For some answers, go to the Jewish History Channel Blog written by Joel Davidi, who has a well-developed interest in Sephardic topics. His posts contain relevant links, online resources, photographs and notes. Additionally, Joel's facility in Hebrew is welcomed as he accesses with ease books that the linguistically-challenged cannot. I also recommend reading his archived posts on diverse topics.
His latest offering is right on target as he details the difference between Sephardim and nusach (liturgy), and provides information on authentic Eastern European Sephardi and Mizrahi synagogues.
It all goes back to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov, who founded the Chassidic movement in Eastern Europe and began teaching his philosophy around 1734. He applied Kabbalistic concepts and ideas into Jewish ritual.
If until then most Eastern European Jews followed the (generally non-Kabbalistic) customs and traditions that they inherited from their Western European forbears (known as Minhag Ashkenaz), Chassidut now felt that Kabbalah should be dominant. One of the results of this was the complete change of Nusach (prayer liturgy) from the Ashkenazic tradition to the Sephardic one. The reason for this change was because the Chassidim felt that the Sephardic liturgy was more Kabbalistically oriented and therefore superior.There are other confusing aspects of the issue with different versions of nusach Sfard according to different groups, and that Orthodox Jews sometimes used the term Sephardic to distinguish themselves from less traditional coreligionists.
In Hungary, the election of a moderate religious Zionist to the post of Chief Rabbi of Cluj, Transylvania (better known as Klausenberg) in 1878 precipitated the establishment of a newly formed “Sephardic” community in that city. The group consisted of about one hundred families who decided that they could no longer remain subject to the authority of a Zionist Rabbi. The term “Sephardic community” was a sort of legal fiction designed to gain the recognition of the secular authorities that would recognize only one Orthodox community within a given town or district. The only “Sephardic” aspect of the community was that they recited prayers in “nusach sefard.”And then there are those Eastern European Ashkenazim who used Sephardic Hebrew pronounciation because they felt it was more correct than the Ashkenazi.
He discusses Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Falk (1710-1782) - the Baal Shem of London - often confused with the Chassidic movement's founder, the Baal Shem Tov. Falk referred to himself as the son of Raphael the Sefardi, and later as Chaim Shmuel Yaakov d’falk Mardiola Laniado, with a definite Sephardic connection.
In a recently published Hebrew-language book, there is a mention of Falk which Joel translates as “it seems that his father Rabbi Joshua Refael the Sephardi was a descendant of Marranos who arrived in Poland in the 16th century and retuned openly to Judaism. Additional information on Falk’s family is unknown."
[One can only assume that in a Hebrew-language book the actual term used would be "bnai anousim" and not the pejorative marrano. I'll ask him about that. ]
Writes Joel, the Bitterman family (Hrubieszow, Poland) has an oral tradition of Sephardic descent although recent genetic testing has shown that the family falls within a large group of Ashkenazic families who have no tradition of Sephardic ancestry. The Bitterman family website administrator concludes, “It is quite possible that Bitterman ancestors were not Sephardim but rather part of a Nusach Sephard congregations, in the region where Hassidism developed."
And, for even more confusion, there really were authentic Sephardic congregations in Eastern Europe. See the article for details about Lublin's 17th century Sephardic synagogue; in Zamocz ( called the Sephardic Synagogue until World War II); in Krakow; and in Lithuania (Otian, Biraz, Dolhinov, Heidozishok, Vilkomir, Kopishok and Vilkaviskis/Vilkovishk, whose Jewish community was founded by Sephardim). Another clue to Sephardic origins is the name Alsheikh or Alfa in a congregation's name (in Horodna, Shavel, Tabarig and Lida).
Budapest had both a Sephardic (Iberian refugees) and a Mizrahi synagogue (Syrian Jews), and there were other locations in Hungary, Transylvania and Romania with both Sephardi and Mizrahi populations.
Another fascinating clue to our collective Jewish roots is that in Bekeczaba, Hungary, according to Joel, many Jews had a tradition of descent from Armenian Mizrahi Jews and that recent genetic testing has vindicated this claim. He's working on a separate post on this subject.
Read the complete post for more details, references, online articles and photographs.