One of the most common refrains made by visitors to a Spanish & Portuguese synagogue service is that it doesn’t sound Sephardic. That invariably leads to a discussion about the differences between Western and Eastern Sephardim. Its a funny conversation because we like the idea of Jewish unity and not creating arbitrary divisions. Still, we also celebrate the ways in which we are different. I was thinking about this as I studied parashat Matot.
Bene Yisrael in their quest to reenter the Land of Israel were forced to first contend with some of the nations on her borders. Upon defeating Sihon the tribes of Reuben and Gad seek permission to remain behind and to settle there. Moshe is appalled. Will their act not lead others tribes to also shy away from the conquest? And yet, when rendering his judgement, Moshe not only grants his permission, but adds half of the tribe of Menashe! Some opinions say that they too requested to remain behind. Others say it was a punishment for an earlier wrong. However, I’d like to share another perspective based upon my recent experience retracing the escape route of the Portuguese conversos across the western portion of the Spanish and French border.
Border regions can be relative fiction. Nations set borders, sometimes without considering local conditions. It’s creates combustible conditions in regions across the globe. That is the relative reality on the western Spanish and French border, in what is otherwise known as Basque country. Basque is spoken on both sides of the border, essentially unifying the border area. Historically, this situation resulted in a porous border which created the ideal escape and smuggling route for the conversos as they made their way out of Spain.
Moshe intentionally divided Menashe, placing half of the tribe on the east bank of the Jordan and half on the west. He did so to unite the nation, not to divide it. Menashe’s familial connections of across the border would ensure that Jews on both sides continued to feel as one. Through dividing Menashe, Moshe united the entire people of Israel.
Upon their Expulsion from Spain, Sephardic Jewry went in different directions. Some went east to the Ottoman empire and North Africa while others went west to Portugal. They had very different different experiences, some lived amongst Muslims, others amongst Christians; some lived openly as Jews, others only in secret. As a result two different Sephardic diasporas developed. The Spanish Jews and the Portuguese Jews., the Eastern and Western Sephardim. In fact the Sephardic communities of Amsterdam and France still call themselves Portuguese Jews.
And yet, here in London (and in the other communities of British America), we refer to ourselves as the S&P, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. It wasn’t always like that. It began in the 18th century that the S was added to the P. It was a result of immigration from Morocco and the Ottoman Empire of some of these ‘Eastern Sephardim.’ The S was added to the P in an effort to reunite the Sephardim. Not Spanish and Portuguese independent from one another, but unified in the S&P.
It is one of the qualities I love most about Bevis Marks. The rite of the synagogue is Portuguese, but it is the home to all jews. Western Sephardic, Eastern Sephardic and Ashkenaz. As the oldest synagogue in great Britain, and likely the longest running in the world, it is a home to all Jews. In the S&P you can find unity amongst the people of Israel.