The Western Sephardic Tradition

Professor Mair Jose Benardete has characterized the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 as medieval Sephardim. Those who became conversos and later returned to Judaism in Western Europe, Benardete has termed Renaissance Sephardim.

The medieval Sephardim left Spain, but took with them the culture and character they had acquired over the centuries of their residence there. They continued to speak Spanish in environments where Spanish was not the general language of communicaiton, e.g. in Turkey, Greece, and what is now Yugoslavia. To their medieval Spanish vocabulary, they added numerous words from Hebrew and from the languages of the lands in which they settled.The result was a Jewish variant of old Spanish, Judeo-Spanish – called Ladino in the printed form. This was their mother tongue. They created a vast Judeo-Spanish literature published in Hebrew (Rashi) letters.

The Renaissance Sephardim left the Iberian Peninsula during later periods. They had the opportunity to study in the universities of Spain and Portugal and enter deeply into the cultural life of those countries. When they left, they took with them the Spanish and Portuguese languages as they had developed through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Their language did not have significant admixtures of Hebrew or other languages, as did Judeo-Spanish. Moreover, the literature they created was generally printed in Latin letters.

Whereas the medieval Sephardim continued to speak Judeo-Spanish until the twentieth century, the Renaissance Sephardim did not maintain Spanish and Portuguese as their mother tongues nearly as long. They adopted the languages of the lands in which they settled.

The Renaissance Sephardim founded communities in Western Europe and later in the New World. Thus, they had a strongly European character, in contradistinction to the medieval Sephardim, who had mostly settled in Asia and Africa. Whereas the Western Sephardim flourished in Christian lands, the other Sephardim flourished in Moslem lands.