The last post spoke about the destruction that Sephardic Jews encountered during the Holocaust; this post talks more about the unique culture that the Nazis failed to destroy.
Sephardic Judaism and Islam
Given the current hostility of relations in the Middle East, it can seem easy to believe that relations between Jews and Muslims have always been poor; however, this is not the case. In fact, before they were expelled by Christian rule, Muslim-ruled Spain is where Sephardic Jews initially flourished. And after the Inquisition, many Jews migrated to other areas that were still under Islamic rule. This time under Islamic rule is sometimes collectively called a “Golden Age”.
There are articles to dispute this term, saying it glosses over the fact that Jewish people (along with all other non-Muslim individuals) were still considered second-class citizens in these countries, but ultimately it is recognized that Jews under Muslim rule were a protected class, experiencing more freedom, better conditions, and less persecution than those living under Christian rule during the Middle Ages. In fact, it is argued that concentrated anti-Semitism did not find its way into the Middle East until the nineteenth century, on the heels of European colonialism.
Until then, Jews and Muslims enjoyed a vibrant cultural exchange, especially in the fields of law, medicine, science, poetry, and philosophy. As this article states, “Jewish cultural prosperity in the middle ages operated in large part as a function of Muslim, Arabic cultural (and to some degree political) prosperity: when Muslim Arabic culture thrived, so did that of the Jews; when Muslim Arabic culture declined, so did that of the Jews.”
As with any other cultural group, Sephardic Jews speak a variety of languages, largely reflective of the countries where they live. However, there is a special language unique to Sephardic Jews called Ladino.
Ladino speaks to the Sephardic Jewish history of Spanish diaspora; according to Omniglot, the online Encyclopedia of languages, “Ladino is a language derived from medieval Spanish, with influences from such languages as Aragonese, Astur-Leonese, Catalan, Galician-Portuguese, and Mozarabic. Ladino also has vocabulary from Ottoman Turkish, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, French, Italian, Greek, Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian.”
Historically, just like languages, it is fascinating to see the way that country of residence has influenced the “norm” of dress. A few exhibits– “Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe”, and “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem” are two shows that have taken place in Israel and New York, respectively, dedicated to the topic of Jewish dress through history.
Much of the clothing represents the garments of Jewish women in North Africa, Yemen and Asia, thereby representing a large proportion of Sephardic fashion. Other examples of clothing from this collection even include Burqas, showing once again the Jewish-Muslim connection woven throughout Sephardic history. Below are a few examples from The Israel Museum’s collection:
Much of Sephardic food is what we would call Mediterranean cuisine. Rather than the heavier European-Ashkenazi Jewish dishes of kugel and brisket, Sephardic food consists of dishes like kebabs, rice, stuffed grape leaves, shakshuka, and couscous. This, as you might imagine, has to do with climate and availability of foods–the Ashkenazi Jews needed to keep warm in European winters, while the temperate climates of Southern Europe/Northern Africa and the Middle East was more conducive to meals made with vegetables, fish, fruits, spices and olive oil.
The Sefarad-Israel Center has shared data about the countries with the highest concentrations of Sephardic Jews today; while the largest population distribution is in Israel, some of the other countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, may come as a surprise to some readers.
After all of the discussion on the exchange between Sephardic Judaism and Islam, you may notice that Arabic countries are not on this list; this is because, in the mid-twentieth century, Jews were expelled from many of these lands that they had formerly inhabited. Many of them migrated to Palestine/Israel, which also explains the highest concentration in that country now.
This part of the Sephardic narrative is one that affected my family personally as well; after generations of her family living in Tunisia and managing to survive the war, my grandmother and her family migrated to Israel in the 1950s, where they live now, because of social and governmental pressure.
Popular culture would have us believe that the inhabitants of the Middle East have never coexisted peacefully; however, after researching these two posts, it has struck me deeply how there has been more times of prosperity and coexistence between Jews and Muslims than there has been animosity. As always, let us hope that by educating ourselves on the lessons of the past, we can look forward to a more peaceful future together.
Our final blog post in this series will be a letter from our Executive Director, sharing more about the importance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.