A Long Journey from Edirne to the U.S.: The Mitrani Family Adventure

Norman Belmonte is front of the picture of Edirne Synagogue which his parents got married in 1913.

After 1492 many exiles from Spain came to Edirne (Adrianople), a town in Turkey located in eastern Thrace near the Turkish-Greek-Bulgarian frontier, followed by refugees from Portugal, and Italy as well.
These new immigrants, who had different customs from the Romaniots, established their own congregations (kahal, pl. kehalim) according to their place of origin. In 1656 there were 15 different kehalim, most of them named after locations in Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
On the basis of Ottoman fiscal registers, the city's population in 1580 was around 30,000 inhabitants. During the second half of the 17th century, the general population grew to about 100,000; many of them arrived in Edirne following the temporary transfer of the Sultan's residence to the city (until 1703). At the time the Jewish population of the city grew from 2,500 people to about 5,000.

One of Jewish families that lived for many years in Edirne was the Mitrani Family. The writer, historian, and poet Baruch b. Isaac Mitrani (1847–1919) taught at the Alliance schools. He endeavored to implement new methods of education. To achieve these aims he established a new school – Akedat Yitzhak – and published books on education in Hebrew and a grammar of spoken Judeo-Spanish. He edited the first newspaper that was published in Edirne: Karmi (1871–81) and Kerem Sheli (1890; in Hebrew and Ladino), calling for Jewish colonization in Palestine and national revival.*


According to Jewish sources, there were 12,000 Jews living in Edirne in 1873 and 17,000 in 1902. Their numbers reached a peak of 20,000 in 1912 on the eve of the first Balkan War. Between the years 1899-1912, about 8,000 Ottoman Jews immigrated to the United States alone. Mitrani family moved to the U.S. in 1919.

Norman Belmonte’s uncle, the first Mitrani family member who moved to the U.S., left in 1919 and then the other brothers followed him. Norman Belmonte’s father side had come directly from Spain after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and his mother’s side emigrated from Italy to Edirne. His mother’s father was a kosher wine maker in Edirne.

Belmonte’ parents got married in 1913 in the biggest Edirne Synagogue. Synagogue collapsed in 1997. One of the last pictures of this Synagogue is hanging on Norman Belmonte's office wall.
Following the great fire of 1905 in which all 13 synagogues in Edirne were burned to the ground, the community constructed a new synagogue in 1907 which was modeled on the synagogue of Vienna. It could accommodate 1,200 worshipers – 900 men and 300 women – and was designed to demonstrate the community's achievements and modernity. The last standing synagogue collapsed late 1990’s but one of pictures of the synagogue is still hanging on Norman Belmonte’s office wall.

The couple had five children. Three of Belmonte’s four sisters were born in Edirne, the other one was born in Cuba and finally he was born in the U.S. A question comes to mind: How come one of his sisters was born in Cuba?  

Belmonte’s family had very long journey to reach the United States. In early 20th century the U.S. had a quota system for accepting new immigrants. Emergency legislation in 1921 imposed a quota system, limiting the number of immigrants from Europe to 3 percent of the number of foreign-born members of that same nationality in the U.S. during the 1910 census. Then in 1924 the U.S. passed the National Origins Act. This act further limited immigration by reducing the allowable number of entries to 2 percent and by using the 1890 census as the base, further discriminating against the newer immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, favoring immigration from northwestern Europe, and barring immigration from the Far East.

According to the law, naturally Turkish immigrants’ applications were at the end of the list and Belmonte’s family had to wait at least 50 years because northwestern European countries, such as England, Ireland, and Scotland, were at the top of the list.

So the family decided to take a risk and first they moved to Cuba in 1923. Belmonte’s father’s official name was Yakof Tabah at that time and the family lived in Cuba for 11 years. Afterwards, a priest friend of Yakof Tabah helped him to enter the U.S.

A Panamanian diplomat had died and the priest gave his papers to Yakof. After waiting 11 years in Cuba, with a dead diplomat’s papers, Tabah family entered the U.S. and the family took the Panamanian diplomat’s last name: Belmonte.

Norman Belmonte was born in 1935 in the U.S. He was the first American citizen member of the family. In 1937, the police figured out that the family had entered the U.S. with fake papers. His father was arrested and put in jail. After witnesses testified that he was a good person, they let him go. After a 22-year adventure, finally his father became a U.S. citizen in 1945.  

Belmonte’s uncles established Milco Industries in 1921. His father worked for the company as well. The company is in the textile business and Norman Belmonte was the President/CEO. Now, he is the chairman of the company but he doesn’t have an active role in the company’s daily business. His nephew Lenny Comerchero runs the business.

Milco has two divisions. One is textile manufacturing in Pennsylvania; the other is ladies sleepwear, active wear, and intimate apparel. Milco works with various countries such as Mexico, China, Turkey, and El Salvador. In the past, they had an office in Istanbul for 10 years. Milco employs a total of 220 people and its 2008 sales were $39.4 million.

At the same time, Belmonte serves on the governing boards of the Technion and the American Technion Society, as well as the American Sephardi Federation, the Center for Jewish History, and the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players.  Belmonte is Chairman of the ISEF Foundation.

Even though he was not born in Edirne, Belmonte was curious to see his parent’s hometown. He first visited Edirne in 1990. One of his sisters also had a chance to see Edirne once again. She was 2 years old when she left Edirne.

On one of Belmonte’s trips, he visited the old Alliance Israélite Universelle school, which his father taught. The school had opened for boys in 1867; afterwards, the Jewish community donated it to the Turkish government. On this trip he was lucky to find both the school building and the remnants of the Synagogue where his parents were married. A local taxi driver helped them find the school and the Synagogue.

He remembers many Turkish Jewish from Istanbul, Edirne and Izmir in his childhood. He says, “They used to get together, played poker and backgammon. There were many Turkish Jews in Brighton Beach in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn as well as Long Island, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle and New York City.” He says proudly he has an original backgammon set from his father.

Belmonte remembers his mother’s Sephardic Turkish food and says, “She was a wonderful cook.”
Like many of his friends, Norman learned Ladino at home. He adds, “In that time, if someone spoke Ladino, it was a reference that he was from Istanbul, Edirne or Izmir.”

Norman’s oldest sister married a gentleman from Edirne. He recalls his sister’s father-in-law had a coffee shop in the lower east side of Manhattan. Belmonte smiles when he says that the coffee shop was like an unofficial employment agency.

The Mitrani Family Foundation (Belmonte’s mother’s family name is Mitrani) sponsored a unique project to photograph the remaining synagogues in Turkey from east to west. "The Historic Synagogues of Turkey” photograph exhibition opened at the Sephardic Federation and Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. As President of the Mitrani Family Foundation, Belmonte says it was an incredible experience to document and display all the old synagogues in one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.  
Norman Belmonte and his wife Vivian, a retired teacher, divide their time between New York and Colorado, where their daughters and grandchildren live.  

 * jewishvirtuallibrary.org
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07