ACJC Research Seminar Series, John Efron (University of California-Berkeley), ‘The Sound of Jewish Modernity: Sephardic Hebrew and Berlin Haskalah’

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Date(s) - 02/10/2013
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm



John M. Efron

University of California-Berkeley


“The Sound of Jewish Modernity: Sephardic Hebrew and the Berlin Haskalah”

The Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, is chiefly recalled as a literary enterprise, an attempt by Jewish intellectuals, first in Berlin in the eighteenth century, and then in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, to put forth a program of Jewish social and cultural reform.  However, there is another dimension to the Haskalah, one that has received little or no attention from scholars and that is the Haskalah as an auditory experience.  This talk will explore the subject of the Jews’ speech and how it became a focus for all efforts at Jewish reform, beginning with the Haskalah and carrying through to Zionism.  The particular focus will be on the pronunciation of Hebrew and how, in eighteenth-century Berlin, there was a call to abandon Ashkenazic pronunciation in favour of Sephardic. As the talk will demonstrate, concern over speech was merely the first expression of a larger cultural moment among German Jews, wherein over the course of the nineteenth century, they developed a fully-fledged mythology about the aesthetic superiority of Sephardic culture over Ashkenazic.

 efronJohn Efron is the Koret Professor of Jewish History at the University of California at Berkeley, where he is a specialist in the cultural and social history of German Jewry.  A native of Melbourne, Australia, he has a B.A. from Monash University, did graduate work at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, took his M.A. at New York University and earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University.

In his work Efron has focused on the way German Jewry attempted to reinterpret and reinvent Jewish culture in the wake of its complex encounter with modernity.  His work has focused on the German-Jewish engagement with medicine, anthropology, and antisemitism and he has written on subjects such as Jewish burial, circumcision, and dietary practices.  He has also written on Jewish political and popular culture in Central Europe, on Yiddish political satire in Poland and Israel, and the role of sport in the modern Jewish experience.  He is currently at work on another book called, Sephardic Beauty and the Ashkenazic Imagination: German Jewry in the Age of Emancipation, a study of modern German Jewry’s attraction to the aesthetics of medieval Sephardic Jewry.

His books include:

Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (Yale UP, 1994)

History and Jewish Memory: Essays in Honor of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (U of New England Press, 1998) Co-edited with Elisheva Carlebach and David Myers)

Medicine and the German Jews: A History (Yale UP, 2001)

The Jews: A History (Penguin, 2009, 2nd edition forthcoming 2013). With Steven Weitzman and Matthias Lehmann.

Jewish Voices in the German Sixties (forthcoming). With Michael Brenner.