Prof traces his roots back to pre-Inquisition

PROFESSOR David Abulafia seems rather pleased when I suggest he is an ambassador for the Sephardim. But the title seems justified.

An author on numerous books on the Mediterranean, a descendent of a famous Sephardi Jewish family and a professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, he has an all-encompassing knowledge of a scholar.

There's no pomposity, though. Articulate and eloquent, Prof Abulafia is full of information and speaks excitedly about the great civilisations, Jewish history and events that surround the Mediterranean.

Currently on a sabbatical from Cambridge and finishing off his latest book, The Great Sea, Prof Abulafia traces his roots back to pre-Inquisition Spain.

The Abulafias lived in the Spanish cities of Toldeo, Burgos, Seville and Zaragoza.

But after the Jews were expelled in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, one branch of the family went to Safed, in then-Palestine.

Later descendants included Hayyim Abulafia, who was born in Hebron and built a synagogue in Tiberias named the Etz Hayyim Synagogue.

Prof Abulafia's grandfather, also called Hayyim, went to Mogador, Morocco, where he met and married Mesoda Corcos, part of a family of Jewish merchants who traded with England.

Their youngest son, Leon, married Rachel Zafransky and settled in England, where they raised Prof Abulafia in the genteel surroundings of Twickenham.

"South of the Thames, many of the Jews were spread out," Prof Abulafia told the Jewish Telegraph from his Cambridge home.

"We went to an Ashkenazi synagogue and I often found that a barrier because, although I was familiar with the tunes, there were differences.

"Being Sephardi, I felt I was a minority within a minority and I still feel like that."

There is a feeling of being left out, Prof Abulafia admits, but the Sephardim have an immensely rich and diverse culture and history.

He said: "I definitely think one's background helps to determine how to approach one's subject, in my case the Sephardim and the Mediterranean.

"My family history is an emotional thing: I remember walking through Toledo and going into a museum and seeing a key which belonged to the Abulafia family.

"I also came across artefacts that the Abulafia family presented to a Jewish museum in Istanbul.

"One of the things that has always struck me is the way in which the Jews played a significant role in Mediterranean history.

"From 11th century Jewish merchants to 16th century Sephardi naval officers and different religious movements, they have played a disproportionate role."

When the Jews were expelled from Spain, they spread far and wide - to North Africa, the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire.

Many historians have surmised that the Jews lived in a golden age with their Christian and Muslim neighbours while in Spain.

But Prof Abulafia, 61, takes a more cautious view.

He explained: "It is quite common to think of that period as a rosy time, but then that is a romantic view, it is perhaps what we want to believe.

"In the 10th and 11th centuries, Jews did interact with non-Jews, but particularly with their Muslim neighbours.

"A lot of the interaction led to the likes of Maimonides (the Spanish Jewish medieval philosopher). He learned the Koran and was tremendously learned thanks to this interaction."

Jews became popular in the countries of the Ottoman Empire, Prof Abulafia explained, as they were considered to be "the most talented of artisans", especially by the 16th century sultans.

He said: "The Jews were safe and protected because they had the guarantee of the Ottoman authorities.

"Of course, it wasn't always ideal: there were times when a Turkish governor didn't approve and the Jews were in trouble."

Educated at the St Paul's School and King's College, Cambridge, Prof Abulafia did his PhD on the Kingdom of Sicily, before making his way up the career ladder at Cambridge.

He has published several books on Mediterranean history, including the fifth volume of the New Cambridge Medieval History, as well as a book on The Mediterranean in History, which has appeared in six languages.

He has given lectures in various countries including Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, America, Tunisia, Japan, Israel and Egypt.

An expert in Italian history, Prof Abulafia has been appointed Commendatore dell'Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana by Italy in recognition of his writing on the subject.

His work has taken him to numerous Mediterranean countries, where he has found little antisemitism.

Prof Abulafia said: "I only encountered it in 1969 in Greece and when I was giving a lecture in Alexandria, Egypt, and was accused of being an Israeli interloper.

"Spain, Portugal and Sicily have strong Jewish roots and are proud of it.

"The more intellectual the person, the more interested they are - lower down the scale, they are not used to dealing with Jews so much."

Spain, in the days of dictator Francisco Franco, was outwardly anti-Zionist, with General Franco regularly accusing 'Masonic-Judaeo' groups of trying to overthrow him.

But Prof Abulafia said attitudes are changing.

He explained: "The problem is that there is a strong anti-Israel stance among the press and many politicians in Spain.

"But if you get away from that, the Spanish have a strong fascination with its Jewish history.

"For example there are the Chuetas, descendants of Mallorcan Jews who converted to Christianity or kept their practices hidden.

"Many of them became devout Catholics, although in recent years some have gone to Israel and converted to Judaism.

"And many southern cities with a rich Jewish past, such as Cordoba and Toledo, are refurbishing their historic Jewish quarters and taking more of an interest.

"It is not just for tourism purposes - the Spaniards want people to see their country as a great centre of culture.

"It is a matter of pride for them."

Common Sephardic Jewish names, some of which Spanish Catholics have, include Lopez, Mendoza, Mosquita and da Costa.

Prof Abulafia describes himself as modern Orthodox and has been married to historian Anna Sapir since 1979. They met at a conference in Spoleto, Italy.

But their two daughters have not followed their parents down the academic route - one is training to be a barrister, while the other is a management consultant in digital media.

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph