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How the Sephardi exiles came home to lay the groundwork for the return to Zion


The Last Generation 500 Years after the Expulsion from Spain


Just as New York has its Grandees, Jerusalem has its aristocratic Samech-Tetim;* those affluent Sephardic families who trace their origin to Spain. This sector of the population of the capital city is hardly known, rarely heard from, but centrally important. Originally, after the Spanish expulsion of 1492, there was a Sephardi aristocracy in Safed, but it disappeared as Safeds stature dwindled. Economic deterioration, earthquakes, epidemics, and Arab riots were all factors leading to the population moving towards Jerusalem.

For centuries, most of Jerusalems population was Sephardi. For example, the Parnas and Meyuchas families can trace their lineage in Jerusalem to the early post-Spanish expulsion period. A good part of the Sephardi population of Jerusalem traces its origins to the Balkans. Most of these people migrated from what is present-day Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece from the early 19th century until the end of the 1930s.

Who exactly are these aristocrats? Today, most are well into their 80s and 90s in age. They come from elite families, such as Eliashar, Navon, Valero, Chinaeo, Benveniste, Mani, Kastel, and others. Their ancestors were wealthy bankers, entrepreneurs, merchants, rabbis, local communal leaders, and well-respected citizens in non-Jewish official circles, having valuable diplomatic connections with foreign governments.

This generation of Europeanized Sephardi aristocrats retained their unique ethnic identity, while blending into the mainstream Ashkenazi yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine). Many married Ashkenazim. They clearly identified with the Zionist movement; did their share in developing the yishuv during the period of the state in the making; helped establish new neighbourhoods, such as Rehavia and Kiryat Moshe, and as veteran residents, played leading roles in the first decades of Israeli statehood.

These proud people inherited a rich cultural heritage, which to a great extent is internalized, and has not been carried over to the next generation. Public service is deeply engrained in their psyches. They can boast of a long rabbinical lineage, and because of it, they still fervently preserve religious traditions. They themselves choose to live a secular and modern path on the outside, but at home they are very family-oriented and traditional. Whereas until the end of the 19th century, within their familial background, communal leadership was mainly rabbinical leadership, in the 20th century they opted for secular and cultural communal leadership, ethnic political leadership, or voluntary participation in political parties and governmental bodies.

The aristocrats still speak Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), French and English as well as Hebrew. Ladino was their maternal language, and the language in which their parents spoke to them. It was the dominant language among all the Sephardim in the yishuv. Even the Arabs did business with them in Ladino. French was learned at the Alliance Israëlite Universelle school in Jerusalem where they studied, and it was later the language of instruction when they studied at French universities and other colleges overseas. Other foreign lingual influences stem from receiving a British education in law or economics in Jerusalem or London, or studying in Beirut at the American College.

Economic difficulties, as well as the harsh conditions under the Ottoman Empire prior to the First World War, led to emigration from Eretz-Israel. The entrepreneur Joseph Navon went to France to seek economic prosperity. The Amzalak family left the country so as to avoid becoming Ottoman citizens. Some family members returned to Eretz-Israel after the war, but others remained dispersed throughout Europe and the United States. Nissim Bechar, the founder of the Alliance Isralite Universelle in Jerusalem, an active educator, and public affairs activist, spent his last years in the United States. Many Sephardi families from Jerusalem migrated to Argentina and other countries of Latin America. For the Cuenca family, formerly of Salonika, the war was exceedingly traumatic: out of 18 siblings, all but one died of starvation.

When diplomatic relations were severed between the United States and the Ottoman Empire in 1914, monies from Zionist bodies for the yishuv could not be transferred to Eretz-Israel. Through the efforts of the Jerusalem philologist Avraham Shalom Yehuda in Madrid, the Spanish consul in Jerusalem was recruited to distribute these funds to the needy. Without this assistance, the fate of the yishuv would have been grim. This rapport with Spain was to continue, as witness the participation of Sephardic Jerusalemite intellectuals, folklorists, and communal leaders in congresses devoted to Ladino in Spain in the 1960s.

Most of the Sephardi male youth were drafted into the Ottoman army, and many of them did not survive. Few of them had the 50 gold Napoleons required to buy an exemption. Even young men such as Avraham Franco and Mordechai Hasoun from notable Hebron rabbinic families of Sephardi descent from Rhodes were drafted since they could not afford the exemptions. Not even the Haham Bashi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Moshe Franco, had enough influence to exempt his relatives from the draft. However, they adjusted to their circumstances. They became officers in Damascus and arranged to live in the Sasson family Jewish hostel where they could keep the dietary laws, pray, observe the Sabbath, and avoid the slovenly conditions of Turkish army camps. Others, as the Salonikan immigrants David Benveniste and Meir Dasa, joined the Jewish Brigade of the British Army and served in Palestine and Egypt.

Thus, the large aristocratic families began to break apart and individual family members distanced themselves from other wings of the family both physically and emotionally. Those in the Americas and Europe tended to assimilate into the local culture. For the most part, their descendants have only faint ties with the Jewish people and Israel. Those remaining in Eretz-Israel became part of the culture of the new Jew the fighter, the pioneer, the socialist. They spoke Hebrew and put their Sephardi identities to one side and socialized and identified with the mainstream of Ashkenazi society. The Salonikans David Benveniste and Natan Shalem laid the early foundations of hiking, mapping and geography in Israel. They wrote in Hebrew, and barely used Ladino. The ideal to be strived for was the sabra, the tough pioneering Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jew. The aristocratic Sephardi youth patterned themselves similarly. They wanted to prove that Sephardim too could be pioneers, so they were active in pioneering youth movements. The Mapai political party represented the mainstream, so they too joined the party.

Under the banner of democracy, the aristocratic Sephardi youth replaced the rabbis as the active leadership of the Sephardic Council of Jerusalem. In the 1930s, Avraham Franco, the young secretary of the Jerusalem municipality, led a democratization process within the Council. He called for elections, composed his own list of candidates called The List for the Sephardi Community and became its vice-president. An Eliashar on his mothers side, he was orphaned at a young age and reached affluence through his own efforts. One did not necessarily have to be part of the wealthy Valero banking family or the Eliashar rabbinical family to represent the Sephardi community.

After the State of Israel was established and the massive immigration from Morocco began, the Sephardim of Jerusalem realized that they had been pushed aside by the ruling Ashkenazi establishment. They formed a Sephardi political party, which gained four seats in the Knesset. One of the delegates, Eliyahu Eliashar, was president of the Sephardic Council of Jerusalem. This astute individual, however, suffered from a leadership problem and the Sephardi community found it was unable to go forward. They had difficulty preserving what they had achieved, trouble in controlling and maintaining their properties, and they found they were losing the younger generation. When they were reluctant to share their power, they alienated the large Bulgarian and Turkish migrations of the late 1940s early 1950s. Although there were some 100,000 Ladino-speaking Jews in Israel, it was no longer a vibrant culture. The remaining old Jerusalemite families at the helm of the Sephardi leadership could not push forward the culture, nor could they unite the Sephardim. Whereas in the 19th century and early 20th century, the Sephardim were mainly attracted to Jerusalem, the post-Holocaust Sephardi immigrants concentrated in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa area. The Greeks from Salonika had already established the Florentine quarter in south Tel Aviv in the 1930s. The few hundred Greek Jews that arrived in Israel after surviving the Holocaust also settled there. The Bulgarians went to Jaffa and the Turkish Jews settled in Bat Yam. In the late 1940s-early 1950s, from all these Balkan Sephardim, young members formed settlement groups, on new or already established moshavim and kibbutzim. Thus, not only was the Sephardi community in Jerusalem not growing, but it was also losing many of the younger generation to Tel Aviv.

In its heyday, the 70 year-old Sephardic Council was an all-encompassing communal organization. It tended to the sick, educated the young, sponsored yeshivas, maintained a burial society, helped the poor and widows, established a model orphanage, and provided housing for those lacking means.

The Sephardi families were in the west in body, but in the east in heart. The spiritual call to settle in Eretz-Israel is what kept the Sephardi settlement in Jerusalem alive for hundreds of years.

They stayed in Eretz-Israel in spite of the difficult economic and political conditions, while the leadership maintained a communal structure that could finance institutions and support the masses of less fortunate Sephardi kinsmen and women.

The Sephardim also demonstrated a more flexible attitude toward religion. They lacked the fanaticism of some Ashkenazim, and they adjusted to modern lifestyles without abandoning observance altogether. Unlike many of the ultra-religious Ashkenazim who were reluctant to consult doctors or take medicines, and not wishing to fall into the hands of the European-sponsored missionary hospitals, the Sephardim took the initiative and founded their own hospital, Misgav Ladach, in the Old City in 1854. They sought highly-qualified physicians and hired those who had obtained European medical degrees and had obtained previous experience in Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Europe.

With the mainstream preferring to become merchants, doctors, lawyers, pharmacists or accountants, the most promising Sephardi youth stayed away from the rabbinate, and, as a consequence, from religious communal service. This had an adverse effect on the the community. With religion playing much more of a secondary role, communal affiliation decreased greatly. After nearly half a century of a secular Israel, with the emphasis on state-building and formulating a secular oriented ethic, when the roots trend of the 1980s arrived it did not make great headway amongst the Sephardi community. Several small cultural organizations and groups were formed, but they remained peripheral. It is significant to note that the aristocrats were vocal in their cynicism towards preserving Ladino as a living, vibrant language and voiced their pessimism as to the chances of its revival. Those most active in Ladino-speaking cultural groups are Turkish immigrants who came to the country after the Second World War .

The aristocrats failed to create a young, continuing generation to carry on the communal functions and organizations. Today, as their children grow older and begin to understand the importance of passing on the traditions to their children and grandchildren, their interest is not enough, since they lack the background to serve as institutional leaders and cultural motivators. Some movement towards Sephardi cultural renewal was generated through the universities, but it has had little, if no effect, on the aristocratic families.

In 1992, the 500 year commemoration ceremonies of the exile of the Jews from Spain, activated the Sephardic Council of Jerusalem, but not most of the aristocrats and their families, and at present they have little connection to the Sephardi organizations. Moreover, the advanced age of many of them prevents them from appearing in public. However, this does not necessarily prevent them from expressing their cultural heritage. Many of the aristocrats have been the subjects of films, books, and newspaper articles. Personalities like the late David Benveniste, who died at the age of 97, published books and articles about the lives of Sephardim from the Balkans, and various aspects of their heritage.

The aristocrats carry their pride, their sense of dignity, and a glorious past until the day they die. Although they are humble in nature, they have been eager to tell of their past and have their achievements and contributions of their families recorded in history. In recent years, much of their materials have been preserved for public and academic use. The Eliashar archive has numerous collections of the memoirs of Jerusalemite Sephardim. The Jerusalem Municipal Archives and that of the Sephardic Council of Jerusalem have not yet been fully exploited by researchers and since the topic of the Jerusalem Sephardim has only recently entered academic historiography, many new sources have yet to be uncovered.


* Yitzhak Kerem, was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1956, and came to Israel in 1977. A researcher on Sephardic Jewry at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, he is also on the history faculty of the University of Thessalonika, Greece. He edits a monthly electronic mail newsletter, Sefarad, and has made films on Sephardic Jewry. He is founder of the Institute for Hellenic Jewish relations at the University of Denver.