Sepharad as Imagined Community

Language, History and Religion from the Early Modern Period to the 21st Century

by Mahir Şaul (Volume editor) José Ignacio Hualde (Volume editor)
©2017 Monographs VI, 326 Pages
Series: Studies in Judaism, Volume 8


This volume is a multidisciplinary contribution to Sephardic studies, including chapters by some of the best-known authorities in the field, interspersed with those of young scholars who have begun making their mark in current research. The text aims to enrich this emerging field through historical linguistic studies as well as investigations based on contemporary movements, recent literary creations, and the issues involved in contemporary revival.

The chapters presented in this collection include a selection of papers originally presented at the symposium “Sepharad as Imagined Community: Language, History and Religion from the Early Modern Period to the 21st Century,” as well as pioneering contributions by other key scholars. Two notable additions include innovative explorations of Judeo-Spanish on the Internet.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter One: Sepharad as Imagined Translocal Mediterranean Community: Introduction (Mahir Şaul / José Ignacio Hualde)
  • 1. Sepharad Imagined as Community
  • 1.1 The Language
  • 2. Organization of the Book
  • 2.1. The Early Period: From the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century
  • 2.2. Fin de Siècle Judeo-Spanish Language, Literature and Culture
  • 2.3. Judeo-Spanish Language and Culture Today
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part One: The Origins: From the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century
  • Chapter Two: An Overlooked 15th Century demand d’amor in Hebrew alxamía: Parma Biblioteca Palatina 2666, folio 207 verso (John Zemke)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The Manuscript
  • 3. Transcription and English Translation
  • 4. Vocabulary
  • 5. Verse
  • 6. Dramatis personae and peripeteia
  • 7. Memorial Book
  • Appendix A: Transcription of Hebrew Characters
  • Appendix B: Cancionero de baena 369–372
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Three: How Old Is Ladino Literature? (Olga Borovaya)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Language or Register?
  • 2. Rupture or Continuity?
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Four: Historical Overview and Outcome of Three Portuguese Patterns in Judeo-Spanish: quer(em)-se + part. in Active Constructions, the wh-operator o que, and the Inflected Infinitive (Aldina Quintana)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Historical and Social Background
  • 2. Dialectal Contact among Portuguese and Castilian/Judeo-Spanish Speakers
  • 2.1. Se k(i)ere + participle (part.) in Impersonal Constructions
  • 2.2. The o que wh-operator
  • 2.3. The Inflected Infinitive
  • 3. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Primary Judeo-Spanish Sources
  • References
  • Chapter Five: The Syntactic Structure of Liturgical Ladino: Construct State Nominals, Multiple Determiners, and Verbless Sentences (Matthew Maddox)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Methodology and corpus
  • 2.1. The Haggadah
  • 2.2. Corpus
  • 3. Theoretical Background
  • 3.1. The Minimalist Program (MP) and the Modelling of Syntactic Architecture
  • 3.2. A Minimalist Model of the Bilingual Language Faculty
  • 4. Extension of the Bilingual Language Faculty Model to LL
  • 4.1. Construct State Nominals (Gesenius 1910: 247; Seow 1995: 116)
  • 4.2. Multiple Determiners/Definiteness Agreement (DA) in DPs
  • 4.3. Verbless Sentences
  • 5. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • Chapter Six: Ke Haber/Ne Haber: Linguistic Interference, Cross-Meaning, and Lexical Borrowing between Ottoman Turkish and Judeo-Spanish (Pamela Dorn Sezgin)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Hypothesis and Research Design
  • 2.1. Hypothesis
  • 2.2. Methodology
  • 2.3. Sources
  • 3. Historic and Sociolinguistic Context
  • 4. Language Interference and Lexical Borrowing
  • 5. Proverbs and Shared Meanings
  • 6. Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part Two: Fin de siècle Judeo-Spanish Language, Literature and Culture
  • Chapter Seven: Networks of Patronage and the Making of Two Ladino Newspapers (Matthias B. Lehmann)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Two Ladino Autobiographies
  • 3. Plotlines
  • 4. From Saadi’s Anticlericalism to Carmona’s Secularism
  • 5. Networks of Patronage
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Eight: Itzhak Benveniste and Reina Hakohén: Narrative and Essay for Sephardic Youth (Elisa Martín Ortega)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Reina Hakohén and Izhak Benveniste
  • 3. Narrative, Ideological and Linguistic Features of Konfidensyas de un amigo
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Nine: The Invention of Eastern Judeo-Spanish: The Betrayals of Spanish in the Re-romanization Process (End of 19th Century) and Its Consequences (Marie-Christine Bornes Varol)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Changes in Judeo-Spanish Language and Language Contacts
  • 3. The Re-romanization Process
  • 4. Corpus and Samples
  • 5. Graphical Problems
  • 6. Complicating Re-analyses: The Case of French -duire Verbs
  • 7. Poner, meter and pozar
  • 8. Confusing Infinitive Forms, Paradigms and Groups of Conjugation
  • 9. The Worries of Diphthongization
  • 10. Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Ten: Salomon Israel Cherezli’s Nuevo chico diccionario `judeo-español–francés (Jerusalem 1898–1899) as a Judeo-Spanish Monolingual Dictionary (Aitor García Moreno)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Judeo-spanish Monolingual Dictionaries
  • 3. Nuevo chico diccionario `judeo-español–francés Brief Description
  • 4. Monolingual Definitions in the Text
  • 4.1. Delimitation Problems
  • 4.2. Recurring Patterns
  • 4.3. Special Examples
  • 4.4. Functions
  • 5. Concluding Remarks
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Eleven: The Creation of the State of Israel and Its Impact on the Self-Image of the Sephardim, as Reflected in Judeo-Spanish Parodic War Haggadahs (Eliezer Papo)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Polemical Haggadahs
  • 3. War Haggadahs
  • 4. Group’s Self-Image in the War Haggadah Parodies which Preceded the Creation of the State of Israel and in Leon’s “New Haggadah”
  • 4.1. The People of Israel in the Passover Haggadah
  • 4.2. Group Self-Image in the War Haggadahs which Preceded the Creation of the State of Israel
  • 4.3. The Perception of Israel in Leon’s “New Haggadah”
  • Notes
  • Sources
  • References
  • Chapter Twelve: The Hispanic Legacy and Sephardic Culture: Sephardim and Hispanists in the First Half of the 20th Century (Paloma Díaz-Mas)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Sephardic Studies within Romance Philology
  • 3. The Sephardic maskilim and Hispanism
  • 4. Ángel Pulido’s Hispanophile Correspondents
  • 5. The Sephardim and Menéndez Pidal’s Studies on the Spanish Ballads
  • 5.1. The Collaboration Between Ramón Menéndez Pidal and José Benoliel
  • 5.2. The Junta para Ampliación de Estudios and Manuel Manrique de Lara’s Fieldwork
  • 5.3. Américo Castro and His Contact with the Sephardim of Morocco
  • 5.4. The Sephardim in the Project Archivo de la Palabra y de las Canciones Populares
  • 6. Sephardim and Hispanists in the United States
  • 7. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part Three: Judeo-Spanish Language and Culture Today
  • Chapter Thirteen: Contemporary Judeo-Spanish Poetry in Its Rediscovery of the Past (Agnieszka August-Zarębska)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Poetic Recollections of Places
  • 3. The Poetic Portraits of Persons and the Reminiscences of the Sound of Ladino
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Fourteen: En tierras virtualas: Sociolinguistic Implications for Judeo-Spanish as a Cyber-vernacular (Rey Romero)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Language Domains and Cyber-vernaculars
  • 3. Judeo-Spanish Online Communities
  • 4. Methodological Considerations for Linguistic Research in Online Communities
  • 5. Change and Variation in Digital Homelands: Using Data from Ladinokomunita
  • 6. Conclusion: En tierras virtualas yo vo segir
  • References
  • Chapter Fifteen: Judeo-Spanish on the Web (Ana Stulic / Soufiane Rouissi)
  • Abstract
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The Problem
  • 3. Methodological Considerations
  • 4. Judeo-Spanish on the Web: Results of the Research
  • 4.1. Formal Identification of Languages
  • 4.2. Presence of Judeo-Spanish on the Web
  • 5. Conclusions and Perspectives
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index of Personal Names
  • Index of Subjects
  • Series index

| 1 →

Sepharad AS Imagined Translocal Mediterranean Community



University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


In mid-1970s, when she was almost forty, award-winning French novelist Clarisse Nicoïdski, née Abinun, started writing poetry. It was not composed in French, which was the language of her novels, but in the language of her parents, who hailed from Yugoslavia and called this language “spagnol muestru.” She gave a copy of her compositions to the linguist Haïm Vidal Sephiha, who in a brief article was the first person to publish a sampling, which included seven numbered sections making up what we now know as her first poem, “Lus Ojus.” This poem was followed by a prose text, “La Vyeja,” a heartbreaking short story set in World War II Yugoslavia, with Jewish protagonists under the reign of terror of Free Croatia’s Ustashi before liberation by the Partisan army. Sephiha applauded her as “la dernière poétesse judéo-espagnole” (Sephiha 1977).1 The following year, Nicoïdski produced a small book of her Judeo-Spanish poetry in a run of 300 copies, including an English translation of each poem by Kevin Power (Nicoïdski 1978). Three years later a new garland of nineteen short poems appeared: “Caminus di palavras”.2 In her short but prolific life Nicoïdski published over twenty titles—novels, plays, historical pieces—all in French, which brought her added accolades. However, she did not publish any more Judeo-Spanish poetry.

This already peculiar story assumes uncanny proportion after the exceptional responses that the little poetic sideline stirred. Perhaps Nicoïdski did not need to bother with an English translation of her poems, because the refinement of her ← 1 | 2 → verse and the images limned in her sparse style produce an extraordinary effect on modern Spanish readers, and her poetry has received a great share of critical attention. At the turn of the new century, four leading poets of Spain and Latin America were asked to prepare a landmark anthology of the second half of the twentieth century (Milán, Robayna, Valente, Varela 2002). In their selection of 100 laurels of Spanish language poetry, they included Nicoïdski.3 Forced to make hard choices, and setting aesthetic merit above balance, as the publisher explains, the anthology’s selectors had resigned themselves to not representing certain Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, a decision that reviews following publication contested. No one objected, though, that Nicoïdski, the only one among those sharing the honor who was not from a Spanish-speaking country (her country listed as Francia) had been allotted five pages for nine poems, an amazing ratio considering her concise poetic output. Acknowledgment by a poet like José Ángel Valente, arguably Spain’s greatest poet in the postwar period, was not all. The Argentine poet Juan Gelman, one of South America’s most significant writers and also Nicoïdski’s senior, went one step further. He created his own corpus of twenty-nine poems in Nicoïdski’s Bosnian Judeo-Spanish, emulated by studying her compositions, an unprecedented tribute paid by one poet to another (Balbuena 2009).

Nicoïdski was not to be “the last” Judeo-Spanish poet, female or male, nor the last one to write in this language with a literary talent and contemporary sensibility that brought transnational recognition. Two more recent poets writing in Judeo-Spanish, Margalit Matitiahu and Avner Perez, both of Salonikan ancestry and bilingual Israeli authors, along with other celebrated Judeo-Spanish poets of their cohort, are the subject of August-Zarębska’s contribution to our volume. Their first verse collections, published in the 1980s, generated enthusiasm and their success was confirmed in subsequent publications.4 A good deal of prose work is also being created in Judeo-Spanish (ranging from the writings of the versatile veteran Matilda Koen-Sarano to the recent contributions of memoirist Roz Kohen). Along with these, we may mention the less noticeable but critical supportive, editorial, and lexicographic work of people such as Gad Nassi, Moshe Shaul and others serving on the editorial boards of Aki Yerushalayim or El Amaneser, as well as the website LadinoKomunita, which is discussed here by Rey Romero.5 At the same time we observe a modest recovery of the use of Judeo-Spanish in academic articles and essays, hosted mostly in Spanish university publications, by both senior authors and those belonging to the younger generation.

Why would recognized authors who can reach wide audiences in national languages with a great number of speakers choose to create and publish works in a language that has long been declared severely endangered, due to its low number of adult speakers and its absence in the home environment where children can learn it? We leave the assessment of their personal motivations to literary critics ← 2 | 3 → specialized in these authors. Instead, we are interested in addressing the social and historical factors that illuminate such choices. If writing in Judeo-Spanish—against unreasonable odds from the perspective of an author’s natural desire to gain readership—can be conceived as a “journey home” (Piser 2012), the writers who undertake this journey come from two generations of geographical and metaphorical displacement, while being dispersed in different countries and continents, and absorbed in different tongues of national and international currency. It may be a rewarding exercise to explore the nature of this “home.”

This home seems to be located first of all in the language. We find evidence for this also in works of a very different nature. The memoirs and autobiographic novels of Sephardic authors from Western Europe or South America, who hail from families that had immigrated to those places in recent times, often include Judeo-Spanish words and expressions inserted as quotations. Romeu Ferré and Díaz-Mas, who make this observation, remark that such examples suggest a strong identification with the Sephardic Jewish world of remote Iberian origin as well as a shared collective past in the Eastern Mediterranean (2011: 129). This identification with the language is present, even if in somewhat contradictory fashion, in the life and work of Bulgarian-born Elias Canetti, who came to terms with his heritage in his memoirs and once defined himself as “a Spanish poet in the German language” (Ascher 1990, Esformes 2000).

Romeu Ferré and Díaz-Mas refer to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century dispersal of the Hispanic Sephardim out of the Ottoman world as a “second diaspora.” Yet considering the historical Septuagint roots of the term, in the longer stretch of Jewish history it can be called at least a “third diaspora,” since the fanning out of the Sephardim into the Mediterranean and Atlantic worlds after their expulsion from Spain was already a second diaspora, following the first, original diaspora out of the Holy Land. This realization prompts further reflection. Western European and American authors of Sephardic origin are not the only ones to reveal attachment to Judeo-Spanish in their work. As we have seen, a number of second-generation Israeli authors also do so and with even greater commitment. The closing of the first diaspora does not seem to bring an end to the second or third Diasporas. The vaunted ingathering from one sort of exile still leaves Sephardim attached to and longing for the image of a “home” remembered as language.

The title of our volume invokes Benedict Anderson’s influential analysis, which has a great deal to say on language (Anderson 1983). Anderson’s book-length essay presents a reflection on the emergence of the nation as political vessel for the formation of the modern state, and following the gradual collapse or transformation of amalgamated empires, of the international system of states. The Sephardic diaspora, as the use of the term already intimates, is not a nation in that modern sense (although it was in an earlier sense, not irrelevant for the process Anderson delineates—as the rubric nación or nação applied to New Christian ← 3 | 4 → communities of Spanish and Portuguese origin in western Europe and millet later in the Ottoman administrative system attest). The analogy of Anderson’s story for our case is, therefore, only partial, and the contrast itself is worth pursuing.

Anderson notes at the start that all communities are imagined, except for very small ones allowing members to have face-to-face contact. What needs to be distinguished is the different ways in which they are imagined, which may suggest where their boundaries are likely to be laid. This idea of imagined community is useful for understanding sub-political cultural ensembles that exhibit centripetal force and cultural continuity across changing times, even if they do not ripen into modern nations. Anderson identifies two developments that paved the way for the modern nation: The loss of identification with dynastic realms associated with the decline of sacral monarchies, and a radically new way of apprehending time, including the replacement of religious parable as prefiguration of present and future with time as a flow that transforms and remains irreversible.

Only the first of these two has a correlate in the formation of a Sephardic diasporic identity. For the Iberian Jews, the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 was a fatal blow to any identification with the dynastic realm. This identification was already weak to begin with, because of suspect religious minority status and the test of periodic mass violence. Thus, for instance, whereas Sem Tob de Carrión (Sem Tob ben Ishaq ibn Ardutiel, b. Carrión de los Condes, 1290–c. 1369), one of the most prominent poets in the Castilian language of his time, addresses his Moral Proverbs to the King of Castile, Don Pedro I, at the same time he stresses his Jewish identity: Señor rey, noble, alto, oí este sermón/que viene dezir Santo, judío de Carrion [“Lord King, noble and high, hear this discourse which Santob, the Jew from Carrión, comes forward to speak”];6 and, in what are perhaps the best-known lines from the book, he feels the need to remind the imagined reader (the King) not to disregard the wisdom contained in the book because of the author’s religious identity: Non val el açor menos por nascer de mal nido,/nin los exemplos buenos por los dezir judío [“Nor is the hawk worth less, if born in a poor nest; nor are good proverbs [of less value] if spoken by a Jew”]. Allegiance to the monarch is accompanied by a clear sense of distinctiveness.

The post-expulsion period was not more favorable for the settlers’ reinsertion in other dynastic worlds, as during those two hundred years significant proportions of the Sephardic community moved in and out of apostasy in peripatetic existence in search of new homelands between the North African coast, Italian cities, the Ottoman Balkans and Near East, the Atlantic harbors, and Protestant enclaves in northern Europe. There were powerful motivations for a sense of distinction and singular destiny even when the immigrants demonstrated loyalty to the monarchs or to the cities that welcomed them. Since medieval times, for example, the Sabbath services included an official prayer for the king.7 Beyond this custom, after the expulsion the refugees and their descendants expressed abundant gratitude ← 4 | 5 → without practical motivation toward rulers who gave them safe haven. A sense of autonomy persisted regardless. In almost every Hebrew book printed in Constantinople after the Jews established a press there in 1493, the title pages or the colophon included lengthy formulas of blessings and praises for the sultan, even though these books were not dedicated to the monarchs. The Ottoman authorities were completely indifferent to these publications, and no one other than a few Jewish students of law could have been expected to see and understand these inscriptions (Rozen 2010: 43; Lehmann 2005: 17). In contrast, during the same period books printed in the republic of Venice do not contain similar statements of praise to the city or to the doge. One can conclude, therefore, that these inscriptions expressed genuine gratitude. They are also consonant with the open appreciation of Ottoman rulers in the writings of sixteenth century scholars of Iberian origin, such as the Rabbis Samuel de Medina and Moshe Almosnino. Nonetheless, the “we” and “they” distinction, a sense of collective risk and vulnerability in an alien environment, and commitment to Jewish and often more narrowly Sephardic wellbeing first, are also present in these writings (Rozen 2010: 40–41, 305). This may be one of the ways in which the Sephardic subject of early modern times anticipates aspects of fully modern political awareness.

When it came to the approach to religious myth and time, however, the Mediterranean Sephardic world remained attached to the earlier conception. Even when during early eighteenth century the colloquial register of Spanish of the Sephardim of the eastern Mediterranean blossomed as the medium of written literature, the new Judeo-Spanish style was born as a religious product of rabbinic pedagogy, linked to the weekly readings of the Torah and to Talmudic images as guidance for righteous life. In the nineteenth century this written language was relatively secularized by shedding, in the hands of a new intelligentsia, the rabbinic habit of code switching to scriptural Hebrew. A greater proportion of spoken vernacular in writing resulted in increased Romance content. The trend towards secularization of the language was strengthened in the abundant journalistic publications of the twentieth century, even if at times it meant clumsily following French and Italian models. These developments, however, never shook the ties to a religious worldview and an ecumenical understanding of worldwide Judaic community as a dispersed (and fractious) tribe.

Sephardic awareness sprang, therefore, from a hybrid nature: a sense of distinctive identity, but one attached to a religion that imparts a sense of kinship group, whose boundaries lay beyond the Sephardic world; and a proper ideographic sacred language, the elements of which suffuse the vernacular that became literary Judeo-Spanish. The sense of being Hispanic Sephardic did not produce a political vessel, which is Anderson’s concern to explain, but an enduring feeling of distinctiveness within a larger religious entity, itself explicitly likened to a descent construct. The language, the vernacular that provided the medium of writing and ← 5 | 6 → printing, did not become the basis for a political grouping, but was consolidated as the very backbone of Hispanic Sephardic distinctiveness, taking on the roles that geography and shared history play in other contexts.

The Iberian Sephardic “imagined community” was forged during the first two centuries after the expulsion of 1492, under trying circumstances: The protracted period of migrations and relocations put a stamp on several generations after 1492 as it caused traumatizing losses to life and property; many migrants and their descendants went from one distant location to another because they could not find the safety of a country of permanent settlement; migrants belonging to successive waves intermingled, starting with the first refugees who left Castile and Aragon following the first expulsion to maintain their religion, all the way to the seventeenth century New Christians who, often after several peregrinations and a few generations of religious secrecy, openly embraced Judaism in the Ottoman Empire or in the cities of the Low Countries. The migrants originating in Spain and Portugal were already plural in their make up, as they had been formed in the diverse cultural worlds of the different kingdoms and cities of Iberia, and were also stratified by status and class. The drawn out period of exodus added new elements of heterogeneity among them. Yet the experience produced a convoluted process of self-fashioning and the formation of a singular Hispanic Sephardic identity, along with a concomitant process of linguistic shift and re-identification.

The first Iberian exiles to arrive in the large Ottoman cities founded congregations based in their city of origin and their narrow cultural affinities. In Constantinople, for example, the first Gerush Sepharad (Expulsion from Spain) congregation split quickly into several, and then witnessed the founding of yet other congregations by newer arrivals: Cordova, Aragon, Messina, Sicilia, and Portugal. By mid-sixteenth century there were ten congregations of Iberian origin in the city (Rozen 2010: 78–81). In Salonika the Jews who arrived from Spain established Gerush Sepharad, Castilia, Aragon, Catalan, Majorca; and those who arrived from Portugal: Portugal, Lisbon, and Evora (Goodblatt 1952: 12). As Ibn Abi Zimra, a leading rabbinic scholar among the first generation of exiles from Spain, wrote: “And it is the custom throughout the Jewish Diaspora that Jews who are of the same city of origin or language make a community for themselves, and do not mix with men of different city or language” (quoted by Ray 2013: 80; see Goldman 1970: 86). In the second and third generations, the sharp boundaries between these congregations softened. Their original names survived, but their membership started mixing, with intermarriages and transfers among them for pragmatic reasons. Eventually, newer Jewish arrivals of Iberian origin to Istanbul and Salonika were allotted to the existing congregations with an eye to maintaining balance between the groups and no longer on the basis of the newcomers’ languages or originating cities, evidence of the blurring of cultural boundaries ← 6 | 7 → between them (Ray 2013: 86). Divisions among Jews of Castilian, Aragonese, Valencian, Catalan, Leonese, and eventually Portuguese heritage faded, giving way to new communities, which were seen by others and also self-understood as “Espanyol.”

A number of factors, concerning both trans-Mediterranean connections and the circumstances of the places of settlement, can be invoked to perceive how this happened. The itinerant nature of the early Sephardic Diaspora and the need for the exiled Jews and conversos to rely on one another helped foster mercantile networks (Ray 2013: 112). These networks encompassed artisans such as dyers, weavers, and embroiderers, as well as bankers.8 While the poor, who formed the majority everywhere, remained outside of these expanded translocal communities, the wealthy assumed local leadership. The economic élites were the founders of new congregations or their administrators and set the tone for the rest. They became emulated models for a pan-Mediterranean Hispanic identity in the sixteenth century. Their social role was thus similar to their counterparts in the late nineteenth century in Westernization and modernization (and later on even in Turkification, Hellenization, etc.).

The rabbis provided a different kind of leadership, forming another network stretching throughout the Mediterranean. They led Jewish courts with jurisdiction over pecuniary matters, religious questions, marriage and divorce, and cases involving Jewish ordinances. The responsa literature made available in contemporary scholarship provides abundant testimony showing that in these matters their reach as well as the resources they mobilized extended to far-flung localities. Whereas the Halakha, the formulated statutes of Jewish law and norms relating to religious sanctity, has no boundaries and does not recognize a delimited Sephardic sphere within it, next to it is Minhag, the notion of prevailing custom. The large influx of exiled migrants, each group bringing with it its own Minhagim, together with those of native Jews of Egypt, Palestine, Ottoman Anatolia and the Balkans necessitated creative yet, legal responses to meet the demands of everyday life (Goldman 1970: 45). The leaders of the Sephardi congregations surmounted their own perspectives through compromise. They formed supra-congregational institutions soon after settlement. In Constantinople this behavior prevented the founding of joint voluntary societies with the native Jewish community of the Romaniyot (Rozen 2013: 85). Extra-locally too, rabbis of the Iberian communities often conferred with each other regarding mutual concerns (Benaim 2012: 24). Affective bonds to relatives, teachers, and disciples in distant lands transformed the Sephardic rabbis’ conception of the pale of Judaism in unexpected ways toward pan-Hispanism.

This is illustrated by rabbinical decisions regarding the status of widows, which was one of the recurrent difficulties of the era of exile and dangerous travel. One decision taken by first generation immigrant rabbinic scholar Yaakov Ibn ← 7 | 8 → Haviv of Salonika, who was born in the Leonese city of Zamora, involved a difficult case in which the brother of the deceased householder was a converso who had stayed in Spain. According to the Halakha, when a married man dies without the issue of a son, his brother has the obligation to marry the widow in leviratic union to produce a descendant for the deceased. If he was not so inclined, the brother had to liberate the widow with the equivalent of a divorce. The question in this case was whether the widow was bound by this rule. The case hung on whether the surviving brother was considered Jewish, and therefore in possession of his leviratic rights. Rabbi Ibn Haviv ruled that the missing converso brother was a Jew and the leviratic principle was in effect. Thus he asserted that the Jewish people encompassed those who had been compelled to stay in the Iberian Peninsula after the expulsion, because “tomorrow they will come here, and how can we oust them now by judging them to be utter apostates” (Rozen 2010: 93–95). For Ibn Haviv and all other Iberian Jews, the nation meant the Jewish-Iberian Nation, including both the immigrants and the New Christians who did not emigrate. Other eminent rabbinic authorities that were not of Iberian origin, such as Constantinople’s Moshe Capsali and Eliyahu Mizrahi, differed and took contrasting decisions in their rulings, but Ibn Haviv’s principle was upheld and ratified five decades later by the second-generation Iberian immigrant rabbis of mid-sixteenth century; this view persisted for generations.

Local circumstances reinforced the trend toward pan-Mediterranean Iberian Jewish reconfiguration. The Iberian exiles settled among Italian, Ashkenazi, and, in the Ottoman Empire, Greek-speaking Byzantine Romaniyot Jewish communities. Their affinities in religious and social custom brought the Iberian congregations closer together, despite all their differences and rivalries, against these native communities. In the case of Constantinople there was a further political distinction that contrasted the Iberian settlers with the local Romaniyot community, and undermined the latter. Joseph Hacker’s writings brought to scholarly attention the fact that the Romaniyot Jewish communities of Constantinople had formed after the conquest of the city, when Ottoman authorities relocated the existing Jewish communities of the provinces and force-settled them in the new capital, alongside others, according to a well-known demographic policy known as sürgün, in order to repopulate the destroyed city. This origin gave the Romaniyot Jewish community a sort of serf status curtailing their right to travel, a restriction that paralyzed their economic and social activities until the seventeenth century (Hacker 1992a). The newly arriving Iberian refugees reached an altogether different position. They constituted a new category of Jews, free of such restrictions, because the Ottoman rulers considered them as having the legal status of willingly submitted rather than vanquished in war (kendi gelen). Accordingly, the local Greek-speaking Romaniyot Jews and the Iberian immigrants differed in their sentiments toward the authority. The Romaniyot bitterness about their coerced displacement lasted, ← 8 | 9 → and they saw no difference between their erstwhile Byzantine overlords and the current Ottoman ones, whereas the Iberians felt grateful and blessed, their chroniclers eventually producing the myth that the Ottomans had invited the Spanish expellees (Rozen 2010: 44).

There were practical consequences to this history. In many towns and cities of Anatolia, Thrace, and Macedonia the previous Jewish inhabitants had been removed and the Iberian expellees who settled in those places found no obstacle to establishing Sephardic custom as supreme. In Constantinople, where the Iberian Jews did encounter Romaniyot, they avoided intermarriage with them, which could jeopardize the civil status of children of such marriages, and group endogamy hardened the boundaries between these two social categories. As the Iberians overcame their differences and consolidated and centralized into Spanish Sephardim, the status difference facilitated their prevailing over the Greek-speaking group. The pluralism of customs in Ottoman Jewish Mediterranean evolved into Sephardi-Castilian tradition (Hacker 1992b: 115).

For the second and third generation of exiles of 1492 the pain of expulsion began to fade. New collective memories were developed. Memory of exact origins and the importance of an identity attached to a particular place in Iberia were overshadowed by an invented shared and homogeneous Sephardic group identity (Ben Naeh 2008: 418). The rabbinic Sephardic chroniclers helped replace painful personal memories with accounts of the glory of the pre-exilic past. The Sepharad that was invoked was a land and a community born of nostalgia, a longing for a better time (Ray 2013: 126, 161). New Christian arrivals later in the sixteenth and during the seventeenth century reinforced connections with Iberia and the hold of the Castilian language, which had in the meantime developed into an inter-community medium (although a fraction of them chose not to associate with the first wave of immigrants and developed an alternative identity as “Portuguese”). The Balkan and Middle Eastern Sephardim of Ottoman lands emphasized their heritage in Christian Spain and Portugal over their distant roots in Muslim Al-Andalus. Cultural traits such as knowledge of new weaving techniques, firearms, printing, and Romance languages helped them bring vitality to the economies of the places where they settled, and to foster mercantile ties to Europe through the ports of Venice, Ancona, Ragusa, and Livorno, making them also valuable subjects for the Ottoman rulers.

The social development outlined here has a linguistic concomitant and counterpart, to which we now turn. Expressions such as “langue Espagnolle,” “en Español,” “lingua spagnuola,” or “spagnoli ebrei” emerge in historical documents concerning Iberian Jews in various languages from all over the Mediterranean; they are mirrored in Taife-i Espanya ‘community of Spain,’ which is the way Salonika’s earliest sixteenth century Ottoman register labeled the city’s growing Iberian migrant Jewish population (Lowry 1994: 207). ← 9 | 10 →

1.1 The Language

The late fifteenth century Jewish exiles from Iberia were linguistically heterogeneous and spoke different Ibero-Romance languages (see Lleal 1992, Penny 2000), a crucial point that until recently has rarely been fully taken into account in socio-historic accounts, even though it is at the heart of the issue of how the Sephardic community came to be imagined.

For three of the Romance languages that the Jews spoke in Iberia, a relatively large number of examples written in Hebrew script have come down to us (Castilian, Aragonese, and Navarrese). For the other languages, such as Leonese, Galician, Catalan, or Portuguese, we resort to other sorts of evidence. When Jews wrote Romance languages in Hebrew script, and perhaps when they spoke them as well, they incorporated a good quantity of Hebrew vocabulary in them—mostly but not exclusively pertaining to the religious domain. An example is the word alhad, a borrowing from Arabic used by Jews and Muslims to replace domingo ‘Sunday’ (Quintana 2014b: 40), from Latin dominicus dies, whose original Christian meaning of ‘day of the Lord’ must have been evident. When it came to phonology, morphology, and syntax, however, these languages were no different than the varieties that their non-Jewish fellow countrymen spoke and wrote at the time (Lleal 1992, Minervini 2006a: 18, Benaim 2012). Familiarity with Hebrew may nevertheless have resulted in the incorporation in the speech of Iberian Jews of a back fricative, perhaps a uvular /χ/ (a phoneme that did not exist in any Ibero-Romance language at the time) not only in Hebrew words, but also in borrowings from Arabic such as alhad, hazino ‘sick’ and haragan ‘lazy’. It appears that a trait of Jewish Castilian pronunciation must have been a contrast between /h/ (which was later lost or replaced by non-Castilian /f/ in Judeo-Spanish) in harina /haɾína/’flour’ (< Lat farīna), horno /hórno/ ‘oven’ (< Lat furnu-), etc., and /χ/ (which was preserved) in /alχád/, /χazíno/, etc. A second minor point of pronunciation is that although word-final /-m/ was not possible in Castilian Spanish or in most other Ibero-Romance varieties, Jewish speakers of these languages may have learned to pronounce it in Hebrew words, including plurals in /-im/. Although these are minor details of pronunciation, they may have served as sociolinguistic markers.

We need to bear in mind also a point to which contemporary sociolinguistic research alerts us: various registers, idiolects, and sociolects existed in each one of these languages and the Jews presumably participated in them.

The expellees who left Castile and Aragon, and later Navarre and Portugal throughout the sixteenth century, brought this plurality of Romance languages to the places where they settled. Different Romance languages and dialects (Castilian, Aragonese, Catalan, Portuguese, etc.) co-existed for some generations and the immigrant Iberian Jews used them in private communication (Penny 1992; ← 10 | 11 → Minervini 2006b: 148). As the process of Sephardization we have just delineated set off, these languages competed with each other (Quintana 2002, 2014a). Although the genetic closeness of these languages made them mutually intelligible and a degree of hybridization took place, the outcome was the disappearance of Romance multilingualism and the triumph of one language for the Jews of Iberian heritage in the Mediterranean. Révah, for example, noted that among the sixteenth century Jews who arrived in Salonika, the ones originating in Castile were only a small minority compared to those of Aragonese, Catalan, or Portuguese background; yet, “all the Judeo-Spanish speech forms of the Balkans, without exception, derive essentially from the speech forms that New Castile and Andalusia had in 1492” (Révah 1965: 1354). Due to the absence of politically enforced normative pressure, a colloquial form of this language became dominant, which, following its own course of evolution, came down to the twentieth century as Judeo-Spanish.

It should be noted that at the time of the expulsion, Castilian Spanish was already perceived as more prestigious than other Ibero-Romance varieties. Castilian was progressively replacing other Romance varieties in urban areas in much of the Iberian Peninsula. In the case of the most closely related languages with a very high degree of mutual intelligibility with Castilian, such as Leonese, Navarrese and Aragonese, this replacement took place by a gradual process of adoption of Castilian forms instead of local forms. Let’s consider an example from the phonological domain. Among the Ibero-Romance languages, only Castilian transformed Latin /kt/ into /ʧ/ as in noche ‘night’ (< Lat NOCTE), leche (< LACTE), ocho ‘eight’ (< OCTO) and hecho ‘fact, made’ (< FACTU), among many other examples. All other Ibero-Romance languages preserved a pronunciation /(i)t/ (cf. Port noite, leite, oito, feito; Cat nit, llet, vuit, fet). At a certain point, however, Castilian forms with ch started intruding in Aragonese and Navarrese texts. A good example is found in the fourteenth century Navarro-Aragonese siddur transcribed and studied in Quintana and Révah (2004), where together with nueyti (de alhad) ‘night (of Sunday)’ we also find lechuga ‘lettuce’, instead of the expected Navarro-Aragonese form leituga, as the authors point out (see also Lleal 1992: 9). With time, non-Castilian forms become residual and eventually completely disappear from documents written in Navarre and Aragon, reflecting trends in the speech of the urban classes of these kingdoms.

The first generation of Jewish immigrants undoubtedly brought with them to the new communities the sociolinguistic dynamics that existed in the Iberian Peninsula at the time. This would have as a consequence a tendency to give preference to Castilian variants, not only on the part of speakers of Castilian, but also by speakers of other varieties. Thus, to return to the example just considered in the previous paragraph, Castilian forms like noche, ocho, etc., are universally found in Judeo-Spanish. To give another telling example, Judeo-Spanish forms like ojo ← 11 | 12 → (< Lat OCULU) ‘eye’, mujer (< MULIERE) ‘woman’, oreja (< AURICULA) ‘ear’ etc., with /ʒ/ from Latin KL, LY, are exclusively Castilian, cf. Port. olho, mulher, orelha, Leon. güeyu, muyer, oreya, Arag. güello, muller, orella; Cat. ull, muller, orella. An exception, however, is found in the choice among /f-/ ~ /h-/ ~ 0. Among the Ibero-Romance languages, Castilian is also unique in having undergone a sound change whereby Latin /f-/ was aspirated to /h/ before a vowel. This aspiration was subsequently lost, starting from the area around Burgos, in Old Castile. Interestingly, Judeo-Spanish has preserved non-Castilian forms with /f-/ in a greater or smaller number of lexemes depending on the geographical area (see Quintana 2006: 93–100).

Recent advances in historical Judeo-Spanish linguistics provide now a better picture of how this process happened. Brief references in the earlier scholarly literature made it sound as if these various Romance languages simply amalgamated or merged together to result in Judeo-Spanish, overlooking the details of the historical evidence on the matter, or the analogies available in our own time. Languages have inherent structures and do not mix in this way. Consequently, the outcome of the historical process, Judeo-Spanish, is not simply a merger that is equidistant to all Romance language antecedents.

After the expulsion, the exiles went through a period of Romance multilingualism involving different Romance linguistic codes. In their new lands of settlement, some of the immigrants acquired—in addition to their pre-Expulsion language—new Romance varieties from fellow immigrants from Iberia, and local forms in the Italian peninsula and in Portugal. As the sixteenth century wore on, the use of the Castilian language spread in the diaspora and started displacing the other Romance varieties. Castilian Spanish, however, was not homogeneous. Like all languages at all times, fifteenth century Castilian had some internal variation. It consisted of various norms connected with social and cultural stratification as well as geographical location (Minervini 2006b: 148). Even restricting our scope to consonant phonology, this variation included, among other phenomena, (a) the conservation or deletion of /h/ (e.g. [hórno] ~ [órno] ‘oven’), (b) the devoicing of fricatives (e.g. [káza] ~ [kása] ‘house’, [óʒo] ~ [óʃo] ‘eye’), (c) the fronting of (post-)alveolar fricatives (e.g. [páso] ~ [pás̪o] ‘step’) leading to their neutralization with the dental fricatives that had resulted from older affricates (e.g. [brás̪o] < [brátso] ‘arm’), (d) the weakening of /b/ in certain positions (e.g. [lóbo] ~ [lóβo] ‘wolf’), causing its neutralization with /β/ (e.g. [láβa] ‘s/he washes’) and the delateralization of the palatal lateral /ʎ/ (e.g. [éʎa] ~ [éja] ‘she’), known as yeísmo (see, e.g. Lloyd 1987: 322–348). The analysis of early Judeo-Spanish texts has shown that this variation was also found in the new communities of the Eastern Mediterranean at an initial stage (Minervini 1999, Quintana 2014). The fact that the ultimate outcome of this variation did not always favor the same solutions as in Spain or Latin America is not particularly surprising, but the particular circumstances of ← 12 | 13 → language and dialect contact no doubt played a role (for lenition phenomena see Hualde 2014).

We may envision a number of situations among the Iberian-born immigrants. For native speakers of Galician-Portuguese and Catalan, Castilian must have been perceived as a different language, albeit intelligible to a certain degree, with which they may or may not have had familiarity before leaving the Iberian Peninsula, depending on personal circumstances. Speakers of Leonese and Navarro-Aragonese varieties, on the other hand, may have considered Castilian a prestigious version of their own native language, within a linguistic repertoire that allowed different choices depending on style and interlocutor.


VI, 326
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. VI, 326 pp.

Biographical notes

Mahir Şaul (Volume editor) José Ignacio Hualde (Volume editor)

Mahir Şaul (Ph.D. in anthropology, Indiana University) is Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on West African ethnography, anthropology, history, and migration and Judeo-Spanish language and culture. José Ignacio Hualde (Ph.D. in linguistics, University of Southern California) is Professor in the Departments of Spanish and Portuguese and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research is in the field of phonology and historical linguistics, focusing primarily on the Romance languages and Basque.


Title: Sepharad as Imagined Community