The Pioneering Historian of Sephardi Jewry

June 12, 2023 | Yoel Finkelman
About the author:

In the 19th century, a group of German Jewish university students decided to apply the new methods of academic history and critical scholarship to the past of their own people, creating what they dubbed Wissenschaft des Judentums—Jewish studies. Although these groundbreaking scholars had tremendous regard for the accomplishments of medieval Spanish Jewry, they tended to downplay the history of Sephardim in the modern era. A Bosnian Jew named Moshe David Gaon (1889–1958) dedicated much of his life to remedying that situation, as Yoel Finkelman writes:

Central . . . to Gaon’s project was gathering and creating new sources of knowledge, and this meant reaching out to sources of information far and wide. His extensive archive reflects the work he did in creating a bibliography, particularly of important Ladino newspapers. It documents his groundbreaking work on the influential Ladino biblical commentary, Me’am Loez. Gaon published works of Sephardi Hebrew poetry, and he gathered biographies of influential Sephardi rabbis. His most important work is Yehudei ha-Mizraḥ b’Erets Yisrael (1928), a compendium of information on Sephardi Jewry in the Land of Israel. It remains an important reference work today, and it has been reprinted several times.

Gaon also kept his finger on the pulse of current events, asking colleagues for documentation of their own experiences in real time. When, in 1934, a man in the city of Basra in Iraq claimed to be the messiah, Gaon immediately brought his letter-writing skills to bear on documenting the event. Writing in the name of the Sephardi Community Council, Gaon insisted on getting as much information as possible about the man, his motivations, and the community’s response to his messianic pretentions.

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