In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as German Jews struggled for legal emancipation and social acceptance, they also embarked on a program of cultural renewal, two key dimensions of which were distancing themselves from their fellow Ashkenazim in Poland and giving a special place to the Sephardim of medieval Spain. Where they saw Ashkenazic Jewry as insular and backward, a result of Christian persecution, they depicted the Sephardim as worldly, morally and intellectually superior, and beautiful, products of the tolerant Muslim environment in which they lived. In this elegantly written book, John Efron looks in depth at the special allure Sephardic aesthetics held for German Jewry.
Efron examines how German Jews idealized the sound of Sephardic Hebrew and the Sephardim's physical and moral beauty, and shows how the allure of the Sephardic found expression in neo-Moorish synagogue architecture, historical novels, and romanticized depictions of Sephardic history. He argues that the shapers of German-Jewish culture imagined medieval Iberian Jewry as an exemplary Jewish community, bound by tradition yet fully at home in the dominant culture of Muslim Spain. Efron argues that the myth of Sephardic superiority was actually an expression of withering self-critique by German Jews who, by seeking to transform Ashkenazic culture and win the acceptance of German society, hoped to enter their own golden age.
Stimulating and provocative, this book demonstrates how the goal of this aesthetic self-refashioning was not assimilation but rather the creation of a new form of German-Jewish identity inspired by Sephardic beauty.
John M. Efron is the Koret Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Medicine and the German Jews: A History and Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe and the coauthor of The Jews: A History.
"Anyone who researches German-Jewish culture in the age of assimilation discovers a series of inner tensions that demand tactful handling and empathy. John Efron provides both in this wide-ranging book. His analysis of the conflict among Jews between Ashkenazic and Sephardic self-images makes a valuable corrective to simplified views of the past, and an essential contribution to the flourishing field of German-Jewish cultural history."--Ritchie Robertson, Times Literary Supplement
"Challenging, invigorating, and inspiring, Professor John M. Efron's study opens up a swath of Jewish cultural history that is familiar to few scholars and fewer general readers. . . . Efron's fine study, [is] at once erudite and accessible."--Philip K. Jason, Jewish Book Council
"Efron is very precise and clear-eyed. . . . [He] very convincingly locates Ashkenazi longing for Sephardic lustre in every field of artistic and intellectual endevour. . . . Efron offers us a whole new way of looking at German Jewry."--Fabian Wolff, Jewish Quarterly
"There have been studies dealing with aspects of the fascination that the Sephardic Jewish experience held for modernizing German Jews, but none as comprehensive and nuanced as this book, which considers the subject from the angles of language, aesthetics, character, physical features, synagogue architecture, belles lettres, and historiography. . . . Efron's scholarship is impeccable, his writing fluent."--Choice
"[This] is a beautiful book that reveals tremendous craftsmanship. Each chapter is a finely wrought marvel of crystalline prose, careful scholarship, and often exquisite analysis. . . . No one can read this book without feeling their eyes opened wide to the remarkable range and complex motivations of 19th-century German Jewish Sephardism."--Jewish Review of Books
Table of Contents:
Chapter One. The Sound of Jewish Modernity: Sephardic Hebrew and the Berlin Haskalah 21
Chapter Two. “Castilian Pride and Oriental Dignity”: Sephardic Beauty in the Eye of the Ashkenazic Beholder 53
Chapter Three. Of Minarets and Menorahs: The Building of Oriental Synagogues 112
Chapter Four. Pleasure Reading: Sephardic Jews and the German-Jewish Literary Imagination 161
Chapter Five. Writing Jewish History: The Construction of a Glorious Sephardic Past 190