Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History

    August 2009            
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Book Review

By Jay Levinson

Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History
by Aviva Ben-Ur
New York: NYU Press (2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0-8147-9982-6

It is the basic premise of this book that Sephardim in the United States during the early 20th century constituted a group poorly known and grossly misunderstood. Perhaps use of the word "group" is indicative of the a major segment of the problem. As the author shows very clearly, it is hard to group all Sephardim together.

Unlike Ashkenazi immigrants of the time who understood each other despite various dialects of Yiddish and German, Sephardim had no linguistic bond. Speakers of Ladino, Arabic and Georgian could not understand each other, and if their ritual had anything in common, it was that it differed from the practices of Ashkenazim, who were predominant in the United States at the time.

In Palestine the lingua franca betweens various Jews returning to Eretz Yisrael from the Diaspora was Hebrew, which many people knew in varying degrees upon arrival. In the United States English would eventually unite the Jewish Community, but only after it was learnt --- less by the immigrant generation, and much more so by their children.

Why did Sephardic Jews particularly from the declining Ottoman Empire come to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century? There was the motivation of economic betterment (cited together ironically with lack of market-place vocational skills). For many, however, the Young Turks Revolution of 1908 was a critical turning point. Military conscription became mandatory for Jews and Christians as well as Moslems. The implications for Sabbath observance and kashrut were obvious to all, and many Jews decided it was time to leave. It is a shame that Ben-Ur did not compare the situation with forced conscription under the Romanoff Tsars or the 1920s linguistic revolution of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ((1881-1938) that had major (negative) implications for Jewish education.

Ben-Ur does carefully point out common misunderstandings and prejudices. On the one hand we laud Jewish Spain of the Middle Ages, calling it a Golden Age (a blatant exaggeration justified only by a few personages). On the other hand later Sephardim are often denigrated as uneducated and uncultured (i.e., not meeting European norms). Perhaps it is Yemenite Jews who suffer most from an undeserved negative image, though Jews of the former Ottoman Empire do not escape the problem.

Numerous anecdotes are brought describing how Sephardim were thought not to be Jews, since they could not speak Yiddish and (satirically described) do not eat matzo balls. Sadly, the stories might be somewhat amusing in retrospect, but at the time they were tragic testimony to an unfortunate misunderstanding. One consequence was rejection of Ashkenazi-Sephardic "intermarriage," particularly during the immigrant generation. In the author's words, "In reality, marital relations between Ashkenazim and Eastern Sephardim were extremely rare during the first immigrant generation. For Ashkenazim in Seattle, a marital union between a Sephardic and an Ashkenazic Jew was tantamount to non-Jewish wedlock…" There are those who contend that rejection of marriage with other Jews was a cause in increasing unions with non-Jews.

If there is an exception to marriage outside the cultural group, the author points out that Syrian Jews tend to marry amongst themselves more than any other Sephardic group.

The book concentrates on the United States, but it should be remembered that the U.S. is only one case in point. The undersigned is acquainted with similar stories of exclusion in other countries, such as early 20th century Cuba where Sephardic Jews were rejected as Gentiles.

History is meant to teach, and if anything can be learnt from mistakes of the past, it is that the Diaspora has imposed upon us many local languages and a diversity of customs. We have to discard our prejudices and remember that halachic Judaism unites our people.

Yet, for all of the misunderstanding and derision, Ashkenazi Jews today speak Hebrew with a "Sephardic" accent. Why? This question fascinated the author of this book, and she devotes a large section to it. In Ben-Ur's evaluation, Hebrew was long used for communication between various Jewish groups even before its "revival" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Linguistic "shift" (better, "standardization") started in Palestine in the Haskala and Zionist movements and slowly spread abroad, in ultra-Orthodox circles influencing spoken Hebrew but not the pronunciation of prayers. The adoption of the Sephardic pronunciation was one of appreciation for sounds and certainly not a gesture to the Sephardic community.

This book is not a history of Sephardim in the United States. It is a good look at the sociological composition of the American Sephardic community, attitudes towards them, and the problems they encountered. The book provides excellent thought material for the reader, although it is a shame that more comparative material is not included..


from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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