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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At Sunday, December 09, 2007 4:15:00 AM, Blogger Kylopod said...

While you present some interesting facts, I think the news story you mention falls roughly into the "man bites dog" category. I doubt that the vast majority of Haredim would ever argue that Sephardim are racially inferior to Ashkenazim.

At Monday, December 10, 2007 4:08:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Unfortunately it's an all too common phenomenon in the Charedi community in Israel. Thankfully we don't have it here in the United States.

At Monday, December 10, 2007 6:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am quite perplexed by the whole situation. Why are gedolim letting this happen? Why would the ruchnius of a yid be any less if they have both ashkenaz and sefaradi blood in them. I see no mokor for this.

At Monday, December 10, 2007 6:59:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

It has allot to do with the inter cine political warfare between the Ashkenazic Charedi parties and the powerful Shas party. Just peruse through the Charedi news forums to get some idea of the animosity between the sides.

At Tuesday, December 11, 2007 1:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This whole post is misplaced. I don't think anyone thinks Sefardim are racially impure, and all Ashkenzaim realize that they are spending an enormous amount of time studying the works of great Sefardim throughout the generations. The entire issue revolves around the Sefardim in the present generation, many of whom have a different culture and ideology than the Ashkenazim, and one that the latter are not seeking to adopt. Which is not to justify it, of course, but only to note the nature of it, such that posts such as this one miss the point entirely.

Personally, I think the major difference between Israel & the US in this regard is money - most of the Sefardim in EY are poor Moroccans, while America has mostly rich Syrians. But someone I know in EY recently claimed that the difference is that in the US there are not so many of them, so that they are more influenced by Ashkenazi ways, while in EY there are a lot more and they keep to the (current) Sefardi culture.

Re the gedolim, ISTM that they are powerless in the face of market forces. R' Shach in particular was known as a big time patron of the Sefardim, but with all that, the reality exists.

Someone told me a story of a Sefardi whose kid was rejected for an Ashkenazi school. The principal told the guy "why don't you send him to a Sefardi yeshiva?", and the guy responded "no, I want to send my son to an Ashkenazi one". To which the principal replied "so do I".

It's something of an insoluble problem. If a given principal decides to "do the right thing" and take in unlimited Sefardim, his school would immediately fill up with Sefardim, hemorrage Ashkenazim, and soon even Sefardim who want to send their kids to "an Ashkenazi yeshiva" won't want to send their kids there.

And what complicates the issue even further is that there ARE actual differences in culture between A & S, many of which are not favorable to S, from the perspective of A. While one would like to see everyone judged as individuals, that's asking a lot from most people, and especially in this particular case. This is because one aspect of Sefardim that differentiates them is that they frequently contain elements of religious and secular culture which makes them very hard to pigeonhole (which is why you see stories about girls throwing their underwear on the tomb of R' Yonason ben Uziel).

The whole thing is a very sorry situation and not a simple one either.

At Tuesday, December 11, 2007 5:07:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Thank you for your comment Fotheringay.

First a joke if I may:

A Litvak talmid chacham dies and goes to heaven. His Mitzvot and Aveirot are weighed and lo and behold his aveirot outweigh the mitzvot. A voice booms out 'take him to gehenna'. 'wait!' he cries 'I learned all my life, i am the foremost expert on Rambam , I wrote an entire peirush on Mishneh Torah!'. 'ok' says the voice 'let us call the Rambam and see what he has to say about your work'. The Rambam is summoned, takes a look through the Litvaks peirush, raises his head with alook of disdain 'this man had no idea what I was taking about, he misconstrued and misinterpreted everything I wrote in the YAd!'

The Litvak -now livid at this slight- exclaims angrily: 'what does a frenk (derogatory term for Sephardim) know about a rambam!'

The sad truth is that racist and elitist attitudes do exist in many circles of the Charedi community. Again, many of us are shocked by this because we are accustomed to the 'rich Syrians' or 'wealthy persians' who -if anything' look down on the Ashkenazim. But in Israel this is a very real and very sad relaity, it's time to stop the denial.

You raised a valid point, namely that of differences in culture and mentality. However this does not excuse stories such as the one I cited above. Or how about Sephardim who have become completely Ashkenazified and are virtually indistinguishable from their Charedi Ashkenazi brethren, yet you will be hard pressed to find Ashkenazi Charedim who would want to be meshadech with them.

Rav Shach whom you refer to as a 'big time patron of the Sephardim' also had an unmistakably patronizing attitude toward the group. He is most famously remembered for his utterance -after the Shas party was formed- that the Sephardim were not yet ready for leadership on their own.

At Tuesday, December 11, 2007 5:35:00 PM, Blogger Kylopod said...

"The sad truth is that racist and elitist attitudes do exist in many circles of the Charedi community. Again, many of us are shocked by this"

I'm not shocked at all by racism and elitism in the Haredi community (not to mention the larger Orthodox community). That's a well-known fact. The only surprise is who the target of the racism is. I should mention, though, that it serves as a lesson: this is where Ortho-racism ultimately leads. To Jews being racist against other Jews. I made that point about a month ago following the controversy over a Yated writer's statement that Yemenite Jews smell.

At Thursday, December 13, 2007 4:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The joke is (one form of) a classic old joke, but is irrelevant to this issue, because in fact this attitude does not exist in that context, as I wrote earlier. No one EVER makes a distinction between the statures of Sefardim and Ashkenazim, until you get to those of very recent generations (i.e. after the Kaf Hachaim) or obscure seforim.

Of course it's true that "racist and elitist attitudes do exist in many circles of the Charedi community", much as they do in virtually every other community in the world (including, to an even greater degree, the Sefardic community). My point is that the issue is intermingled with other points, and can't be dismissed as simple racism. (And more specifically, that there's nothing ironic in pointing out that so-and-so is descended of Sefardim, since that doesn't address the real issue.) Of course there will be instances where this attitude is not justified, and there is some element of xenophobia involved. But the larger phenomenon is not of the nature that you described, and even the specific egregious instances are not based on racial purity or other such nonsense.

I myself would not want to be meshadech with a Sefardi. If I was a Sefardi I would not want to be meshadech with an Ashkenazi. In general, like should marry like, in my opinion, and the opinion of many many others. It's naive to wave away deep-rooted cultural influences based on superficial similarities. You could marry someone because they seem similar to anyone else when hanging out and shmuessing, only to find that their notion of the family structure and roles of the various members and their notions of marital and family relationships differ greatly from your own. And that's in addition to different attitudes towards religious observance & differences in customs etc.

Re R' Shach, there's nothing wrong with his remark, which was true. And even if you disagree with it, it's a defendable opinion that doesn't show anything racist about his attitude towards Sefardim.

At Friday, December 14, 2007 8:22:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Perhaps I shouldn't have use the term 'racist' but we are arguing about semantics here and I like to think of myself as anti-semantic :)

I don't necessarily disagree with many of your points, I too think that 'like should stick with like'. In fact I am backhandedly glad that some Ashkenazi Yeshivot do not admit Sephardim. I think it's high time the Sephardim in Israel overcome their inferiority complex and establish yeshivot-as in the past- to rival those of the Ashkenazim. At the same time, stories like the one I mention do occur and whether the reason(s) behind it are racial, cultural or otherwise , it is all equally inexcusable and needs to stop.

At Friday, December 14, 2007 9:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not equally inexcuable, though I agree that much of it needs to stop.

Regardless, the point is that your notion that "the absurdity of Ashkenazic Charedi racism" can be demonstrated by pointing to examples of prominent Ashkenazim who are descended from Sefardim, which was the main thrust of your post, is incorrect and misses the point.

At Friday, December 14, 2007 9:32:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

It's right on target as far as the story I mention is concerned.

At Monday, December 24, 2007 8:02:00 PM, Blogger YK said...


Following your post in my blog, I got here and I really like your blog, we share common interests.

I believe this segregation between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is more of a problem in the big Jewry centers, namely, Israel and the US. That is a problem that exists and since I'm not originally from either country I was able to feel this when I was in both countries.

However, in the smaller centers, this problem is usually much less strong. For instance, I know a few Sephardi community that refuse to marry their people into Ashkenazi households.

There's no standard here, it varies from place to place. The root of the problem is the yeshivish belief that everything must be uniform and whatever sticks out is bad. That is a subject for another post, but the uniqueness and difference between us is what makes us all special. This recent trend ignores that, causing embarassing situations like the one you mentioned.

Read this post:



At Monday, December 24, 2007 8:45:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...


I think it's much more of a problem in Israel than it in the US (or anywhere else in the world for that matter).

At Tuesday, December 25, 2007 9:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most dubious line in the entire essay [which is otherwise very good]:

"Ashkefardi (a term I coined to denote someone who is half-Sephardic and half-Ashkenazic)"

I think as long as one has not been living under a rock, and does live in a Jewish community with large populations of both Ashkenazim and Sefardim - rest assured he has heard this term before your coinage. As a self professed historian though, it make an interesting post if you were to dig up where the first usage of the term arose.

At Tuesday, December 25, 2007 11:22:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Thanks for the compliment.

As for the dubious reference,In all honesty,I have thought of this word a long time ago, perhaps I was מכוון to an earlier source. I don't know where it originates from though -you are correct- it would make an interesting post.

At Wednesday, September 14, 2011 11:30:00 PM, Blogger ישבב הסופר said...

I noticed a number of inaccuracies as well as some missing information.
R' C.Y.D. Azulai - the grandfather of much of Ashkenazic yerushalayim's families, CLAIMED to be a grandson of the CHID"A. This has been disputed by many, and there is absolutely no proof that it is true. he was, however, sephardic, so your point is still applicable. His wife was askenazic though, and that's probably why his daughters married ashkenazim. [Notice that they all had Ashkenazi names "Raizel" "Faigel" etc.]

Reb Boruch Mandebaum z"l was not an Admur or Stolin -Turov, and he wasn't a grandson to Azulai. He was the Rav in Turov, and a Stoliner Chassid. His son Reb Yaakov Mandelbaum, [of the Mandelbaum Gate] was a son in law to Azulai.

At Thursday, September 15, 2011 4:35:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

"This has been disputed by many, and there is absolutely no proof that it is true."

I guess there are no records to ascertain if his claim is correct or not. It is strange though, because HIDA died in 1806, which is not THAT long ago..

At Thursday, September 15, 2011 4:36:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Thanks for the correction about the Stoliner, I will correct it.

By the way, what are your sources (for both the questionable connection to Hida and the stoliner connection)?

At Friday, September 16, 2011 2:17:00 PM, Blogger ישבב הסופר said...

The יחוס מפוקפק is discussed at length here:
[this is an ultra-orthodox hebrew blog, where I regularly write, under my pen name ישבב הסופר.]

As to my sources regarding the Mandelbaum - Stoliner connection, I am a Stoliner Chassid and I descend from a family of Stoliner Chassidim who lived in Yerushalayim. While studying in Israel I researched Yerushalmi families as a hobby.

At Friday, September 16, 2011 2:30:00 PM, Blogger ישבב הסופר said...

For those who would like to save time from reading the rapid-fire discussion on the Otzar blog, suffice it to say that Professor Meir Bnayahu, who wrote an academic work on the HIDA, sees this family's Yichus to HIDA as an urban legend.

At Saturday, September 17, 2011 6:12:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

And I'm sure the individual, who perhaps for reasons of self-aggrandizement, named his son 'Hayyim Yosef David', which certainly helped perpetuate that myth.

T'is indeed strange. In attempting to track down the descendants of Hida, I came across some interesting characters, virtually all of whom lived in Western Europe.

At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 10:39:00 PM, Blogger Bengur said...

Concerning Shneur Zalman of Liadi, "On the Main Line" blog gives an interesting version of what the name "Shneur" really means:

Basically, it's an Ashkenazi pronunciation of a name "Senior". Now, if Shneur of Liadi was really Sephardic, then his given name makes perfect sense.


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