Newspaper Archive of
Heritage Florida Jewish News
Fern Park , Florida
May 8, 2009     Heritage Florida Jewish News
PAGE 14     (14 of 20 available)        PREVIOUS     NEXT      Full Size Image
PAGE 14     (14 of 20 available)        PREVIOUS     NEXT      Full Size Image
May 8, 2009

Newspaper Archive of Heritage Florida Jewish News produced by SmallTownPapers, Inc.
Website © 2019. All content copyrighted. Copyright Information.     Terms Of Use.     Request Content Removal.

PAGE 14A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MAY 8, 2009 A new book examines the place of Sephardim in 4merica By Adam Kirsch eval SpanishasYiddish does The story Ben-Ur has to arrivals at arm's length, so NEW YORK (NEXTBOOK) A hundred years ago, if you walked the streets of the Lower East Side, you would expect to hear Yiddish spoken all around you and to see storefronts covered in He- brew letters spelling Yiddish words. But as an article in the Jewish Immigration Bulletin noted in 1916. from time to time you might come across "other signs in Hebrew characters that you perhaps cannot read" advertising establishments like Cafe Constantinople and Cafe Smyrna. And the people who sat in those cafes--"Are they Jews? No, it cannot be; they do not look like Jews; they do not speak Yiddish. Listen: what is that strange tongue they are using? It sounds like Spanish or Mexican .... On your way home you think and wonder who these alien people can be who speak Spanish, yet are not Span- iards; speak Greek, yet are not Greeks; have Turkish as their mother tongue and wear turbans, yet are not Moslems." The answer, of course, is that these mysterious people were Sephardim descendants of the Spanish Jews who settled in the Otto- man Empire after they were expelled from Spain in 1492. But as Aviva Ben-Ur shows in "Sephardic Jews in Arnerica: A Diasporic History," it was remarkably difficult for the vast majority of American Jews, whose roots lay in Eastern Europe, to know how to think about their Sephardic neighbors. As the description above makes clear, for Ashkenazi Jews, Jewishness was signaled by a few basic markers--above all, physical appearance (including skin color) and knowledge of Yiddish. Could a Jew who spoke Ladino, which bears roughly the same relationship to medi- to medieval German, really be considered a Jew at all? That was the question one Ashkenazi woman posed in a letter to the editor of La Bos del Pueblo (The Voice of the People), one of the Ladino newspapers that briefly flourished in New York City in the first half of the 20th century. Clara wrote to ask about Jack, a Sephardic man with whom she had fallen in love. "At first glance, I thought him Italian," she explained. "The way he spoke, his countenance and his ges- tures were like those of the Italians. But later, when we began seeing each other, he swore to me that he is a Spanish speaking-Jew." The. problem was that Clara's parents refused to believe it, and so theywould not consent to the match. "Now, I beg you," Clara implored the editor, "to tell me through your esteemed newspaper if it is possible that a Jew who doesn't speak Jewish, and doesn't look Jewish, can nevertheless have a Jewish soul." The answer was just what Clara wanted to hear, and one hopes her parents read it: "Yes, Clara, the boy speaking Spanish, having Italian gestures, who can read our newspaper, is Jewish .... There are many examples of Sephardim living with Ashkenazim in the greatest harmony." But as Ben-Ur goes on to point out, things were not quite as rosy as La Bos del Pueblo made them seem. In fact, she writes, "marital liai- sons between Ashkenazim and Eastern Sephardim were exceedingly rare dur- ing the first immigrant generation." So strong was Ashkenazi skepticism that, in Seattle, where there was a sizable Sephardic com- munity, a Sephardic Jew was four times more likely to marry a Christian than an Ashkenazi Jew. tell, then, is largely one of- miscommunication. But fail- ures to communicate can be as revealing, in their way, as successes, and the ways Sep- hardic and Ashkenazi Jews thought about one another in the early 20th century offers some surprising insights into the construction of modern American Jewish identity. That is why Sephardic Jews in America offers so much food for thought, even though, as Ben-Ur readily acknowledges, Sephardic Jews were never more than a tiny fraction of the Jewish population "a minority within a minority," to use her term. A vast wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924, when restrictive im- migration laws took effect. But the Ottoman Empire did not allow emigration until 1908, and during the First World War it was very difficult to leave Turkey, especially after the United States entered the war on the Entente side. That meant Sephardic Jews had a much smaller window of opportunity to come to America: In 1920, out of roughly 1.5 million Jews in New York City, there wer at most 25,000 Sephardim. (Hard and fast numbers, Ben-Ur writes, are impossi- ble to come by.) Even today, only around 4percent of the American Jewish popula- tion is non-Ashkenazi, and that includes later waves of immigrants from Iran and Arab countries. Ben-Ur's focus is spe- cifically on Ladino-speaking Jews who traced their ances- try back to Spain in He- brew, Sepharad, from which the word Sephardic derives. Yet one of her themes is the difficulty Sephardim found in claiming a name for themselves. For just as America's older German Jews often tried to keep the new Polish and Russian America's few well-estab- lished Sephardic families wanted to distinguish their own pedigrees, which led back to the Colonial period, from those of the new Otto- man immigrants. The very first Jews in North America had been "Western Sephardim' Jews whose ancestors left Spain for Portugal, the Netherlands and England, and who came to the New World in the wake of those countries' colonial expan- sion..New York's Congre- gation Shearith Israel was establis.hed in the 17th century to serve these Jews, who spoke Spanish or Por- tuguese, not Ladino, and some of the most prominent Jews in American life, such as Benjamin Cardozo and Emma Lazarus, tracedtheir roots back to these pioneers. With the arrival of new, Ladino-speaking Jews, Ben- Ur shows, these established families sometimes tried to keep the name Sephardic for themselves, preferring to call the newcomers Oriental or Levantine Jews. In 1911, for instance, the Hebrew Im- migrant Aid Society estab- lished a Sephardic Bureau to help Ladino-speaking immigrants, who often fell through the cracks at Ellis Island because there was no one available to translate for them. But Shearith Israel pressured HIAS, success- fully, to change the name to Oriental Bureau. The same thing hap- pened when the Federation of Sephardic Societies, a mutual-aid group, was compelled to rename itself the Federation of Oriental Jews. As Ben-Ur notes, in a period when immigration from "the Orient"--that is, East Asia--was banned, be- ing labeled Oriental was not necessarily a good thing for these new Jewish arrivals. "Does there exist in New York some Federation of Oc- cidental Jews that we should call ourselves by an opposite name?" demanded one irate letter-writer in the Ladino newspaper El Progreso. Ironically, even as the relationship between Sep- hardim and Ashkenazim showed strain, the myths and stereotypes associated with Sephardic Jews were largely positive ones. Ben-Ur devotes a chapter to the way that Ashkenazi schools and synagogues came to use the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew, influenced by the prestige of Palestin- Jan Hebrew speakers. And many German and Eastern European Jews--like many American Jews today, one might add--cherished a highly idealized picture of Golden Age Spain as a time of Jewish flourishing, and particularly of successful Jewish assimilation. Sephardic Jews could draw on this legacy for com- munal pride, as in a 1911 article from La America that Ben-Ur quotes: "The blood of Maimonides, Judah HaLevi, and the Abravanels still courses through our veins." Yet this sort of myth could also prove to be a double-edged sword, when Ashkenazim observed that 20th-century Sephardic immigrants were not all Abravanels. Indeed. Ben-Ur notes, some Ashkenazi crit- ics of Sephardim attributed to them the very vices--for instance, an excessive in- terest in bargaining--that Europeans attributed to Ashkenazim themselves. It isn't easy to be a minority group, but as Ben-Ur shows, being a minority within a minority is harder still. Adam Kirsch is the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a new biography in Nextbook's Jewish Encounters series. Reprinted from Nextbook. org, a new read on Jewish culture. Pearl headlines Maccabi USA event Maccabi USA Bruce Pearl (1), with the gala's chair, Bonnie Rudin, and former NBA center Danny Schayes, will be making his first trip to Israel when he coaches Team USA at the 2009 Mac- cabiah Games. By Jacob Berkman NEW YORK (JTA) It's not unheard of to find Bruce Pearl, the men's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, somewhere in public screaming with his shirt off be it as a specta- tor rooting on the women's basketball team with his portly belly painted orange and sporting a giant V for Volunteers, or onstage rapping at a school awards ceremony, Last week, though, at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, the gut stayed covered as he donned a tux to emcee a fund-raising gala for Mac- cabi USA. Pearl will be among the 9,000 participants from more than 54 countries in th Maccabiah Games in Israel July 12-23, when he serves as the head coach of the United States men's basketball team. Organizers of the Olym- pics-style competition for Jewish athletes, which has been held every four years in Palestine and then the State of Israel since 1932, say it is the third largest athletic gathering of any kind. For Pearl, participating in the games is about fos- tering Jewish identity--his own, as it will be his first visit to [srael, and other young Jews who otherwise may not have a connection to their people and land. "The biggest thing that we can do is help themwith their direction, help them know who they are--and they are the leaders of our future," the coach told an audience of several hun- dred. "This experience will be with them for the rest of their lives." For Pearl it had been a busy week, as the gala fell on the last day of an eight- day open recruiting period for NCAA coaches during which he crisscrossed the country looking for the next class of Vols. Pearl said he had made similar efforts in recruiting his 2009 Maccabi squad, as he is dedicated to bringing home gold. "We have to strengthen our bonds with the State of Israel. When I went out and recruited, that is what I sold them on the opportunity to go back to their home- land," he said, adding that when he arrives in Israel, "I will kneel on the ground and kiss that land." The event boasted a few other big names, including former NBA center Danny Schayes, WNBA Commis- sioner Donna Orender and "Survivor: Africa" winner and former professional soccer player Ethan Zohn. Orender, who played on the 1985 U.S. women's bas- ketball team, said her expe- rience as an athlete truly did shape who she is now, even though it did not end in a clear-cut victory. The United States was set to face Israel for the gold medal, but the Israelis decided to boycott the final to protest the fact that the women's title game was slated for a substandard gym while the men's basketball finals were given center stage in Tel Aviv. "We. could have showed up and won by forfeit, but we honored their protest," Orender said. "What was a gold medal when we had issues to address with our Israeli sisters?" It is testimonies like those from Orender and Pearl that the officials of Maccabi USA, which pays for the American squad of more than 900 athletes, were hoping would inspire others to help th.em pay for the games. They hoped to raise at least $500.000 at the event, but may need more the recession has made pro- hibitive the $6,600 price tag that each athlete is expected to raise to partici- pate in the games. Scratch at least one ath- lete from the list of those heading to Israel, though not because of any cash crunch. Pearl told the crowd that he tried to recruit his star forward at Ten- nessee, Wayne Chism, to play for him in Israel. The coach joked that he had Chism, who is not Jewish, on board until he men- tioned that he might need to undergo a circumcision to make the team.