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Sephardic Haskalah and Al-Andaluz: Transmission or Construction of Collective Memory?

Bush House, Strand Campus, London

10 Dec Students take notes in a lecture Part of the SPLAS Research Seminar Series

A talk by Professor Eliezer Papo (Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel) followed by a Q&A, chaired by Professor Julian Weiss.

By the end of the 19th century, the first treatises of modern Sephardic historiography began to appear in different Sephardic cultural centres. Written by Sephardic authors, in Sephardic ethnic language, for a Sephardic reading public, the first texts of this genre must be understood within the larger project of Sephardic haskalah, by which Sephardic maskilic elite attempted to reshape traditional Sephardic identity, according to modern French/European models. Different Sephardic authors exhibit different levels of command of Askenazi maskilic precedent/experience, but none of them depends on Ashkenazi intermediation. As a rule, the harbingers of the genre were autodidacts. Many of them had a traditional Ottoman Sephardic rabbinic formation and were exposed to western ideas and ideals via untutored and unsystematic personal intellectual endeavour. As a rule, the second generation of Sephardic “historians” already had a western academic education, however not necessarily as historians.

Due to the time limitations, I will concentrate on a single area: “the future Yugoslavia” – or, more precisely, Bosnia and Serbia. The most typical example of the first generation of self-taught Sephardic historians in this area is Ḥam Ribi Yaakov Moshe Ḥay Altarats (Sarajevo 1862/3 –Belgrade 1919), AKA Ḥam Buhor, the author of Zikhron Yerushalayim (Remembrance of Jerusalem - a rather strange compendium of virtues of the Holy Land and personal memories from his ziyara/hadj spiritual pilgrimage) and Trezoro de Yisrael (Treasury of Israel – a four-volume history of the Jews), published in Belgrade in the last decade of the 19th century, in Judeo-Spanish using traditional Sephardic Hebrew script. El Trezoro de Yisrael aims at retelling “Jewish story” as national history, of a respectable ancient nation, according to the demands of the zeitgeist.

My talk will be limited to a single item in Ḥam Buhor’s Jewish national history, that of Andaluz. By examining how the last traditional Sephardic hakhamim and one of the first autodidact maskilim in the area teaches his Sephardic audience about the place of their, so to say, “original origin”, I will try to deduce which parts of t/his knowledge might be traditional and which might represent the author's exposure to modern historiography. On the other hand, the chief rabbi of Sarajevo in the interwar period, Dr. Moritz Levy, clearly represents the second generation of Sephardic historiographers, who have already acquired a western education, not necessarily as professional historians. Comparing the “Andaluz rhetoric” of the two Sarajevo-born Sephardic rabbis of two subsequent generations, I will try to illustrate the shift in the ways of “Remembrance of Andaluz” in the narrative of Sephardic intellectual elite, a shift that shows yet again that cultural memory is never merely a transmission.

This event is free and open to all. Registration is not required. 


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