Wednesday, May 12, 2021

I’ve always been interested in the formation of various Jewish diasporas and how they rarely fit a lineral and neat narrative. I am particularly interested in how the labels “Sephardic” and “Ashkenazic” have become set in stone relatively recently (a similar phenomenon can be observed in the Medieval period for Karaites and Rabbanites, but that’s a separate article).

Back in 2009, I contacted the renowned Israeli historian of the chasidic movement Dr. Isaac Alfasi. Growing up and always being interested in history, I had come across his many books on the history of the chasidic movement. I always assumed that his decidedly non-Ashkenazic sounding surname was a hebraization or perhaps he really wasn’t an Ashkenazi. When I discovered that his family has deep roots in Poland and were members of the Gerrer sect, I was intrigued and wanted to find out more. I took a bus to Tel Aviv where he resides in a pretty hard-to-find neighborhood. Alfasi is a throwback to the days when Tel Aviv contained a significant “ultra-Orthodox” population, including not a few significant chasidic Rebbes who were unabashedly religious Zionist. Alfasi’s family had settled in Tel Aviv several decades before the establishment of the state. He grew up within throwing distance of the original shul of the Rebbes of the Ruzhin branch who would dress up in their Sabbath finery and recite the Hallel for Israel Independence Day (paranthetically, Alfasi also authored a book on chasidim and the Zionist movement). Eventually most of the children of these Rebbes moved to places like Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, and gradually (and sadly) the walls between Israel’s secular and religious populations went up and changed a lot of things. Alfasi had stayed behind all these years and he invited me to his home for an interview.

He started out by recounting to me an exchange he once had with Israeli Prime Minister David ben Gurion. Alfasi, who served as president of the Israeli branch of B’nai B’rith in the 1950s, was asked by the elder statesman, “Are you a Sephardi or an Ashkenazi?”

“I am a Sephardic Jew from Poland,” came Alfasi’s reply.

Ben Gurion was nonplussed, Alfasi recalls. “How can one be a Sephardi from Poland?” Alfasi then explained to him that indeed Sephardim had settled in various parts of Poland and that he happened to be descended from one of those families.

In an article posted on the Israeli online news site YNET (March 13, 2007), the genealogist Orit Lavie explores the roots of her own Alfasi forbears from Krakow, Poland. According to Lavie (translation mine):

“My connection to the Sephardic diaspora begins in the second half of the 19th century…[my ancestor] Yaakov Alfos was a descendant of Rabbi Avraham Alfos-Alfasi of Opoczno, Poland. The surname Alfasi denotes origins in Fez, Morocco, and the reader might ask what connection could there possibly be between Alfasi and Poland? One of the most well-known members of this family was the famed Talmudist Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, known also by the acronym RIF. He was born in Algeria and eventually relocated to Fez, Morocco. At the end of his life he resided in Spain, and one of his descendants apparently ended up in Poland.”

Lavie pointedly concludes her piece:

“The saga of this family indicates that the perceived divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is not as wide as it seems, and the distance between these two Jewish diasporas is a lot closer than is commonly thought.”

Isaac Alfasi passed away in 1103. Born in Fez in 1013, he is also known as the Rif. He compiled the first codification of Jewish law, called Sefer Halachot. It still appears today in every volume of the Talmud. Rabbi Joseph Caro later used it as a basis for his work. Sefer Halachot was the most important codex until Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.

Lavie mentions her own Alfasi antecedents arriving in Poland from the Sephardic diaspora at some point in the distant past. One must recall that Jewish diasporas were rarely stagnant; there were constant comings and goings from Sephardic centers to Ashkenazic centers and vice versa. As early as the 11th century, there was travel by Spanish scholars to Germany as well as by German and French scholars to Iberia. One of the most famous Ashkenazi scholars to settle in Spain was Rabbi Asher ben Jechiel, who relocated from Germany to Toledo in the 14th century (see, for instance, “Relations Between Spanish and Ashkenazi Jewry in the Middle Ages” by Avraham Grossman in “The Sephardic Legacy” by Haim Beinart).

Dr. Alfasi wrote a short history of his family titled “The History of the Alfes-Alfasi Family.” Evidently some branches of the family spelled the name a bit differently. The Alfes family (who were not chasidim) was renowned in Vilna, especially the writer Benzion Alfes (1851-1941) who authored “Maaseh Alfes,” a collection of Jewish tales with an ethical and moralistic aim—and which were meant to counteract the literature being produced by radical maskilim.

How much credence can we lend to the family’s claim of descent from the Rif? How does a Jew from North Africa end up in Poland?

To be continued...

By Joel Davidi Weisberger

 You can contact the author at [email protected]