Wednesday, February 23, 2011

SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. The Secunda Family of Ukraine

Ukrainian-born Sholom Secunda (b. 1894), star of the Yiddish entertainment world and renowned for such hits as Bei Mir Bist du Shein was-like celebrated Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz- a Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jew of Sephardic descent. Victoria Secunda in her biography of the man; Bei Mir Bist Du Schon; The life of Sholom Secunda, writes:
The Secundas believe that they are descended of Italian Jews who were expelled from Italy in the 16th century and settled in Russia. [1]
The Secundas apparently considered themselves Sephardic Jews (rather than “Italian”). Another member of this family, Arthur Secunda, is described “as the son of a Sephardic Jew who immigrated to the United States from Russia”. [2]

In the book White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness Maurice Berger makes mention of his mother whose maiden name was Secunda. He describes her as follows:

More than anything, my mother's life was shaped by her otherness: the darkness of her skin, eyes and hair; her Sephardic heritage; her Hispanic sounding maiden name. More than once she had been called a spic. More than once she had been called a kike, a hebe, a Jew bastard. More than once she had lost a job because a producer or casting director thought she was 'too dark' or 'too Jewish'.. She was born in Germany in 1920. Her father Norbert Secunda, a research assistant in the mathematics department of the University of Hamburg. [3]

[1] Secunda, Victoria. Bei Mir Bist Du Schon; The life of Sholom Secunda. p.1
see also here
[3] Berger, Maurice. White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whitenes

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. Calahora, a remarkable Sephardic family in Poland

What is the connection between a city in Spain, two Jewish martyrs, a moralist Rabbi, and a Socialist activist?

My upcoming paper (now over 30 pages and counting) explores the history and genealogy of Sephardic Jews who settled in Eastern Europe. It is a subject that I find fascinating and I believe is woefully unexplored.

In the course of my research I stumbled across a remarkable family -about whom I will cite here only several tidbits- namely the Kalahora/Calahora family of Poland.
Dr. Solomon Kalahora, Personal Physician to the Polish Monarch Sygmund August(1520-1572) and his successor King Stephen Bathory (1533-1586), was a Sephardic Jew (in some sources a converso) who settled in Cracow, Poland in the 16th century[1]. Though the Kalahoras (The name would later undergo many variations and changes including: Kolhari, Kolchor, Kolchory, Kalifari, Calaforra, Kalvari, Landsberg Posner, Zweigenbaul, Rabowsky, Olschwitz and Milsky) had come to Poland from Italy, the family name was based on the name of the Spanish town of Calahorra from where the family originated.

Of the Patriarch Solomon’s six children, Moses continued the family branch in Cracow, and Israel Samuel (1560-1640), the Rabbi of Lenchista founded the Poznan branch. One of Israel Samuel’s sons was Matityahu Calahora(pictured, third from top), who according to the contemporary Polish historian, Kochowski was a “well-known physician with an extensive practice in Christian and even clerical circles”. Matityahu’s life came to a violent end when he became embroiled in a religious dispute with a Dominican friar named Havlin. The Russian- Jewish historian Simon Dubnow describes the event, disturbing in its sheer brutality:

The priest invited Calahora to a disputation in the cloister, but the Jew declined, promising to expound his views in writing. A few days later the priest found on his chair in the church a statement written in German and containing a violent arraignment of the cult of the Immaculate Virgin. It is not impossible that the statement was composed and placed in the church by an adherent of the "Reformation or the Arian heresy" both of which were then the object of persecution in Poland. However, the Dominican decided that Calahora was the author, and brought the charge of blasphemy against him. The Court of the Royal Castle cross-examined the defendant under torture, without being able to obtain a confession. Wit- nesses testified that Calahora was not even able to write German. Being a native of Italy, he used the Italian language in his conversations with the Dominican. In spite of all this evidence, the unfortunate Calahora was sentenced to be burned at the stake. The alarmed Jewish community raised a protest, and the case was accordingly transferred to the highest court in Piotrkov. The accused was sent in chains to Piotrkov, together with the plaintiff and the witnesses. But the arch-Catholic tribunal confirmed the verdict of the lower court, ordering that the sentence be executed in the following barbarous sequence: first the lips of the " blasphemer " to be cut off ; next his hand that had held the fateful statement to be burned; then the tongue, which had spoken against the Christian religion, to be excised ; finally the body to be burned at the stake, and the ashes of the victim to be loaded into a cannon and discharged into the air. This cannibal ceremonial was faithfully carried out on December 13, 1663, on the market place of Piotrkov. For two centuries the Jews of Cracow followed the custom of reciting, on the fourteenth of Kislev, in the old synagogue of that city, a memorial prayer for the soul of the martyr Calahora. [2]

Matityahu’s son Michael and his two grandsons were also notable physicians in Poland. Matityahu's brother, Solomon Calahora married the daughter of the Posen physician, Judah de Lima (another Sephardic family that settled in Poland, of whom we shall talk more later).
One of Solomon's sons was Joseph (1601-1696), also known as Joseph Darshan (literally, preacher) of Poznan who authored a popular work on ethical and moral obligations, Yesod Yosef , published in Frankfurt, in 1679 (pictured first from top). Joseph's son, Arye Leib Kalifari, a preacher in Posen was the founder of the Landsberg and Posner families. Arye Leib became the second member of this family to be martyred when he was arrested and tortured by the Catholic authorities in 1735 in the course of a blood libel. Heinrich Graetz describes the event in his History of the Jews:
Adalbert Yablonowitz, a son of a prominent citzizen disappeared from his home and his mutilated body was found in a village near Posen. The Christian population of once charged the Jews with the crime. The majority of the Jews of Posen-fearing violence- fled for their lives. The preacher, Aryeh Leib; the communal representative Jacob ben Pinhas and 2 parnasim Isaac and Hertz were seized and thrown in prison. The preacher and the representative were tortured and died in prison (Arye Leib rebuffed an offer to spare his life if he converted--J.D.) . The trial of the parnasim and 5 other prominent Jews dragged on for nearly 4 years when a foreign community, Vienna, it seems, procured an able advocate who succeeded in proving the innocence of the acccused and the latter were released in 1740. [3]
Aryeh Leib's great-grandson, Solomon Posner (1780-1863) was the author of a family chronicle, Toar Penei Shlomo.

Stanislaw Posner(pictured, fourth from top), pseudonym: Henryk Bezmaski(1868-1930) was a grandson of the aforementioned Solomon Posner and a Polish socialist activist, senator, lawyer and publicist. He also authored Poland as an Independent Economic Unit. See more about him here.


[1]. Calahora was only one of a number of Jewish physicians who settled in Poland at that time. Other notable personages include: Samuel de Lima, Samuel bar Meshulam, Shlomo Ashkenazy, the brothers Levi-Lieberman Fortis Ostila, and Moses Montalto.

[2]. History of the Jews in Russia and Poland by Semen Markovich Dubnow

[3]. Popular History of the Jews by Heinrich Graetz. p. 284

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. More on Rosh's descendants and different approaches to Jewish martyrdom

In a previous post I mentioned Rabbenu Asher (Rosh) and his descendants in Toledo, Spain. I have finally gotten a hold of H.Z. Zimmel's Ashkenazim and Sephardim which sheds some more light on the subject at hand.

R' Asher imported many characteristics from his native country. He introduced the Ashkenazic approach to Talmudic methodology which differed considerably from the Sephardic one. In many ways, Toledan Jewry was as much influenced by him as he and his descendants were influenced by them. The book also mentions his (Rosh's) 2 daughters marrying Sephardim [1].

Zimmel writes: After Rabbi Asher's death in 1327 his son Judah succeeded him in office. According to Zimmel, the 'asherites' -as he calls them- set a striking example of piety modesty and self sacrifice and made a deep impression on both Jews and gentiles.

He mentions that during the anti Jewish persecutions in 1391 as the Christian mobs swept over the Jewish communities with the cry 'baptism or death', it was Judah ben Asher II a great-grandson of the Rosh who followed the example of his forefathers in Germany by killing his family and himself, a deed which was highly praised by Sephardi authors [2]. [3].

We see here an interesting difference in approach to the unfortunate age old Jewish dilemma of baptism or death. Franco-German Jewry on the one hand -since the period of the Crusades- almost always chose the latter option, whereas Iberian Jewry-with few exceptions either chose to emigrate or live as secret Jews (Anusim).

If I remember correctly, it was Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz 1565-1630 ,(known as the Shelah) who attributed this ‘weakening of faith’ among the Sephardim to the widespread study (or at least tolerance) of Philosophy (if anyone can direct me to the exact source, I'd appreciate it).


[1]. Zimmel. H.Z. Sephardim and Ashkenazim . Oxford, 1958. Pg. 22

[2]. Ibid, 32-33 (see original source in Sefer Yuchasin p. 51a).

[3]. Apparently there was also some controversy surrounding this incident.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. Binyamin Ze'ev (Theodore) Herzl's Sephardic Roots

I recently came across an article in the Sephardic Heritage Update newsletter edited by David Shasha, entitled Kelal Yisrael: Definition, History, Facts, Application written by Dr. David Rabeeya. In that piece, Dr. Rabeeya attempts to dispel erroneous notions and stereotypes about Sephardic Jews. What caught my eye was this:

Myth: Theodore Herzl was from Eastern European Ashkenazic stock. He was the only founder of the modern political Zionist movement.

Fact: Herzl came from an assimilated Sephardic/Ashkenazic family that had lived in Hungary for several generations. At least several decades before Herzl’s ideas appeared, another Sephardic Jew, Rabbi Judah Alkalai, of Serbian descent, advocated that a Zionist organization be established in order to negotiate with western powers. He emphasized the necessity for political negotiation with Turkey if a Jewish state was to be established. He also advocated the establishment of a special fund for the purchase and colonization of Palestine.

Actually, Herzl's purported Sephardic background is shrouded in obscurity. The only mention of it is in his conversations with the early English Zionist Jacob de Haas (1872-1937). He told the latter that his paternal grandfather was a Spanish Jew who had been forced to convert to Christianity and had later fled to Constantinople where he re-embraced Judaism. In a different version he traced his descent to a high-ranking converso monk who returned to Judaism while abroad on a mission[1].

The late Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (the younger) claimed that he once met the noted Hassidic historian Aaron Marcus who related to him that Herzl had told him personally, on one occasion, that he was a direct descendant of the noted Sephardic Kabbalist, Rabbi Yosef Taitaczak.

הרצי"ה מציין שהסופר הרב אהרון מרקוס סיפר לו כי בנימין זאב הרצל שהיה מקורב לו מסר לו אישית על היותו צאצא ישיר (בן אחר בן) של ר' יוסף טאיטאצאק‏

(על פי שיחות הרצי"העיטורי כהנים, 126, וכן לנתיבות ישראל חלק ב', מאמר "להצדיק צדיקים

(Interestingly enough, the surname 'taitaczak' shows up in Hungary and in Morroco respectively to this day. It is a subject that merits further research).  
Contemporary Israeli poets, twin brothers Herzl and Balfour Hakak, write about Herzl's Sephardic ancestry as if it were an established fact[2]. Now while it may very well be true, I have yet to come across any hard evidence pointing toward Iberian origins. I would appreciate if anyone could further enlighten me on the subject (UPDATE: The evidence seems to be pointing in the affirmative. Check back on this blog for a new post on Herzl's Sephardic origins).

Dr. Rabeeya touched upon a very interesting and important point however, namely the (forgotten) Sephardic roots of Zionism. Before Herzl came on the scene, forcefully advocating political Zionism, there was the aforementioned Rabbi Alkalay, as well as Rabbi Yehuda Bibas among others (Budapest-born Zionist leader Max Nordau was of Sephardic origin as well), but more on that in a different post.


[1]see "Benjamin Disraeli and the myth of Sephardi superiority" Todd M. Endelman, in Jewish History Volume 10, Number 2 / September, 1996: Page 32.
In a personal email to me, Endelman casts doubt on the claim and writes "As for Herzl's claim, I do not know whether anyone has really taken it seriously and sought to prove or disprove it".

[2]see hereופרט פיקנטי במיוחד: התברר לי שמוצא משפחתו של בנימין זאב הרצל אינו מבודפסט כמו שלמדנו בספרי הלימוד. הרצל היה נצר למשפחה ספרדית ממגורשי ספרד שגרה בזמון (זמלין), עיר הולדתו של הרב ח"י אלקלעי, ובבית הקברות היהודי קבורים אבות אבותיו של חוזה המדינה. משפחתו נדדה לבודפסט, וזה מה שנשאר בדפי ההיסטוריה.
See also Peres, Shimon in The Imaginary Voyage where he writes that Herzl was part Sephardic.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. Sephardic Jews of Ashkenazic descent Part 1

אילן יוחסין משפחת הצרפתי-צרפתי

In a variation of the theme you are all familiar with by now, namely that of Ashkenazic Jews (Particularly in Eastern Europe) of Sephardic descent, I now want to take a moment and discuss an opposite phenomenon. I briefly mentioned in a previous post the sage Rabbenu Asher (known as the Rosh) who was born in Western Germany and moved to Toledo, Spain where he died in 1328. His two sons were known scholars in their own right but little is known about their descendants after that.

More than two centuries before the Rosh, one of the most famous Ashkenazic sages Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (known as Rashi) established his Talmudic academy at Troyes, Champagne in northern France. One of Rashi's daughters Yocheved married the Tosafist sage Meir ben Shmuel, their children were Shmuel (the Rashbam) (1085-1174), Yaakov (Rabbeinu Tam) (c. 1100- c. 1171), and Yitzchak (the Rivam).

In 1306 the French King Phillip the Fair signed an edict of expulsion against all the Jews living in France. We subsequently find the desecendants of the aforementioned Rabbi Yaakov a.k.a. Rabeinu Tam in the Castille region of Spain where they took on the surname Ha-Sarfaty (Hebrew for "the French one"). After the expulsion from Spain in 1492 we come across the figure of Rabbi Vidal Ha-sarfaty I who ministered to the expelled Jews and served as the Rabbi of Fez, Morrocco, a haven for many of the expellees.

There were several subsequent generations of Rabbis of the Sarfaty family (the prefix 'ha' was dropped during the French occupation) with the first name 'Vidal'.

The last of this Rabbinic line was Rabbi Vidal Sarfaty V (1862-1921) {pictured} who was the first to be called with the title "Chief rabbi of Fez". As Rabbi and Jewish communal leader, he used his influence to ease the conditions of Morrocan Jewry who were subjected to unfair treatment by the authorities.

From a letter dated January 30, 1911 by Avram Elmaleh, Head of the Fez boys' school, to the President of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, Paris, we learn of the degrading conditions imposed upon the rabbinical leaders of the Moroccan Jewish community, in connection with “community business” (i.e., such as payment of the jizya), even into the second decade of the 20th century:

I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of your letter No. 1283 of 30 January, enclosing a letter from Rabbi Vidal Sarfaty. The rabbi asks you to intervene with Si Mohamed el Mokri, the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, at present in Paris, for the abolition of the degrading custom imposed on Jews, not to enter Dar el Maghzen (the royal palace in Fez) except barefoot. Unfortunately, the facts given in Rabbi Vidal's letter are correct. Jews must take off their shoes at the gate of Dar-Maghzen. Quite apart from the humiliation involved in this measure, it is an intolerable suffering for our co-religionists to be obliged to stand many hours barefoot on the earth of the Palace courtyard, which is either cold and damp or white-hot from the summer sun. Rabbi Vidal. a regular visitor to the Dar-Maghzen in connection with community business or on behalf of individuals, has often returned ill from a rather too long sojourn in front of the offices. It is my opinion that it would be impossible to obtain an order from the Sultan to allow Jews to enter the Palace with their shoes on. It is a concession which his pride would not permit, and one quite contrary to the Muslim conception of the relative positions of the Jews and themselves.

Rabbi Vidal is also remembered for his custom of riding a white horse into town every Friday afternoon to bid the townsmen shabbat shalom (apparently this custom was instituted only after the French occupation; during the Muslim period, Jews were forbidden to ride horses).

To see the entire genealogical chart of the Sarfaty family click on the photo top left. More information on the family can be found here

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. The Unlikely Ties between Sephardim and Yiddish.

This article reminded of a little known historical fact.

Yitzchak Leibush Peretz (1852-1915)was a well known figure in the emergence of Yiddishism and Yiddish literature in Eastern Europe.

Peretz was born in Zamcoz, Poland and began his career as a lawyer and later as a cemetery caretaker. What is less known about him is that he was came from a prominent Sephardic family. Now,you might ask what is a Sephardic man doing in Poland and writing Yiddish literature no less.

The founders of the Zamocz Jewish community were Sephardic Jews, in fact King Casimir of Poland only permitted Spanish and Portugese Jews (mostly merchants from the Ottoman empire)to settle there.

Another famous historical figure who came from Zamocz was Communist leader Rosa Luxembourg.

Zamocz was an interesting exception to the rule in that it is probably the only exclusively Sephardic enclave known to have existed within overwhelmingly Ashkenazic Poland. The existence of individual Sephardic Jews all over Eastern Europe-almost all of whom became "Ashkenazified"- is another overlooked topic which I will discuss more in depth in another post.

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