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Thursday, September 24, 2015

“Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered”, by Howard M. Sachar, edited by Luann Walther


464 pages, Vintage, ISBN-13: 978-0679738466

While they may number barely a million persons today (less than one-tenth of the world Jewish population) the Sephardim were the trendsetters of their people and the leaven of Mediterranean civilization altogether. In their homeland in Andalusia under Muslim rulers they were renowned prime ministers and army commanders, distinguished scientists, belletrists, and religious scholars; in Christian Spain and Provence, their translators ignited Europe’s 12th Century renaissance, their revenue agents funded the economies of Aragon and Castile, and their astronomers and navigators plotted the explorations of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. From the late 15th Century onward, in exile from their Spanish and Portuguese homelands, the Sephardim made their mark as viziers and intimate advisers of Ottoman sultans, as vastly esteemed physicians of Renaissance dukes and popes, and as dynamic importers and exporters in the Dutch maritime traffic.

Whether as professing Jews or converted “New Christians”, it was this protean minority that functioned as a self-contained international trading network, spanning the seas and oceans, pioneering the gem industry of Europe and the sugar and tobacco plantations of Brazil, and flourishing as merchant ship captains amid pirate-infested Caribbean waterways. Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered transcends conventional historical narrative. With lucidity and verve, author Howard Sachar breathes life into the leading dramatis personae of the Sephardic world: the royal counselors Samuel ibn Nagrela and Joseph Nasi, the poets Solomon ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi, the philosophers Moses Maimonides and Baruch Spinoza, the statesmen Benjamin Disraeli and Pierre Mendes-France, the warriors Moshe Pijade and David Elazar, the fabulous charlatans David Reuveni and Shabbatai Zvi, to name but a few.

In its breadth and richness of texture, Sachar’s account sweeps to the contemporary era of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, poignantly traces the fate of Balkan Sephardic communities during the Holocaust – and their revival in Israel. Not least of all, the author offers a tactile dimension of immediacy in his personal encounters with the storied venues and current personalities of the Sephardic world. Farewell Espana is a window opened on a glowing civilization once all but extinguished, and now flickering again into renewed creativity.


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