SEPHARDIC JEWS IN AMERICA: A Diasporic History
by Aviva Ben-Ur
New York and London: The New York University Press, 2009, pp. 319.
Reviewed by Bension Varon
It would seem totally unnecessary to define the term 'Sephardic' for a contribution to a journal, Sephardic Horizons, bearing that name. Yet since the term is in a foreign language, Hebrew, and not widely known by non-Jews, it is useful to note that it refers to Jews whose ancestors lived at one time in Spain, called Sepharad (also spelled Sefarad) in Hebrew, and/or Portugal. The book reviewed here is a selective, or eclectic, history of Sephardim in America. As the author herself says, "this book is meant to be suggestive rather than definitive and will hopefully stimulate many additional forays into the archives" (p. 7).
The book was published in 2009, but it is far from out of date. It constitutes a treasure to be expanded, corrected where needed and exploited by generations of historians to come. Its author, Aviva Ben-Ur, is an academic historian (Ph.D. Brandeis, 1998) who, at the time of the book's publication, was Associate Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
The impetus for the book came from the author's apparently longstanding and strong conviction concerning the Sephardim's "scholarly and communal" (that is, social) neglect, exclusion and "marginalization" by both Ashkenazi Jews and non-Jews in America. The cost and legacy of this phenomenon are a matter of interpretation and debate, but the facts supporting the claim of neglect are not in doubt. The most dramatic example of this is the very limited attention given until rather recently to the disappearance of nearly 90,000 Sephardim, mostly but not exclusively Greek, during the Holocaust. Yet it is equally true that the Sephardim's neglect has been on the decline, as Ben-Ur herself recognizes, with attention being increasingly diverted to the more 'exotic' diverse groups like the Yemeni Jews. Ironically, this (in my opinion) owes a great deal to the 500th anniversary of the Expulsion in 1992, which spawned an avalanche of studies and presentations on Sephardic history by Sephardim and non-Sephardim, Jews and non-Jews alike.
By the author's design, the book is not in the format of a chronological history. It deliberately shuns the "linear" or chronological approach, and opts instead for a thematic approach.
The themes covered in the book's five main chapters are as follows. Chapter 1 includes immigration, ethnicity and identity. The author makes the important distinction between the Western or "Old" Sephardim (those who, after leaving Spain, settled in Western Europe), and the Eastern Sephardim; addresses the intractable problem of accurately presenting population numbers; and surveys the distribution of Sephardim in the United States. Also covered in an entire chapter (Chapter 2) is the adoption by global Jewry beginning in the early 20th century of the (Eastern) Sephardic pronunciation, spelling, and intonation of Hebrew. The next three chapters are devoted to intra-ethnic relations: relations between Eastern and Western Sephardim, which the author characterizes as an "estranged kinship"; between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, which the author calls "A Co-Ethnic Recognition Failure"; and between Sephardim and Hispanics, whether in the United States or back in Spain, a relationship dubbed more kindly and optimistically as "the Hispanic embrace."
Surveying the distribution of Sephardim in the United States, the author says that the story of the Sephardim in America is "very much a New York story" (p.7). Ben-Ur proffers such a statement after distinguishing between what she calls the 'Old' Sephardim and those Sephardim who emigrated eastward. The former would include both the oldest Jewish community in America, the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in New York, known as Shearith Israel, with the community’s offshoots in such places as Rhode Island and Philadelphia, and the Sephardim who emigrated to Western Europe, originally as conversos, and only later becoming openly Jewish. The latter group is constituted by the Eastern Sephardim, those who migrated to the Ottoman Empire, to places such as Istanbul and Salonika. Communities such as Atlanta or Seattle receive less attention. The adoption of Sephardic pronunciation in Mandate Palestine and most of the world is discussed next. We see the somewhat patronizing attention paid by the Uptown Sephardim to their new-found brothers down on the Lower East Side, the ethnic splintering which meant that Sephardim from different towns in the Ottoman Empire formed their own tight groups, and the different labels applied to them over the decades, such as "Oriental" Jews, "Turks" or much later "Sephardim." She also examines the lack of connection with Ashkenazim, and an incipient connection perhaps with Hispanic descendants of crypto-Jews in the south-western United States, on which she herself has doubts. She discusses the gradual coming into being of overarching communal organizations, such as Sephardic House and the American Sephardi Federation. The overall impression is one of fiercely independent small communities which over the years dwindled and often joined together the better to fight assimilation. While differences in religious practice led to fragmentation, a social need led to the urge for unity on a cultural and political level. She ascribes the "phenomenon of co-ethnic recognition failure" on the part of American Ashkenazim to (original) ignorance and later perhaps to racial stereotyping, and decries continuing exclusion.
While the themes are well chosen, the reasons for a thematic approach may have been related to data problems (the paucity of unbroken series of reliable demographic statistics). The effect of the thematic approach is that it tends to turn the book into a collection of essays rather than a unified whole. While the "scholarly and communal neglect" of Sephardim inspired the book and receives frequent mention in the text, this does not emerge as the book's sole, dominant or unifying theme.
The book's main strength is its contribution to Sephardic historiography. The book is based on an intensive review of the pertinent literature, data, archives (such as the Ladino press), and oral history, including innumerable interviews with both American Sephardim and non-Sephardim. In many areas the author went far beyond whatever past historians have done or could do in terms of either coverage or depth. She has done a service to future historians of the subject who, rather than covering the same ground—performing the tedious work of studying the past Ladino literature in the United States, for example—can henceforth focus on neglected or newly identified sub-themes. Among the several subjects or themes which the author covered—with some courage, I may add—is the past controversial and unsuccessful attempt beginning in the mid-1920s to urge or inspire Sephardim to study the "old Castilian"—an attempt long forgotten. The attempt was received with mocking and derision, although it deserves, at least in my opinion, to be taken more seriously. Ladino—an admixture of several languages based on Castilian—is well established, however, as the language of the Eastern Sephardim and continues to fascinate linguists. Yet one wishes the author might have gone farther. For example, while the author cites the available estimates of the American Sephardi population in detail and with the proper caveats, she stops short of offering her own evaluation of those estimates. Another strength or contribution of the book is its focus on and dramatization of the historical neglect of Sephardim by both scholars and non-Sephardic society. Even if overstressed, the phenomenon is a reality and "co-ethnic recognition" by Sephardim and Ashkenazim is at least partially still "a failure."
Earlier I referred to Aviva Ben-Ur as an academic historian. This is evident in the fact that fully one hundred pages, or one-third of the book, are taken up by reference "notes" which appear at the end of the text. This is not unusual for an academic publication, but it is surprising that the author did not consolidate her citations. Moreover, the book lacks a bibliography despite the emphasis on the value of the archives consulted, which remain somewhat obscure, and the academic credentials of the publisher, namely, New York University Press.
Despite the author's intense fascination with the scholarly and communal neglect of American Sephardim, it would have been interesting to know more about what was lost or omitted by this neglect. Despite the justified emphasis on the evolution, role and contribution of Ladino, there is little attempt to illustrate the relationship of it to Castilian. This would be easy to do, for example, by including a brief text, a sentence or two, in the two languages, which would be useful for an American populace increasingly exposed to modern Spanish: for example, by reproducing in Ladino a poem written in that language by Moise Soulam, a native of Salonika. The poem appears in the book in English alone.
Furthermore, the Ottoman connection of Sephardim is cited together with their other geographic links. Yet it is abundantly clear that the plurality if not the majority of Eastern Sephardim in the United States come from Ottoman lands, and more emphasis on this common heritage would help to, inter alia, draw up a profile of the group.
Finally, in general, it is striking that studies of Eastern Sephardim rarely show an interest in the two other minority groups—Armenians and Greeks—who lived side by side, often as rivals, sometimes as victims, in the same formerly Ottoman lands, breathing the same air and facing the same or similar external conditions or circumstances. Among these are the Italo-Turkish Wars (1911-13)--forcing the evacuation of civilian populations in and near Thrace, and leading to migration to the United States and elsewhere, often at the same time and for the same reasons--and the infamous Wealth Tax of 1942, to name two. By and large, Sephardic studies suffer from some insularity, and I think it would be beneficial to see comparisons of the three minorities' experience, perhaps in Sephardic Horizons.
Exploring history is a cumulative process where one builds and achieves results, brick by brick. The book reviewed here contributes fruitfully to this process.
Bension Varon is a retired official of the World Bank and a historian of the Jewish community of Turkey