According to a profile in the New York Times: “Rabbi Wallis, 64—who was born in Israel and raised in New York—is the son of two Holocaust survivors from the Dachau camp. His father (a scion of chasidim of the Gerrer sect from Pabianice, Poland) remembered an old family Bible—lost during World War II—he said, with the name of ‘Rafael Valls’ at the top of the list of ancestors with birth and death dates that listed him as burned at the stake.”
Quite famously, in 1588, the Polish count, Jan Zamoyski, published his charter of rights for the Spanish and Portuguese Jews that he invited in his newly-built city of Zamosc. The document is still extant in the Latin original (in the archives of Krasnistow) and in its Polish translation. Similar documents were granted to Sephardim in Troppau (Polish: Opawa) and Karniow in Silesia in 1612. The first recorded Jew in Zamosc was “Moses de Mosso Cohen.” He was the son of the merchant “Abraham de Mosso” who was, in turn, an agent of the prominent Sephardic merchant and diplomat Don Joseph Nassi. Among the dozens of names that have come down to us from Zamosc, a Sephardic rabbi referred to as “doktor” and a prominent community head named “Shmuel Barzel” are noteworthy.
From a letter dated 1587 by de Mosso Cohen, we learn that “the councilor only wants frenkim to settle there and does not desire the local Jews.” This discrimination in favor of imported Sephardim continued under Zamoyski’s successor, who extended the 1588 injunction for newly-arrived Sephardic settlers from Holland and Flanders. The Jewish cemetery in Zamosc is still extant and much research still remains to be done.
The Wooden Sephardic Synagogues of Lithuania
Dr. Rose Lerer Cohen—formerly of South Africa and now Jerusalem—has been researching Sephardim in Lithuania. Her interest in the topic was stirred when she says she met a man who referred to himself as a “litvishe frank,” a Litvak Sephardi.
In Lithuania, authentic Sephardic congregations seem to have existed. Shlomo Katzav in a booklet “Hasefardim be’eretz Lita” lists Sephardic congregations in places like Otian, Biraz, Dolhinov, Heidozishok, Vilkomir and Kopishok. Katzav lists several congregations with the name, “Alsheikh (in Horodna and Shavel).” There are also two Alfas congregations—one in Tabarig and the other in Lida.
Arthur Menton in “The Book of Destiny: Toledot Charlap” recounts the saga of his Sephardic forebears, the Don-Yichye and Charlap families, who arrived from Spain and settled in the Baltic states. He also mentions one Lithuanian town whose Jewish community was said to have been founded by Sephardic emigres, namely “Vilkaviskis (Vilkovishk).” The community kept accurate records and, as recently as 1920, a massive tome containing information about 400 years of Jewish life in Vilkaviskis was cited by several researchers. The book is now housed in Israel’s National Library, but has never been transcribed to my knowledge.
According to Menton, “The book indicated that a Jewish settlement existed there at the beginning of the 16th century … Princess Bora Sforges made a gift of lumber to the community to build prayer houses and the copper domed synagogue known to its last days as ‘the old shul.’ Its ark … housed the profusely embellished sefer Torahs which originated in Spain.”
The Sephardic Baal Shem From Poland
One of the more curious Jewish figures that came out of Podolia, the Polish-Ukrainian province (that was under Ottoman-Turkish rule from 1672-1699) was “Samuel Jacob Hayyim Falk” (1710-1782). His portrait is often mistaken for that of the Baal Shem Tov (himself from Podolia). Falk was—according to Rabbi Hermann Adler, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain—a Kabbalist and a suspected Sabbatean. Most interesting to us is the likelihood that he was a Sephardic Jew. In the formers’ biographical sketch of Falk in “Transactions of the Historical Society of England,” Adler writes that Falk—who was a miracle worker and known as the “Baal Shem of London”— (where he later immigrated) referred to himself in his personal book as the “son of Refael the Sephardi.”
While initially exercising caution and theorizing that Falk was, perhaps, referring to the fact that his father prayed in the chasidic rite, he eventually concedes that he was—in fact—the son of a Sephardic Jew (the conflation between the Sephardic rite and the so-called nusach Sefard is a subject that deserves further research). Moreover, the fact that he prayed in the Sephardic pronunciation, ate Sephardic food and recorded his name as “Laniado” lends further credence to this.
It is worth noting here that the early modern period saw a reshuffling of large parts of the “Jewish world.” As Dr. Elisheva Carlebach put it, “pieces of a cultural mosaic that had been placed precisely and not moved for centuries were suddenly shaken up and scattered about in entirely new combinations.”
The “shaking up” was chiefly a result of wars, massacres and mass expulsions. The expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century and the massacres of Jews in mid-17th century Poland brought many Jews from different backgrounds into contact with each other for the first time.
Jacob Katz—in his tradition and crisis—postulates that “it is doubtful there ever was a time since the decline of the Roman Empire when Jewry’s political organization was still centralized in which contacts between Jewish groups were as intense as in this period.” Back to Podolia, another figure of note with Sephardic ancestry from that region was the writer
Karl Emil Franzos
It was Podolia, as well, that the infamous Sabbatean Jacob Frank stemmed from. A good indication of the close ties between Sephardim and Ahskenazim of that period is the fact that the Frank family frequently shuttled between Poland and Turkey and spoke Ladino fluently. In a recent DNA study of the chasidic Twersky rabbinical dynasty from Ukraine, the Sephardic ancestry of that clan is claimed to have been established with certainty.
To be continued…
By Joel Davidi Weisberger
The author is available for scholar-in-residence and other speaking engagements and can be reached at [email protected].