July 13, 2024
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Real and Fake Sephardi Jews of Eastern Europe

Part I

In an interview I conducted in the Tel Aviv home of the renowned Israeli historian of the Hasidic movement Dr. Isaac Alfasi, he recounted 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 incredulous, Alfasi recalls. “How can one be a Sephardi from Poland?” Alfasi then explained to the man that indeed Sephardim had settled in various parts of Poland and that he happened to be descended from one of those families. (Secondary source: “Sippurei Chassidim” by Hanani Bleich, Shevii, Kav Itonut Newspaper 12/19/12)

In an article posted on the online Israeli news site YNET (March 13, 2007), the genealogist Orit Lavie explores the roots of her 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.

Sephardic Jewish communities sprung up and flourished in several other parts of Germany such as Berlin, Altona, Glückstadt, Leipzig, Poznan and Offenbach/Frankfurt among other places. Additionally, many Eastern European Jewish families with Sephardic-sounding family names stake a claim to Sephardic ancestry, though many, if not most, who make this claim, do not in fact have Sephardic surnames (this is a good time to note many names that do “sound Sephardic,” are of Latin/Romance origin—and often are not Sephardic at all. Examples include Alemani, Morpurgo, Luzzato, Delmedigo et al). Often the claim is that the name had undergone “Ashkenazification” (typical of these would be the German equivalent to a prior Spanish surname, ex: Belmonte<Schoenberg).

While surnames can often be misleading, at other times they are clear indicators of a lost Sephardic past. According to the Israeli writer and historian Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon-Fischman, the patriarch of his family, namely his grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Hacohen of Satanov, Ukraine was the first to utilize the name Maimon. This was allegedly done because when the Czarist Russian authorities made it mandatory for Jews to choose surnames, the aforementioned Rabbi Mordechai, whose wife Malka maintained a tradition of descent from the famed Maimonides. chose a name that would reflect that particular family tradition.

(Source: Geula bat Yehuda, Harav Maimon Bedorotav, p.34)

Will the Real Sephardi Please Stand Up?

The most reasonable thing to do is to divide all Ashkenazi claimants to Sephardic ancestry into three categories: The first are those who clearly have no connection to Sephardim. The second are families whose descent has yet to be verified, and finally there are the Ashkenazim of certain Sephardic descent.

The reasons for the existence of the first category are many and varied. The first is a sincere belief borne out of a misunderstood cultural or onomastic indicator. For instance, I have seen all too often Jews who initially research their Eastern Europeans forbears exclaim in excitement that their forebears were most assuredly Sephardim. The proof? A particular ancestor was a member of a congregation called “Anshei Sephard,” which literally translates to the “People of Sepharad.” In reality of course, this term was used by people who prayed in the Chassidic rite, as the Chassidic rite of Eastern Europe was based on the modified Sephardic rite of the master Kabbalist, Isaac Luria.

Another reason why someone would make this sort of claim is financial. Recently the governments of Spain and Portugal have guaranteed citizenship to any Jew who can provide documentation that one of his ancestors was expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.

Additionally, there was a time in the U.S. when Sephardim were potential beneficiaries of government policies meant to benefit minorities. One somewhat bizarre episode is mentioned in Ian Ayre’s book “Pervasive Prejudice? Unconventional Evidence of Race and Gender Discrimination” (p.400):

Two much publicized (but nonrepresentative) instances of “whites” seeking to pass as minorities in order to qualify for affirmative action benefits … The status of the Lieberman family (which claimed Hispanic status as Sephardic Jews to qualify for an FCC affirmative action program) stands however on a much firmer footing. While the FCC’s finding that the Lieberman’s qualified as Hispanic has been decried as a racial hoax by commentators and judges, see Metro Broadcasting, Inc. v. FCC, 497 U.S. 547, 633 n.1 (1990) (Kennedy,J., dissenting) (“The [FCC], for example, has found it necessary to trace an applicant’s history to 1492 to conclude that the applicant was “Hispanic” for purposes of a minority tax certificate policy.”); Ronald D. Rotunda, Modern Constitutional Law 544 (4th ed. 1993) (The Lieberman family “qualified as Hispanic because they traced their family to Jews whom the King had expelled from Spain in 1492. If you assume 20 years to a generation, there were over 24 generations from 1492 to the [present]. That means that Mr. Lieberman was as closely related to 16,777,216 ancestors.”), the FCC found that Adolfo Lieberman and his sons Jose, Elias and Julio were “regarded by both themselves and their community as being Hispanic.” Their native language was Spanish which “they still speak a majority of the time.” The family members had lived together in Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica before coming to the United States and becoming naturalized citizens”.

Another reason to claim Sephardic descent is the subject of John Efron’s excellent book “German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic.” According to Efron, when the German Jews embarked upon the quest for legal emancipation and social acceptance, they also undertook a program of cultural renewal. Part of this renewal was the casting off of an unwanted identity and the taking on of what they deemed to be a superior Jewish identity. In the mind of many an enlightened German Jew, Ashkenazim represented insularity, backwardness and moral—and even physical—degeneracy. By contrast, the Sephardim of old Andalucía were seen as worldly, morally superior and intellectually and physically superior. Efron provides numerous examples in his book of Ashkenazi public figures who laid a claim to this legacy for the reasons enumerated above. Just one example would suffice for now.


No one better exemplifies the romantic tendency to venerate the Sephardim … than Theodore Herzl. With his vivid imagination and highly developed theatrical sense, this Budapest-born resident of Vienna construed for himself an imaginary lineage, wherein he claimed to be descended of Sephardic Jews. In one … his paternal great-grandfather, a Rabbi named Loebl, had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. After fleeing the Iberian Peninsula, Loebl emerged in Constantinople, whereupon he openly returned to Judaism … for his own sense of self and his own self-image Herzl concocted this fantasy wherein Loebl was no longer the Slovenian Jew of reality but the Spanish Jew of Herzl’s desires … Herzl longed to be anything but an Ashkenazic Jew from Central Europe.

Instructively, Efron notes, “Lest one think that Herzl’s invention reflects a decidedly 19th century sentiment, in the course of writing this book, I had conversations with a surprising number of Ashkenazi Jews who declared to me that their families had originally come from Spain.” Efron dismisses this out of hand. Although in a personal correspondence, he does concede that some Sephardim did make their way to Eastern Europe but overall the claims of Sephardic descent are, in his words, “a desperate cry for Jewish yikhus” [noble descent].

Oddly enough, at a recent conference on the famous Sephardic Halakhist and mystic, Rabbi Joseph Caro, the Israeli researcher, Dr. Mor Altschuler, author of a biography on Caro, mentioned in passing that Herzl was a “Sephardi from a Sephardi family.” Altschuler then added—amid expressions of incredulity from the audience—“And there is a tradition, although it has yet to be verified, that he was a direct descendant of the Sephardic Kabbalist Joseph Taitazak of Salonika (a close rabbinic colleague of Caro).”

This tradition was apparently first recorded by the Hasidic historian and Zionist Aharon Marcus. Marcus claimed that he heard this from Herzl’s mouth himself. It was again repeated by the late Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in his writings (see שיחות הרצי”ה, עיטורי כהנים, 126, וכן לנתיבות ישראל חלק ב’, מאמר “להצדיק צדיקים).

It should be noted, however, that in the Hebrew Encyclopedia, Paul Diamant (a cousin of Herzl) wrote:

בין אבותיו הספרדיים הקדומים יותר של הר’ מציינים את יהודה ירוחם, ישראל טאיטאצאק ויהודה אמיגו, אלא שעדיין לא נמצאו מסמכים לאישורן של קביעות אלו.

“Among the earlier Sepharadic Herzl’s ancestors, are mentioned Yehuda Yerucham, Israel Taitachek and Yehuda Amigo, but meanwhile no supporting documents have been found to substantiate it.” Meir Amigo was indeed the community leader of the Sephardic Jewish community in Timisoara in the second half of the 18th century. His son was Abraham Amigo who later took on his father’s name, Meir or Mayer as the family surname. As mentioned, there has been no substantiation so far for this linkage.

Even more intriguing is the fact that the name Taitaczak (the surname of the alleged ancestor of Herzl) appears in Hungary (chiefly in Timisoara) (!), see for instance, Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames by Guilherme Faiguenboim, Paulo Valadares and Anna Rosa Campagnano.

Efron rightly points out, many Ashkenazim in the 18th and 19th centuries looked to the Sephardim of “Golden Age” Andalucía as the ideal archetypal Jews worthy of emulation. Claiming ancestry from Sephardim became in vogue.

There was a trend among some Ashkenazim to claim “exotic” ancestry. This was not necessarily always a desire to claim a linkage with Sepharad specifically (one charlatan that comes to mind is the Belarusian Zusia Zussman [a.k.a. Shlomo Yehuda Friedlander], the infamous forger of the Jerusalem Talmud; calling himself “Friedlander-Algazi” he claimed to be a member of a respected scholarly Sephardic family from Turkey-and gained the short-lived respect of many Eastern European Orthodox Jews). Others desired to link themselves to Karaites (this seems to be the case with the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin who claimed Crimean Karaite ancestry on his maternal line). One Eastern European Jewish family even claimed descent from a “lost tribe of Israel” They attended Sephardic temples in Copenhagen and they also established communities in other large cities in Western and Central Europe such as Prague and Vienna (see also this and this). In 1662 a converso turncoat testified before the Spanish inquisition as to the existence of a community of Portuguese returnees to the Jewish faith in Danzig/Gdansk in Poland (which had a majority German population) among other places.

(Source: Archivo Historico Nacional de Esapagne, Inquisition archives, Liber 1127. I am indebted to the Dutch researcher Ton Tielen for this particular piece of information).

In Poland, the city of Zamosc, midway between Lvov and Lublin, is perhaps the foremost place that comes to mind when speaking of Sephardim in Poland itself. The famous writer Y.L. Peretz (to whom I will return later) hailed from that city.

By Joel Davidi Weisberger

The author is available for scholar-in-residence and other speaking engagements and can be reached at [email protected].

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