America's Other Jews

Article excerpt

Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History

By Aviva Ben-Ur

NYU Press

2009, $35.00, pp. 321


Reading Aviva Ben-Ur's Sephardic Jews in America, I felt joy and sorrow. Joy because in Ben-Ur we are fortunate to have a historian whose careful research and loving concern for the travails of the Sephardim returns their voices to the narrative of American Jewish history. Sorrow because it has taken much too long for this story to be told.

Ben-Ur, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, has no choice but to begin her book on a melancholy note, with a chapter entitled "The Jews Who Weren't There." How do you make a people visible when they have been rendered invisible? Even while succeeding beautifully in bringing Sephardic Jews to life in all their nuances and complexity, the whole of her book remains haunted by the wounding consequences of their erasure from the larger Jewish narrative. The irony is that this narrative is the handicraft of fellow Jews, Ashkenazim oblivious to the Sephardic presence.

The book's introduction offers the most detailed and thoughtful discussion I have yet encountered on why Sephardic Jews have been excluded from mainstream Jewish life in the United States, and kept on the periphery of Jewish history by scholars who ought to know better. This marginalization is the result of factors that have as much to do with objective realities as with subjective attitudes. Certainly the miniature size of the community--Sephardic Jews have formed only three or four percent of the American Jewish population since colonial times--is a logical reason for their minority position. But even more important is the slipperiness of Sephardic ethnicity. Sephardic Jews have multiple ties to Jewish, Hispanic and Arab identities. They have connections to parts of the world that are non-European and non-Western and associated with a threatening sense of otherness.

Jews were considered "the Other" for much of the span of European history, culminating in the horror of the Holocaust. After the war, Ashkenazi Jews who were reinventing their identity in America and Israel sought to rewrite themselves into European history as a European people. Within this Europeanist paradigm, Sephardic Jews were an embarrassment. They were to be viewed with exotic curiosity at best and disdain at worst, their voices hushed, their stories obscured.

It is impossible for Ben-Ur to remedy this situation in her concise book. But she is able to accomplish something very important nevertheless. Balancing compelling true-life tales with sensitive historical analysis, she manages to inscribe Sephardic Jews into American history in ways that allow us to rethink the Jewish diaspora in terms of an entirely different cast of characters. She also documents in exquisite detail the bridges that Sephardic immigrants established with Spanish-speaking communities in the United States after being rejected by Yiddish-speaking Jews.

Her focus is on the first half of the 20th century and on Sephardic Jews who are of Iberian origin. She makes mention of the Mizrahim, Jews indigenous to North Africa and the Middle East, but she is mainly concerned with the segment of the Jewish community that spent centuries transplanted in the Balkans and the Anatolian Peninsula after the expulsion from Spain and Portugal. In the early 1900s, in the era of tumultuous change leading to the Ataturk reforms in Turkey and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, many of these Ladino-speaking Jews emigrated and made their way to New York, at a time when the city was newly crowded by Jews of Germanic and Eastern European background.

Here their troubles began. From the moment they set foot on American soil, Sephardic Jews found their Jewishness questioned, even denied, by established Ashkenazi Jews who were in a position to offer charitable assistance or at least rent them a room in a boarding house, but too often refused them such acts of kindness. …