Ruben Maleachi’s Visit to the Portuguese Sephardi Synagogue in Hamburg and Sephardic-Ashkenazic Relations in Early Twentieth-Century Hamburg

Constanze Kolbe

Source Description

Over the course of two years from 1978 until 1980, Ruben Maleachi published his impressions of several prewar synagogues and the different practices of the Jewish communities in Hamburg in German in the Mitteilungen des Verbandes ehemaliger Breslauer und Schlesier in Israel  News of the Association of Former Bratislavans and Silesians in Israel. His descriptions offer some glimpses into Hamburg’s Jewish religious life and especially into one of the city's smallest and least known synagogues.

The newspaper he approached for the publication of his descriptions sought to be a post war continuation of the Breslauer Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt and the Jüdische Zeitung für Ostdeutschland and functioned as a medium of communication for diaspora Silesian and German-speaking Jews. Published in German, the focus of the newspaper was not centered exclusively on Silesia, but also included other German-speaking communities such as Hamburg. Maleachi only published this one historical report and was mentioned in one other instance as having donated some money towards the newspaper. We do not know much about Maleachi himself. At the time of writing Maleachi lived in Jerusalem and his descriptions most likely reflect his experience as a Jewish teenager in Hamburg before the Second World War. Whether he was of Hamburg origin or from another city remains unclear. Although first and foremost a recollection of his personal impressions, his description provides an insight into lived 20th-century Sephardic-Ashkenazic relations in Germany and offers a useful counter narrative to Ashkenazim’s engagement with the imagined Sephardic past of medieval Spain.

  • Constanze Kolbe

Maleachi's description of the Sephardic synagogue

Ruben Maleachi’s description covers his visits to most of Hamburg's Jewish synagogues. The visit to the Portuguese Sephardic Synagogue, however, constitutes one of the highlights in his recollections. The Portuguese Sephardic Synagogue was located on Marcusstrasse and had been in use since the mid-19th century. The temple formed the ritual center of the Portuguese Sephardic congregation, which had come to Hamburg in the 17th century. The religious traditions of the congregation in Hamburg were similar to the traditions of the congregations in Amsterdam, as rabbinic scholars and cantors usually came from Amsterdam.

The Portuguese Jews constituted the earliest Jewish presence in the city, and they were later joined by Ashkenazic Jews. Many of the Portuguese Jews engaged in trade, commerce and the broader port economy of the city. While many Portuguese Jews of the early modern period were well-known merchants, insurance brokers, and diamond dealers, by the early 19th century, however, their numbers dwindled, and only around 200 people were left, many of modest financial means.

Differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews in Dress, Language, and Synagogue architecture

One theme in Maleachi’s descriptions alludes to the Portuguese Jews’ “difference” from the non-Iberian, Ashkenazic Jews in Hamburg. His descriptions thus reflect the Ashkenazic view on Sephardic Jews, which was marked by ignorance and a yearning for exoticism. In the various areas of everyday life these two communities remained largely separate from each other.

When Maleachi writes about his visit to the Portuguese synagogue in the early 20th century, he describes his experiences as “a trip to an exotic place.” Not only their clothes but also the rituals were very different from what he had seen in the Ashkenazic synagogues of the city. The dress of the Jewish leaders as well as the synagogue interior were very different from what he had been used to.

“The seats of those praying were arranged in a circle, -not that they were facing East, but worshippers {were seated} around the Almemor, always facing the prayer leader standing in the center of the temple. There was only one bench set up at the entrance where worshippers directed their gaze at the Holy Ark. [] The chasan and the shamash both always wore tricorn hats instead of a beret, and also a tailcoat, breeches and {white} stockings, while they wore low black shoes on their {feet}. All this gave the whole thing a truly medieval appearance that was often reminiscent of Rembrandt's paintings.”

Although observed in the early 20th century, the scene Maleachi describes invokes “medieval” connotations; the clothes and the style of the Jewish leaders stood apart from the highly acculturated German-speaking Ashkenazic congregations that he had apparently been used to. The Portuguese Jews seem frozen in time: their appearance was described as resembling a Rembrandt picture; as such, the congregation also seemed out of place in the urban environment where many acculturated Jews were indistinguishable from non-Jews. Although not directly negative, the impression created is that the Portuguese Jews were “backward.”

Relations between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews

The difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim was also articulated in the self-denomination of these congregations. Maleachi recalls that Ashkenazic Jews called themselves the “German Israelite Community” or “the German Israelite Synagogue Association.”  Deutsch-Israelitischer Synagogenverband German here was not meant in a patriotic sense but rather as a marker of difference from the Jews of “Portuguese” origin. Strangely enough, this happened at a time when the Portuguese Jews slowly changed from Portuguese to the German language. However, this was not the High German  Hochdeutsch of the Ashkenazim, but rather Low German  Plattdeutsch. Thus, even though the Portuguese congregation gradually acculturated into the German-speaking cultural context, they were still perceived as “different” by the Ashkenazim. This time their difference was not based on the fact that they spoke another language (Portuguese), but another dialect of German.

Despite their differences, there were occasions when Ashkenazim and Sephardim came together. Maleachi informs us that on certain holidays such as on the Simchat Torah celebration the “Ashkenazic Youth would go to the Portuguese synagogue for at least half an hour, and nobody balked at the forty-five-minute walk.” It is not known whether this visit was reciprocated by the Portuguese community but it was certainly one of the few examples where both communities came together.


Apart from this instance of inter-communal celebrations, Maleachi's recollections emphasize the separation between Hamburg’s Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews in various spheres of life. For instance, intermarriage between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews was frowned upon, although this steadily began to change in the course of the 19th century. Separation was also visible after death in the location of the cemeteries. The Portuguese Jews had their own, separate plot in the Ohlsdorf cemetery.

Allure of the Sephardic

The communal relations that Maleachi describes provide a useful counter narrative to what has recently been termed the “Allure of the Sephardic.” Scholarship has shown how medieval Spain has served as a point of imagination and inspiration for 19th century (Ashkenazic) reform Jewish congregations. Jewish congregations in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy drew on medieval Spanish motives in their reconceptualization of synagogue architecture, liturgical language, and writing. Medieval Spain was imagined as an archetype model which served as a point of reference for late 18th and 19th century Jewish communities. Most prominent was the new way (reform) Jews built synagogues, such as the Synagogue at Neues Dammtor  Neue Dammtor Synagoge in Hamburg, which was built in the neo-Moorish style. Rather than hiding the purpose of the building, from the early 19th century onwards ostentatious, prominent buildings were erected, many in a neo-Moorish and neo-classicistic style. Not only Egypt and ancient Greece, but also Moorish styles from medieval Spain and Mughal architecture with rich decorations inspired this eclectic new form of architecture. While there is some evidence that an earlier Portuguese synagogue on Hamburg's Marcusstraße contained some Moorish ornamental paintings, this architectural and stylistic movement was mainly pushed forward by Ashkenazic Jews, whose numbers were much larger.

This architectural style was not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon, it was also employed by Christians. While for Christians the neo-Moorish style went hand in hand with what has been termed "Orientalism", Jews used this architectural style for a variety of reasons. They could show that they were on an equal level with (Christian) architectural developments and push for integration into the majority society. At the same time, the emphasis on neo-Moorish, medieval Iberian architecture gave the Jews a point of reference that they had defined as a “Golden Age” of Jewish-Christian coexistence. In this understanding, the medieval Iberian past was seen as a time period when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in relative peace (convivencia) on the Iberian Peninsula. For Jews in 19th-century Germany, this medieval past served as a type of role model, which they aspired to for their time period.

The reconceptualization of the medieval Iberian past was also present in Hamburg. For example, Maleachi tells us that by the early 20th century, in the Synagogue at Neues Dammtor  Neue Dammtor Synagoge, a reform synagogue in Hamburg, the “Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew was introduced.” Moreover, several Sephardic Jewish rites were introduced into the Ashkenazic synagogues, such as the lifting of the Torah scrolls before prayers.

Maleachi shows in his descriptions that the “Allure of the Sephardic” was an invention of a medieval Jewish past which had little to do with actual, contemporary Ashkenazic-Sephardic relations in Germany. Maleachi perceived the Portuguese Jews in Hamburg as “exotic,” be it in dress or manners. They were seen as backward and in need of progress, similar to the image which Ostjuden evoked among the assimilated elites in major central European cities. The contemporary Portuguese Jewish community, despite their Sephardic origin, were not seen as sources of inspiration and imitation. Rather, the exoticization and at times Orientalizing of contemporary Sephardic communities shows that they were considered curious attractions that had little to do with the glorious past of medieval Spain.

Maleachi’s visit and his vivid descriptions thus allude to some major themes in the 19th century Jewish past. While the medieval Sephardic past was glorified and emulated, this trend had little to do with contemporary Ashkenazic-Sephardic relations. Rather, it was an imagination which reform Jewish congregations drew on. Relations with actual Sephardic communities were rare, and for the most part Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews lived in segregated spaces.

Select Bibliography

Ruben Maleachi, Die Synagogen von Hamburg, in: Mitteilungen des Verbandes ehemaliger Breslauer und Schlesier in Israel e.V., 46-47 (May 1980), pp. 41-44.
Saskia Rohde, Die Synagogen der Sephardim von Hamburg, in: Michael Studemund-Halévy (ed.), Die Sefarden in Hamburg. Zur Geschichte einer Minderheit. Vol. 1, Romanistik in Geschichte und Gegenwart 29, Hamburg 1994, pp. 141-152.
Michael Studemund-Halévy, Hamburg: Jerusalem of the North, in: Transversal 14 (2013) 2, pp. 7-10.
Michael Studemund-Halévy, Die Sefarden in Hamburg. Zur Geschichte einer Minderheit, vol. 2, Hamburg, 1997.
Michael Studemund-Halévy, Die Sefarden in Hamburg. Zur Geschichte einer Minderheit, vol. 1, Romanistik in Geschichte und Gegenwart 29, Hamburg, 1994.
Hiltrud Wallenborn, 'Portugiesische Nation' und 'Hochdeutsche Juden'. Die Hamburger Sephardische Gemeinde und die Ansiedlung von Aschkenasischen Juden im Hamburger Raum, in: Menora 8 (1997), pp. 121-149.

Selected English Titles

John Efron, German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic, Princeton, 2016.
Rainer Liedtke, Germany's Door to the World. A Haven for the Jews? Hamburg, 1590-1933, in: David Cesarani (ed.), Port Jews. Jewish Communities in Cosmopolitan Maritime Trading Centers 1550-1950, London et al. 2002, pp. 79-86.
Rainer Liedtke, Jewish Welfare in Hamburg and Manchester, C. 1850-1914, Oxford 1998.

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About the Author

Constanze Kolbe, PhD, is the 2017-18 Hazel D. Cole Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. She defended her dissertation “Crossing Regions, Nations, Empires. The Jews of Corfu and the Making of a Jewish Adriatic, 1797-1914” in 2017 at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is currently working on her book manuscript and on an article on the Adriatic Etrog trade during the 19th century.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Constanze Kolbe, Ruben Maleachi’s Visit to the Portuguese Sephardi Synagogue in Hamburg and Sephardic-Ashkenazic Relations in Early Twentieth-Century Hamburg, in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, June 12, 2018. <> [April 19, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.