Are Sephardim 'black' and Ashkenazim 'white'?
Marc Shapiro writes here:
I read about the outrage taking place in Emanuel, where in the local Beit Yaakov Sephardi students are being segregated from Ashkenazim to the extent that the two are not even permitted to play together. The Shas party has referred to this as nothing less than Apartheid, which it surely is.What’s next? Mehadrin buses where the Sephardim sit in the back? Of course, when this happens the justification given will once again be that Ashkenazim are on a higher spiritual level and that’s why they can’t sit with Sephardim, not that they are racist, chas ve-shalom.I mention this because R. Mazuz has made a comment that is relevant in this regard. Speaking to Ashkenazim who like to imagine the tannaim as “white”, he has called attention to Negaim 2:1, where R. Yishmael states that Jews are neither black nor white, but in between. In other words, the tannaim looked like Sephardim.
One of the commenters then noted:
Is that necessarily so ? Ashkenazic Jews are not generally white either like certain European non-Jews are and there are some Sepharadim that are quite light - so to say that Sepharadim are dark and Ashkenazim are light is not totally correct.
I was reminded about something the late Menachem Begin wrote in his memoir The Revolt.
(Context: Begin is discussing a unique group within the Etzel Jewish undeground -which he commanded -called the 'shock troops'. The unit's mission was to spy on the Arab population and thus was composed mostly of Jews from Arab countries who-because of their dark features and familiarity with the language- could easily blend in).
but it is not only the people from Arab countries that are dark skinned. There are many Ashkenazi Jews from Europe who are no less dark- and are sometimes darker- than the purest Sephardi (Here Begin commits the common error of conflating Sephardi and Mizrachi JW). The only two members of the unit I knew personally came from Lodz in Poland .
The difference in appearance between Sephardim and Ashkenazim however is already noted by 14th century Spanish Rabbi, Menachem Ben Aaron Ibn Zerach:
It is well known that the appearance of people in Germany is different from that of the people of Spain and that of the Ethiopian is different again by reason of the climate, the varying strength of the sun which affects the air, and consequently the plants and fruits vary. Those partaking of them change accordingly. Hence the difference in Language and appearance. This is known to every wise man .
It is also interesting to note that in a medieval disputation between a Christian friar and a Jewish Rabbi the question was posed why Jews are dark skinned and not 'fair and attractive' like the gentiles (who were presumably white(?). The Rabbi in question replied that this is because Jewish women refrain from marital relations during their menstruation cycle .
See also here how 17th century Sephardim in the new world dealt with contentions that they were anything less than white.
And who doesn't appreciate some good old fasioned trivia.
Guess who is the Sephardi and who is the Ashkenazi in these photos. The aforementioned commenter's point is well taken indeed.
. Begin, Menachem. The Revolt. Nash Publishing Company, 1977. Page 77-78
. ספר צידה לדרך ,ל"ו and cited in Zimmel H.Z. Sephardim and Ashkenazim . Oxford, 1958. page 2.
. see Nizzahon Yashan, # 238 (p. 159 of the Hebrew and 224 of the English), cf.Yehudim mul ha-Tzelav, ed. by Yom Tov Assis