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BOOK REVIEW / HISTORY : A Poignant Celebration of a Rich Vein of Jewish History : FAREWELL ESPANA: The World of the Sephardim Remembered by Howard M. Sachar , Knopf, $30, 439 pages

December 28, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Fiddler on the Roof" and its setting in a poor but picturesque shtetl in a Russian backwater defines the Jewish tradition for many Americans--and, for that matter, many American Jews. But there is another tradition in Judaism, a grand and glorious one, and Howard M. Sachar celebrates it in "Farewell Espana," a history of the Jews who trace their ancestry to Spain.

"Sephard" is a Hebrew term for the Iberian Peninsula, and the Sephardim were Jews whose dispersion from the Holy Land in antiquity brought them to what is now Spain and Portugal. Sachar describes how the Sephardic Jews achieved a unique degree of affluence and independence under the 8th-Century Moorish conquerors who saw the Jews as an especially useful kind of infidel because of their skills at commerce, medicine and statecraft.

"Sephardic Jewry by the tenth century had become primus inter pares within the vast dispersion of their people," Sachar writes. "Numbering perhaps eighty thousand, they (shared) a collective security of existence all but unimaginable to their harried fellow Jews in Christian Europe."

According to Sachar, the Golden Age of the Sephardic Jews coincided with what he calls the Islamic Renaissance, a period in which the Sephardim achieved not only economic prosperity but distinguished themselves in the more exalted enterprises of poetry, philosophy, science and medicine. To this day, according to Sachar, the Sephardic world is celebrated for "its own characteristic joie de vivre, its brilliance of plumage, its genial, accommodating, tolerant affection for life's pleasures and excesses, even its frailties."

By the 13th Century, however, the reconquest of Spain by the Christian monarchy put an end to the golden days of both Islam and the Sephardim, and a new Diaspora sent the Sephardic Jews across Europe, into North Africa, and throughout the Middle East. The verse of the Sephardic poet Moses ibn Ezra embodied a familiar if heartbreaking aspect of the Jewish experience:

'My feet run about like lightning to the far ends of the earth,/and I move from sea to sea./Journey follows journey, but I find no resting place, no calm repose."

Indeed, Sachar devotes the bulk of his book to the fate of the Sephardim after their final expulsion from Spain in 1492, and he follows the strands of Sephardic culture to every place where these proud and accomplished people sought refuge: the Balkans, Asia Minor, the Holy Land, Western Europe, North Africa, the New World, and finally the modern state of Israel, where the Sephardim have come to play a decisive role in the religious and political life of the Jewish state.

Along the way, Sachar scrutinizes the leading figures of Sephardic history in all of their complexity and diversity. For example, he celebrates Moses ben Maimon, a 12th-Century Jew from Cordoba who became court physician to Saladin and authored several monumental works of law and philosophy that are still authoritative in Jewish religious life.

But Sachar gives us, too, the remarkable figure of Shabbatai Zvi, a Jew from Ismalia who raised and then crushed the hopes of his fellow Jews throughout Europe by declaring himself to be the messiah and then converting to Islam in the 17th Century, an event that shattered the conventions of Jewish religious observance.

Sachar is a distinguished Jewish historian--and the son of another renowned scholar, the late Abram L. Sachar--whose work has focused on the sometimes bitter realities of Jewish experience in recent history. Even when he is documenting the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, however, Sachar achieves a kind of grandeur, a certain scale and sweep, and a fugue-like juxtaposition of old and new, exotic and familiar, that transcends the mere chronicling of facts and figures.

For example, while recounting the "Great Betrayal" of the false messiah Shabbatai Zvi in 17th Century Constantinople, Sachar flashes forward to another, more recent betrayal--a rabbi in Salonika who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers of Greece in consigning 50,000 of his fellow Jews to death at Auschwitz.

And then, mindful of the rich heritage of Sephardic poetry that dates back more than a millennium, he brings the narrative abruptly into the here and now by quoting a contemporary Israeli poet of Sephardic descent who recalls the fate of the Salonikan Jews in the antique Sephardic dialect called Ladino.

The words of the Ladino poet, as it turns out, epitomize what Sachar has accomplished in "Farewell Espana," a poignant celebration of a rich vein of Jewish history: "And their terrifying laments mix with the wind,/The wind that is powerless to drown out the groans."

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