When most people think of Israel’s early settlers, they tend to think of Ashkenazim. They are, however, mistaken. Similar to the origins of Jewish life in America, Israel’s old guard (the early yishuv hayashan) was Sephardic. Following the Spanish Expulsion, many Sephardic Jews moved eastward to the Islamic Ottoman Empire where they were permitted to settle. Not only did they wish to preserve and perpetuate their past, but to also begin life anew.
The mental image many conjure when thinking of Ottoman Jewry, is of ‘oriental’ Jews speaking Ladino and eating cheese filled bourekas. While those cultural elements are true, the Jews of the Ottoman Empire also made some of the historically most important intellectual contributions to world Jewry. Just think of R’ Yosef Karo, the Ari, R’ Shelomo Alkabetz (author of Lekha Dodi), and alas, also Shabbetai Tzvi (the false messiah). The period following the Spanish Expulsion witnessed an explosion of religious and intellectual activity among the Sephardim. It was perhaps the last time in Jewish history that the intellectual contributions of one sector of the Jewish community spread throughout the entire Jewish world.
Surely, this religious energy was stimulated by their recent upheaval and in the interest of perpetuating what was on the brink of being lost. However, far from simply attempting to recreate their Andalusian past, they were also trying to create something new. They believed that they lived at the dawn of the redemption. The Ottomans had captured the ancient land of Israel, which enabled Jews to resettle there in substantial numbers. The Sephardim believed that they could now unite the people of Israel in the land of Israel. This inspired the writing of the Shulhan Arukh (Karo Codes) of R’ Yosef Karo, which generally became the legal guide for all (‘Sephardic’) Jews. The Ari Z’l was inspired to craft a new Kabbalah that stressed the perfection (tikkun) of mankind and the world. And R’ Yakob Berab even reinstituted the ancient semikha (Rabbinic ordination), theoretically giving the great rabbis, of the Holy Land, ultimate collective authority over world Jewry.
Sadly, their messianic expectations did not transpire. Worse, the Ottomans increasingly taxed these Israel communities, sending many into deep poverty. Still, their plight became the concern of world Jewry throughout the Early Modern period. Incredibly, this increased awareness in the notion of, and belief in, Jewish resettlement that culminated in the political Zionism of modern times.
Today, we continue the vision of these early lovers of Zion, but in our own way. We, too, pray for a unified Jewish people in their homeland. However, we do so without the need for conformity. We believe that the unique traditions and ways of life of Jews from around the world should be celebrated and strengthened. Our ability to see the beauty in different kinds of Jewish communities is the source of our modern day unity and strength. As we celebrate the birthday of our modern day nation state, let us recall the efforts of the early Sephardim and exalt in the beauty of Jewish life from around the world.