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The Forgotten Ones – Sina Rauschenbach focuses on the history of Sephardic Jews

Prof. Dr. Sina Rauschenbach.

Prof. Dr. Sina Rauschenbach. Photo: Karla Fritze.

“Wait a minute, there are still Sephardim!” Sina Rauschenbach never tires of saying this, because so little attention has been dedicated to the history of Iberian Jews. Rauschenbach wants to change this; the Professor of Religious Studies (specializing in Jewish Thought) focuses on Sephardic history and culture. Over 500 years ago, Spanish and Portuguese kings expelled Sephardim unwilling to convert to Christianity from the Iberian Peninsula.

The historian wants to bring more than just a fresh breeze to the German academic landscape. Rauschenbach consciously addresses a wider public. She recently initiated a musical project on the life and death of Luis de Carvajal the younger. Carvajal came from a family who had converted to Christianity yet continued adhering to their Jewish faith in secret. His family was threatened by the Inquisition while living in Mexico and was eventually sentenced to be burned at the stake. Numerous testimonials of Carvajal survived, because he kept a written record of his thoughts and experiences.

Touched by Carvajal‘s story, Rauschenbach came across composer Osias Wilenski, whose oeuvre includes an opera about Carvajal. She managed to convince the Argentinian to compose a song cycle about the life of Mexican Sephardim. Wilenski integrated Carvajal’s numerous poems and writings into his work Poemas y Cartas de Carvajal. “These are valuable writings that get under your skin,” Rauschenbach says. Such sources are rare because converted Jews had to keep their religion top secret. Together with historian Héctor Pérez-Brignoli, Rauschenbach worked for two years on staging a musical interpretation of Carvajal’s life. She also appreciated her personal encounters with Wilenski, whom she called “a friendly, open-minded, and enthusiastic gentleman.” She conceived of the idea during a research semester at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Konstanz. When Rauschenbach received a professorship in Potsdam two years ago, she brought the project with her. The song cycle premiered at Schinkelhalle Potsdam in fall 2015. “We were all deeply touched by the piece,” she says. It was important to her that the concert went beyond academia. “I also want to reach those people who don’t attend my lectures.”

Rauschenbach connects Sephardic and Ashkenazi perspectives 

Rauschenbach has been studying the history of Sephardic Jews in the Middle Ages and early modern period since her PhD studies. She realized then that the Sephardim had influenced important discourses of modernity. “Their history is not a specialized topic. It provides some indication of the development of global networks, economic and colonial history, secularization, and the emergence of hybrid cultures.” Since April 2014, Rauschenbach has been a professor at the University of Potsdam and has ambitious plans. “I consider it my mission to bring this topic to a German university and attract students from various disciplines to it.” She already offers her introductory lectures on Sephardic history and culture to historians and scholars of Romance and English studies. This new research field in Germany has been positively received by students and has generated a great deal of interest, Rauschenbach reports. “I have a great team at my chair that is very supportive.” Rauschenbach is also personally happy to “be back home”. After years of teaching and researching in the Saarland, Wolfenbüttel, Halle, and Konstanz and working as a visiting professor in Bern and Potsdam, the Berlin-born researcher is living again in her hometown.

At the University of Potsdam, Rauschenbach is venturing out into novel territory within the current German academic landscape. She wants to connect the perspectives of Ashkenazim with those of Sephardim. While scholars on Sephardic history also teach at universities in the United States, Israel, France, Italy, and Spain, Jewish studies in Germany focuses on Ashkenazi Judaism. She, therefore, invited specialists from around the world to Potsdam to attend her conference “Colonial History – Sephardic Perspectives”. "We believe that the role of Sephardim in European colonialism is too important to be excluded from the general discussion on colonial history and that, conversely, Jewish studies can benefit from a critical discussion of new research approaches and concepts from colonial history.”

"There are two major groups: Jews of Iberian descent and those of ‘German’ descent,” explains Rauschenbach. Sephardim spoke Spanish or Portuguese, whereas the Ashkenazim generally communicated in Yiddish until the 18th century. In the Ottoman Empire, many Sephardim also spoke “Ladino”, a special Jewish language based on Spanish. While Ashkenazi originally lived in the north of France, Germany, and Eastern Europe, Sephardim lived in the Iberian Peninsula. They also started settling in Italy and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and in Hamburg, the Netherlands, England, and the Dutch, English, and Danish colonies in the Caribbean and the Americas in the 17th century. Descendants of Iberian Jews who had converted yet secretly retained their Judaism lived in the countries of the Spanish and Portuguese Crown, in southern France, and the French colonies.

Sephardim between Convivencia and exile

The “Alhambra Decree” of 1492 expelled Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Since the 8th century, Muslims, Christians, and Jews had coexisted peacefully under Islamic rule in southern Spain – in “Al-Andalus.” This exemplary model was later praised as Convivencia, Rauschenbach explains – without stumbling over the pronunciation because she speaks accent-free Spanish. Since large parts of the Iberian Peninsula had been recaptured in the 11th and 12th centuries, Christian rulers constantly relied on their Jewish subjects and benefited from them. The toleration of Jews ended with the fall of the last Muslim dynasty in 1492 and the attempt to also religiously unify the new Spanish Kingdom. Sephardim had to either convert to Christianity or be exiled. The Ottoman sultan offered all persecuted Jews the opportunity to live in the Ottoman Empire as so-called dhimmi, foreigners whose lives and property were protected because they paid taxes. “The sultan thought it was foolish of the Spanish kings to expel their best people,” says Rauschenbach.

After the outbreak of the Eighty Years’ War in 1568, the northern Netherlands did something similar, offering refuge to many Sephardic merchants and traders. The United Provinces had made itself independent from the giant Iberian kingdom and needed every supporter it could get. “War-related and economic pragmatism prevailed in the Netherlands in the decision to admit rich and useful people.” The trading port of Amsterdam was especially a place of refuge for secret Jews persecuted by the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula in the 17th century; in Amsterdam they could live openly as Jews. Strong Sephardic communities formed. Rauschenbach has often visited Amsterdam to do archival research and is planning trips there with her students. A visit to the Sephardic synagogue, which now belongs to the Jewish Museum of Amsterdam, is particularly impressive. “The synagogue is evidence of a type of architecture particular to Sephardim, which has since been reproduced in many western places,” says Rauschenbach. It also reflects the role of Sephardim in European colonialism; the precious wood used in the Torah shrine, lecterns, and benches originates from the colony of Dutch Brazil.

“I started researching this topic due to my personal relationship with Spain,” says the historian. After finishing high school, she lived in Spain for a few weeks in the 1990s. “I realized that everything can function quite differently than what I had known.” Rauschenbach then studied mathematics and philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin. After graduating, she spent some time in Spain and Israel. It became clear that she would continue doing research but definitely not in mathematics. She was initially uncertain about what to write her thesis on. One of her philosophy professors made a suggestion: “Since you speak Spanish and know the country so well, you could do research on Rabbi Joseph Albo.” She followed her professor’s advice – and even earned her PhD under him. “My supervisor was a wonderful scholar,” Rauschenbach remembers. Studying the Spanish philosopher of religion Albo led her directly to Sephardim.

A “community of new Jews” is emerging in Amsterdam

Rauschenbach is particularly interested in the specific culture that developed in Amsterdam in the early modern period, because many Sephardic converts, the Conversos, accepted the Netherlands’ invitation. Several generations of Sephardim had been living as Christians in the Iberian Peninsula, only secretly practicing their Jewish beliefs. They were no longer familiar with Judaism in the rabbinical sense but did know Christian practices. A “community of new Jews” – as Yosef Kaplan, an important scholar in this field has called them – emerged in Amsterdam; people who felt like Jews but, in the eyes of the rabbis, had to learn what it meant to be a Jew. “Conversos are interesting to us, because they had a mixed form of religious knowledge,” Rauschenbach explains. “This created ‘multiple personalities’ with hybrid cultures.”

Rauschenbach deduces important aspects from the history of Sephardic Jews in the early modern period that extend well beyond the epoch. The intermediary position of many Sephardim is particularly important. “They were able to navigate between worlds very well.” Researchers investigate, for example, which merchant networks emerged in the early modern period. Trade was, after all, an important impetus for increasing globalization. Since many Sephardim in Amsterdam still had relations to the Iberian world, smuggling became possible despite trade embargoes. Moreover, Sephardic scholars knew Christianity particularly well due to their contacts and their own Christian past. This enabled them to act as cultural "translators" between the two worlds and to explain aspects of Judaism to Christians and vice versa. Rauschenbach has researched this field very intensively. Such ruptures in identity could have conveyed special ways of thinking that have been identified as an early onset of secularization in recent research. “Some Sephardim said, ‘I have believed in Moses, Christ, and Mohammed and can find bliss in any of them,’ or ‘I believe  that your religion is the best for you, while mine is the best for me’,” says Rauschenbach. She calls this tendency to accept the multiplicity of religions “religious relativism.” Rauschenbach assumes that this left traces in the European scholarly exchange in early modern times.

The Jewish Enlightenment and Jewish scholarship later followed the history of Sephardic Jews as a role model of successful integration – despite the unfortunate fate of many Sephardim. “The Jewish Synagogue in Oranienburger Straße in Berlin harkens back to Sephardim, a reminder of the hope that integration can work,” says the Berliner.

Since October 2015, Rauschenbach has also been the spokesperson for the “Zentrum Jüdische Studien Berlin-Brandenburg (ZJS)”, an important center for Jewish Studies. At the next annual meeting, the 45 year old wants to discuss the history, culture, and literature of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. She also wants to ask in how far Ashkenazi and Sephardic identities are ultimately only cultural constructs. As the center’s spokesperson, she is responsible for the center’s prime goals to promote and support the PhD students, postdocs, and junior professors funded by the German government, and to connect scholars in Berlin and Brandenburg researching in related disciplines.

Rauschenbach’s enthusiasm for the Iberian culture is hardly waning. She regularly visits friends in Spain. “And I’m married to a Chilean.” A recent Spanish government law shows how politically charged her research topic is. Over 500 years later, Spain has offered citizenship to Sephardim as reparation.

The Researcher

Prof. Sina Rauschenbach studied mathematics and philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin, where she also earned a doctoral degree in philosophy. She was a research associate at Saarland University, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and the University of Konstanz, where she habilitated. In 2008-2009, she was a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. After holding temporary professorships in Bern und Potsdam, she came to the University of Potsdam in April 2014.


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Jüdische Studien und Religionswissenschaft
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
E-Mail: sina.rauschenbach@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de


Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de