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The Position and Self-Image of Women in Sefardi Sources:
Concluding Remarks

Alisa Meyuhas Ginio 
Tel Aviv University

The first annual international conference of the Society for Sefardic Studies has been dedicated to the position and self-image of women in Sefardi sources. Using the term: ‘Sefardi sources’ allow us, the participants, to extend the scope of our discussions and debates from the Middle Ages, when Jews were living in the lands of Sefarad (Obadia 1:20) as far as the twentieth century, when the Sefardim, people of Sefarad, expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, were still speaking Jewish-Spanish – Judezmo –  as their native language and reading Ladino texts written in Hebrew letters. The fifteenth century exiled Sefardim either established new Jewish congregations, or joined into existing ones in the Mediterranean basin, thus founding the Oriental Sefardi Diaspora  that existed until the devastation of the Balkan Jewish communities in the Holocaust on the one hand; and the immigration of Sefardi Jews from Bulgaria and Turkey to Western Europe, to the Americas and to Eretz Israel and then the State of Israel, on the other hand. As immigrants, the Sefardim had to go through a thorough process of acculturation and give up their native language - the Jewish Spanish, nowadays referred to as Ladino - that has been throughout five hundred years their distinguishing common language and basic element of their identity and social network.


The Conversos were the Jews who either voluntarily chose to convert to Christianity, or were forced to do so, especially during the last century of Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula 1391-1492 and the forced conversion of Portugal 1497. Some of those Conversos willfully joined the ranks and file of Christian society thus becoming loyal Catholics. Excepting the first generation of Conversos, these people were not born Jews and could not recognize Jewish practices of life and religious ritual from personal experience. They could have gather information about Jewish life and beliefs from family traditions, or from literary sources including an ante-Jewish composition such as the Fortalitium fidei of the fifteenth century Franciscan friar from Castile, Alonso de Espina. Some of the Conversos chose to adhere to their ancestral Jewish Faith in as much as was possible under the circumstances. Among the latter, the position of women was of an outstanding importance, as the clandestine activities of keeping Jewish rites and precepts were performed at home, in the family hearth, and in many cases - such as the  Converso community of Belmonte, Portugal - by the women themselves.


This first annual international conference has been dedicated to the position and self-image of women in sefardi sources.


Renée Levine Melammed offered a general outline of the history of Jewish life in the Medieval Iberian Peninsula and reassessed Jewish Women’s lives there and then, comparing the lives of Jewish women to the lives of their Christian and Muslim contemporaries.

Shalom Sabar expounded the images of Sephardi women in the visual arts from the Middle ages until the Modern era. Offering pictures from Medieval Spain and from the post-expulsion Sefardi Diaspora, he claimed that Salonican ladies’ dresses had taken their origins in Medieval Spain.


Yom Tov Assis, Moises Orfali and José Ramón Magdalena Nom de Déu exposed Jewish women of Medieval Spain: widows, femmes fatales and ordinary members of Jewish aljamas, discussing the social role of women in Sefardi communities according to various sources: both Hispanic and Jewish, especially the responsa literature.

Yom Yov Assis analysed the ways in which Jews of  Medieval Iberia took care of the socio-economic problems of widows and compared those with the ways respectively taken by contemporary Christian authorities and members of Converso social networks. Yom Tov Assis emphasized the generally better social position of widows as compared to other women.

Moises Orfali brought fort the issue of femme fatale אשה קטלנית  - who twice became widow and according to Jewish Halakhic tradition, was not allowed to marry again, for fear of the third husband’s life. This problem became much more acute during the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when persecutions and social disturbances caused the violent death of many a man. Moises Orfali cited the opinions of  Maimonides – the Rambam, R . Yitshak Alfasi and R. Yosef ibn Migash on the problem.

José Ramón Magdalena Nom de Déu exposed a number of cases referring to Jewish women involved in legal suites and some criminal cases, tried either by Jewish or by Christian courts of law, thus proving the active role and participation of Jewish women in all fields of life of the medieval Iberian Peninsula.

 Ruth Lamdan, Gérard Nahon and Eliezer Gutwirth discussed the position of  women in the Sefardi Diaspora, referring to life and death, medical treatment and tombstones inscriptions from the Jewish cemeteries in Salonica and Bayonne, alongside with letters, responsa literature and diaries.


Ruth Lamdan discussed the inscriptions on tombstones erected on the graves of Jewish women in the old Jewish cemetery of Salonica and quoted Salonican sages’ opinions regarding women.

Gérard Nahon spoke of the funeral eulogy – דרשה – dedicated to Rahel Mendes Dacosta, who passed away in the year 1693 and was buried in Bayonne.

Eliezer Gutwirth quoted the well known sixteenth century physician, Amatus Lusitanus’ descriptions of Jewish patients: some living in Italy and some in the Ottoman Empire.


The perception of women was determined by the Mediterranean context involved and did not greatly change throughout the ages. Nahem Ilan and Alisa Meyuhas Ginio discussed the perception of Jewish women in medieval and post-expulsion Musar literature, referring to commentaries on Avot and the Meam Loez on the Book of Genesis and their implications. Nadia Zeldes exposed the legal reforms issued by the General Dayan [judge] Yosef Abenafia on Family Law decreed by the Aragonese rulers of Sicily in 1396, following the model of Aragonese legislation regarding the Jewish subjects.


Susy Gruss, Michael Halévy and Lúcia Liba Mucznik spoke of women in modern literature: in the Sefardi society of Esmirna-Izmir and of Bulgaria on one end of the Mediterranean; and in nineteenth century Portugal, on the western shores of the Iberian Peninsula, on the other end.

Susy Gruss introduced us to the literary work of Ester Morguez Algranti (Izmir 1916-1984). Ester was educated in an Alliance Israélite Universelle school and by her father. She was one of the most prolific writers in Jewish-Spanish of the second half of the twentieth century. Her literary works were published in the contemporary Ladino press. Her only book entitled 9 de Eylul, published in Istanbul in the year 1975, includes 40 poems written in Ladino and reflecting her religiosity and love for her people.

Michael Halévy exposed the ethnographic review Kryptadia, including mezclas de Bulgaria: cuentos, canciones, proverbios, adivinaciones etc. recogidas en Plovdiv y en algunas otras localidades de Bulgaria, until now not known to either historical or linguistic research.

Lucia Liba Mucznik elaborated on the role of ‘Jewess’ in Portuguese literary sources. She examined the evolution of the image of the ‘Jewess’ in Portuguese literary sources from its first appearance in medieval texts till the nineteenth century.  This period of time is to be divided into two sections: first, prior to the Expulsion (1492-5), the forced conversion (1497) and the introduction of the Inquisition in Portugal (1536), when the image of the Jews in literature refers to a real historical presence in a context of general anti-Judaism. The second period, initiated in the eighteenth century with the ideas of the enlightenment, defended by some intellectuals who criticized the Inquisition and its consequences. In the nineteenth century several literary novels and plays create a Jewish or a New-Christian hero and/or heroine. Those heroes and heroines are imaginary – since there were almost no Jews in Portugal. 


The next session of our conference was dedicated to the Converso Home all over the world: Isabel Mendes Drumond Braga, Schulamit  Halevy and Lina Gorenstein discussed the place of the family hearth in Converso society and exposed Converso women in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Portugal, in Colonial Brazil and the Women of Valor among the Anusim – the Hebrew term referring to converted Jews who tried to remain loyal to the Ancestral Jewish tradition and keep, as much as was possible for them under the circumstances, Jewish rites and customs.

Isabel Mendes Drumond Braga went through inventories of goods included in lawsuits of the Inquisition against seventeenth and eighteenth centuries New Christian Portuguese women, and explored this documentation, focussing on the daily activities giving rise to material consumption. Through the study of the inventories of goods, she analysed practices and discourses concerning the patrimonies of women.

Lina Gorenstein investigated the records of the trials held in Lisbon after the imprisonment of 325 New Christians, most of them women, arrested in Rio de Janeiro and sent to Lisbon to be tried there.


Meritxell Blasco Orellna, Hannah Davidson and Rachel Peled Cuartas discussed women in Hebrew Sefardi medieval texts .


Maritxell Blasco Orellana analysed medieval Hebrew sefardi medical sources regarding women, kept in the  Fricóvitch Collection at St. Petersbourg, elaborating on the treaty De Ornatu Mulierum  by Trotula of Salerno or di Ruggiero. The above mentioned sources deal with gynecological problems on the one hand and feminine cosmetics on the other. Some solutions mentioned in those texts were prescriptions and recipes coming out of feminine authorities. Next, a number of biographies regarding ladies’ physicians were discussed.

In 1380 Avraham of Girona wrote an essay in Hebrew in which he attempted to explain the phenomenon of the "night women", namely women who go out and walk at night. Hannah Davidson regarded Avraham of Girona’s description and explanation of that phenomenon as an early version of the persecution of so-called witches in the following centuries. It is clear from the text that the Jewish and Christian communities of Catalonia were confronted by the same cultural phenomenon: reports of women leaving their homes at night to engage in bizarre and disturbing activities. The veracity of those reports was generally accepted.  Avraham of Girona's essay affords us an important glimpse into the popular culture and beliefs of both the Jewish and gentile communities of northern Spain in the late fourteenth century and their interrelationship.

Rachel Peled Cuartas exposed the double significance of a love story on the one hand and a moral allegory on the other, referring to the fourteenth century Saragossan poet, Don Vidal Benvenist and his work: Efer and Dina, and offering a comparison to the work of Juan Ruiz, the Arcipreste of Hita, El libro de buen amor.(1335).


The next session again focuses on Modern Times. Jelena Filipović and Ivana Vučina Simović presented the Philanthropic Association of Jewish women in Belgrade founded in 1874, some ten years after the establishment of Serbian independence (1864), revaluating the role of women in the Jewish communal life there and then. The above mentioned Philanthropic Association soon became an agent of modernization and of feminine emancipation. The philanthropic activities undertaken by the members of the Association were very much similar to what was traditionally happening in the rest of the Jewish world, where women were occupied in giving charity to the poor; all the same it should be noted that the Jewish ladies of Belgrade soon realized that modernity was a way to promote and improve their position in society.

 Moshe Ovadia spoke of women in the old Yishuv of Sephardim and Mughrabies, living in the Four Holy Cities - Tiberias, Safed, Jerusalem and Hebron - during the British Mandate on Palestine-Eretz Israel (1918-1948). Focusing on Jerusalem, the speaker expounded the poverty of the said congregation on the one hand and charity works on the other. He then proceeded to deal with the integration of the old Yishuv into modern Eretz-Israeli society.

Yizchak Kerem discussed the Sefardi feminine dress in Salonica, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, according to the Halakha.  As Salonican Jewry underwent modernization from the mid-nineteenth century onward, traditional feminine dress changed. In the late Ottoman and early Greek period, Eretz-Israeli Salonican Chief Rabbis, Jacob Meir and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Ouziel, adjusted to the new styles of modern European feminine dress amongst local Jewish women.   


The two last sessions of our conference were dedicated to the Early Modern Society.

Alberto R. da Silva Tavim exponded the dialogue carried on in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Portugal, during the transitory period to the Modern Age, among New Christians, Moriscos - usually of North African origin - and Jews, most of whom came from North Africa. The speaker described their respective rituals, customs and beliefs.

Raquel Sperber spoke of the Beautiful Rachel [Raquel], the Jewess of Toledo, lover of the Castilian king Alfonso the Eighth (1158-1214) and elaborated on the transformations of this legend, focusing on two theatrical works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the authors presented their modern ideas through the condition of Rachel as a foreigner and much more: a Jewess. 


Ruth Fine discussed the representation of Jewish woman in the literary works of the Spanish Golden Age – Siglo de Oro - by authors such as Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina and Quevedo, in times when no Jewish presence existed in the Iberian Peninsula.

Florbela Veiga Frade exposed the Historia de Rut by  the seventeenth century poet João (Moshe) Pinto Delgado. Born in a Converso family living in the south of Portrugal, he finally settled down in Southern France where he secretly returned to Judaism. When denounced as a Jew, he had to run away to Antwerp and then to Amsterdam, where he embraced Judaism in public. Here we have a case of a poet who was literally living in two worlds: Converso and Jewish.Two of his most known and important poems are about women: Esther and Ruth, both representing important values to Judaism and both married outside their own people. The levirate marriage of Ruth to Boaz was crucial in order to restore the Davidic lineage and to preserve the land and the name in the family among the ranks of the Chosen People. Such practical problems related to marriage in general and to levirate in particular, were of great importance to the Conversos, who were studying and restoring former ties with Judaism.





During the last three days, we have traveled into far away lands and studied their hundreds of years of history regarding the sefardi Jews living in Sefarad – the Hebrew name of the Iberian Peninsula; then the tormented history of the Conversos, who would not forsake their ancestral Jewish tradition, and the five hundred years of History of the Sefardi oriental diaspora in the Mediterranean, centered in the Ottoman Empire. Throughout hundreds of years, the social position of women in any Mediterranean society was that of a dependent, inferior and obedient entity, fully controlled by either her father or her husband, the pater familias. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, we witness a change: Modernity opened new horizons for womankind. Yet the modern period was destined also to witness the catastrophe of the Holocaust that put an abrupt end to the Sefardi tradition originating in the Iberian Peninsula – the lands of Sefarad.

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