the best neighborhoods of their cities, occupied by the most beautiful house -- gracefully built around airy courtyards - and Christians vied with each other to buy houses there."

We demur. "Aljama" is the name of the sections in which Jews lived. Birmingham visited Sevilla and walked through the Bario de Santa Cruz. Indeed the narrow streets, white washed walls, the flower pots in bloom, the iron grilled patios, the cleanliness of houses, the wrought iron lanterns in the corners, such romantic urbanism everywhere in that city is a modern phenomenon. All tourists are shown the barrios de los Judios, but the barrios are there, to be sure, though the only thing medieval in them is the narrowness of the alleys and streets. Of course there are no Jews now and for centuries for that matter in Sevilla, Granada or Cordoba.

We wish to say no more on Birmingham's sleight of hand and the illusion and ambiguities of his style. His craft taught him how to bamboozle the American reader with fantasies, putting to sleep the readers' critical sense.

There were two Sephardic epochs, the one which comprises five or six centuries under the aegis of Islam and the shorter epoch of the Jews in Christian Spain. There is not in English any great work on the Jews in Al-Andalus but fortunately we have an outstanding work on the Jews of Castile, Aragon, Navarra and Catalonia by Professor Yitzhak Baer, "A History of the Jews in Christian Spain", in 2 volumes, published by the Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1966.

It would be a waste of time and energy to pick up a quarrel with the author of "The Grandees" on all the errors. A man who makes money on his wares becomes deaf to any kind of criticism. We have taken trouble to comment on this book because we wish to transmit knowledge to our fellow-Sephardim.

Since the marranos did not create a new kind of Judaism when they returned to the old faith, naturally they found their affiliations with Sephardic Jewry and its great tradition, that of Spain and its continuation in Morocco and the vast territories of the Ottoman Empire. The prodigal sons wanted to return home and that home was Sepharad-in-exile. For The pioneers of Western Jewry as well as for the Jews of the Mediterranean basin there was only that which went out with the Exile: The Sephardic Exodus. It is imperative that we look closely into the genesis and flowering of the Sephardic genius. Ibn Khaldun, the very great Moslem historian who looked into the hidden meaning of world history (14th century) found as one of its root principles what he calls Asabiyah, defined by his English translator as group feeling, or the collective consciousness of belonging to a people, to a race, to a tradition. borrowing this word from the Khaldun, we may say here that we are trying to pin point a Sephardiyya, a Sephardic ethos or soul.

Jews were in Spain in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. They increased in number and influence during the invasion of Spain by the Germanic tribes. Visigothic tribes prevailed over the other Germans that entered Spain too. The Visigoths up to 560 A.D. were tolerant toward the Jews but once Spain became a Catholic country anti-Semitic legislation was enacted and persecutions made life intolerable for the Jews.

Visigothic Jews stand out for meeting the brunt of Catholic opposition to them as a people and as followers of the Mosaic tradition. But practically nothing of significance was achieved by these Jews. The Jews up to the Islamic conquest of Spain had not distinguished themselves either in religion or in culture but the Visigothic Jews were perhaps the first to face the confrontation of State and Religion in Europe. Islam was the God sent solution to the future of Iberian Judaism. There were Jewish centers in Granada, Lucena, Tarragona. Myth and fact coalesce in the reported cooperation that Jews lent to the Muslim invaders from 711 A.D. on. By the end of the tenth century when the Umayyad Caliphate disintegrated into a congeries of little city-states, the Jews had been in Spain for over one thousand years. We get a historical phenomenon in Spain that finds its parallel in Italy. City-states with little or no military power produced a new brand of learning and extraordinary manifestation of supreme achievements in all the arts. It was in the eleventh century and twelfth century that the Muslim city-states developed a very great culture. The Jews were carried along by this efflorescence and whatever they produced in those countries created what has been called the Golden Age of Sephardic Culture.

Scholars who write voluminous works on the Jewish elite of Islamic Spain use very loosely the words noble, nobility, creating thereby blurred and out of focus images of what really happened in the Xth, XIth, and XIIth centuries in Granada, Cordoba, Lucena, Seville. The fact that resists any nibbling or chiseling of corners is that an unusual situation arose in Muslim Spain in those centuries that had no parallel in the other great centers of the Islamic Empire, Bagdad, Cairo, Qairawan, Fez. Jews reached eminence in government service and there were thinkers, grammarians, mathematicians. But in no time did so many Jews appear of outstanding excellence as in the Spain to which we are alluding. Let us look into what "nobility" and "noble" mean. If we equate noble with illustrious by position, character or birth, distinguished by splendor and magnificence, then with some reservation the horrific terms could be applied to the Andalusi elite.

Unlike "nobility" in the sense used in European feudal societies, the "nobility" characterizing the "Jewish Elite" was not bestowed upon them.Its numbers were not like the vassals or clients of the powerful kings, princes, dukes and counts. They enjoyed the distinction of being employed by Caliph, kings, Viziers of the Caliphate of the city-states. Government positions brought honor to them, influence and wealth. In the middle ages, in Islam as in the Christian lands, those who served the people in power had to be of the same religion as the rulers, Muslims in the Arabic speaking lands, and Christians in Europe. The "Aristocracy" of Jews in Al-Andalus was on the whole a minority that took pride in linking itself with the upper classes of the Jerusalem of the Second Commonwealth. The claim of having come directly from Jerusalem to Spain in the first century of the Roman Empire was a claim bordering on mythology. We may say that this genealogical connection was the boast of Sephardic families from the 9th century to 1492, even though it is impossible to document this claim. But one thing was sure, the Sephardim had been in Iberia for at least a thousand years by the end of the tenth century. The Visigothic laws attest to their importance; you don't legislate against people who do not matter. Arab historians give us the information that there were Jews in Granada, Lucena, Tarragona when they conquered Spain in 711. Long lineage in Spain was in itself a badge of great distinction. Given semi-autonomy by Islam, the Iberian Jews regained their self respect. From the eighth century to the tenth Andalusi Judaism, as Judaism everywhere else in the diaspora, depended upon the Academies in what is today Iraq. Learning deteriorated there for revolutionary changes in economics, culture; population composition were so great that the world for the Jews had changed its rhythm and its traditional emphasis. We happen to have a very significant short chronicle written in Hebrew, Sefer ha Qabbala ( The Book of Tradition) by Abraham ibn Daud of Cordoba about 1161. It is not very helpful as history but it has a chapter that gives us information about what was going on in Southern Spain in the twelfth century. We learn from ibn Daud's chronicle how the Andalusi Jewish elite began to give signs of achievements hitherto unknown elsewhere in the diaspora. The long awaited efflorescence of Western (Ma'ara vic) Judaism, a Judaism that was able to combine secular culture without being reduced to routine observances. The Arabic language was made flexible and capable of absorbing foreign ideas without turning into a jangling kind of patois. All the important sciences, all the disciplines, philosophy, history, theology were assimilated into the international Arabic idiom, and slowly the Jews of the Islamic Empires began the study of all these branches of learning following the models set up by the Muslims. Even the Karaites from Persia to Spain carried on their studies of the Bible, its language and its jurisprudence in the Arabic tongue. Babylonia failed to produce disciples learned in the new knowledge and, because of need and preparation, Jewish centers of learning appeared in Qairawan, Fez, Cairo, Cordoba and Lucena. The scholarship on Bible and Talmud used the imposed techniques for exegesis and hermeneutics in the new centers. Jews of Spain had not seen before the tenth century men like Hasdai Shaprut, minister to Abder RachmanIII (10th century), or Samuel ibn Nagrella. The latter became a Vizier for the Berber ruler of Granada. To the amazement of his contemporaries (11th century), men like Judah ha Levi could eulogize him in rich but warm rhetoric, without being servile or fulsome.

What He Meant to the Jews

Your are worthy
To be their prince
Your shadow is a canopy
Over all their glory
Their peace is in your peace
And of your honor is their honor
In your shadow they live
Among a nation that enslaves them

Take wing, O my songs!
Publish the news in Spain
To my brethren and my sons
That I minister
And Samuel, the chief of my princes
And Samuel does minister
Before the face of the Lord
And I had not believed to see
That which mine eyes have beheld

Ibna Nagrella was a Talmudic scholar, a poet who sang the thrills of battle, a student of Arabic who mastered it to the degree that he was accepted as a secretary and a Vizier by a Muslim ruler. He won the respect of his people because of his learning, power and generosity.

Here are a few lines from a poem on war and battles in which Nagrellaa participated and during the lull in the fighting he would practice his religious rites:

And I kept with certitude the festivals of God
According to the way of the dwellers in tents:
Sabbath-day and Shofar-day, and Yom Kippur,
The days of Succoth, to the end of the pilgrim's feasts
The fear of profanation was like a fire in my heart

Arabic was the Sephardi's intellectual tool. Everything that nourished his hunger for knowledge came to the Jews in Arabic. The Sephardi enriched his Hebrew heritage by the language sciences of the Muslims.Sephardim, unlike the Jews of Central Europe and Eastern Europe, gave first place to the Bible as the carrier of the word of God. It took time for the Jews of the West to free themselves from the Babylonian Talmud. New sources of knowledge pointed to new ideas and tasks. It was a bold stroke of genius on the part of the master mind of Moses ben Maimon of the Sephardim to reduce all the laws, the so called Halakha, embedded in the Mare Magnum of the Talmud, into schemata impressively. So clear and so comprehensive is his immortal "Mishneh Torah" that there seemed to be no longer any need to go to the Aramaic treasure house to fetch out what was cluttered with materials and discussions that were not necessary for Jewish Jurisprudence. To this day the Yiddishim, have never forgiven Rambam. Islam thought liberated the Sephardim. "Jews and Arabs, Their contacts Through the Ages, by Prof. S.D. Goitein, New York, Schoken Books" a paper back, is an excellent introduction to the major phases of Jews in the Islamic world. This is to be recommended highly if we are not to behave like craven and pusillanimous fools because of the Israeli-Arab confrontations. Jews and Judaism under Islam reached heights of accomplishments not registered in another epoch. Goitein uses a very useful concept, Symbiosis, to describe the relation of Arab and Jew in the heyday of their glory. When the Jews remained Jews and were free to develop in accordance with their capacities without converting to Islam, something unusual had happened. Secular knowledge and religion were harmonized to a high degree. Here is a striking example of this symbiosis, of propinquity without submitting to assimilation. Ibn Nagrella had to accompany the troops of the Berber King of Granada on annual campaigns, fighting battles. We have already quoted verses from one of his war poems originally written in Hebrew which proves very neatly how symbiosis functioned in Spain.

The Bible has been the predilection of Sephardic studies. No wonder that Abraham ben Ezra born in Tudela, Navarra, Spain in the twelfth century is considered by Jews and Christians and Bible scholars as the foremost Bible exegete that has ever lived. It is not fortuitous that Baruch Spinoza was the first philosophical mind that approached the Bible scientifically, thus giving rise to a revolutionary methodology in the study and understanding of the Bible.

It was as early as the eighth century that the Karaites proclaimed the bible as the sole source of Judaism in Iraq. The Sephardim agreed to the Karaite proposition but they did not follow then in the rejection of the oral Law. Modern scholars of the Islamic civilization produced a simple but profound axiom: Language, that is the Arabic language, is Islam. Again under the auspices of Islam the Jews studied the lexicography, syntax and grammar of the Hebrew language. The Yiddishim again differ. Some of the sects think since Hebrew is the Holy Language, to speak it, to study it as any other language is an unpardonable blasphemy. Sepharad of the Poets would never have subscribed to this silliness. The Poets looked into the very roots of the Hebrew language and learned how the language functioned.

Al-Andalus was also the heir of the Poetics of the Arabic language. A marvelous native poetical form began to be cultivated by the poets of Arabic Spain: the muwashaha. This verse form is a lyrical ballad admitting conversation, rhyme (rhyme was not followed in classical Arabic poems) an invariably has a refrain. Many of the beautiful pizmonim of our supreme poets have the refrains that made song a collective experience in the synagogue. Even the pizmon sung on the second day of Rosh ha Shannah on the sacrifice of Isaac by Judah Abbas (12th century), is muwashaha. The Abbas pizmon is sung in all the synagogues of the Sephardim and the Oriental and North African Jews. Poetry, in a Hebrew tooled in the molds of Arabic prosody, was put to use in the renovation of the synagogue liturgy. American synagogue, in all the variations, have not yet bought new rhythms into the services. The Sephardic prayer books are one of the greatest contributions made to the enrichment of Judaism.

We shall stop here apologizing for not having discussed the history of the conversion to Catholicism of almost one half million Jews in the fifteenth century. God willing, we hope to return to this subject bristling with insuperable difficulties at another occasion.

Shalom y Salud

Mair Jose Benardete

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