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Sephardic Jews in America. A Diasporic History, by Aviva Ben-Ur. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 319 pp. $37.00.
This book studies three Jewish groups in the United States: the Eastern Sephardim, the Mizrahim, and the Romaniotes who spoke Ladino, Arabic, and Greek respectively. Covering the time of their arrival in the late nineteenth century and through to the first half of the twentieth century, its primary sources include the Ladino press and numerous oral interviews conducted by the author, as well as archival documentation. Thematically organized into six chapters, the book focuses on the interactions between these immigrants and the dominant Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jews, the long-established Western Sephardim, and the non-Jewish Hispanic minority in New York. While encounters with some Jews were characterized by a sense of paternalism, more often than not these immigrants faced harsh rejection since they were not recognized as Jews by the Ashkenazim. Additionally, this book critiques historians of the Jewish experience in the United states for excluding the Sephardi-Mizrahi-Romaniote Jews from their research. This exclusion leads the author to emphasize that “the acknowledged portrait of American Jewish history and society remains incomplete without the integration of non-Ashkenazi Jews” (p. 8)
Chapter One, “Immigration, Ethnicity, and Identity,” examines the challenges faced by Sephardic Jews arriving in the United States. Since they did not speak Yiddish, the language commonly associated with Jews, they were not identified as Jewish by immigration officers and did not receive help from their coreligionists the Ashkenazim. Many were detained at Ellis Island in appalling conditions until Jewish immigration officers chanced upon them. While most sought economic betterment, they often lacked formal education and vocational skills. Although precise statistical information is lacking, by 1924 their numbers reached about fifty to sixty thousand. The majority settled in New York, where they clustered in neighborhoods and identified with others from their natal city. Nevertheless, they soon underwent a process of “ethnicization” where overarching identities, both ascribed and self-designated, were used to identify them as Sephardic, Oriental, and Levantine.
Chapter Two, “Hebrew with a Sephardic Accent,” discusses the revival of Hebrew as a modern language in the late 1880s. Sephardic Hebrew was adopted in the United States by Ashkenazim who considered it more authentic than their own Hebrew. Ironically, Eastern Sephardim and Mizrahim had almost no influence on this change since this decision was based on other factors. Considering that this chapter focuses on the Ashkenazic revival of Hebrew, it adds little about the Sephardim and feels slightly disconnected from the rest of the book.
Chapter Three, “East Meets West,” documents the encounter between the newly arrived Eastern Sephardim and the near-assimilated Western Sephardim who had arrived in the seventeenth century. The “Old Sephardim” welcomed the new Levantine immigrants and considered helping them their moral responsibility, but their attitude often came across as condescending. The Ladino language of the Eastern Sephardim was regarded as an archaic form of Spanish, and so the Western Sephardim offered free classes in Modern Spanish. The Eastern Sephardim were also welcomed as members at New York Shearith Israel Congregation but did not have full rights. Communal unity was finally attained around the 1930s with the Union of Sephardic Congregations and the publication of the Book of Prayers, which survives today as a legacy marking the convergence of these two liturgical traditions.
Chapter Four, “Ashkenazic-Sephardic Encounters,” documents Eastern Sephardic attempts at acquiring Jewish recognition. Their unfamiliar physical appearance, distinct social customs, and foreign Mediterranean languages led Ashkenazic-Yiddish speaking Jews to deny Eastern Sephardim their Jewishness, something called “coethnic recognition failure.” When soliciting jobs and seeking boarding in Ashkenazic establishments, Sephardim were seen as Turks or Arabs and faced discrimination. This rejection prevented the intramarrying of these two groups for up to two generations. Another form of discrimination which did not necessarily deny Eastern Sephardic Jewishness was “corporate exclusion,” a situation where Jewish organizations gave priority to Ashkenazic Jews. For instance, in the case of the Oriental bureau, an immigrant aid society, lack of funding forced this agency to repeatedly shut down.
Chapter Five, “The Hispanic Embrace,” is about the Ladino-speaking Sephardim and non-Jewish Hispanics in New York who were bonded by language. Puerto Ricans, for instance, lived in the same neighborhoods as Eastern Sephardim, and Sephardic-owned eating establishments served as social venues for both groups. Intermingling frequently led to romantic relationships, but this aroused a fear of intermarriage within the Jewish community. Meanwhile, academic relationships were established with the Spaniards of the “Ivory Tower” who founded the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University in the 1920s and later added a “Sephardic Section” which sought to advance inquiry of Spanish-Jewish heritage. A third Hispanic group referred to as the “Crypto-Jews of the American Southwest” is also discussed. While this group claims to have observed crypto-Jewish practice in hiding since colonial times, it did not surface until the 1980s. Considering that the book is about Sephardim at the turn of the twentieth century, it is not entirely clear clear why they are included.
The concluding chapter, “A View from the Margins,” reflects on the previously explored concepts of “coethnic recognition failure” and “corporate exclusion” in present times. While today Ashkenazim accept the Sephardim as Jews, corporate exclusion still manifests itself in both academic and community-sponsored studies where American Jewry is still portrayed as essentially Ashkenazic. Sephardim and Mizrahim are never fully integrated, often excluded, and at best tangentially referred to.
While there is no bibliography, the book includes a statistical appendix of non-Ashkenazic Jews in the United States.
I highly recommend this well researched and well written book. Its major strength is that it gives voice to the Ladino-speaking Eastern Sephardim who have been neglected by Jewish historians. Considering that “Sephardic” is an overarching term which incompasses a diverse group, I would have preferred that this book focus on the Eastern Sephardim and discuss the other Sephardic groups in other volumes. This book is also a great resource for Hispanic studies since it reveals much about the connections between the Sephardim and various Hispanic groups.
Julia R. Lieberman
St. Louis University