By Selin Senol -
On March 4, 1992, Turkish Jews celebrated at the Neve Salom Synagogue in Istanbul the 500th anniversary of their ancestral acceptance in Ottoman Turkey under Sultan Beyazit II, after the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews (who refused to convert to Christianity) by Spain in 1492. Hearing about the eviction, the Sultan issued a welcoming decree for the Jews, purportedly commenting that the Spanish King must have ‘lost his mind’ for expelling his ‘best’ and ‘wealthiest’ subjects. ‘Sephardim’, referring to Jews with ancestral origins from the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal), is said to come from the word for ‘Spain’ in Hebrew, also found in the Bible. A major portion of Sephardic Jews, speaking a Judeo-Spanish language called ‘Ladino’, settled in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, especially in the cities of Istanbul and Salonika; myth has it that the root word Sepharad, the land where Hebrew wanderers settled after the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, likely refers to a region in Asia Minor, or, modern-day Turkey.
Today, the Sephardic community in the United States is generally known for its members’ attachment and loyalty to their native lands in and around Turkey. New York City has the largest population of Sephardim in the country, and is known, together with Seattle, for having one of the earliest and most influential Sephardic communities in the US; the two cities are also interconnected in that many young people from Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation in Seattle, for example, tend to travel to NYC to further their Jewish education. The Sephardic Diaspora in the United States, however, also includes decades-old communities in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Atlanta, Montgomery, Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Rochester, New Brunswick, etc.
UNITY WAS ACHIEVED BY A TURKISH-BORN RABBI
Such Sephardic colonies, spread throughout the United States, often faced the problem of unity as there was never any one, recognizable organization uniting all of them; this was certainly the case with the Sephardim of New York. An effort in the 1920s, for example, by New York’s Sephardim to maintain a central communal-institution entitled the ‘Sephardi Jewish Community of New York, Inc.’, with a community house located on 115th Street in Harlem, eventually fell apart, lacking visionary leadership. The lack of unity showed itself most poignantly in the realm of religious guidance: the lack of unity in liturgy was especially found to be problematic and unfruitful for the production of Sephardic leaders. As a solution, the ‘Union of Sephardic Congregations’ was founded in 1928, formed through a meeting of three ancient congregations: the Shearith Israel in New York (founded in 1684), Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia (founded in 1740) and Shearith Israel of Montreal. Although this Union obtained a very significant achievement with the publication of Sephardi prayer books, it too gradually became inactive.
A final attempt at unity was made by Turkish-born Rabbi Nissim J. Ovadia, who shortly after his 1941 arrival in the United States created the ‘Central Sephardic Jewish Community of America, Inc.’: although facing mostly NYC concerns, its membership consisted of Sephardim living in other US cities as well. After Mr. Ovadia died in August of 1942, his wife, Mazal Ovadia, helped to organize a women’s division for the Community. In September 1943, the seemingly successful organization then launched a bulletin entitled The Sephardi, with the stated purpose of ‘[awakening] the Sephardi masses to the necessity of a united Sephardi community throughout the Western Hemisphere’; it lasted until 1957.
10,000 SEPHARDIC JEWS IN EARLY 20th CENTURY AT NEW YORK CITY
When Moise Gadol, a successful businessman who became the editor of the first Ladino-American newspaper ‘La America’, which ran from 1910 until 1925, arrived in NYC from Bulgaria in 1910 to visit relatives, he was surprised to see the plight of the immigrants living on the Lower East Side, especially the Sephardic Jews numbering over 10,000.
In the early 1900’s, Shearith Israel of New York had been conducting free Holy Day services for the needy, for example- a form of charity often called ‘overflow services’. Gadol observed in 1913 that 90% of the worshippers in such services were Turkish Jews and believed that sending such immigrants to the downstairs auditorium of the synagogue, as became the custom, rather than allowing them to occupy seats in the main area, was degrading.
Nonetheless, success stories did arise amongst Turkish Jews in NYC despite a general state of economic despair; the Shinasi Brothers, born in Manisa, Turkey, became the most inspiring of such luminaries. Although they arrived in the US without much money in 1892, they were able to turn their small cigar-factory establishment, which at first began operation with merchandise sold on the streets, into a profitable business entitled ‘Shinasi Brothers’ making millions of dollars each year-eventually selling the factory to the Tobacco Produce Company in 1916 for $3.5 million.
Other notable businessmen and professionals included Eliah and Jack Crespi from Ankara (of The Sunshine Battery Company), Samuel Yahya from Istanbul (of the Adams Paper Company), lawyer John Hezekiah Levy, and Mair Jose Benardete- the first Turkish Jew licensed to teach public school in the US.
Between 1890 and 1924, nearly thirty thousand Sephardic Jews came to the United States, most of them Ladino-speaking people originating from Turkey and the Balkan region, settling mostly in the Lower East Side of New York City - often facing wretched conditions. Many came after various nationalist revolts led to a gradual collapse of the Ottoman Empire around this time, lured by dreams of entrepreneurial success similar to that achieved by the Sephardic Jews who had immigrated many years earlier; they were called ‘Orientals’ by the existing Sephardic Jewish community to distinguish them from the earlier ‘Grandees’.
Around 10,000 Sephardic Jews entered the US between 1908 and 1914, with 1,911 Jews being recorded in the year 1912 as originating from Turkey. Sephardic communities in the Ottoman Empire were also affected around this time by grave natural disasters as well as the violence of Turkey’s war with Italy in 1911-1912 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913; with the official breakout of WWI in 1914, stories of America as a place of prosperity and equal opportunities for economic advancement became especially appealing. The 1908 revolt of the Young Turks attempting to create a constitutional government in Turkey, beginning compulsory military service in the country for all male citizens, affected the poorest citizens (usually non-Muslim minorities) the most. This is because they were the ones unable to afford paying a certain amount of money to the government to exempt themselves from being drafted and becoming soldiers; Gadol believes this was a major reason behind many of the Jews leaving for America.
Albert Amateau, for example, was such a Jew who came to New York in 1909 and went on to organize a self-help society for Sephardic Jews called the ‘Brotherhood of Rhodes’.
Sephardic immigrants initially felt unwelcomed by Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, whom they felt often saw them as ‘Greeks, Italians, or Turks’ because of their appearance and exotic culture and somehow not ‘actually’ Jewish. In time, however, Gadol celebrated that feelings of affinity between the two groups were achieved for the most part, though certain identity-issues of feeling ‘unique’ still exist amongst Sephardim today- he attributed this to his La America. With time, some Sephardim on the Lower East Side were able to find economic success and relocate to more spacious living spaces in Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx, while others were relocated to places like Seattle and Indianapolis by the Industrial Relief Office (IRO).
The deepest-rooted and most prestigious Sephardic society in NYC was the ‘Union and Peace Society’, founded in 1899 with English as its official language; most of its members originated from Turkey, including the Shinasi brothers, and many worshipped at the Shearith Israel synagogue. It is worthy to note that another organization, the ‘Oriental Progressive Society’, was founded in 1904 with most of its members being Ashkenazi Jews from Turkey. There were also organizations created by Sephardim from Canakkale, Churlu, Silivri, and Ankara, Turkey. Most of these Sephardim were concerned with raising enough money to both earn a living as well as send money to their relatives back in Turkey and that region, facing many financial difficulties along the way; Gadol even suggested at one time, unsuccessfully so, that a collector should actually be sent to such Sephardic societies to pick up unpaid pledges and subscription-money for his magazine!
Turkish Sephardic immigrants were called ‘Turkinos’ and soon many ‘Turkino’ cafes and restaurants were popping up all over NYC, especially on Chrystie Street. As such, the Sephardim were gradually getting used to their new environments while culturally staying in touch with their fellow Sephardim in this ‘new world’- similar to other such distinctly ‘American’ realities as the Chinese of Chinatown or Italians of Little Italy. ‘Dark’ aspects of life on the Lower East Side, such as gambling, prostitution, rape, adultery and alcoholism soon found themselves impacting the Sephardic community as well, however, causing many to complain of this new environment. This was America, after all, and instead of an Ottoman Sultan inviting Jews being evicted from the Iberian Peninsula, there was now the ‘American Dream’ inviting them- and its consequences, both ‘positive’ (success in return for hard work) and ‘negative’ (parting from morality and traditions), can affect every immigrant, regardless of where he or she is from, in the same ways.
- Guleryuz, Naim. ‘Iber’den Gunumuze Turk Yahudileri’nin 500 Yillik Yolculugu (Turkish-Jews’ 500 year-old Voyage since the Iberian Peninsula)’, TUSIAD: Gorus Dergisi (Ozel Sayi)- Turkiye Yahudileri, September 2003
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-Birmingham, Stephen. ‘The Grandees- America’s Sephardic Elite’. Syracuse University Press. 1997
-‘SBH 90th Anniversary’, Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation, sbhseattle.org
-Albert Adatto, “Sephardim and the Seattle Sephardic Community” (M.A. thesis, University of Washington, 1939)
- Lorraine Sidell, "Historically Speaking: Sephardic Jews of Seattle," Part II Nizcor: Washington State Jewish Historical Society Newsletter, March 1992
-Gurock, Jeffrey S. & American Jewish Historical Society. American Jewish History: A Eight-Volume Series, 1998
-Belinfante, Randall C. ‘The Other Lower East Side’. American Sephardic Federation (americansephardicfederation.org)
-Angel, Marc D. ‘La America: The Sephardic Experience in the United States’. 1982