It is from the Sephardic Jews that the ethnic slur of Wandering Jew was coined. The tale is told of the Wandering Jew, who was sentenced to wander as punishment for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I, however choose to view my Sephardic Jewish ancestors as amazing survivors in a hostile world. As the Jews meandered, searching for a place they could safely practice their religion, it was if they were caught in a revolving door as they gained converts and lost members to Islam and Christianly. This is why Hebrew DNA is often difficult to find, as it has been largely unstable through the centuries (here).
As Inquisition and Expulsion in Iberia (here) reverberated thru the rest of the Mediterranean; most of the Sephardim were driven back east toward Palestine, the birth place of their ancestors who had left the Holy Land one thousand years earlier. Their high place in the world had disowned them, which left them feeling abandoned and forlorn. They sought respite from God, but found none.
In the century after their expulsion in 1492, it was the norm for the Sephardim to be on the move. Every step of resettlement was met with obstacles. Once expelled, the Jews had to find their mode of transportation and find a country that would take them. Dealing with ruthless sea captains, who often seized their possessions, abandoned, or sold them into slavery. Some Jews were killed, and their bodies cut open to look for jewels.
North Africa, just across the straits, was a desirable location, because there was already a community of Sephardic Jews. Unfortunately Spain was the occupier of Tunisia and Algeria, and the Portuguese occupied Northern Morocco. Independent Sheiks, of the costal regions, blocked the ships at port. A few wealthy Jews were able to pay their way thru to Egypt. Many of the Sephardim chose instead to settle in Italy. But after a few years, once again Inquisition and Expulsion found them, and they fled to another place.
In the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries the Ottoman Empire ( 1300-1699) was lead by farsighted rulers who were thrilled to receive and assist the talented, skilled and highly educated Jews of Europe. Byezid II, responded to the Expulsion from Spain exclaimed, “You call Ferdinand a wise king, he who impoverishes his country and enriches our own!”
The Turkish rulers used Jewish craftsmanship and artistry to better the Ottoman Empire. Jews became especially known for their skills in textile manufacturing, gold and silversmithing. Eventually the Turkish leaders built and established Jewish communities along all of the important trades routes from the West throughout Turkey. Eventually Salonika (Greece) and Istanbul became Jewish cities. Salonika dwarfed all other Ottoman cities in its concentrations of Sephardic populations, number of congregations, diversity of talent and abundance of intellectual leaders and influential merchants and diplomats. It is estimated at its height in 1638 there were 77,000 Jews, twice the number of the local Greek and Turk population. It is believed at its peak the Ottoman Empire was home to 250,000 Jews.
The Sephardic customs, which were similar in practice mingled and intermarried with the Mizrahi Jews, who were the native Jews in Asia. Overtime, the Sephardic influence overwhelmed and obliterated the traditions of the native North African, Greek and Turkish Jews.
The Ashkenazi Jews in the Ottoman Empire, who had also fled Europe, were dismayed at the worldliness of the Sephardim who in turn, regarded the Ashkenazi as poor less sophisticated backward cousins. Tensions developed between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations. Ultimately the Sephardic Jews prevailed because of larger numbers and the ability to social climb in the Muslim world.
While in the Ottoman Empire, the Sephardic Jews’ greatest achievement was Hebrew printing. They published poetry, scientific works, and saved the ideology found in early manuscripts of rabbinical leaders. The crowning achievement of mass printing was the Talmud and Kabballah writings now available to the common Jewish populations around the world.
The Islamic rulers and merchants found the Sephardic Jews vital to the import and export trade with the Christian world. The Sultans also employed Jewish diplomats. Muslims, loathed to do business with the “infidel” Christians, and were quite happy to trust the Jews to conduct business for them. The Sephardic with their vast knowledge of languages, and the culture of Europe; were perfect for use in the diplomatic and international business world.
Traveling back to Iberia and Europe, also worked to the advantage of the Sephardic Jews, who sought opportunities while on business trips and diplomatic missions to keep in touch with Crypto-Jewish relatives still in Spain. They assisted in Crypto Jewish secret rites and helped to remove the Crypto Jewish assets to Turkey or elsewhere in advance for escape. The business and diplomatic business trips became a kind of an underground railroad secretly maintained for Crypto Jews seeking to escape Spain and Portugal.
Intellectually and spiritually, the Sephardim harbored doubts about the cause of what they called “the enormous wrath” which had been visited upon them. Traditionally Jews believe suffering is a punishment for sin. In reflection, the Sephardim could find they had committed no great sin. Physically they had keep the law and spiritually kept the love of God in their hearts. They developed a special sense of urgency as Jewish scholars concluded that the expulsion was not from God’s wrath, but a sign of His love and concern for them. God was testing their faith and moral stamina.
At that same time messianic stirrings came from Europe. The expulsion from Iberia and Jewish persecutions in Europe fueled the idea the Coming of the Messiah was at hand. Religious fervor increased the study of Zohar and the Kabbalah to understand the significance of the last days. Rabbi Isaac Luria in Jerusalem, introduced ideas found in the Kabballah with infusions of messianic meaning. He suggested that the exile of Jews was not divine punishment at all, but was suffering that served purpose. In this way the commandments would be fulfilled, as Jews would be gathered from all the nations. After Rabbi Luria’s death in 1572, his Kabballah teachings spread thru out the Ottoman Empire colliding with the Messianic fever. For the Crypto Jews finding new freedom in the Ottoman Empire, and Polish Ashkenazi Jews who had fled the pogroms in Poland, this was the spark that ignited, in the form of a Greek Jew studying in Palestine, by the name of Sabbetai Zevi.
Rabbi Zevi was a maniacal genius. He made “messianic gestures”, in an attempt to overturn traditional Jewish laws, and pronounced the unpronounceable name of God. Rabbi Zevi proclaimed his “messiah ship” in May 1665. Soon his bizarre Messiah activities spread from Palestine to the Jews in Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Because he had whipped the populace in Turkey into a frenzy, the Muslim leaders arrested Zevi and imprisoned him. While in prison Jews flocked to see Zevi their “messiah”. The Islamic leaders, tired of his antics, gave him the choice of conversion to Islam or death. Zevi chose conversion. His follower’s twisted Luria’s Kabballah teachings; by explaining his apostasy was part of his messianic role. His followers preached conversion, the symbol of the Crypto Jewish shame, was what Zevi took upon himself in the sin they had committed. A few thousand joined Zevi in conversion to Islam.
When Zevi died in his apostasy, his deceptions became apparent, a melancholy depression overtook the Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire. For some Jews this was the final straw that broke the back of their faith, and they left Judaism all together. The Sabbetai Zevi phenomena occurred just as the Ottoman Empire deteriorated beginning in the late 1500′s until the final events in 1699. The Ottoman Empire’s loss of power not only brought a loss of security and prestige to the Sephardim, but affected their wealth too. Just like so many times in their past, the Jews were blamed and persecutions followed. The focus of the Sephardic Jewish destiny turned it’s hope westward toward Europe and to the New World.