Monday, December 24, 2007

Who is the Sephardi and who is the Ashkenazi?

Inspired by the very enthusiastic response to this post, I decided to try this again.
This is not just a simple trivia question but rather an interesting story (I should say two very interesting stories) lies therein.

I originally thought that Rabbi Kaplan- scion of an old Sephardic family (see excerpt later) completely assmilated into the Ashkenazic (chiefly Lithuanian Yeshiva) mileu in which he was raised most of his life. Rabbi Yaakov Shaul Elyashar -on the other hand (bottom photo) was of  (partial) Ashkenazic parentage; his mother remarried a Sephardic Rabbi -after his father died- who had a major influence on the young Yaakov Shaul (then all of 7). He was raised among the Sephardim eventually being appointed Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic community (Rishon Leziyyon). However, it appears that the Elyashars are of Turkish Sephardic ancestry, the only apparent Ashkenazic connection is the latter's grandmother (father's mother) was the daughter of a Rabbi Yeruham from Vilna.

Actually I have come across conflicting information on R. Elyashar. One search turned up this:

רבי יעקב שאול ב"ר אליעזר ירוחם
אלישר. נקרא בפי כל 'יש"א ברכה' (ר"ת משמו). כיהן כרב ראשי וכראשל"צ בירושלם משנת תרנ"ג עד שנתבש"ם בתרס"ו. נכד המקובל ר' ירוחם מווילנא ונין לר' יעקב אשכנזי מווילנא. נולד בצפת ביום כ"ג סיון תקע"ז.
בהיותו בן שבע נתיתם מאביו ואח"ז אמו נישאה לרבי מרדכי נבון (בעל "נחפה בכסף") ויהי לו לאב ולרב. ומאז נתגדל בין חכמי הספרדים ויהי כאחד מבני עדתם, עד כי נמנה לרבם הראשי.

Short synopsis:

Rabbi Yaakov Elyashar - who was later to become the Rishon Leziyyon was descended of Rabbi Yerucham of Vilna , who in turn was descended of R' Yaakov Ashkenazi of Vilna. He (Yisa Bracha) was orphaned at the age of Seven when his father died. His mother then remarried to the Chacham Mordechai Navon who became his stepfather and mentor. From that point on he was raised among the sephardim and 'he became like one of them' untill he was appointed their Chief Rabbi (Rishon Leziyyon).

In the Wikipedia entry for the Elyashar family- however:

ר' חיים יוסף אליישר - נשא לאשה את ביתו של ר' יעקב וילנא. ייתכן ומכאן הטעות בקשר למוצא המשפחה

Translation: Reb Chaim Yosef Elyashar (the paternal Grandfather of the Yisa Bracha) married the daughter of Rav Yaakov Vilna. It is possible that from this originates the erroneous belief as the (Ashkenazic) origin of this family

So in summation, it appears that the Yisa Bracha was indeed descended from Rav Yaakov Vilna but only through the maternal line and the origins of the Elyashar (or Elisar) family lie in Sepharad.

 So in conclusion, both Rabbis Elyashar and Kaplan are of mixed Sephardi-Ashkenazi parentage (Ashkefardi?).

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan mentions his Sephardic ancestry in the introduction to his Passover Haggadah:

He writes:

A number of people have inquired about the parenthesized "Carmona" after my name. This was the original family name of my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Kaplan (Carmona). The name denotes the place from which out family originated, a city in southern Spain, not far from Seville. Upon arriving in the United States around the turn of the century my grandfather changed his name to the more Ashkenazic sounding Kaplan for business reasons. (Incidentally, "kaplan" means tiger in Turkish.) Although I was educated in Ashkenazic yeshivoth such as Torah Vodaath and Mir, I have maintained a strong link with my Sephardic background. The MaAm Lo'ez project merely brings it full cycle.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

A lament on Jewish passivity: a Kibbutznik take on a Hebrew Chronicle of the Chmielnicki massacres

The Sefer Yeven Metzulah was written by Rabbi Natan Nata Hanover, a survivor of the Chmielnicki-led massacres of Jews in Poland and Ukraine in 1648-1649 [1]which came to be known as גזירות ת"ח ות"ט.

This edition (pictured) was published in Tel Aviv in 1966 by the Socialist Zionist ha-kibbutz ha-meuchad publishing house. In the introduction to this edition, the poet Yaakov Fichman expounds upon the nature of this work and the rich literary style employed by its author . The last paragraph of the introduction- in particular- caught my eye as it sheds light on the thinking of the Kibbutzniks 'of old' and the frustration and anger that reverberated even to that day over the passivity and meekness displayed by Jews in 'exile' (culminating in the Holocaust). It also helps explain the resentment many Eastern European Jews developed toward a leadership (particularly a religious leadership) they felt had acted cowardly and betrayed them [2].

Bear in mind that this was written one year before the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967.

(Translation is mine):

When reading this book one can not help but draw a parallel between the events of that time and our current situation. Bearing in mind that the Jewish concentrations were at quite a distance of each other and transportation was difficult- how encouraging is the fact that all the Jewish communities, both near and far spared no effort in sending assistance to the stricken Jews and redeeming their captives. The Jewish heart feels the pain of his distant brothers and is filled with kindness and mercy towards them. At the same time, the epic tragedy of all this lies in the fact that the Jews (in the affected lands) hesitated to fight back and wreak vengeance upon their enemies -even when they had the chance to do so. Typical of this was the behavior of the Jews of Tulcyn. When the Jews of that town realized that they had been double crossed by the Poles (who were ostensibly their "allies") they sought to avenge themselves (first) on the Polish noblemen for betraying them. At that point, the Rosh Yeshiva stood up and loudly proclaimed ''o hearken to me brothers and sisters, we are in exile among the nations, if you will strike the noblemen, all the kings of edom will hear and they will then seek revenge by attacking our brothers in their lands, g-d forbid. Therefore, if it is decreed from heaven (that we die), we shall accept it gladly, with joy''.

Fichman continues:

This was the galut mentality (הפסכילוגיה הגלותית) that reigned at the time and -which for 300 years -we are trying to uproot but -to our great shame and regret- we have not met with success. To this day, this mentality is still among us, this "tradition'"of stretching out our collective throats to the knife- which serves to inflame the blood lust of our enemies. Even in our day, when we have the opportunity to assert ourselves and we need not hesitate and be unsure, or to ask for whom to live and whom to die, we still have not matured as a nation with self respect. We have only produced a small number of people who were willing to stand up while the rest of the nation sat back. They are still waiting for others to rescue them. They have not yet come to realization that the future of Israel and their very lives depend on the readiness and willingness to sacrifice, both in body and in spirit [3].


[1]. For more background on the Chmielnicki massacres see Graetz

[2]. For more on this, see Steg's comment to my post here and my response. See also what inspired Chaim Potok's fictional 'Am Kedoshim society'. Conversely, see Hungarian Rabbi Michael Weissmandel's scathing criticism of the Zionist leadership of his time for abandoning the Jews of Europe to their fate ('Ten questions to the Zionists') where he states: We must depose the atheist-Zionist "statesmen" from their role as Jewish leaders, and return to the faithful leadership of our sages.

[3]. ספר יון מצולה להרב נתן נטע הנובר. הוצאת הקיבוץ המאוחד תשכ"ו. 13-14

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Rabbis teaching Kabbalah to non-Jews: not a new phenomenon

Madonna embraces Kabbalah, Hollywood celebrities flock to the Kabbalah center

Think this is something completely new? not exactly.

In Transaction By Jewish Historical Society of England, Rabbi Dr. Herman Adler, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire has a very interesting article about the enigmatic figure of Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Falk, known as the 'Baal Shem of London'[1]. The paper seeks to dispel the hagiography which seems to have surrounded Falk -at least in England where he was apparently held in high esteem. R' Adler writes:

R' David Azulai (Chida) in his small book Maagal Tov (p.13) mentions that when in Paris in 1778, he met the Marquis de Toma and the Marchesa de Croua (in in his previously published unedited article Adler gives the name as de Crona-H), who had saved many Jews from falling into the clutches of the Inquisition. This high-born dame intimated to Rabbi Azulai that the Baal Shem of London had taught her practical Kabballah-a circumstance which greatly roused the ire of the worthy Rabbi[2].

Later R' Adler excerpts the relevant passage from Chida's travelogue מעגל טוב:

On Thursday, the Marquis de Toma came with the Marchesa de Croua. She sat with me and asked that I might pray for her. She afterwards said that she studied the scriptures, and that she had visions of angels and demons who spoke to her. She gave a louis as a charitable gift for Hebron, and mentioned the Baal Shem of London. She said that the Jew gave her a book on Kabbalah, and she told some other remarkable things. I answered her accordingly. Afterwards she said that she was a very highly placed princess, that she had saved many Jews from the Inquisition, that she was the daughter of a Marquis and other exaggerations. How much mischief did this so called Baal Shem work, who in his conceit and arrogance revealed practical kabbalah and conjuration to many prices and princesses to aggrandize himself! Many asked me about him [3].

Intrigued, I did a google search (what else..) on the aforementioned Madame de Crona (or Croua), which sadly turned up no results. But it's safe to assume that she was the equivalent of a modern day celebrity, a Parisian socialite, probably of royal blood.

Some wonder why it is that so many celebrities (Madonna being the most notorious among them) "get into" Kabbalah.

To me it seems quite simple. Eastern mysticism has always held an allure to westerners. It used to be Hinduism, Buddhism etc. now its Kabbalah.

It's interesting to note that in ancient Rome many of the aristocrats were likewise drawn to exotic eastern religions (with Judaism considered to be one of the most prominent) and many of the Roman nobility and upper class; the celebrities of Rome, practiced these faiths and followed its ritual either overtly or covertly. This later made it easier for Paul (or Shaul of Tarshish who some claim was a disciple of Rabban Gamaliel) to peddle his creed to the Greeks and the Romans, as they were already accustomed to many Judeo ideas and beliefs.

[1]. It is interesting to note that the once widely circulated image of the Baal Shem Tov-the founder of the Chassidic movement-in in fact a portrait of Falk.
[2]. On the issue of the prohibition against teaching gentiles Torah (אין מוסרין דברי תורה לעכו"ם see tractate Chagiga 13a), there were of course many cases of Rabbis who did teach gentiles (Eliyahu Bachur, Da Modena to name a few). However that was often defended by asserting that the issur only applies if it is done out of religious conviction but not if the motivation is purely 'love of knowledge'. Interestingly, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg writes that the term מוסרין (transmitting) used by the Talmud (ibid) indicates that the prohibition is only against transmitting סתרי תורה literally 'the mysteries of the Torah' (see שרידי אש ח"ב נה-נו) which would make this whole phenomenon doubly problematic.

[3]. Ironically, we may also discern from the writings of the master Lurianist Rabbi Hayyim Vital, a desire (probably never translated into action) to transmit such mystical secrets to Christians, particularly those in positions of great power. In one of his (Vital's) dreams committed to writing, he reported that he arrived in Rome only to be arrested by the officials of the "Roman Caesar". He is then brought to the "Caeser", and the latter orders the hall cleared. "We were left by ourselves. I said to him: 'on what grounds do you want to kill me? all of you are lost in your religions like blind men. For there is no truth but the Torah of Moses, and with it alone can exist no other truth'. He responded: 'I already know this and so I sent for you. I know that you are the wisest and skilled of men in the wisdom of truth. I want you to reveal me some of the secrets of the Torah and the name of your blessed lord, for I already recognized the truth'...then I told him a bit of wisdom [of the Kabballah] and I awoke." see Moshe Idel's article Italy in Safed, Safed in Italy, p. 249

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Ashkenazic families of Sephardic descent and a word about bigotry

Not long ago, I came across this story:

Leaving aside the obvious chillul hashem such stories generate (just do a google search and see for yourself how many anti-Semitic websites picked up this story and relished it with gusto), it also struck me how ridiculous the terminology (the princpal is using) is. I am willing to bet that a cursory glance at that individual's family tree would uncover more than a few such stains.

At the risk of causing hardship to many Ashkenazi children, I am about to release a bombshell (tongue in cheek). As someone who has long had an interest in Jewish genealogy I have discovered that many of the most prominent Ashkenazi Haredi families in have numerous such 'stains' in their genealogy. The following is a very partial list:

* The Skulen Hassidic dynasty founded by Bessarabian Rabbi Eliezer Zusia Portugal, and later transplanted to Brooklyn, NY. This family is descended of Jews expelled from Portugal in the 15th century who relocated to Roumania, hence the surname. In fact R' Eliezer was known to often sign his name with the appellation מיוצאי פורטוגל ( literally 'of the exodus from the kingdom of Portugal')

*The Vizhnitz Chassidic dynasty (The Hager family also of Roumania) also has a tradition of Sephardic descent. According to family lore the name derives from the fact the family fled Spain to Holland (the Hague).

*The Epstein-Halevi family of Lithuania is descended from the Sephardic Benvensite family members of which settled in Ebstein, Germany before moving further east into Lithuania [1]. The Horowitz-Halevi family (members of which include the Bostoner Rebbe of Boston and Jerusalem)also claims descent from this family. See here and here

* Rebbe Chai Yitzchok Twersky, Grand Rabbi of the Chassidic Rachmastrivka sect based in Brooklyn, NY and Israel is descended from the Colorful Sephardic Rabbi and scholar Chayyim Yosef David Azulai (known as the Chida) on his maternal side.

It is interesting to note that R' Azulai himself was Ashkenazic on his maternal side (his mother was the daughter of Yosef Ben Pinchas Biala who came to the holy land with the mystic Rabbi Yehuda Chasid in 1700 -not to be confused with the medieval Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ha-chasid) and even understood Yiddish.

Several other prominent Haredi Rabbis are also descended from R' Azulai including Rabbi Baruch Mendelbaum Admor of Turav-Stolin, Rabbi Eliezer Brizel, and the brothers Rabbi Avraham and Mendel Atik (See the family tree below). Interestingly, there was plenty of intermarriage between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the old Yishuv. This is no longer the case.

*The first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi was descended from a Portugese Jew named R' Baruch Portugeli. Among the Chabad Chassidim in Russia were also many Sephardic Jews who settled in the region including the Chen family, the Don-Yichye (also Charlap, Sahr) family (more on this prestigious family some other time). It is noteworthy that anti-Sephardic racism is almost unheard of in Chabad.

This should all be superfluous since almost all Ashkenazim have some Sephardic ancestry[2] (after all Avraham Avinu was an Iraqi..) . The Kabbalists -that the Chassidim admire and follow-are almost all Sephardim. The Arizal himself was an Ashkefardi (a term I coined to denote someone who is half-Sephardic and half-Ashkenazic). There is plenty more to say on this subject but I'll leave it for now.


[1]. See מקור ברוך חלק א by Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein where he mentions this tradition. There are numerous other Lithuanian families who were once Sephardim including the Wein family, Carmel family (Eliashiv(?) and many others. See Shlomo Katzav hasfardim asher belita for a listing of all the Sephardic families who settled in Lithuania.

[2]. One personage who shows up in many Ashkenazic family trees is Rabbi Akiva Katz of Uban (old Budapest) who had 12 sons and 12 daughters and who was descended from Rabbi Akiva Kohen Tzedek of Salonika, A Sephardic Jew.

For my previous posts mentioning some prominent Ashkenazim of Sephardic descent and conversely, that of Sephardim of Ashkenazic descent see here here here and here.

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