Thursday, November 29, 2007

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).

Begin writes:

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 [1].



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 [2].


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 [3].

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.





Notes:

[1].
Begin, Menachem. The Revolt. Nash Publishing Company, 1977. Page 77-78

[2].
ספר צידה לדרך ,ל"ו and cited in Zimmel H.Z. Sephardim and Ashkenazim . Oxford, 1958. page 2.

[3]. see Nizzahon Yashan, # 238 (p. 159 of the Hebrew and 224 of the English), cf.Yehudim mul ha-Tzelav, ed. by Yom Tov Assis

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34 Comments:

At Thursday, November 29, 2007 3:31:00 PM, Anonymous Fotheringay-Phipps said...

Well the guy on top is Kafka. But I think it's hard to tell with these old photos.

 
At Thursday, November 29, 2007 3:51:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

you are correct. I figured I should have gone with someone less famous (like the guy on the bottom).

 
At Thursday, November 29, 2007 4:01:00 PM, Anonymous Fotheringay-Phipps said...

Sorry, what I meant was that it's hard to judge how light or dark someone is from these photos. Kafka could have been lighter than he looks in that picture.

 
At Thursday, November 29, 2007 4:11:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

I've seen several pictures of him and he looks extremely swarthy in all of them. If I passed him on the street, I could have easily mistook him for Yemenite.

By the way, I am not 100 percent certain Kafka was Ashkenazi, there was -after all- a substantial Sephardic presence in Prague as well.

 
At Thursday, November 29, 2007 11:54:00 PM, Anonymous Shimon said...

"By the way, I am not 100 percent certain Kafka was Ashkenazi, there was -after all- a substantial Sephardic presence in Prague as well."

...at least in the fantasy of the 19the century romantic jewry...

 
At Friday, November 30, 2007 9:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but kafka nonetheless looks ashekanzi. he could come straight from a russian shtetl.

 
At Friday, November 30, 2007 2:11:00 PM, Blogger Mottel said...

Kafka I knew right away, which then made the second guy obviously sfard, the question is, who is he?

 
At Saturday, December 01, 2007 7:58:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

"he could come straight from a russian shtetl".


I don't think he looks like a typical Russian Jew. The name 'kafka' too, is an uncommon name

 
At Saturday, December 01, 2007 8:01:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

"the question is, who is he?"

Ammiel Alcalay
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammiel_Alcalay

 
At Sunday, December 02, 2007 8:12:00 PM, Anonymous resh lakish said...

Compare this photo (from Wikipedia), where he looks much

 
At Sunday, December 02, 2007 8:12:00 PM, Anonymous resh lakish said...

woops, forgot to post it
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/93/Kafka1906.jpg

 
At Sunday, December 02, 2007 10:31:00 PM, Blogger Kylopod said...

Or look at this picture.

There were Jews of Sephardic descent in Ashkenazic countries (and vice versa). Parts of my mother's Polish family trace their descent to Spanish Jewry.

I posted on a somewhat related topic recently.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2007 11:09:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

"Compare this photo (from Wikipedia), where he looks much"

Much more what?

 
At Monday, December 03, 2007 11:11:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

"Or look at this picture.

There were Jews of Sephardic descent in Ashkenazic countries (and vice versa). Parts of my mother's Polish family trace their descent to Spanish Jewry".

Who's the guy in the picture?

About The other thing you mentioned, check out my posts on the Yiddish writer Y.L Peretz and Vidal Sarfaty.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2007 5:47:00 PM, Blogger Kylopod said...

Shel Silverstein.

Interesting posts!

 
At Tuesday, December 04, 2007 12:16:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

Thanks.

About Silverstein, I know nothing about him but I did a search on him and apparently there are those who say he was adopted.

 
At Tuesday, December 04, 2007 12:42:00 AM, Blogger Lion of Zion said...

sander gilman has written about non-jewish perceptions of where jewish physical characteristics.

there is also an article by a woman (i forget her name) about whether jews were considered black or white in the antebellum south

 
At Tuesday, December 04, 2007 7:00:00 PM, Blogger Kylopod said...

I see speculation on some sites that Silverstein was adopted. But nowhere is the rumor confirmed. I may have to check some non-Internet sources to find out the truth.

It is not hard for me to believe that he's genetically Jewish. (Look at his nose, for example.) I think his bald head contributes to the illusion that he's black.

 
At Tuesday, December 04, 2007 10:33:00 PM, Anonymous resh lakish said...

there is also an article by a woman (i forget her name) about whether jews were considered black or white in the antebellum south
White and Black were moveable feasts in the south. See Rollins v. State of Alabama (1922), where a court dismissed a miscegenation charge on the basis that a Sicilian woman was not conclusively "white."

 
At Tuesday, December 04, 2007 10:37:00 PM, Anonymous resh lakish said...

Kylopod:

for sure -- think of the Horowitz and Epstein families, who are all descended from the Benvenistis of Spain. There is a well known rabbi in NY who claims descent from Sephardim who moved to Lithuania, where they apparently continued to maintain Sephardi minhagim. Conversely, look at the Rosh and R' Yaacov ben Asher in Spain.

 
At Wednesday, December 05, 2007 3:30:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

"for sure -- think of the Horowitz and Epstein families, who are all descended from the Benvenistis of Spain. There is a well known rabbi in NY who claims descent from Sephardim who moved to Lithuania, where they apparently continued to maintain Sephardi minhagim. Conversely, look at the Rosh and R' Yaacov ben Asher in Spain".

Look out for my upcoming post on this subject.

BTW, the Horowitz's are not related to Epstein as far as i know but rather are leviim and descended from Rabbi Zerahia Halevi author of Hamaor. There were many Sephardic Jews who lived in Lithuania, but like I said look out for more on this in my upcoming post.

 
At Wednesday, December 05, 2007 3:32:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

"there is also an article by a woman (i forget her name) about whether jews were considered black or white in the antebellum south"

I remember reading about the KKK in the south attempting to recruit a Jewish southern family saying that their religion didn't matter, only race. So there were definitely widespread perception of the Jews as 'white'.

 
At Wednesday, December 05, 2007 3:34:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

"White and Black were moveable feasts in the south. See Rollins v. State of Alabama (1922), where a court dismissed a miscegenation charge on the basis that a Sicilian woman was not conclusively "white."

Interesting. The Greeks who came over also dealt with such racism. There were several race riots in Nebraska in the early 20th century, where many Greeks were chased out for being non-white.

 
At Monday, December 24, 2007 8:05:00 PM, Blogger YK said...

Some commentators say that Batya, the Pharao's daughter, knew that Moshe was Jewish when she saw him because he was darker and the Jews were darker at the time.

I refer you to this vid http://youtube.com/watch?v=s4BprD0SStI , where you can see some remarkable fixtures of the pashtuns, perhaps our far away cousins.

YK

 
At Monday, December 24, 2007 8:21:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

That does not sound very plausible.
It's funny that Jews in Egypt- closer to our time- were identified by their light skin.

I remember reading about an Egyptian man in the 60's who took out an ad in a Cairo newspaper complaining about getting attacked on the train. Apparently he was being mistaken for a Jew on account of his light skin.

About the Pashtuns, I don't believe they are related to us. I covered it in the past. See my post here
http://ha-historion.blogspot.com/2007/01/10-lost-tribes-are-still-lost.html#links

 
At Monday, December 24, 2007 10:49:00 PM, Blogger YK said...

True, but in those days we were the slave people, working in the sun for a whole day. That's not the case today, so it's hard to compare.

Are you Italian?

I was in Firenze two months ago and I'm wondering if you have covered this city in either of your blogs.

YK

 
At Tuesday, December 25, 2007 1:24:00 AM, Anonymous Litvak said...

I am the commenter that responded to Marc Shapiro that you mention in your post.

I am happy to see that my comment made such an impression.

Re skin color of Spanish people. I haven't been to Spain, but judging from 'Hispanic' people I have encounted elsewhere, their skin color varies greatly. A Puerto Rican woman I met in NY years ago was very light skinned, despite the common thinking that Puerto Ricans are swarthy. I believe that the upper classes were/are lighter-skinned, and, that they tended not to emigrate, as they tended to be more affluent. So the ones that emigrated to NY and elsewhere were mostly poor and less pure Spanish, rather mixtures of Spanish and native PR's such as Tainos and usually had darker skin. There likely are similar dynamics among other Hispanic groups, such as Mexicans, for example.

Among Sephardic/Edot Hamizrach Jews, Syrians I have met tend to be lighter than Moroccans and Yemenites. There is great variation.

 
At Tuesday, December 25, 2007 8:40:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

""
Are you Italian?

I was in Firenze two months ago and I'm wondering if you have covered this city in either of your blogs.

YK

""

No, I'm not but you might find my other blog interesting http://romaniote.blogspot.com
Do share with us your impressions of Italy.

 
At Tuesday, December 25, 2007 8:43:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

""
Re skin color of Spanish people. I haven't been to Spain, but judging from 'Hispanic' people I have encounted elsewhere, their skin color varies greatly. A Puerto Rican woman I met in NY years ago was very light skinned, despite the common thinking that Puerto Ricans are swarthy. I believe that the upper classes were/are lighter-skinned, and, that they tended not to emigrate, as they tended to be more affluent. So the ones that emigrated to NY and elsewhere were mostly poor and less pure Spanish, rather mixtures of Spanish and native PR's such as Tainos and usually had darker skin. There likely are similar dynamics among other Hispanic groups, such as Mexicans, for example.

Among Sephardic/Edot Hamizrach Jews, Syrians I have met tend to be lighter than Moroccans and Yemenites. There is great variation.

""

The debater was referring to Spaniards from Spain and not 'latinos' or 'hispanics' who didn't exist yet.

Many Morrocans are likewise light-skinned. There are even blonde-haired blue-eyed types among them. You are correct there is a great variety of skin tones.

Thanks for the comment.

 
At Monday, June 02, 2008 4:57:00 AM, Blogger Yehudha said...

Of all the real Sepharadhim that I know, -I mean descendants from Spanish Jews, not Mizrahim- like Spanish anusim, Western Spanish-Portuguese, the majority are light skinned and many have blonde hair and blue eyes. Many Spanish anusim are much lighter than their Catholic countrymen. In Holland the Ashkenazim are sometimes much darker than the Sepharadhim.

 
At Thursday, January 01, 2009 9:07:00 PM, Blogger Mikha'el said...

This has been one of my pet peeves for a while, people who erroneously generalize and say that Sefardi/Mizrahi are "the dark ones" and that Ashkenazim are the "white ones". I remember going to a dinner party several years ago--the host was Ashkenazi American, his wife Ashkenazi Israeli. The guests were mixed assimilated American Jews and non-Jews. In conversation, someone (it may have been me) commented about Sephardic Jews in the course of the evening--I can;t remmeber what the context was. One of the other guests, a black American guy said in all innocence "I've heard these terms "Ashkenazic" and Sephardic" Jews, which are the ones with the funny sidecurls?" and the host (the American Ashkenazi who, married to an Israeli secular Ashkenazi woman, should have known better) said, "No, the ones with the sidecurls are the ORTHODOX--but Sephardic means they are the dark-skinned Jews and Ashkenazic means they are white Jews, and the white Jews discriminated against the black Jews" The black guy who was the guest nodded sagely, the Ashkenazi Israeli wife didn't correct her husband or clarify anything, I tried to elucidate these differences, but nobody was interested! People like their "facts" simple, it seems to me. As the son of a very swarthy Jewish father and someone who knows many light Sephardic/Misrahi Jews (as well as light Arabs) people shjould get their facts straight. Good work.

 
At Wednesday, December 30, 2009 4:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Интересно написано....но многое остается непонятнымb

 
At Thursday, December 31, 2009 12:07:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

Вы для комментария.

 
At Saturday, January 02, 2010 2:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Интересно написано....но многое остается непонятнымb

 

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