April 2015 - June 2015

Sephardic Journeys

Center for Jewish History

Sephardim were driven—sometimes by choice, too frequently by force—to transcend borders and barriers. The following rare books and artifacts, from the collection of The American Sephardi Federation, reflect a rich scholarly tradition and invite reflection upon the physical, emotional, and spiritual journeys of Jewish history.

This sacred scroll contains the Book of Esther, which describes how biblical luminaries Esther and Mordechai saved the Jews of the Persian Empire from genocide. Unlike a Torah scroll, a megillah is rolled off a single staff. Sephardic practice is to unfurl the scroll from the left and let it recoil as it is read.

Early 20th century Baghdad was a bustling center of Jewish life, with Jews possibly comprising 40% of the population, or double New York City’s today. Renowned for its rabbis and entrepreneurs, Hakham Ezra Dangoor (1848-1930) excelled as both, serving as founder-proprietor of one of Baghdad’s most important Hebrew presses and its chief rabbi (1923-27/8). Dangoor published his own compositions as well as edited works, such as this Machzor or prayer book for the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot).

The Ben Ish Hai, as Rabbi Yosef Hayyim is popularly known, was a prolific and wide-ranging Baghdadi author of some sixty works, including halakhic or Jewish legal rulings (responsa), Torah commentaries, piyyut (liturgical songs), and Kabbalah exegeses. This work was written in Judeo-Arabic, the lingua franca of its intended readers: Jewish women. Chapter 58, which was also published separately, contains riddles meant to “reveal and sharpen” women’s minds.

Notice the intricate border around the text.

The central portion of text on this page is written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters) in rhymed meter.

Some Jews escaping Soviet and/or Nazi tyranny in the 1930s found refuge at Shanghai’s Ohel Rachel, a Sephardi synagogue with a majestic edifice, a Torah Ark containing ~30 scrolls, and a 700-person capacity sanctuary. Since arriving in Shanghai after the First Opium War (1839-1842), Jews from Baghdad and Bombay built businesses but not permanent synagogues; six were eventually established. Known as the largest synagogue in the Far East, the Ohel Rachel was designed to memorialize Rachel, wife of Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon (1843-1916), an Iraqi Jewish entrepreneur and philanthropist. The prayer book used by the synagogue was in both Hebrew and English.

Some Jews escaping Soviet and/or Nazi tyranny in the 1930s found refuge at Shanghai’s Ohel Rachel, a Sephardi synagogue with a majestic edifice, a Torah Ark containing ~30 scrolls, and a 700-person capacity sanctuary. Since arriving in Shanghai after the First Opium War (1839-1842), Jews from Baghdad and Bombay built businesses but not permanent synagogues; six were eventually established. Known as the largest synagogue in the Far East, the Ohel Rachel was designed to memorialize Rachel, wife of Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon (1843-1916), an Iraqi Jewish entrepreneur and philanthropist. The prayer book used by the synagogue was in both Hebrew and English.

While intending to write a concise version of the Beit Yosef, his commentary on halacha (Jewish law), Joseph ben Ephraim Karo (1488-1575) succeeded in creating an authoritative legal code, the Shulchan Arukh. Karo departed from the works of others by listing only definitive rulings, allowing his book (shown here in partial Ladino translation) to serve, with some Ashkenazic amendments, as the practical guide to observance for the Jewish world. A refugee from the Inquisition, Karo spent decades in Turkey before traveling to Egypt and settling in Safed.

Notice the detailed artwork that graces the top and bottom of the cover page

Unlike contemporary Sukkot machzorim (festival prayer books), this work focuses specifically on the seventh day of the holiday, Hoshana Rabbah. Sephardim have a special custom to stay up the night of the sixth day reciting special prayers and studying Torah texts, excerpted here. The machzor’s frontispiece features a dramatic illustration depicting the Israelites arrayed before Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah.

Accorded the surname “Medici” by his patron, Grand Duke Cosimo III, Paolo (né Moses) Sebastiano (1671-1738), a Christian neofito (convert), was fanatical in his public condemnations of Jewish people and practices. As a priest and professor of Hebrew and Holy Scriptures at the University of Florence, he published works that popularized claims of deicide, usury, blood libel, and endorsed forced conversations for the “unrepentant.” This book, although replete with such heinous accusations, also yields many insights into the then-contemporary Jewish world.

Dedicated to Pope Sixtus V, this first edition of De Pomis’ (1525-93?) tri-lingual dictionary sought to explain Hebrew or Aramaic terms, many of them biological or medical, in Latin and Italian. A physician, philosopher, and rabbi, De Pomis was permitted to practice medicine amongst Tuscany Christians after delivering a discourse in Latin to Pope Pius IV.

This translation comes from the Balkans, which hosted a lively Ladino literary milieu in the early 1900s. While many works from this period were lost, most presumed destroyed during the Holocaust, a growing number are being found around the world. This edition of Romeo and Juliet, one of the only Ladino copies in North America, came into the possession of the National Sephardic Library after a woman discovered it mixed in with her departed husband’s books. How he obtained the work remains unknown

Morris Tarragano’s family, as many Sephardim after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, immigrated to the West. A second generation American, Tarragano was a native speaker of English and Ladino, which was used both for sacred and secular speech. This Bar Mitzvah address was written first in Ladino and then transcribed into English, a sign of the changing linguistic preferences of American Sephardim.

Isaac ben Abba Mari (1122?-93?), a French Sephardi Talmudic prodigy, wrote his first book at age seventeen. Shehitah u-Terefot, on the laws of slaughtering and consuming animals. This work was combined with others—produced over 23 years—to form his magnum opus, the Ittur Soferim, a near-complete code of Jewish law. Purported to have been unrivaled in his age in questions of Talmud, whether Yerusalyami (Jerusalem) or Bavli (Babylonian), Mari was an independent thinker, who unsparingly criticized revered and aged authorities. The present volume is composed of Ittur excerpts and Rabbi Avraham Giron’s commentaries purporting to elucidate and elaborate Mari’s work.

Notice the illustration above the title

Born Manoel Dias Soeiro to Portuguese Jewish refugees from the Inquisition, Manasseh ben Israel (1604-57) was a diplomat, rabbi, writer, and founder of the first Hebrew press at Amsterdam. A friend of Hugo Grotius and Rembrandt, he was committed to free thought and inquiry and influenced many, including a young Baruch Spinoza. Oliver Cromwell invited him to the Whitehall Conference (1655) that established the invalidity of King Edward I Longshanks’ Edict of Expulsion (1290), paving the way for Jewish immigration to England. Intensive use has deprived this Ben Israel Bible of its title page and Greek apocrypha.

This machzor (festival prayer book) was revised and translated into Dutch by two Jewish educators, Samuel I. Mulder and David R. Montizinos, to serve the Sephardic community in 19th century Amsterdam. During the Holocaust, the donor’s father entrusted the book and his tallit (prayer shawl) to a non-Jewish neighbor, who kept the items safe until his return after the war.

Written in Spanish to appeal to conversos (forcibly converted Jews), this work affirms the Torah’s truth by reconciling alleged biblical contradictions. Manasseh ben Israel, as one would expect, quotes from the “most difficult [Jewish] authors... Rashi, [Ibn] Ezra, Nachmanides, and Maimonides,” but also, in proof of his liberal learning, supports his arguments with Aristotle, Cicero, Suetonius, and even early Christian theologians: Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine. (See: Biblica Hebraica).

Sephardic Journeys
Case 4

“Hebrew,” writes Isaac Pinto (1720-1791), “being imperfectly understood by many, by some, not at all,” necessitated an English rendering of the siddur. His model, Ishac Nieto’s “elegant Spanish translation,” was (and was to remain) predominant in Sephardi-majority England. Pinto, amongst the first US Government translators, was described as “a learned Jew at New York” by Ezra Stiles (Yale’s President), and may also have lived in Stratford, Connecticut.

A truly Sephardic item, the first imprint of this siddur (prayer book) was published in Izmir, Turkey, and possesses a distinctively beautiful title page not found in later editions. In addition to presenting prayers for everyday, Shabbat and holidays, the text describes spiritual practices, all extensively rooted in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).

Jews traditionally face east when they pray, directing their prayers towards the Temple that once stood at Jerusalem. To orient individuals, homes or synagogues are sometimes adorned with a sign, called a “Mizrah,” meaning “East” in Hebrew. In countries east of Israel—such as Iran, where this nearly 100-year-old artifact originated—prayers are sent westward. Made of painted wood, its doors open to reveal an image of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai.

Notice the artwork on this title page, especially the details on the different plants and flowers.

Beginning in the late 17th century, Amsterdam emerged as one of the most important sites for printing in the Western Hemisphere. Sephardim, who had originally come to the Netherlands as refugees from the Inquisition, were prominent players in this industry. Published between 1769 and 1771, a series of machzorim (festival prayer books) were produced to aid observance of the various fasts and feasts of the Jewish Year.

The David Berg Rare Book Room at The Center for Jewish History
Credits: Story

"Sephardic Journeys" has been supported by a generous grant from The David Berg Foundation and was organized by The Center for Jewish History with The American Sephardi Federation.

Project Director:
Laura E. Leone

Curatorial Services:
Randall C. Belinfante
Jason Guberman-P.
Laura E. Leone

Additional Research and Postproduction:
Abigail Berkson
Miriam Haier
David P. Rosenberg

Digital Wall:
Jason Carlin
David P. Rosenberg

Design:
Amy Reichert Architecture + Design
Anna Van Voorhis

Object Mounts:
Alberto Barrera

David Berg Rare Book Room Photography:
John Halpern

Google Cultural Institute:
Eddie Ashkenazie, American Sephardi Federation / Diarna Researcher

Special Thanks to Members of the Staff of The American Sephardi Federation:
Randall C. Belinfante, Director of Library and Archives
Jason Guberman-P., Executive Director
Elizabeth M. Stevens, Event Coordinator & Researcher

And to Members of the Staff of The Center for Jewish History:
Gruss Lipper Digital Lab
Louis Pinzon
Judith Siegel
Michael Stafford

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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