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Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History

Aviva Ben-Ur
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Sephardic Jews in America
    Book Description:

    A significant number of Sephardic Jews, tracing their remote origins to Spain and Portugal, immigrated to the United States from Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans from 1880 through the 1920s, joined by a smaller number of Mizrahi Jews arriving from Arab lands. Most Sephardim settled in New York, establishing the leading Judeo-Spanish community outside the Ottoman Empire. With their distinct languages, cultures, and rituals, Sephardim and Arab-speaking Mizrahim were not readily recognized as Jews by their Ashkenazic coreligionists. At the same time, they forged alliances outside Jewish circles with Hispanics and Arabs, with whom they shared significant cultural and linguistic ties.The failure among Ashkenazic Jews to recognize Sephardim and Mizrahim as fellow Jews continues today. More often than not, these Jewish communities are simply absent from portrayals of American Jewry. Drawing on primary sources such as the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) press, archival documents, and oral histories, Sephardic Jews in America offers the first book-length academic treatment of their history in the United States, from 1654 to the present, focusing on the age of mass immigration.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3915-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: The Jews Who Weren’t There: Scholarly and Communal Exclusion
    (pp. 1-22)

    On a late summer day in 1910, twenty-one-year-old Albert J. Amateau, a Sephardic Jew from the Aegean town of Milas, arrived at Ellis Island.¹ His ship, theSS Santa Maria,had provided no cabin accommodations, obliging passengers to cross the frigid Atlantic on the open deck, lying on their own mattresses and consuming only the food they could bring with them. The passage dragged on for twenty days.² Similar hardships are conveyed in the diary of Alfred Ascher, a native of Izmir who left the Peloponnesian port of Patras for New York in November 1915. A ferocious nighttime storm during...

  5. 1 Immigration, Ethnicity, and Identity
    (pp. 23-50)

    In the spring of 1915, twenty-four-year-old Isaac Azriel, a native of Salonika, arrived at Ellis Island aboard theSS Vasilefs Constantinos.The owner of a carpet business, Azriel was conversant in Hebrew, French, German, and Turkish. Unexpectedly, Azriel was detained after a medical official diagnosed him with a deformity of the spine.¹ Immigration officials then promised to release him on condition that he procure a sponsor closely related to him. After ten days in limbo, he was informed that he would be deported, though no one could tell him the precise reason. An Ashkenazic official from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid...

  6. 2 Hebrew with a Sephardic Accent: A Test Case for Impact
    (pp. 51-80)

    In 2004, sociolinguist Sarah Bunin Benor dispatched a query to the H-Judaic electronic listserv. When and why, she asked, did American Hebrew schools shift from the Ashkenazic to the Sephardic pronunciation?¹ A few years earlier, while researching and writing my doctoral dissertation on American Sephardim, I had grappled with the same question. In the context of the New Yorkkolonia,I had come across a number of references to the “ Sephardic” or “Land of Israel” pronunciation of Hebrew in the 1910s and its gradual acceptance among American Ashkenazic Jews. Could these findings, I wondered, demonstrate the impact of U.S....

  7. 3 East Meets West: Sephardic Strangers and Kin
    (pp. 81-107)

    In 1933, Henry Pereira Mendes, Minister Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, recalled his recent visit to a religious day school for Eastern Sephardim organized by the congregation’s Sisterhood on the Lower East Side: “How well those children read and sang our ritual—some even acted as Hazan!” he enthused. “What magnificent material we have there from which to recruit upholders of Sephardic ritual, Sephardic melodies, Sephardic minhag, Sephardic traditions, Sephardic everything!” Nonetheless, British-born Mendes (1852–1937) considered automatic membership in the congregation ill-advised. Rather, Eastern Sephardim ought to be inducted through “gradual associate-membership and then gradual full membership, as the...

  8. 4 Ashkenazic-Sephardic Encounters
    (pp. 108-149)

    Sometime between 1909 and 1913, a number of Ashkenazic Jews of the Lower East Side, protesting street disturbances and neighborhood disputes, petitioned Mayor William Jay Gaynor to remove the “Turks in our midst.” The main problem with the complaint was that these “Turks” were actually fellow Jews. Upon learning of their mistake, the Ashkenazim—primarily Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern European origin—withdrew the petition, deciding to settle the matter “among themselves.”¹ This phenomenon, which I have termed “coethnic recognition failure,” is defined as a person’s denial of a fellow group member’s common ethnicity due to mistaken identity.² Coethnic recognition failure...

  9. 5 The Hispanic Embrace
    (pp. 150-187)

    In the 1980s, historian Germán Rueda was immersed in a study of Spanish immigration to the United States. In the course of his research, he stumbled on a group of early-twentieth-century newcomers who, though born and raised in the Ottoman Empire, identified their country of origin as “Spain.” Rueda realized emotionally that these individuals were Sephardim, Jews whose ancestors had resided inSefaradfor over a millennium before Ferdinand and Isabel expelled them in 1492. He concluded that these handful of examples gave testimony to the thousands of Sephardim who “for more than four centuries had preserved the language, customs,...

  10. 6 Conclusion: A View from the Margins
    (pp. 188-192)

    A recent demographic study sponsored by the American Jewish Committee found that Jews are “the most distinctive” among ethnic and religious groups in the United States. The study was based on surveys carried out by the National Opinion Research Center from 1972 to 2002, and it compared “Jews” to “German, Brits, Blacks, Irish, Hispanics, Italians, Native Americans, Scandinavians, French, Eastern European, Asian, Polish, Other Whites,” and “others.”¹ What is striking about this research is that American Jews are implicitly imagined as an Ashkenazic ethnic conglomerate discrete from other ethnic and “racial” groups. The author explains Jewish “distinctiveness” by pointing to...

  11. Appendix: Population Statistics of Non-Ashkenazic Jews in the United States of America
    (pp. 193-196)
  12. Abbreviations
    (pp. 197-198)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 199-296)
  14. Index
    (pp. 297-320)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 321-321)