Author Archives: Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber

About Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber is a Professor of History at City University of New York. Her book, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies.

Jewish Expulsion from Portugal

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Our discussion of expulsion thus far considers the concept of banishment, but what of the actual process? The following article makes the political personal by examining the effect of the 1492 edict of expulsion on the Spanish Jewish community. Reprinted with permission from The Jews of Spain (Free Press).

Selling Out in a Hurry

The decree of expulsion was greeted by the Jews with despair and disbelief. They were given four months to wind up their affairs, and were not permitted to take any gold, silver, or precious metal with them. Recognizing that they could not avoid a forced journey into the unknown, they sought frantically to divest themselves of their property, but the task was virtually hopeless in the time allotted.

The accumulated communal treasures of generations included exquisite synagogues and ancient cemeteries, ritual baths and halls. As for private buildings, how could they sell quickly so many villas and vineyards, orchards and grain fields? The market was flooded still more by workshops and ateliers, thousands of homes and unremitted debts.

The contemporary priest, Andres Bernaldez, describes how most possessions went for a pittance: a vineyard for the price of a handkerchief, a house for a donkey, a workshop for a piece of linen or a loaf of bread. Some people buried their valuables in the hope that they would return later. Agonized scholars dispersed family libraries that had been preserved for generations, even as they tried to commit some of this treasured wisdom to memory.

King Ferdinand Counts His Profits

The author of their distress, Ferdinand, coldly calculated how much he could reap from the decree. For one thing, he cynically ordered Jewish communities to pay the communal taxes due for the next several years so that he would not lose revenue by their departure. Debts outstanding to Jews were deferred or transferred to the crown.

Where Do You Go?

To ensure that their children would have extra protectors during the upcoming ordeal, many families hurriedly married them off. The major problem, however, was finding a country of asylum. England and France had banished their Jewish communities in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. After the Black Death of 1348, which wiped out almost a fifth of Europe’s population, many German towns had expelled Jews or destroyed their communities, accusing them of causing the deaths by poisoning the wells.

Almost all of Italy had refused to admit the Spanish refugees, while the few existing Jewish communities there could not handle much immigration in the face of restrictions placed upon them. North Africa was a possibility, but he hapless Sephardim had to bribe ruthless ship captains and rely upon unsafe vessels; in the event, many refugees wound up adrift on the Mediterranean.

Portugal and Navarre –Short-Term Havens

The exodus began in the first week of July. The majority of Jews from Castile, numbering about 120,000, set off for neighboring Portugal, where, for a hefty fee, King John II granted them a temporary entrance permit good for eight months. Those who were unable to pay for the entrance permit were forthwith sold into slavery. At the end of the period of asylum, 600 families of affluent Jews would be permitted to remain, at a cost of 100 cruzados per household, along with a certain number of skilled craftsmen and artisans.

The king at first agreed to provide ships to take the rest of the community elsewhere. Much more promising, in the short run, was the reaction of the independent kingdom of Navarre, which refused to be persuaded by the enemies of the Jews to bar their immigration. Several thousand Sephardim sought sanctuary there and set up their own communities of “foreigners” and “newcomers” alongside the original Jewish inhabitants. Unfortunately, the expelled Jews would not long find peace in either Portugal or Navarre, for in both kingdoms they were forcibly converted to Christianity within a few years.

Portuguese Cruelty and Risks of Transit

[The circumstances in Portugal were notably cruel. Having changed his mind about sponsoring passage for the Jews, King John II gave them the choice to convert or be sold into slavery. He arrested children of Jews who refused to convert and sent these children to the Portuguese island of Sao Tome, where, a Portuguese Jewish chronicler reports, almost all were swallowed up by huge lizards and the remainder died of starvation.

John’s death in 1495 brought temporary relief to the Jewish community in Portugal. Manuel, his successor, freed the enslaved Jews but decided, upon his marriage to Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter, to expel the Jews in 1496. Manuel ordered that the Jews could only depart from the port at Lisbon, on a certain day in 1497. When the Jews arrived in Lisbon on the appointed day, they were met not with boats but with priests who baptized the Jews en masse.]

Perhaps as many as 20,000 Andalusian Jews flocked to the port of Cadiz en route to North Africa, but there is no way of knowing how many actually succeeded in crossing the Mediterranean safely. This route was especially hazardous, according to testimonies from North African communities, because of the piracy endemic to the area. Further risks included a new outbreak of the plague, along with the closing of Muslim coastal cities to the infected wanderers.

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Jewish Commerce in Muslim Lands

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The following article examines medieval Jewish commercial activities in the context of both Jewish and Islamic politics and culture. In addition to the factors that helped Jews in international trade, like their multilingualism and lingua franca (Hebrew), Islamic attitudes toward commerce allowed for freedom of movement and commercial vitality for the Jews. It is important to note that the position of the merchant in Islamic society contrasted with Christian notions, where an agricultural ideal reigned. Consequently, Jewish merchants and moneylenders in Christian Europe gained an altogether different—highly negative–reputation. Reprinted with permission from
The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience
(Free Press).

Muhammad (Like Ishmael, Arguably) Was a Merchant

Trade was fundamental to Islamic life from the outset, in large part because Muhammad had been a merchant. According to Muslim (but not Jewish) tradition, Abraham’s son Ishmael, the forefather of Islam, was a textile merchant. The quasi-global economy of Islam eventually stretched from Iberia to the Indian Ocean, as ideas and men, goods and armies, moved freely between East and West. Mobility was facilitated by early oral Islamic tradition, which regarded travel for the sake of knowledge as a venerable and pious activity that might even assure entry into Paradise. According to one source, the Prophet himself said, “Those who go out in search of knowledge will be in the path of God until they return” Or, as the traditional phrase put it, “In mobility there is blessing” (In the Talmud too, travel for the sake of learning was commanded…)

muslims and jewsJewish Merchants Moved Freely Throughout the Mediterranean Region

Medieval Jewish documents spanning almost a thousand years, preserved in the treasure trove known as the Cairo Genizah, show how natural it was for Jews to be on the move. Their religious persuasion was no barrier to travel, and the surrounding culture helped revive and reinforce the ancient Talmudic custom of traveling in order to learn. The Genizah documents note quite casually the frequency with which Jews also moved between Spain and Sicily, Aden and the Indian Ocean, for the sake of contracting marriages for their offspring or establishing new branches of business. Evidently it was not even unusual to make several journeys from Spain to India during one’s lifetime.

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Jews in Amsterdam

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In 1492, Spain expelled its Jewish population. The sizable Jewish community was given three months to liquidate its’ property and leave. Meanwhile, the “New Christians” who had converted to Christianity by force or by choice, were stuck in Spain, a class apart, subject to the long arm of the Inquisition. Where did the exiled Jews go? Where could New Christians find peace?

Two places offered immediate relief: Portugal and the Ottoman Empire. However, over time, as the political situation across Europe shifted, new opportunities for Jewish settlement materialized. Chief among these was Holland (particularly Amsterdam), which emerged from the 80 year Wars of Spanish Succession as an independent nation in 1648.  Jane Gerber recounts the formation and development of the Jewish community there. It is reprinted with permission from
The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience
(The Free Press).

The Dutch: Tolerant Traders

Dutch principles of religious toleration were born out of the exigencies of warfare and the need to establish peace among her religiously heterogeneous population. New Christian skills and contacts were welcomed during the protracted warfare with Spain. Article XIII of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ratified the union of the northern provinces, declared that no one was to be prosecuted for his religious beliefs. Although this clause was intended to benefit the Protestants and keep peace among Christians, it provided the legal basis upon which Jews immediately began to take up residence and seek recognition in Holland. There the Sephardim would find the ideal conditions to create a New Jerusalem.

jewish amsterdamThe Dutch capital was the emporium of seventeenth century Europe, her harbor teeming with ships brimful of goods from the Americas and the Far East. Her people eagerly invented themselves as a new nation; beguiled by commerce and its possibilities, they were nonetheless characterized by sobriety of behavior and distaste for both superstition and any pretension of nobility. The city’s great wealth was based on three factors: her fleet, her thriving trade, and a policy of tolerance that attracted some of the most enterprising and ambitious souls on the Continent….

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