Sephardic Transcultural History

Sephardic Transcultural History: Between Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Spring Semester
Dr. Martín Wein
Office Hours: Tuesdays 3-4pm

Sephardic (lit. Spanish) or Mizrahi (lit. eastern) Jews are today often bundled into one group and reduced to a quintessential “non-Ashkenazi” subaltern at the fringe of Jewish societies. Yet, the historical, cultural and religious heritage of this inner-Jewish “other” is far older, broader and more varied than that of today’s Ashkenazi majority. This course traces a plethora of Sephardic/Mizrahi identities around the Mediterranean, in Asia, and on the Atlantic rim, from 1492 until today. Mediating between Christianity and Islam, and sometimes actually merging into those two dominant religions, early modern Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews often developed highly syncretic cultures, with a variety of religious “mixed forms,” from crypto-Jews, to conversos, Sabbateans and the Ottoman dönmeh sect. Echoes of this extraordinarily complex transculturalism continue in the peculiar Sephardic/Mizrahi position on the seam lines between Ashkenazim and Arabs in Israel.

1. The first part of this course will analyze the emergence of a Sephardi/Mizrahi sub- or counter-culture in Israel (e.g. “black panthers,” “Mediterraneanism,” Hebrew-Arabic linguistic syncretism), with its roots in the recruitment into colonial projects (e.g. Alliance Israélite Universelle), the role of Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews in Zionism and in the early waves of modern immigration to the Holy Land, the rise of Muslim anti-Semitism (e.g. the Farhud in Iraq), the Holocaust in places such as Greece and North Africa, but also the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews, and the emigration or expulsion of Jews from most Arab states in the mid-twentieth century.

2. The second part will look at theoretical texts on Jewish and general religious/cultural syncretism.

3. The third part covers the “Sephardification” of preceding Jewish communities and the creation of the “Portuguese nation.” We will discuss the Christian-Jewish Sephardi Diaspora, spanning from
Amsterdam to New York, from Curaçao to Venice -- and the Muslim-Jewish Diaspora, reaching from the Berber/Amazigh Jews of Morocco to the Ottoman Empire, and from India to Egypt, with its ancient roots in the Middle East, starting with the Babylonian Exile, via the ancient Jewish Himyar Kingdom in Yemen, to the emergence of the famous medieval Jewish center in Iberia, Al-Andalus.

4. The last part will focus specifically on the rise and fall of the Jewish communities in the various Christian and Muslim states of medieval Iberia, and on the expulsion of 1492. We will conclude the
course with a discussion of issues related to religious identities, conflicts and tolerance. This course is interdisciplinary, and in addition to scholarly texts we may use also a wide array of other media such as music, film, cultural and religious objects, the Internet, items from everyday life, oral history interviews, photographs, or poetry. We will discuss key transcultural aspects such as book smuggling, dress codes and disguise, interreligious relations and rituals, Jewish-defined languages, ports and maritime trade, Jews and world exploration, complex inter-religious power structures, as well as a few outstanding Sephardic or Mizrahi historical personalities.

Course Requirements (also see final paper FAQs sheet at the end of this syllabus)
Midterm assignment: 15-20 min. reading presentation and leading discussion in class, one-page handout for students, graded pass/fail 10%
Final: academic essay on a topic of your choice, 18-25 pages (seminar) or 8-13 pages (referat), 70%
Attendance and Participation: 20% (you may miss two sessions at your own discretion, except when you present your reading)


Attendance is mandatory. Students are permitted a maximum of three unexcused absences without penalty. Any additional absences will affect the final grade and may result in failure of the course.


Academic conduct:
Plagiarism is taken extremely seriously. Any instance of academic misconduct which includes: submitting someone else’s work as your own; failure to accurately cite sources; taking words from another source without using quotation marks; submission of work for which you have previously received credit; working in a group for individual assignments; using unauthorized materials in an
exam and sharing your work with other students, will result in failure of the assignment and will likely lead to further disciplinary measures.

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