May 25, 2024
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Overlooked Pathways of Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe

What has been overlooked in this debate is the role of other centers of Jewry in the founding and sustaining of the Eastern European Jewish center. Other points of origin, for instance, the arrival of Jews from the Ottoman Empire to the lands of the Polish Lithunanian commonwealth, as well as Ottoman-controlled parts of Eastern Europe, such as Podolia and Transylvania. Although the documentation is scanty, my research has shown, based on archival documents as well as family traditions, that a significant number of Jews from the aforementioned places settled and stayed behind in Eastern Europe.

Let us focus on the Jews of Hungary as an example.

Sephardic Jews made their way to Hungary immediately after their expulsion from Spain. We have the remarkable tale of Shlomo Senior (or Seneor, who was closely related to Avraham Senior, the second most prominent Jew in the Crown of Aragon after Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel).

Senior arrived in Buda after the expulsion and quickly ingratiated himself into the Hungarian upper class, changing his name to Etil (Atilla) and learning the Hungarian language. He eventually became close to King Lajos (Louis) II, who appointed him as chancellor of the treasury. However, a scandal soon erupted when it was discovered that he carried on an affair with a Christian woman. In order to avoid punishment and/or to further his career he had himself baptized in circa 1510 (a sad irony considering his previous circumstances). His new Christian name was now “Imre Szerencses” (later Emericus Fortunatus or Emeric the Fortunate). He left his Jewish wife and two sons, married a Christian woman and retained his position as the king’s treasurer. It wasn’t long before he made some powerful enemies in the king’s court, who blamed him for various things that went wrong, including a series of defeats at the hands of Hungary’s implacable foes, the Ottoman Turks. (The victory of the Ottomans over the Hungarians and subsequent Turkish control of Buda resulted in the arrival of a significant number of Sephardi settlers who flourished there for about a century until its reconquest by the Hungarians.)

Senior was eventually caught up in yet a new scandal that involved the debasement of Hungarian coinage—minting money worth about half its face value—in 1521. The king had Senior imprisoned and, before long, a death sentence loomed on the unfortunate man. However, he was released after a large sum of money was paid on his behalf. After his release he celebrated at his house with friends and family. The raucous celebrations soon attracted an outraged mob, which proceeded to attack and ransack his house. Remarkably, Senior was able to convince the magnates that he was able to restore the financial situation of the royal court and, as a result, he was entrusted with the profitable copper mines at Fuggers. A few weeks before the Battle of Mohács (which was to end in a historic Turkish conquest of the city of Buda) he donated a large amount of money to support the city’s defenses against the Turks. The date of his death is uncertain, but it is assumed that he died around the time of the aforementioned battle.

Interestingly enough, a contemporary rabbinical responsum later claimed that in the hour of his death, crying and praying in the presence of several Jews, he returned to the Jewish faith.

But the story does not end there. Still in his lifetime, a halachic dispute arose as to his status. Senior’s two sons from his Jewish wife, Avraham and Efraim, who remained part of the Jewish community, would be called up to the Torah by their grandfather’s name rather than that of their apostate father. The sons did not like this state of affairs one bit. Only after the death of Senior did the rabbi of Buda at the time, Rabbi Naftali Hacohen (Katz), author of Semichas Chachamim, allow the name “ben shlomo ‘’ to be used again when calling the sons to the Torah.

The foremost halachic decisor of that time, Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen (also known as Maharam of Padua), granted his halachic sanction to this decision and claimed that if the kings and nobles who certainly are not Jews can be mentioned in blessings in the synagogue, so too can the name of Senior (adding that according to all reports, Senior retained his affections to his former co-religionists and showed them favor).

A Sephardic rabbi in Istanbul went even further in portraying Senior in what can only be described as “glowing terms.” Rabbi Eliyahu ben Benjamin Halevi of Istanbul described him as a person of great generosity who would give charity to poor Jews every Friday and who spared no money and effort to save the Jewish community when it was in danger (most notably during a blood libel). One of his sons wrote that his father warned the Jews in a secret Hebrew letter that they were in danger, thereby saving their lives. He also reportedly prevented the expulsion of Jews from Prague when the city was under Hungarian rule.

From that point on, the attitude toward Senior changed drastically. It was “universally” accepted that his apostasy was never sincere and that he did so for the good of his people. It was announced in synagogues that whoever maligned his Jewishness would be “punished in person and in his belongings by the prefect.” The decision to rehabilitate Senior’s reputation was given halachic sanction by the Rema. The Rema based his opinion on the earlier ruling by the Maharam of Padua and concluded, “Once he [R’ Katzenelnbogen] gave his permission, who can have a word after the king?”

The two Jewish sons of Senior, apparently still uneasy about being reminded of their scandalous familial past, left Buda after the Battle of Mohács and changed their name to Zaks (Sachs). The name is supposed to be an abbreviation of “zera kadosh seneor,” literally “holy seed of Seneor.” One of his sons, Avraham, settled in Kismarton (Eisenstadt, one of the aforementioned Sheva Kehillos) with his family. Some of his descendants were to be found later as far away as Vilna, among other places. This is another irony, as the Turkish conquest of Hungary laid the foundation of a proper Sephardic community there, as well as in Transylvania and Romania, the remnants of which can still be found to this day.

In 1541, the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent occupied Buda and incorporated the central wedge of the Kingdom of Hungary directly into the Ottoman Empire. Many Sephardic Jews from Turkey arrived and settled in the city. Some would leave the area when the Ottoman were defeated, others stayed and eventually assimilated among the Ashkenazic majority.


The writer is a founding editor at Channeling Jewish History and can be reached at [email protected]

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