Moshe David Gaon realized that the contributions of Sephardic Jews had been overlooked by historians, well before it dawned on others. He dedicated his professional life to making things right. His personal archive, a collection of critical significance to Jewish history and culture, is preserved today at the National Library of Israel
When imagining a historian, people might think of a lone individual hunched over old documents, fragile archives, or ancient manuscripts. There is some truth to this generalization, but it does not do justice to the collaborative work that makes historical writing possible. Historians build on what has been written by experts before, and they maintain ongoing communication with peers in the field or laypeople with information. Moreover, historians participate in ongoing conversations, sometimes conversations that occur over generations. Today’s historian attempts to answer a question raised by one of her teachers by gathering information from a wide range of people and sources.
This is doubly true for scholars who work to create a new field of study. One such scholar is Moshe David Gaon (1889-1958), a pioneering but underappreciated researcher who revolutionized the study of Sephardic Jewry in the Land of Israel as well as the history of the Ladino language and its journalism. Born in Bosnia, he spent much of his life in the Land of Israel, as an educator, publicist, scholar, and communal leader.
His contribution is more impressive given the context and history of academic Jewish studies, which began in the 19th-century in German-speaking lands. This tradition – known as Wissenschaft des Judentums – worked to present Judaism as on par with the greatest aspects of European culture, and it tended to emphasize the contributions of Judaism to the West and to Europe. Modern Sephardic Jewry was often ignored or looked down upon as unsophisticated. The Zionist historians, mostly from Eastern Europe, who began working in the first half of the twentieth century, emphasized the contributions of European Jews to the nascent Zionist movement, but tended to downplay the continuous history of Sephardic Jewish settlement in the Land, as well as Sephardic contributions to the modern renewal of Jewish life in Palestine.
Gaon, among others, insisted on a correction. But that correction was hard to implement. After a century of work, Wissenschaft had already created a basic infrastructure for the study of the past, including bibliography, networks of scholars, and journals. But Sephardic Jewish studies were way behind the curve.
Central, then, 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 Sephardic Hebrew poetry, and he gathered biographies of influential Sephardic Rabbis. His most important work is Yehudei HaMizrah BeEretz Yisrael (1928), a compendium of information on Sephardic Jewry in the Land of Israel. It remains an important reference work today, and it has been reprinted several times. In that work, he emphasized the importance of Sephardic Jewry in the establishment of an economically productive but religiously observant Yishuv in the land of Israel.
He could not have done any of this alone, and part of what he set out to accomplish was creating a network of scholars, knowledgeable laypeople, and community members who would all contribute to an ongoing conversation that would give Sephardic Jewry the pride of place it deserved. His archive is full of his ongoing correspondence, some of which was haphazard, but some was a more systematically designed effort to gather information and share ideas.
Some of Gaon’s efforts focused on making connections with those who shared his agenda, for example several written exchanges with an older contemporary, Shlomo Rosanes, who likewise believed that Sephardic Jewry had not been researched adequately. Gaon asked Rosanes for help with publishing and publicizing his own work, but more importantly used Rosanes as a source of information, particularly about Ladino newspapers and the lives of Sephardic Jews who had moved to the Land of Israel in the 19th century.
Gaon also wanted to document information held by the general public, and in the 1930s he systematically sent questionnaires to hundreds of public figures of Sephardic background, asking them about their own lives, the path that their families took to the Land of Israel, and the communities they came from. Some responded briefly and laconically, while others provided elaborate personal and family histories. These questionnaires provided important background for Yehudei HaMizrah Be’eretz Yisrael. In one exchange in late 1930, Rabbi Joseph Haim Illos of Tiberias provided a complete life history of his own illustrious father, the recently deceased Rabbi Eliyahu Illos (1860-1929), who had come to Tiberias from Morocco as a young man. Gaon was particularly interested in figures who moved to Palestine prior to the Ashkenazi Zionist movement.
Gaon’s posthumous Bibliography of Ladino Periodicals (a basic reference work today) was itself a kind of crowdsourcing project. Letters from around the Ladino-speaking world, whether from communities in the Balkans or from dentists in Tel Aviv, provide names of editors, information on the number of issues of each paper, or documentation of dates on which publications began or ceased. As he insisted in his Introduction to the Bibliography: “I avoided relying on rumor, trusting instead only eyewitnesses. I wanted to base this work on facts and documents that could not be questioned.” After Gaon’s death, completing the work and bringing it to publication continued as a group effort, by staff at the Ben-Zvi Institute, the National Library of Israel, and by Gaon’s friend and colleague Moshe Kattan.
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 immediate brought his letter-writing skills to bear on documenting the event. Writing in the name of the Sephardic 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.
What is his name, his age, his birthplace, who are his parents, and what was his job? The man’s habits interest me greatly. It is important to clarify the factors that led him to reveal himself as Messiah, and how did he prophecy. Do some believe in him, and how did the Jews and the community leaders respond to him? Have government officials gotten involved?
He was not asking only out of curiosity. With a sense of urgency, he saw this correspondence as key to his role as historian. “I hope that you do not disappoint me and as soon as you receive this letter you respond so that we can fully document this event and determine the place of this man in the history of Israel, whether for praise or blame.” If the community responded, I did not find that response in the archive, leaving us less knowledgeable of this event and its aftermath.
Which only demonstrates the value of wide-ranging communication in documenting history. Scholars operating alone know what they know. People with knowledge sharing and communicating create a community of knowledge and change how people view the world. As the Mishnah states (Avot, 4:1): “Who is wise? One who learns from every person”.
The Moshe David Gaon Archive is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.