This talk explores the special place accorded medieval Sephardic Jewry in modern German-Jewish culture. It will seek to demonstrate how, in both high and vernacular German-Jewish culture, a portrait was drawn of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews that promoted an image of the former as authentic, desirable, beautiful, and worthy of emulation while the culture and physical appearance of Ashkenazic Jewry was most frequently considered regrettable and in need of radical correction. The paper argues that the turn to Sephardic idealization that began in the eighteenth century was based on a firm foundation of German-Jewish self abnegation and was a constitutive element of the fashioning of a new form of Ashkenazic identity, one that signaled the end of a pan-Ashkenazic Jewish cultural sphere and metamorphosed instead into two distinct realms of Ashkenazic expression and experience—German and Eastern European.
John Efron is the Koret Professor of Jewish History at the University of California at Berkeley, where he is a specialist in the cultural and social history of German Jewry. A native of Melbourne, Australia, he has a B.A. from Monash University, did graduate work at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, took his M.A. at New York University and earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University.
In his work Efron has focused on the way German Jewry attempted to reinterpret and reinvent Jewish culture in the wake of its complex encounter with modernity. His work has focused on the German-Jewish engagement with medicine, anthropology, and antisemitism and he has written on subjects such as Jewish burial, circumcision, and dietary practices. He has also written on Jewish political and popular culture in Central Europe, on Yiddish political satire in Poland and Israel, and the role of sport in the modern Jewish experience. His recently completed book is Sephardic Beauty and the Ashkenazic Imagination: German Jewry in the Age of Emancipation, a study of modern German Jewry’s attraction to the aesthetics of medieval Sephardic Jewry.
Sponsored by: Judaic Studies, Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies