Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 2

A Garden Eastward: Sephardi and Near Eastern Inspiration

by Neil W. Levin

V1THE DESIGNATIONS SEPHARDI, (adj.) and Sephardim (n., pl.) are employed herein in their standard, accurate usages to refer specifically to those Jews—and their various regional traditions and customs—who descend from the Jews who dwelled on the Iberian Peninsula (the area now embraced by modern Spain and Portugal) prior to their expulsion from Aragon and Castile by the Christian monarchs in the last decade of the 15th century. The frequent but erroneous use of these terms to describe all other non-Ashkenazi eastern Jews whose ancestry is not traceable to the Iberian Peninsula—e.g., Yemenite, Persian, Babylonian (Iraqi), central Asian, and other Jewish groups—is avoided. It is eschewed in other volumes of the Milken Archive as well—except insofar as certain eastern Mediterranean and Asian non-Ashkenazi/non-Sephardi communities and traditions in modern Israel identify liturgically and culturally as well as socially and politically more with eastern Sephardim than with Ashkenazim. Hence, the jurisdiction of Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi in theory encompasses these groups with regard to Jewish religious legal matters and religious-political representation and advocacy.

Especially germane in this connection to music-related issues is the 20th-century Zionist (and especially post-statehood) social phenomenon of unavoidable interethnic/multiethnic Jewish cultural encounters and inevitable sharing. A number of melodic, modal, and stylistic properties of the composite Jerusalem-Sephardi liturgical music tradition—a partial fusion that developed as a result of interactions in Israel among the variegated North African and Ottoman Sephardi traditions and repertoires (including those of Sephardim in pre-20th-century Jewish Jerusalem)—have been absorbed by non-Sephardi oriental/Near Eastern practices. Such beneficiaries of eastern Sephardi influence included Babylonian, Bukharian, Persian, Kurdish, Daghestanian, and other Jewish groups. This commingling of formerly distinct traditions, while not obliterating their identities entirely, has allowed for an overall quasi-inclusive style and repertoire—usually identified simply as mizraḥit (eastern). Without scholarly sifting, its constituent features are not always recognizable as exclusive or specific in unalloyed form to one or another of the oriental traditions.

The Sephardi rubric, however, applies in its appropriately reductive sense to a number of variegated subtraditions as well as historical and geographical experiences of Jews with ancestry on the Iberian Peninsula—ranging from those of the western and west Central European Sephardim to those of post–Expulsion era North African, eastern Mediterranean, and Ottoman regions (present-day Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Syria, and parts of Romania), where expelled Iberian Jews resettled.

The suggestion that Jewish settlement on the Iberian Peninsula dates to King Solomon’s reign—viz., to Jewish antiquity—is a legend, without historical documentation or substantiation (which does not preclude the possibility). Apart from such lore, there is archaeological and inscriptive evidence that dates the existence of Iberian Jewish communities to the last centuries of the Roman Empire—for example, in Adra (Abdera) by the 3rd century C.E. In that case, those Jews would have been there at the time of the wholesale conversions of non-Jewish Iberians to Christianity. Further evidence in support of that probability may be found in the proceedings of the 4th-century Council of Elvira (ca. 305 C.E.), which already expressed concerns for shielding Christians from resident Jewish influence and tried to legislate provisions for social as well as religiously associated separations between Christians and Jews.

Notwithstanding such evidence of actual Jewish communities prior to the 6th century C.E., Jewish settlement on the Iberian Peninsula can be dated with certainty to the period of the Visigoths, whose king, Reccared, converted in 587 to Christianity—which subsequently became the official religion of the kingdom. Although throughout Visigoth rule the general policy vis-à-vis Jews involved the goal of Jewish adoption of Christianity, Jewish fortunes—along with their treatment at the hands of both the political rulers and the Church councils—fluctuated during successive reigns. Modi operandi ranged from forced baptism on pain of expulsion to more tolerant attitudes; from severe punishment for “relapsed” Jewish converts to Church policy that at times forbade forced conversions; and from Jewish abandonment of the kingdom in the face of economic restrictions and persecutions to enforced servitude of the remaining Jews by the end of the 7th century. But by the collapse of the Visigoth kingdom in the 8th century—when Arab Moslem forces crossed the Straits of Gibraltar under Tariq b. Ziyad in 711 to commence their road to ultimate triumph and the conquest of what is now Spain—communities of openly and self-avowed Jews had disappeared. Many converts who had remained covertly Jewish, however, hailed the Moslem invaders as rescuers from Christian oppression, and—as Arabic historical documents reveal—they even collaborated militarily with those invading forces in their efforts to secure and hold conquered cities such as Córdoba, Seville, Toledo, and Granada.

Meanwhile, many Jews had left the Iberian Peninsula during the harshest periods of persecution and had found relative receptivity in North Africa. Upon the Arab conquest of Visigothic Spain, a number of them returned—soon to be subjected in the early phases of Moslem rule to economic subjugations as a minority population.

It was the founding in 755 of the Arab Islamic policy centered in Andalusía, with its capital in Córdoba, that ushered in what has been known since as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. Communications were established with Babylonian Jewry, whose composite tradition of rabbinic Judaism made its imprint on Jewish life throughout Moslem Spain. Henceforward, Spanish Jewry accepted in principle the Babylonian Talmud as its religious legal authority—and this has remained the case with all Sephardi Jewry, with some departure from Ashkenazi tradition in detail and worldview.

Despite periodic strife and incidences of restrictions and suppression, the long-running Moslem era on the Iberian Peninsula proved to be a generally hospitable and fertile environment for religious autonomy and for the cultural as well as economic flourishing of the Jewish community as a whole. It played host to the creativity of numerous gifted Hebrew poets; the activities of respected Jewish statesmen and physicians; and the scholarship of Jewish philologists, philosophers, biblical commentators, and rabbinic-halakhic authorities.

After the middle of the 12th century, coinciding with advancing Christian reconquests of certain areas, and also partially as a related result of the reactionary Almohad persecutions that were perpetrated in Spain by a Moroccan Berber dynasty (which ended the active Andalusian Jewish communities and attempted to compel Jewish conversion to Islam), Jewish life came to be clustered in the Christian-held areas. During the subsequent acceleration of the reconquista, Jewish population centers spread gradually across the peninsula. The expansion of Christian rule and the eventual establishment of Christian hegemony was punctuated by periods of relative tolerance, practical alliances, or détentes between Christian rulers and Jewish communities that even featured Jewish courtiers, as well as some Jewish cultural as well as material prosperity. In some respects the Jewish community remained vibrant until well into the 14th century, when the situation worsened drastically. By and large, however, the Golden Age had already come to an end: The overall position of the Jews in Christian Spain had deteriorated throughout the era during which Moslem rule simultaneously shrank, and it was marked by adverse royal decrees and anti-Jewish incidents such as a blood libel in Saragossa (although in the 1260s, under King Alfonso X, there were royally backed attempts to prevent blood libels). The 14th century witnessed Jewish subjection to unprecedented, fierce persecutions from which Spanish Jewry never recovered, culminating in the massacre of 1391 in which an estimated 70,000 Jews were murdered and entire communities wiped out. (Exceptions were Moslem-ruled Granada and, owing to royal protection, Portugal.) A large number of Jews surrendered to conversion and baptism on a virtually wholesale scale. Unrelenting persecutions led to a second wave of conversions in the early 15th century.

A significant number (though not all) of these conversions were pro forma, without actual theological embrace or sincere acceptance of the new faith and doctrine—especially with regard to the initial generations of converts. Many such “new Christians,” or conversos, continued to observe Jewish customs and ceremonies in secret—as “crypto Jews” or marranos (“swine,” the derogatory epithet originally attached to them). But those secret practices were conducted outside any context of Jewish life; and the synagogue, where liturgical music traditions had been maintained, could no longer play any role in their lives. Succeeding generations of marranos often had no knowledge of the Judaic significance of their secretly practiced rituals, knowledge of which had been withheld from them by earlier generations out of fear of discovery. Such rituals could appear to them as family customs or habits, without explanations—something one’s parent or grandparents simply did, such as lighting candles in a basement on Friday evenings.

As Christians, whether sincere or not, the conversos were subject to the authority of the Inquisition—the Congregation of the Holy Office, which was technically in force until 1968. Recidivism, including covert practice of Jewish rituals—let alone more substantive attempts to preserve Judaism by teaching it to one’s children—could be punished legally (or “purified”) by death, as heresy.

The Inquisition did not, however, have authority over unconverted Jews. Over the course of the 15th century, the road led rapidly to their outright expulsion from Spain in 1492 (viz., from Aragon and Castile, which now included Andalusía, much of which had been conquered by Castile in the 13th century, and the former Moslem kingdom of Granada, which had finally surrendered to the jointly ruling Catholic monarchs that same year with an ultimately violated treaty that had stipulated certain Jewish rights). Those Jews who took brief refuge in Portugal—estimated to have been about 100,000—soon faced equally brutal forced conversion or expulsion by 1497.

The significance of the calamity and the enormity of its upheaval in terms of contemporaneous world Jewry is underscored by estimates that as many as 50 percent of the total Jewish population had resided on the Iberian Peninsula. (Prior to the last decade of the 14th century, the Iberian Jewish community was the largest on the European continent.) After the middle of the 17th century, the worldwide numerical importance of formerly Spanish Jewry began its substantial decline. For purposes of comparison, we may invoke estimates that at the dawn of the 20th century, Yiddish-speaking Jewry—indeed, those for whom Yiddish was still the primary language—constituted well over 90 percent of all Jews in the world: a virtual mirror reversal of the situation in the 11th century, when non-Ashkenazi Jews are believed by demographers and other scholars to have represented about 97 percent of world Jewry.

Although some Jews accepted conversion when faced with expulsion—to the extent that conversion was still possible or not too late—it is believed that as many as 250,000 Jews evacuated the Iberian Peninsula as a result of these expulsion decrees. They resettled in Moslem-controlled areas of North Africa, in parts of what is now Italy, and in Turkey, as well as in other eastern Mediterranean parts of the Ottoman Empire, where they were welcomed as a tolerated minority by Sultan Bayezid II. In some regions this new “Sephardi diaspora”—in effect a diaspora within a diaspora, in which the exiles looked simultaneously to the Land of Israel and to Spain as former historical homes—flourished. The seaport of Saloniki (Thessaloníki in modern Greece), for example, became a famous center of Sephardi refugees and their descendants, where they established synagogues according to their former Spanish regions and cities and thus, for an extended time, were able to maintain their former individual cultural identities.

Following the expulsion, the Jewish refugees from the Iberian Peninsula and their descendants were known as Sephardim, from the Hebrew word that had come to be used to designate Spain: s’farad. The appearance of the word s’farad in Obadiah I:20 was originally associated erroneously with the collective Latin name for the region that once comprised multiple kingdoms or polities on the Iberian Peninsula but later became the single entity known as Spain: Hispania. The biblical reference, however, is now understood as referring to a colony of Jerusalem exiles that, on the basis of early-20th-century biblical scholarship, has been identified as Sardes, the capital city of Lydia in Asia Minor. S’farad was rendered only later as the Hebrew equivalent of the Latin Hispania, i.e., Spain. By the 9th century C.E., s’farad had become the accepted Hebrew designation for the Iberian Peninsula.

Toward the end of the 16th century, a second, western branch of Sephardi tradition and culture was born when some conversos and their descendants who had remained in Spain—or in Portugal, where crypto Jews often faced less danger of detection—began in gradually increasing numbers to avail themselves of opportunities to leave for hospitable western European environments. There, they could shed their Christian disguises and resume Judaism openly. Even though by then they were often ignorant of Judaic knowledge, Hebrew language, and authentic conduct of synagogue rites and procedures—including the musical aspects—they were eager to be educated and thereby to reestablish a sense of continuity with their pre–Expulsion era heritage. They settled first in Amsterdam (Holland having won political freedom from Spain and Spanish domination in that same time frame), which became the first great center of the new western Sephardi, or the so-called marrano diaspora. During the 17th century, Portuguese Jews (as the western Sephardim came to be called, interchangeably with the label “Spanish and Portuguese,” or “Spanish-Portuguese”) emigrated to Amsterdam in greater numbers; subsequently their community and its newly minted or reminted traditions spread to England, the New World (chiefly Brazil, the Caribbean, and the North American colonies), Gibraltar, and other western European cities such as Hamburg, Livorno, Venice, Bayonne, Bordeaux, and, eventually, Paris.

Though an official policy of religious tolerance became a matter of Spanish law with the Constitution of 1869, the expulsion decree was not formally revoked until December 16, 1968. On March 31, 1992, 500 years after the original expulsion decree was ordered, King Juan Carlos took part in a special ceremony in which he remarked that Sephardi Jews were “at home in Spain.” Since then Spain has made a concerted effort to attract not only Jewish tourism (which had been sporadic, even when Jews in the post–World War II era traveled widely in much of the rest of Europe) but also academic conferences, business meetings, scholarly publications, and permanent resident Jewish life. Since 2012, Sephardi Jews have had the right to apply for Spanish nationality and citizenship without holding official residence there.

The musical practices and traditions of the western, or Amsterdam, Sephardim constituted the first Jewish music sung or heard in the American colonies. The phenomenon—including both the Sephardi musical practice of Colonial Jewry and its Amsterdam roots—is discussed in the introduction to Volume 1 of the Milken Archive.

Throughout the 19th century, nearly all Sephardim in the United States—a small minority within a minority—belonged to the Portuguese, or western, branch or were followers of that tradition. Many of them had come to American shores during and since the Colonial era, not only from Europe and England but also from the Caribbean, where Sephardi communities had existed since the late 16th century in areas variously under British, Dutch, or Danish rule: Jamaica, Curaçao, Barbados, the Dominican Republic, St. Croix, Trinidad, Tobago, St. Thomas, and elsewhere.

After the turn of the 20th century, owing partly to political and economic disintegration within the Ottoman Empire and partly to the danger to Jews posed by nationalistic movements in the Balkans—as well as other determining factors—the United States hosted immigrations of oriental/eastern Sephardim who came mostly from Balkan lands, areas of Ottoman Asia Minor, and Syria. In the period framed by the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 and the middle of the 1920s, when Congress established new and heavily restrictive immigration quotas, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 60,000 Sephardim resettled in the United States. Following the Second World War, this mixed community expanded a bit with the arrival of Sephardi Jews from North Africa (chiefly Morocco), Turkey, Egypt, and Syria.

The eastern Sephardi immigrants have tended to remain culturally as well as communally separated and even estranged from the mainstream Ashkenazi population. Their western Sephardi counterparts in America, however, have always been distinct from other American Jews only in the context of the synagogue or other religious rituals and not in the social realm (and in the 20th century, only in New York and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia).

A Ladino press existed in America in the first half of the 20th century, comprising two publications: one lasting from 1910 until 1923 and another between 1922 and 1949. In 1912 the Federation of Oriental Jews of America was founded in New York City, which represented Ladino-, Greek-, and Arabic-speaking Jews. It was unsuccessful in garnering sufficient financial support from its individual communities, and it folded within a few years. Another short-lived organization representing “Spanish-speaking Jews”—the Sephardi Jewish Community of New York—lasted for less than a decade (1924–33). In 1915, various Sephardi mutual aid societies, which had been established partly on the model of the Yiddish-speaking eastern European immigrants’ landsmanshaftn, merged to become the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America—with a proclaimed membership of about 3,000 families; it was dismantled in 1952. And in 1941 the Central Sephardic Jewish Community of America attempted to replicate the structure of a European k’hila (formally organized religious community under rabbinic authority) by appointing a chief rabbi, a move that was not destined for permanence.

Yeshiva University launched an effort in 1964 to train an American Sephardi leadership through its Sephardic Studies Program, but the project never really took root. The more solidly grounded American Sephardi Federation, however, was born in 1976.

As of 1961 there were thirty-three Sephardi synagogues in the United States, spanning fifteen cities and affiliated with the Union of Sephardic Congregations or the World Sephardi Federation. As of 2010, the World Directory of Sephardic Congregations United States of America (published by the American Sephardi Federation) listed 137 Sephardi congregations. A number of these, however, are synagogues of non-Sephardi oriental Jewry (mizraḥit), such as Bukharian and Persian congregations. Also, not all of the listed congregations are independent entities; some are ancillary minyanim, or prayer groups, which meet regularly within, and are hosted by, Ashkenazi synagogues.

The original, classically oriented liturgical as well as secular concert music in this volume (including, in a few instances, artistic arrangements that lie somewhere between folksong or traditional music and composition) represents the twin worlds of eastern and western Sephardim—their history, liturgies, and secular Jewish as well as humanistic expressions. In various ways, these legacies have served as sources of inspiration for American composers—increasingly so since the 1950s and 1960s, when little recognized aspects of Sephardi heritage began to catch the attention of American Jewry in general on previously unexplored levels and planes. In some cases, this inspiration has been drawn largely from literary canons, informed by excursions into the nearly unimaginable wealth of medieval Spanish-Hebrew poetry. Other works reflect historical incidents: Marvin David Levy’s Cantos de los Marranos, for example, which incorporates an excerpt from the actual 1492 expulsion decree. But for a number of pieces composers turned to Sephardi musical traditions, including sacred melodies, modes, and cantillations as well as secular Ladino, or Judeo-Espagnol [Judezmo] song repertoires.

The chief and most enduring collective artistic contributions that emanated from medieval Iberian Jewry—under both Moslem and Christian rule—is the rich and variegated corpus of sacred and secular Hebrew poetry, much of which was based initially on Arabic models, structures, schemes, and meters. This extraordinary 500-year period of literary creativity has, like the era itself, been identified frequently as the Golden Age of Spanish-Hebrew Poetry. S. D. Goithein, the renowned social historian of medieval Mediterranean culture, referred to that as “the Spanish miracle.” Virtually unparalleled and certainly unsurpassed in world literature for its artistic sophistication and astonishing breadth of subject matter, this literary legacy reflects both the Jewish encounter with Greco-Arabic culture and the poets’ mining of their own Judaic and Hebraic foundations. The religious elements of this canon comprise, in addition to other prayer-related or sacred forms, the genre of piyyutim—religiously based poems that may be inserted into the regular or statutory liturgy, but which, of course, may also stand on their own. A number of these have indeed become accepted as parts of the liturgical order in various rites, Ashkenazi as well as Sephardi. The secular dimensions (not always neatly separable from sacred underpinnings or religious sensibilities) embrace a vast range of subjects: spiritual as well as physical yearning, mystery, metaphysics, corporeal pleasures, friendship, human understanding and wisdom, grief and mourning, family, marriage, national sentiments, the pleasure of wine, and sensuous eroticism.

Prominent among the dozens of Hebrew poets who flourished up throughout the middle of the 12th century in Moslem-ruled Spain—some of whom were also philosophers, biblical commentators, halakhic scholars, and physicians—are Dunash ibn Labrat, Yosef ibn Sahl, Yitzḥak ibn Khalfun, Yitzhak ibn Ghiyyat, Shmuel Hanaggid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Moshe ibn Ezra, Beḥya ibn Pakuda, and, undoubtedly the most famous and most widely acknowledged of them, Yehuda Halevi.

From about the middle of the 12th century until the last decade of the 15th century, Christian-dominated Spain (along with Provence) also hosted its share of gifted and towering Hebrew poets: Avraham ibn Ezra, Yitzhak ibn Ezra, Moshe ben Naḥman [Naḥmanides], Yosef Kimḥi, Yehuda [Judah] al-Harizzi, Avraham ibn Hasdai, Yaakov ben Elazar, Todros Abulafia, Sa’adia ibn Dana’an, Shmuel ibn Sasson, and M’shullam Depiera—along with many others.

Among the composers represented in this volume who were inspired by this poetry to create artistic settings—either in the original Hebrew or in translation—are Hugo Weisgall (Psalm of the Distant Dove, Love’s Wounded, and A Garden Eastward) and future additions will include Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (the Diwan of Moses ibn Ezra), Bruce Craig Roter (Three Short Songs [on Poems by Yehuda [Judah] al-Harizzi]), Morris Rosenzweig (On the Wings of Wind), and Leo Kraft (Eight Choral Songs on Poems of Moses ibn Ezra).

The secular Ladino language (Judeo-Espagnol, or Judezmo) romancero and cantigas genres, which have enjoyed a spectacular renewal since the second half of the 20th century from both scholarly and public performance perspectives, and which have been studied with increasing fervor, are interpreted artistically and manipulated imaginatively in such works here as Bruce Adolphe’s Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering; and Simon Sargon’s At Grandfather’s Knee. These pieces explore the range of creative possibilities inherent in the texts and the melodic substance of this 500-year-old legacy of eastern Sephardi culture, which, until recent decades, was largely unknown outside the Sephardi world except to a relative handful of scholars. It is interesting to observe in this context that, to our knowledge, the earliest American compositions that draw on this aggregate traditional (and, originally, orally transmitted) repertoire date to the 1970s.

Several selections here have been recorded by the Milken Archive from the standard repertoire of Congregation Sheerith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York City, North America’s first and oldest continuously functioning congregation—its origins dating to the 17th century. Some are liturgical melodies of the western, or Amsterdam Sephardi tradition, which itself has always constituted much if not most of Sheerith Israel’s repertoire (as it has in other so-called sister synagogues of the Amsterdam hub, such as Bevis Marks, or the Portuguese Synagogue, in London—albeit often in different arrangements). Since this repertoire formed the basis of the earliest synagogue music among American Colonial Jewry, it is represented more substantially in Volume 1—for which it was recorded in unharmonized renditions to reflect the original Amsterdam practice that remained in force in New York throughout the Colonial era and until well into the 19th century at the least. The traditional selections here, however, are rendered in four-part männerchor (TTBB) arrangements, which has been the practice at Sheerith Israel throughout most of the 20th century—and probably some of the 19th. Sheerith Israel appropriately thus considers these harmonized settings, made by its various choirmasters expressly for the congregation’s choir, to be part of its own unique American Sephardi tradition. As such, they reflect an important development in American liturgical music history.

In addition, there are some entirely original prayer settings in Sheerith Israel’s repertoire. These were composed by its choirmasters and, in some instances, by its cantors and other congregational leaders, who took care to preserve traaditional western Sephardi aesthetics and style. These pieces are unique to the congregation’s choral tradition and reflect a circumscribed continuity of American Sephardi creativity.

More ubiquitous Sephardi liturgical melodies are heard in such works as Samuel Adler’s Five Sephardic Choruses and Emanuel Rosenberg’s Shabbat Nusach S’fard—a modern adaptation in the form of a full Sabbath eve service of well-known Sephardi melodies. North African—in particular, Moroccan—traditions are heard in the excerpts from Arvit Morocco, an elaborate weekday evening service; in Cantor Aaron Bensoussan’s original setting of l’kha dodi, which incorporates the cantorial style of his native Morocco; and in his other liturgical compositions. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sacred Service for Sabbath Eve, which reflects more obliquely and more subtly the internal Judaic sensibilities of the composer’s proudly proclaimed Italian Sephardi heritage.


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