Hisdai Ibn Shaprut (915-970 CE) was the first powerful Jewish politician to serve under the Umayyad caliphs in Spain. Hisdai’s career began as the physician for caliph Abd al-Rachman III. Known for his strong command of Latin and Arabic, Hisdai was commissioned to translate a famous medical text from Latin to Arabic that had been given to the caliph as a gift from the Byzantine Empire. After receiving significant recognition for this accomplishment, he was appointed inspector-general of customs and diplomatic advisor to the caliphate in Cordova. Hisdai’s diplomatic skills as a statesman proved extremely successful in negotiations between the Muslim and Christian empires. He even used his position to try, unsuccessfully, to persuade Empress Helena to offer religious liberty to the Jews of the Byzantium. Appointed leader of the Jewish community of Spain, Hisdai was a patron of Jewish learning and devoted much of his influence and finances to supporting Jewish poetry, Hebrew writing, and Talmudic study. He is credited for the revival of Jewish scholarship in Spain and establishing its independence from Babylonia. Hisdai’s deep curiosity about world Jewry prompted him to write to King Joseph of Khazar in search of an explanation of the kingdom’s mass conversion to Judaism two centuries before. His famous correspondence with the King has survived and is the only proof authenticating Khazar’s fascinating story.
Samuel HaLevi (993- 1056), later known as Samuel HaNagid (“the prince”), was the political head of the Jews of Granada in the 11th Century. Before he held the highest position of power of any Jewish notable in medieval Muslim Spain, HaLevi was a petty merchant. He was discovered for his wisdom by the vizier of King Habbus, after being asked by a maidservant to write letters on the vizier’s behalf. He was taken from his merchant job and quickly rose through the notable ranks to the position of vizier and councilor to the King. The King believed that if he did whatever HaLevi advised, God’s blessing would be upon it. When King Habbus died, he was replaced by his son King Badis who also favored HaLevi. In addition to his position as vizier, HaLevi was appointed commander of the King’s armies. Samuel and his son, Joseph, are the only two Jews to ever be given command over a Muslim army. HaLevi lead his army in eighteen years of constant warfare against the Muslim army of Seville. He was killed on the battlefield. In addition to his political and military achievements, HaLevi was a poet and scholar. He used his power to the benefit of Granada’s Jews, giving money to Torah study and the distribution of copies of the Talmud and Mishnah.
Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (1135-1204), also known as Rambam and Maimonides, is the most famous Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages and one of today’s most widely studied Jewish scholars. He was born in Cordova, Spain but at age thirteen his family was forced to escape to Morocco after the Almohads, a fanatical Muslim sect, conquered Cordova. In Morocco, Maimonides completed his first years of academic training before his family had to once again escape the persecution of Muslim rule. The family went first to Jerusalem and then decided it was not habitable and settled in Egypt. There, Maimonides established an excellent reputation through his medical career. He was appointed personal physician for the Grand Vizier of Egypt and Sultan Saladin. At the same time, he was also widely respected for his Torah knowledge and became the Chief Rabbi of Cairo. Maimonides wrote several hugely important texts in the field of Jewish law and Talmudic study. His most famous works are his commentary on the Mishnah (first commentary of its kind); Mishnah Torah (first systematic written code of Jewish Law); and Sefer HaMitzvot (Book of Commandments). He also wrote a well-known philosophical and theological study, The Guide for the Perplexed. Because of Maimonides’s Aristotelian world-view and emphasis on rationalism and science, he was a controversial figure, both loved and hated by his Jewish contemporaries. Only centuries after his death were his contributions to Jewish scholarship fully appreciated and standardized in Orthodox Judaism.
Moses ben Shem-Tov de Leon (1240-1305) was a Jewish writer in Muslim Spain who first published the Zohar and is most likely the author of the largest portion of the Zohar. The Zohar is a collection of literature offering a mystic’s commentary on the Torah and is considered to be the most important Kabalistic text. Moses claimed the Zohar was written in the second century by the famous Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and other sages. However, the validity of this claim is highly contested by scholars for three main reasons: the text refers to events that happened after Rabbi ben Yohai’s time; the Zohar is never referenced in the Talmud; and the author of the Zohar shows no knowledge of the land of Israel. Legend also has it that after Moses died, a rich man offered to buy the original Zohar from Moses’ widow but she confessed there was no original because her husband was the author. Little is known of Moses’ personal life except for his love of philosophy and years devoted to the study of Kabala with the mystics of Castile, Spain. Though there were many critics and skeptics of the Zohar initially, within fifty years most of the orthodox Jewish community and Kabalists fully accepted Moses’ claims and glorified the Zohar’s sacredness.
Luis de Santangel (?-1498) was vital to the success of Columbus’s first expedition. Santangel, the son of Jewish converts and treasurer of the Kingdom of Aragon, was very wealthy and had many connections among Spanish notables. He used his influence to arrange for Columbus to have an audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. When the King was not forthcoming, Santangel arranged for additional meetings and helped Columbus make his case. After three meetings, Columbus’s proposal was accepted. Part of the agreement was that Santangel would personally sponsor a portion of the first trip and the royal funds would supply the rest. Two other Anusim, Gabriel Sanchez and Isaac Abrabanel, also provided finances for the voyage. Columbus did not forget Santangel’s role and felt personally indebted to him. Columbus’s most famous correspondence reporting his discoveries of the New World was written directly to Santangel. This letter was reprinted and given to the Spanish royalty who were so encouraged to hear of Columbus’s discoveries that they were eager to sponsor subsequent expeditions. One suspected reason for Santangel’s keenness and urgency in sponsoring Columbus and providing him with additional boats is because he wanted to assist his fellow Jews in fleeing Spain.
Benvenida Abrabanel (1490-1560) is memorialized as a woman of valor for the life she dedicated to helping oppressed Jews and giving to Jewish causes. Benvenida and her family fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and moved to Naples. She married her first cousin, Samuel Abrabanel, and together they had six children. Samuel was the head of the Jewish community in Naples and a wealthy businessman. Benvenida was a private tutor for the Spanish viceroy’s daughter, Leonora. Leonora married the Duke of Tuscany but even as a Duchess she maintained her close friendship with Benvenida. Despite this relationship and Leonora’s efforts, Samuel and Benvenida were not immune to the decree in 1541 for the expulsion of all Jews from southern Italy and they were forced to move to Northern Italy. After Samuel’s death, Benvenida took over his large business. Through her connections in Tuscany, she was granted special privileges for commercial use of Tuscany’s port. Under her direction, the business did extremely well. Benvenida used her money to help poor and oppressed Jews and also sponsor Jewish education and scholarship. Benvenida is credited for single handedly buying the freedom of more than a thousand Jews imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition.
Beatrice Mendes (1510-1569), also known by her Jewish name Gracia Nasi, was a remarkable business woman and the most famous Jewish woman of her time. Though Gracia’s family was forcefully converted to Christianity by the Portuguese King, they remained very devoted to Judaism. At age eighteen, she married a very wealthy Spanish Jewish banker, Francisco Mendes, but after only eight years of marriage, she was widowed. Along with her brother-n-law, Gracia inherited the Mendes family fortune and took over her late husband’s large enterprise. At enormous risk to herself, she used her fortune and connections to help Jews escaping the Inquisition. She was identified by the Inquisition and labeled as a heretic and Judaizer. Imprisoned three times, she and her family escaped to Europe but the Inquisition followed them, eager to convict Gracia and confiscate her wealth. In 1553, Gracia finally reached Turkey where she was no longer persecuted. In Constantinople, Gracia began running a secret underground railroad to help Jews trying to escape from Portugal and Spain. She also secured the approval of the Ottoman sultan to buy the city of Tiberias for Jewish resettlement, but for various diplomatic reasons the deal fell through. In 1555, after Pope Paul IV determined to violently rid all the papal states of Judaizing Christians, Gracia used her power to try and organize all Jewish merchants to boycott the port of Ancona, Italy. After gaining approval from the sultan, the plan was opposed by prominent rabbis who feared taking dramatic actions that would upset the Papacy and Christian kings. Gracia’s belief in the power of Jewish solidarity in fighting oppression was ahead of her time.
Sara Copio Sullam (1588-1641) was an intellectual icon in 17th century Venice, famous for her poems and literary and theological essays. In Sara’s lifetime, all Jews in Venice were required to live in segregated living areas, ghettos. Although they were bound by curfew, the ghettos had a vibrant cultural and social life significantly enhanced by the regular gatherings Sara hosted in her salon. Daughter to wealthy Sephardic parents, Sara was fluent in Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Latin and she was a talented musician, singer, and song writer. She was well-studied in Greek philosophy and Jewish texts and theology. Referred to as “La Bella Ebrea”—the Hebrew Beauty—Sara is rumored to have had many proposals by Christian men trying to convert her. One such man was the Catholic poet Ansaldo Seba who she had intense correspondence with for four years. Despite her high regard for Ansaldo, Sara remained dedicated to her Jewish faith. At some point, the Catholic clergy Bonifaccio accused Sara in an open letter of not believing in the immortality of the human soul. In response, Sara wrote her famous Manifesto which is a very articulate and intellectual rebuttal of his accusations and proof of her belief in immortality. After the wide distribution of her Manifesto, no one dared to make any religious accusations against her again.
Francisca Nunez de Carvajal (1540-1596) and her children are the most well known victims of the Mexican Inquisition. Francisca was born in Spain and at age twelve she married Francisco Rodriguez de Matos. She had nine children, all born in Spain, and was the sister of the famous conquistador and Governor of the New Kingdom of Leon, Luis de Carvajal. When Luis received a land contract for colonization in the New World, the Rodriguez family was invited to join him. Under Carvajal’s governorship, the majority of colonists in the New Kingdom of Leon were Anusim. The Spanish government had tried to prohibit Anusim from entering the New World but Luis de Carvajal was able to hide the identity of most of them in their registration. Once they were settled in Leon and somewhat distanced from the Inquisition, they began practicing Judaism as a community. Francisca and her children were bold in their encouragement of Anusim to remain faithful to Judaism and observe the Law of Moses. The Rodriguez family wrote Hebrew prayers, held Jewish services in their home, studied the Hebrew bible, circumcised family members, and celebrated the Jewish holidays. Eventually their network was discovered by the Mexican Inquisition and many were arrested and tried in auto-da-fes. Francisca and her children were subjected to regular torture but they remained courageous. Once enough evidence was put before the Inquisition, they were determined guilty of Judaizing. However, all the family members refused to deny their Jewish faith, preferring to die as martyrs. Francisca was burned at the stake in Mexico City along with three of her daughters—Isabel, Leonor, and Catalina—and one of her sons—Luis. Francisca’s husband had died prior to the auto-da-fes and two of her other children—Miguel and Marianna—were burned at the stake a few years after Francisca’s death. In just five years, the Inquisition had nearly wiped out the entire family.
Don Juan de Onate (1550-1626), remembered as the “Last Conquistador,” was the founder of the city of Santa Fe and the first Governor and Captain-General of the new province of New Mexico. Onate was born in Mexico to a very wealthy and prominent family and married the granddaughter of Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortes. Studies of Onate’s maternal ancestry have shown that he was a descendant of Sephardim from Spain who had converted to Catholicism. In 1595, he was granted permission from King Philip II of Spain to lead a colonization and exploration expedition in the northern Rio Grande Valley and El Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico). Part of his mission was to find a shorter route to New Mexico, which became known as the Camino Real, but this made the journey very long and difficult. A caravan of 400 men, half of whom brought their families, and 7,000 livestock went with him. It is suspected that many of the colonists who joined the caravans were not on the official audits because they were Anusim escaping the Inquisition. After eight months of traveling in difficult conditions with little food and water, Onate officially established the province of New Mexico.
Manasseh Ben Israel (1604-1657) is known as the founder of the modern Jewish community of England. His parents were Portuguese Anusim. While Manasseh was still an infant, his father was accused by an auto-da-fe and the family fled to Amsterdam. After receiving years of rabbinical training, Manasseh became rabbi to the congregation of Neveh Shalom in Amsterdam where he developed a widespread reputation as a grand orator. To supplement his family’s income, he started Holland’s first Hebrew press. He wrote several books directed to Christian audiences to help them understand Judaism. His master work, El Conciliador, deals with the difficult passages of the Old Testament and explains the Jewish method of addressing the apparent inconsistencies. Protestant theologians were particularly interested in Manasseh’s messianic views. Manasseh believed that before Jews could restore Jerusalem, they had to occupy every part of the world. With this line of thinking, he labored to attain permission for Jews to be readmitted into England, where they had been barred from living since 1290. English lawmakers recognized that there was nothing in English law preventing Jewish resettlement but Manasseh died before receiving formal permission. However, in his lifetime he was in close communication with Oliver Cromwell who gave informal permission for Jews to return and a large grant for financial assistance.
Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca (1605-1693) was the first congregational rabbi in the New World. Born in Portugal, he fled as a child with his family to France and then to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, he received his rabbinical training and became an important spiritual leader. In 1642, Aboab left Amsterdam and moved to Recife, Brazil at the request of Recife’s newly organized 5,000 member Jewish community. Aboab was asked to serve as rabbi for Kahal Kodesh Zur Israel, the first public synagogue in the New World. Under Dutch rule in Recife, Jews were allowed to practice their faith openly and free from persecution. However, in 1646, the Portuguese besieged northeastern Brazil, trying to reconquer the land from the Dutch and destroy the protection Jews enjoyed there. For nine years, the Jews joined their Dutch comrades in fighting off the Portuguese. Risking his own life by staying, Aboab bravely led his community during this time of terrible suffering. In 1654, the Dutch were forced to surrender and all Jews had to leave. With many other Jews from Recife, Aboab returned to Amsterdam. He continued serving as a rabbi in Amsterdam for fifty more years.
Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816) was the first native-born Jewish clergy in the United States. Seixas was born in New York after his father, a Portuguese Jewish convert, was accused of Judaizing and forced to flee. At age twenty-three, Seixas became the spiritual leader for New York City’s synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel. At the time, there were no available rabbis in North America so Seixas fulfilled his community’s needs by performing all the same functions of an official rabbi even though he was not ordained. During the American Revolution, Seixas was a strong advocate for American Independence and opponent of British occupation. He called upon his congregants to pray for the country’s leaders and bless the revolution. While the British occupied New York, he closed down his synagogue as a sign of protest to British rule and to protect his congregants who had become outspoken in their opposition to the Crown. Seixas had good relationships with Protestant leaders and was well-respected for his charity and patriotism by the entire New York community. He was the only non-Protestant member of Colombia University’s board of trustees and he was honored as one of the twelve clergymen present at George Washington’s inauguration.
Francis Salvador (1747-1776) was the first Jew to be killed in the American Revolution. He was born in England and grew up in London’s Sephardic community. While he enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle in his early adult years, the family fortune was lost after several large investments collapsed. Salvador immigrated to America in 1773 to try and relieve his family’s financial burden. He acquired a large amount of land from his uncle and established himself as a planter. Just a year after his arrival in South Carolina, the tension between England and the American colonies reached a climax. Salvador, already a true patriot, became wholly involved in America’s struggle with the British. As an elected representative for the South Carolina General Assembly, Salvador was the only Jew to serve in a colonial legislature. Also a delegate for South Carolina’s Provincial Congress, he actively opposed the royal government and played an important role in uniting the colonists’ fight for independence. While the British were readying to attack the South Carolina colonies, local British authorities induced the Cherokees to attack the border settlements in order to create a diversion. Salvador was the first to learn of the planned massacre and rode on horseback twenty-eight miles to report the news to Major Williamson. He then joined the militia’s defense of the settlements but before the Cherokees could be defeated, Salvador was shot, scalped, and killed.
Moses Montefiore (1784- 1885) was a famous Jewish philanthropist and statesmen who made it his life’s work to protect the world’s oppressed Jews and relieve their suffering. Born into an Orthodox Sephardic family in England, Montefiore’s first career was in the London Stock Exchange. He made enough money as a broker for the Rothschilds that he was able to retire at age forty and begin his charitable and communal work. Montefiore was given many civil honors, such as his appointment as “sheriff” of London and his being “knighted” by Queen Victoria. A devoutly religious Jew, he was also appointed trustee and community leader of the Sephardic congregations in London. Among his many accomplishments, he convinced his friend, the Sultan of Egypt, to secure the release of Jews in Damascus who had been falsely accused of blood libel. He also persuaded two Turkish sultans to establish a decree which protected the rights of Jews in the Ottoman Empire and offered Jews certain privileges. Although his work extended globally to all parts of Europe and the Middle East, his primary efforts were with the poor and devastated Jewish communities of Jerusalem under Ottoman rule. In his seven trips to the land of Israel, he set up hospitals, schools, water systems, and synagogues and built apartments and farms. He commissioned a census of Jerusalem and he relieved the Old City’s overpopulation by founding the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City walls. Montefiore died at the ripe age of 101, leaving a lasting legacy as one of the world’s most beloved Jews.
Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo (1870-1938) served as a Supreme Court Justice for the United States for eight years. Born in New York, Cardozo’s ancestry traced back to the early Sephardic immigrants of the 18th century. His father had been a New York Supreme Court Justice but was forced to resign after being presented with various charges of corruption. After his father’s death, Cardozo attended Columbia University Law School and went on to practice law and became a distinguished New York jurist. He served on the New York Supreme Court for just a few months before being appointed by the Governor to the New York Court of Appeals. A prolific writer, he authored four volumes on the philosophy of law. Cardozo was nominated by President Hoover in 1932 to fill the seat of Oliver Wendell Holmes in the United States Supreme Court. His nomination was unanimously approved by the Senate. Immediately after Cardozo took the bench, Franklin D. Roosevelt began ushering in his new deal, much of which was subject to constitutional challenge and brought heated controversies to the court. Cardozo’s judicial style was seen as progressive and creative. However, his advocacy for judicial lawmaking was limited because he believed that in a democratic government, the court should defer social change to the legislative and executive branches.
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is one of the first well-known Jewish American authors. She was a patriotic poet, a defender of immigrant rights, a voice against anti-Semitism, and an early Zionist. Lazarus was one of seven children in a wealthy New York family that traced its roots back to the first Spanish and Portuguese settlers in North America. She connected her poetry to her Sephardic heritage and often wrote about early Spanish Jewry. Although Lazarus considered herself a secular Jew, she was by her own words “an enthusiast for the rights of Jews and their civil equality.” Horrified by the pogroms in Russia, she was an advocate for the establishment of a Jewish nation in Eretz Israel years before Theodore Herzl even began speaking of Zionism. For Lazarus, immigration to Israel of all Jews in Eastern Europe was the only solution for persecuted Jews to find true freedom. Lazarus believed Jews in America enjoyed special privileges but that they were still vulnerable to cycles of anti-Semitism. Little is known about Lazarus’s private life other than the fact she never married and developed a friendship and mentor relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her later years of poetry were marked by a stronger display of Jewish themes. One of her most famous poems, “The New Colossus,” is engraved on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty with her famous lines “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.”
Alice Davis Menken (1870-1936) dedicated her life to helping less fortunate Jewish women and youth in New York. She mobilized the Sephardic women of Congregation Shearith Israel to form the Shearith Israel Sisterhood in 1896. Menken was the president of the Sisterhood for over thirty years. Under her leadership, the Sisterhood developed a program to help New York’s poor Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side. The women made sure the immigrants could access healthcare and had enough food, heat, and clothing. In the early 1900s, the majority of these new immigrants were from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Having a strong connection to her own Sephardic faith and practices, Menken took measures to encourage the survival of their Sephardic culture and use of Ladino. She taught classes in Sephardic ritual and gave them print materials on American history that had been translated into Ladino. Menken also founded the Jewish Board of Guardians to help Jewish women and youth on parole or probation. Many of these delinquents were Jewish immigrants who were homeless or had engaged in prostitution and substance abuse. Menken’s work through the Jewish Board of Guardians provided counseling, finances, and shelter to assist in their recovery and rehabilitation after being released from prison. In her years of social activism, Menken had a permanent presence in New York courts and reformatory institutions. Menken’s tireless efforts to better the plight of suffering Jewish women and youth are attributed to her unrelenting optimism, belief in humanity, and strong Jewish faith.
Arthur Barros Basto (1887-1961) was a captain in the Portuguese army and descendant of Anusim. After learning of his Jewish ancestry from his grandfather, he enthusiastically returned to normative Judaism and began organizing the Jewish community of Portugal. In this process, many Anusim revealed to him their secret identities and Jewish practices. Inspired by this revelation, Basto traveled throughout Northern Portugal discovering thirty-four hidden communities of Anusim. Basto considered it his “work of redemption” to bring all the Anusim back into the fold of Judaism. As a soldier of the Portuguese revolution, he believed Portuguese Jews had new religious freedom in the country to openly express their Hebraic heritage. He established schools, a Jewish newsletter, and a synagogue to offer Jewish education and Hebrew instruction. His optimism proved to be premature, however, as anti-Semitism rose throughout Europe. Portuguese dictator Salazar and his regime did not appreciate Basto’s attempts to spark a Jewish revival. False and unspecified accusations of moral depravity were brought against him and he was stripped of his rank and dismissed from the army. Known as the “Portuguese Dreyfus,” Basto died without his name being cleared.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920) is the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel and the current spiritual leader of the Shas political party, the orthodox Sephardic party in Israel. Born in Baghdad in 1920, Rabbi Yosef moved to Jerusalem with his family at the age of four. After years of service on Israeli rabbinical courts and before becoming Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi in 1973, he served as the Deputy Chief Rabbi of Egypt and the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Known for his expertise in Talmudic scholarship, he has written prolifically since the age of eighteen on questions pertaining to Jewish Law (halakha). Due to the genius of his scholarship and heavy political influence, Yosef is revered as one of the current most important figures for religious Sephardim.
Moshe Katsav (1945) is the current President of Israel. Born in Iran in 1945, he and his family immigrated to Israel in 1951. Katsav’s early years were spent in the difficult conditions of a transitional camp set up by the state of Israel in the 1950s to absorb the large influx of poor Sephardim. The camp later became a development town known as Kiryat Malachi. At age 24, Katsav was elected mayor of Kiryat Malachi, becoming Israel’s youngest mayor. A Likud party member, he was elected as Member of Knesset in 1977. In Katsav’s long Knesset career, he held various important Ministerial positions before being appointed as Deputy Prime Minister in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu from 1996-1999. In the election for President of Israel, he defeated Shimon Peres by six Knesset votes. Israel’s eight president, he is the first President of Israel from the Likud party and the first to serve a seven year term.