Thursday, November 29, 2007

Are Sephardim 'black' and Ashkenazim 'white'?

Marc Shapiro writes here:

I read about the outrage taking place in Emanuel, where in the local Beit Yaakov Sephardi students are being segregated from Ashkenazim to the extent that the two are not even permitted to play together. The Shas party has referred to this as nothing less than Apartheid, which it surely is.What’s next? Mehadrin buses where the Sephardim sit in the back? Of course, when this happens the justification given will once again be that Ashkenazim are on a higher spiritual level and that’s why they can’t sit with Sephardim, not that they are racist, chas ve-shalom.I mention this because R. Mazuz has made a comment that is relevant in this regard. Speaking to Ashkenazim who like to imagine the tannaim as “white”, he has called attention to Negaim 2:1, where R. Yishmael states that Jews are neither black nor white, but in between. In other words, the tannaim looked like Sephardim.

One of the commenters then noted:

Is that necessarily so ? Ashkenazic Jews are not generally white either like certain European non-Jews are and there are some Sepharadim that are quite light - so to say that Sepharadim are dark and Ashkenazim are light is not totally correct.

I was reminded about something the late Menachem Begin wrote in his memoir The Revolt.

(Context: Begin is discussing a unique group within the Etzel Jewish undeground -which he commanded -called the 'shock troops'. The unit's mission was to spy on the Arab population and thus was composed mostly of Jews from Arab countries who-because of their dark features and familiarity with the language- could easily blend in).

Begin writes:

but it is not only the people from Arab countries that are dark skinned. There are many Ashkenazi Jews from Europe who are no less dark- and are sometimes darker- than the purest Sephardi
(Here Begin commits the common error of conflating Sephardi and Mizrachi JW). The only two members of the unit I knew personally came from Lodz in Poland [1].

The difference in appearance between Sephardim and Ashkenazim however is already noted by 14th century Spanish Rabbi, Menachem Ben Aaron Ibn Zerach:

It is well known that the appearance of people in Germany is different from that of the people of Spain and that of the Ethiopian is different again by reason of the climate, the varying strength of the sun which affects the air, and consequently the plants and fruits vary. Those partaking of them change accordingly. Hence the difference in Language and appearance. This is known to every wise man [2].

It is also interesting to note that in a medieval disputation between a Christian friar and a Jewish Rabbi the question was posed why Jews are dark skinned and not 'fair and attractive' like the gentiles (who were presumably white(?). The Rabbi in question replied that this is because Jewish women refrain from marital relations during their menstruation cycle [3].

See also here how 17th century Sephardim in the new world dealt with contentions that they were anything less than white.

And who doesn't appreciate some good old fasioned trivia.

Guess who is the Sephardi and who is the Ashkenazi in these photos. The aforementioned commenter's point is well taken indeed.


Begin, Menachem. The Revolt. Nash Publishing Company, 1977. Page 77-78

ספר צידה לדרך ,ל"ו and cited in Zimmel H.Z. Sephardim and Ashkenazim . Oxford, 1958. page 2.

[3]. see Nizzahon Yashan, # 238 (p. 159 of the Hebrew and 224 of the English), cf.Yehudim mul ha-Tzelav, ed. by Yom Tov Assis

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On Artscroll revisionism: Professor Zvi Zohar Reviews "Aleppo City of Scholars"

In this review, Zohar shows how Artscroll recreated the Syrian-Jewish Aleppo community in its own (Charedi) image. He cites numerous examples of how the book (pictured) glosses over those Rabbis whose outlook did not conform to current Charedi standards and conveniently omits and outright distorts facts to suit its agenda.

Professor Zvi Zohar, is scholar of modern Middle Eastern Rabbinic Halacha. He has written two seminal books on the subject - masoret u-tmura and he-iru penei mizrah. He is currently teaching at Bar-Ilan University and is a musmach of the Hartman Institute.

link in PDF format

English Translation

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Chassidic son of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel

Some time ago my uncle showed me a small קונטרס (booklet) he came across in a shemot pile. The booklet entitled שמחה ע"פ דרך החסידות 'Joy according to the Chassidic Method' was written by none other than the son of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel (pictured top) the renowned President of Yeshiva College from 1915 to 1940 . The author's name is listed as Eliezer Tzvi Revel author of

(pictured bottom) אוצר הסוטה והמסורת בדברי הרמב"ם

and the booklet was first published in 1953 (תשי"ג) and reprinted in Tel Aviv in תשמ"ג) 1983).

It is worth reproducing here part of the introduction to the booklet, to get a bit of a clearer understanding of the younger Rabbi Revel.

יש הרבה והרבה המשתוקקים למצוא ספר אחד שיסביר באופן מקיף את עיקרי החסידות של הבעש"ט ותלמידיו. הגם שיש כמה ספרים על תולדות החסידות אבל לדאבונינו אין ספר אחד המסביר כל עיקרי החסידות. פרק זה הוא חלק מן החומר שאספתי עד עתה מיותר מג' מאות ספרים קונטרסים ומאמרים של הצדיקים היותר מפורסמים והסיפורים עליהם. ואי"ה כשירחיב הקב"ה את גבולי אקווה בעז"ה להוציא ספרי 'עיקרי החסידות' .פרק זה סדרתי במהירות ומצמצום הזמן והוצאת הדפוס סמנתי רק שמות בעלי המאמרים...

Apparently, this work was only a precursor to a much larger and exhaustive study on the Chassidic movement. However in basic internet searches, I have not come across any work by that name (עיקרי החסידות) by this particular individual. if anyone has any more information about this intriguing figure, i'd appreciate it[2].


1.) It is interesting how he refers to his father with almost Chassidic reverence. In אוצר הסוטה he calls him רכשבה"ג literally 'Rabbi of all the exiles' (see photo of titlepage above).

I do know (and I am indebted to S. from onthemainline for this tidbit) that according to Aaron Rakeffet's
PhD thesis/ book on the elder Rav Revel-which I have not yet had a chance to read- he (R' Bernard) married into a Chassidic Chabad family, the Travises of Oklahoma who incidentally were wealthy oilmen(!). Perhaps this may explain the younger Revel's (he lists his name as 'Hershel' and his birth year 1915) enrapture with Chassidut?
See Rakeffet, Aron. Bernard Revel; builder of American Jewish orthodoxy. Feldheim (1981)

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Greek Romaniote Jews in NY ; a visit to a rare Jewish community

read about it on my other blog

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