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Sepharades et Barbaresques
by Lionel Levy1
(translated from the French by Ralph Tarica)
author of "La communaute Juive de Livourne" and
"La Nation Juive Portuguaise - Livourne, Amsterdam, Tunis 1591-1951"
First appeared in La Lettre Sépharade (Gordes France), French edition Nº 26, June 98
(Reprinted here by kind permission of Lionel Levy and "La lettre Sepharade" )

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Who is Sephardic? The answer depends as much upon semantics as upon history. The Hebrew sense of the name Sfarad is: Spain, a name which, until the 12th century, applied to the whole Iberian peninsula including Portugal, and to its island dependencies. Now on the eve of the 1492 expulsion, Spain still included a Moslem enclave, the kingdom of Granada whose language was Andalusian Arabic. Andalusian Jews who had fled Spain earlier in the 13th and 14th centuries had carried this language along with them to the Maghreb [Northwestern Africa] where it assumed a liturgical function for a long time. Rabbis from Castile, Catalonia, Majorca, upon becoming the head of Moroccan and Algerian communities, progressively imposed Spanish customs and rites, notably ­ in spite of a lengthy resistance in Morocco ­ monogamy.

Over the centuries, these Moroccan rabbis, often Spanish-speaking, brought these customs and rites to the eastern Maghreb. Arabic had not disappeared even in the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The process of eliminating Arabic lasted a long time, until well after the fall of Granada. As late as 1609, at the moment of their expulsion, at least in Valencia, the Moriscos ­ Spaniards of the Moslem faith who had been forcibly baptized ­ continued to use Arabic among themselves and owned works written in Arabic. Catherine Gaignard, in Maures et Chrétiens à Grenade 1492 - 1570 (see preceding article) notes how the ban against using the Arabic language was renewed as late as 1566, in the context of a pitiless religious, cultural and linguistic oppression that led to periodic revolts from 1568 to 1609.

This was a complex situation; once they were exiled to Tunisia at the beginning of the 17th century, the Moriscos of northern and central Spain, who on the contrary had lost the use of their language and customs, maintained a flourishing literary production in Spanish ­ both secular and sacred -- for a long time. The use of written Spanish was expressly authorized for them, contrary to the rule in the Moslem countries; this tolerance undoubtedly benefited the Jews of Livorno [Leghorn, Italy] who had emigrated to Tunis, since Spanish remained their administrative language, and not Portuguese as was the case in Livorno itself. The solidarity that these Moriscos of Tunisia felt towards the Livornese merchants of Marrano background was shown in court trials, where they did not hesitate to testify massively on their behalf. The Inquisition suspected a similar solidarity on the part of the Marranos, so that when courts convened to try apostate Moriscos, New Christians of Jewish origin were excluded.2

Prior to the year 1492, which is after all only the beginning of modern times according to historiographical definition, it is clear that Iberian Judaism was a part of the history of Hispano-Moorish civilization, thereby granting it a lasting privilege: a double-facetted identity, western and eastern, which would represent its basic economic and cultural trump-card for a long time to come. Maimonides, whose Sephardic identity has never been disputed, wrote his principal works in the Arabic language.

The comings and goings between Spain and the Maghreb never ceased, at least as far back as Cartagina. The Islamization of Spain starting with the 8th century was accompanied by the arrival of Berbers ­ less numerous than is often thought ­ and by Jews from the Maghreb. Many historians, and not the least notable, have expressed their doubts about the theory that these Jews were actually converted Berbers.3 An immigration from the East had always existed in Africa and Spain. At most, the conversions of local populations might have increased the size of these communities. Jews from the Maghreb found refuge in Christian Spain in the 12th century during the dark period of Almohad fundamentalism, when the Jewish communities of Africa and Andalusia were completely annihilated through forced conversions, massacres and exile.

During this period, Catholic Spain, along with Egypt, was the reservoir of Judaism in the west-ern Arab world. At the moment when the Almohad reaction took place, Spain welcomed the theologians, doctors and scientists of the School of Kairouan [Tunisia], a city that in the 10th and 11th centuries was one of the main intellectual centers of the Arab world, including Spain, thanks to the essential economic role it played in East-West exchanges, before foun-dering under the blows of Mauritanian fundamentalists. Exiled from their homeland in Kairouan, these scientists from all sorts of backgrounds trained disciples in Christian Spain and in the East. Every civilization has known such back and forth movements. Two centuries later Spanish theologians would in their turn come to the heart of renewed African communities to train their disciples, as persecutions begun in the Christian kingdoms in the 13th, 14th, and then 15th centuries would see the transfer of large contingents of Spanish Jews to the Maghreb. As Gérard Nahon4 explains, not only did masses of Spaniards repopulate Algerian towns but their elite groups - that is, their rabbis - were in a position to impose their authority and their reforms upon existing communities. In Algiers, these rabbis were Isaac ben Sheshet Barfat, born in Barcelona, and Simon ben Semah Duran, from Majorca; in Oran, Aram ben Merovas Ephrati; in Constantine, Joseph ben Menir and Maimun ben Saadia Najar; in Tlemcen, Abraham ben Hakin and Ephraim Encaoua, and others who had arrived from Spain.

The proper names are deceptive as to their origin. Names that sound Arabic or Berber, such as Sitruk, Zuili, Melki, mask the Hispano-Catalan Astruc (from Astorga in Navarra), the Hispano-Arabic Sebilli (from Seville), Malki (from Málaga). The Tunisian name Karila, found in Cap Bon, a privileged land of immigration for Spanish Jews and Moslems since the 13th century, reminds us of Carillo, "livornized" into Cariglio. Might the name Koskas or Kaschkasch, from the same area, be related to the Portuguese Cascais, with the [s] pronounced as [sh] in the Lusitanian manner? What about the numerous Guez, Ghez or Guedj, from Morocco to Tunisia?

In Christian Spain, Arabic names like Abudarham, Abensur ­ theologians or synagogue builders ­ Ibn Saçon or Aben Saçon ­ tax collectors with Arabo-Hebraic names ­ can be found in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the 17th century, the Alvarez de Melo family, having found refuge in Amsterdam, then in Morocco, took the name Abinatar. For immigrants before the 14th century, even those coming from the Christian kingdoms, the loss of Spanish was commonplace. As we have seen, Arabic was widespread in Valencia at the beginning of the 17th century, as can be proven by the files of Inquisitors pursuing the Moriscos.

There is therefore no contradiction between Sephardism and the Arabic language. By 1492, however, most Spanish Jews were living in territories where Arabic had been eradicated. Only the highly educated, among the merchant class, continued to learn it, as a vital instrument for commerce with the eastern and southern Mediterranean, as well as with India.

The large Spanish-speaking communities of Constantinople, Salonika and Smyrna would play an almost exclusive role in saving the linguistic and folkloric patrimony of Judeo-Spanish, with the exception of the Moroccan communities in the western Mediterranean that had remained Spanish-speaking such as Tetouan, created on top of ruins in 1492, powerful, almost autonomous, and further revived in the 17th century by Portuguese and Morisco immigrations; as well as the community in Gibraltar, born at the beginning of the 18th century in defiance against a Spain where the Inquisition still held sway. Spanish colonial ventures in the north of Morocco in the late 19th century forced many Jews in these regions to settle elsewhere, sometimes in Gibraltar, but primarily in the Oran region thanks to liberal Franco-British agreements. When a much more massive Spanish Christian immigration was added to this Jewish immigration, making Oran into an important Spanish city, the "Spanishness" of the Jews underwent, so to speak, a refresher process, but unfortunately in a climate where the liberality of French laws had to confront an antisemitic tradition imported from the Peninsula.5

Two cities in the western Mediterranean are important for the Sephardization of the Jews in North Africa. Livorno ­ Portuguese and Spanish-speaking until the beginning of the 19th century ­ welcomed a large number of immigrants from the Maghreb from the latter third of the 18th century until the 19th century, constituting up to 14% of its Jewish population7 for a while, but also many Spanish-speaking Jews from the East. Upon returning to their native lands, these Tunisian, Algerian or Moroccan families brought Iberian or Italian influences to their former communities.7

The so-called "Portuguese" community of Marseilles, created around 1780 with a decisively predominant influx of Livornese from Tunis (Darmon, Bembaron, Boccara, Lumbroso, Daninos) and from Livorno itself (de Silva, de Segni, Coen, Attias, Costa, Salom, Foa, Gozlan, Cansino, Vital, Castelli, Benjamin Arias, Salomon Racah, Joseph Montefiore, de Paz), with additional numbers coming from Avignon (Rigau, Ramut, Crémieux, Duran, de Monteux, Ravel, Rouget, Graveur, Caracasona [sic]), from Tunisia (Semama, Lahmi, Bismot, Belaïsche, Tubiana), from Gibraltar ­ frequently by way of Livorno (Abenatar, Dias Santillana, Abudaram, Aboab) and from the East (Constantini, Coen de Canea, Huziel, Brudo)1 expressly chose the rules and rites of the Livorno community, choosing Spanish as their language. Important merchants from Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia who were welcomed here could not help but draw upon and be replenished by this Iberian culture, which, in addition to Italian culture, continued to leave their mark even when they returned to their original communities. We get a picture of how strong Sephardic culture was in this period when we see Jews from Provence requesting a kind of Portuguese "nationality" of the recently settled Livornese, allowing them to reside in Marseille, whereas the Portuguese of Bordeaux had kept them at a distance. That is how the Avignon Jews became Sephardic. They had of course maintained kinship with Sephardic culture in the distant past, if one considers that Astruc, Duran, Vidal are Catalan or Spanish names and that the Spanish Valabrega, Provensal, not to mention Narboni, Franco or Sarfati, are of distant Languedoc origin [southwestern France]. The cultural unity of the communities on both sides of the Pyrenees was ongoing from the Moslem period onward.

Sephardic culture in the Maghreb for the most part lost its Latin dimension. Sephardic culture in the East preserved it, hence its irreplace- able symbolic power; but whereas it lost its Arabic element, it gained an eastern Turkish facet.

Jews from Salonika, Istanbul and Smyrna, settling in Tunis, wanted to join the Livornese community ­ also called Portuguese ­ but not without some bitter negotiations between the communities. The great unifying factor among the Sephardim, from the East all the way to the Maghreb, was the French influence brought by the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Numerous Livornese joined this effort including Montefiore, Morpurgo, Picciotto in the East and in Morocco, Castelnuovo in Tunisia, not to mention the Istambulis and Saloniklis of Venitian and Livornese origin, Camondo and Allatini, strongly inspired and supported by French Jews: Adolphe Crémieux, Alphonse and James de Rothschild, Albert Cohn. The program proposed by Crémieux to Castelnuovo in Tunis was a melting pot by means of the schools. This mission was accomplished; but the end result would be to favor French culture and presence to the detriment of Italy, and to contribute to the extinction of Judeo-Spanish culture in the East. Regarding the differences in identity among the Sephardim, in the broadest sense we can say, along with Marcel Mauss and Claude Levi-Strauss, that there is never a hierarchy of cultures. Reviewed by Lionel Levy*


1 Lionel Lévy, Itinéraires portugais de Tunis, de Livourne et d'Amsterdam au XIXe siècle, Nations, Communautés, familles, entreprises [Portuguese itineraries from Tunis, Livorno and Amsterdam in the 19th century: Nations, communities, families, businesses], published under the title "La Nation Juive Portugaise, 1591-1951, Livourne, Amsterdam, Tunis", ed. l'Harmattan, Paris 1999", Ph.D. dissertation EPHE, Paris,France 1997, page 294.

2 The instructions issued by the inquisitors were as follows:
"All descendants of Hebrews or of Jews must be excluded from the council and from committees in these affairs, for they have a tendency to be opposed to adequate solutions, perhaps because they are hated as much by the Old Christians as these new converts (the Moriscos), and imagine that they will be one day avenged by the hands of the Moslems." Rodrigo de Zayas: Les Morisques et le racisme d¹Etat
[The Moriscos and State Racism], Paris, France, Editions de la Découverte, 1996, page 501.

3 Gérard Nahon, Métropoles et périphéries séfarades d'Occident, Kairouan, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Jérusalem, [Sephardic Mainlands and Peripheral Areas in the West, Kairouan, etc.]. Paris, France, Editions du Cerf, 1993; p. 14, shows that "this thesis has been highly criticized."

4 Gérard Nahon, Métropoles et périphéries séfarades d'Occident, Kairouan, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Jerusalem "Sephardic Mainlands and Peripheral Areas in the West, Kairouan, etc." Paris, France, from page 23 on.

5 See in particular Geneviève Dermenjian, La crise anti-juive oranaise 1895-1905 "The anti-Jewish crisis in Oran 1895-1905," Paris, France, Harmattan, 1986.

6 The high point of 14% was reached in the 1809 census. This percentage fell to 6% by the middle of the 19th century. See J. P. Filippini, La comunitá israelitica di Livorno durante il periodo napoleonico "The Jewish community of Livorno during the Napoleonic period," in Rivista italiana di studi napoleonici, Pisa: Giardini 1982, pages 77-112.

7 The following names can be cited for 1809:
Abnaim, Abnon, Abolhar (Abulcher), Abocaya, Abudarham, Acris, Aghibó, Amar, Arbib, Aruch, Asal, Asdà, Asdria, Attal, Azzaria, Benadi, Benamosegh, Benghighi, Benhacok, Beniacar, Bensamon, Bensimbra, Bentibi, Bensachen, Bises (Bessis), Bismot, Busnach, Chetorsa (Ktorza), Coen Bacri, Coen Solal, Coen Tanugi, Esdra, Esdraffa (Zeraffa), Garbi, Gerbi (Djerbi or Djeribi), Ghidilia, Goetta (Guetta), Hanun, Hanuna, Hasda, Isdraffa (Zeraffa), Lahmi, Lascar, Malah, Marno (Marnou), Marzocco (Marzouk), Masiah, Masul, Mazghis, Mesur, Millul, Missica, Moatty, Nissim, Sahadun, Salama, Sarfati, Sdrafa (Zeraffa), Sebagh, Sebag, Tabet, Taib, Tagiuri, Tubi, Tubiana, Tyar.
In the 1841 census additional names can be found such as Bigiaoui, Bidassa, Lais, Liscia, Naim, Rabah, Roha, Zerah, Zettun.

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