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2018-2019: Sephardic Identities Medieval and Early Modern

Before the contemporary period, the Jews of Sepharad (Iberia) were regularly depicted—and regularly depicted themselves—as part of a unique and exclusive group, more distinguished than the Jews of other lands. From highlighting biblical references to “the captivity of Jerusalem, that is in Sepharad” (Obadiah 1:20) as evidence of the antiquity of Sephardic Jewry, to preserving medieval myths about refugee rabbis from Babylon, reviving Talmudic academies in Iberia, examples abound of how Sephardic identity was always marked by a claim to unique origins and distinguished membership. What are the origins of this traditional claim to Sephardic exceptionalism? How were traditional claims enhanced or altered by the decline in Jewish-Christian relations in the Christian kingdoms of Iberia in the later Middle Ages and by the eventual expulsion of the Sephardim, first from the Spanish kingdoms in 1492 and then from Portugal in 1496? How did such claims survive or evolve over the early modern period and contribute to Haskalah myths of the Sephardic “Golden Age” or to the eventual rhetoric of Jewish emancipation?

“Sephardic Identities: Medieval and Early Modern” proposes to look at Sephardic myths of identity from a diachronic perspective. Rather than focusing on only one period, this Frankel Institute year looks to bring together two different lines of inquiry into Sephardic identity: the origins of Sephardic exceptionalism within medieval Sephardic communities themselves; and the evolution of such notions under pressure from forced conversion and inquisition, expulsion and diaspora, and ghettoization and emancipation.

The 2018-19 Institute Annual is available online, and features essays by all of the fellows highlighting their research on “Sephardic Identities: Medieval and Early Modern”.


Ilil Baum
Bar-Ilan University
"The Knowledge of Arabic among the Jews of the Crown of Aragon: Late Medieval Jewish Multilingualism as a Marker of an Elitist Culture"

Ross Brann
Cornell University
"Andalusi and Sefardi Exceptionalism"

Monica Colominas Aparicio
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
"Sephardic Exceptionalism in the anti-Jewish Polemics of Medieval Iberian Muslims"

Brian Hamm
University of Central Florida
"Being "Portuguese" at the Diasporic Margins"

Marc Herman
Columbia University and Fordham University
"Andalusian Independence from Geonic Authority in its Mālikī and Almohad Contexts"

Martin Jacobs
Washington University (St. Louis)
"Constantinople vs. Tenochtitlán: Imperial Expansion through a Post-Expulsion Sephardic Lens"

Ehud Krinis
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
"'Radical Judeo-Andalusian Trends in Conflict – The Case of Baḥya Ibn Paqūda and Judah Halevi"

Devi Mays
University of Michigan
"The Sephardi Connection: Ottoman Jews, the Opium Trade, and the Aftereffects of Empire"

S. J. Pearce
New York University
"In the Taifa Kingdoms: The Medieval Poetics of Modern Nationalism"

Maya Soifer Irish
Rice University
"Sephardic Exceptionalism and the Castilian Jewish Elites"

Vasileios Syros
University of Jyväskylä (Finland) 
"Visions of History and Sephardic Identities: Medieval and Early Modern Perspectives"

Ryan Szpiech
University of Michigan
"He is Still Israel? Conversion and Sephardic Identity before and after 1391"

Moshe Yagur
University of Haifa 
"Who was a 'Sepharadi'? A view from the Cairo Geniza"