Commentary Magazine

The Sephardic Community

To the Editor:

Mr. Leonard Plotnik’s article on the “Sephardim of New Lots,” in your January number, is disturbing reading—he places the Sephardim in a much too unfavorable light. No doubt he himself did not receive the right information in response to his inquiries, hence the many inaccuracies. . . .

He stresses too strongly the “isolationism” of the Sephardim of New Lots. He forgets to look at the other side of the picture, and ignores some important facts which brought about circumstances beyond their control that tended to keep them separate. Nor does he consistently restrict himself to the particular group of Sephardim (those of New Lots) which he is supposedly describing: he often goes into generalizations about the Sephardim, but his statements apply only to the New Lots group.

The settlement of the Sephardim followed the same general pattern as that of the Ashkenazim and, for that matter, the pattern of any immigrant group in the United States. In addition, the Sephardim were a minority within a minority. The first Sephardi settlers, from the Balkans, arriving about 1900, also settled on the Lower East Side, in Broome, Allen, Rivington Streets, etc., where their Ashkenazi brethren were already duly established. But there was little contact and no absorption, because of the language barrier. These Sephardim spoke mostly Ladino, Greek, or Arabic. They did not understand Yiddish. . . .

In the existing Ashkenazi synagogues they found a pronunciation strange to their ears, a service unfamiliar to them, and if there were any sermons in those days, they were not understood. So they were driven into isolation. They established their own synagogues which they called “Sephardic,” not from a feeling of pride or superiority, but to indicate to any future arrivals that here the Sephardi minhag was followed. . . .

The synagogues were their rallying points (just as with the Ashkenazim). They were well attended (not “rarely used”) and there were many of them, as the writer admits. The pattern was the same as that of the Landsmannschaften of the Ashkenazim: each group of people from one locality formed a synagogue of their own, and also societies for benevolent and burial purposes. . . .

The Ashkenazim, especially the social workers of HIAS, etc., found it, in their turn, difficult to deal with the Sephardim, and they often did not accept them as Jews because “they could not speak Yiddish.” . . .

Contrary to Mr. Plotnik’s statement that there were “no Sephardi intellectuals to serve as mediators,” two groups did yeoman work: first, the leaders of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue headed by Dr. David De Sola Pool and assisted by men and women in the congregation who were able to speak Spanish; and second, the intellectuals among the immigrants, for they were not all illiterate. Some had had an excellent education in the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, both men and women. They had not sunk to the level of the “ignorant labor classes in Turkey.” There were good schools and prominent rabbis, especially in Constantinople (Istanbul). Pupils of the Alliance organized the Oriental Hebrew Educational Association.

These Sephardim could then not take full advantage of the assistance offered by the existing agencies, which were geared to the Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking immigrants. To a great extent, they had to help themselves. Already in 1912 different groups “united” in a Federation of Oriental Jews in America, and they formed their own Relief Society in 1913. In 1910 they had started their own newspaper, a weekly in Ladino. They also had their own literary and dramatic societies, where plays were presented in Ladino. I myself saw an interesting performance of Racine’s Athalie shortly before the Second World War.

A good many Sephardim had settled in Harlem, between 110th and 125th Streets, and this number grew steadily. After the First World War a serious attempt was made to create a Center in Harlem, and soon there was a beehive of activities in a Sephardic Center, including a large school, all directed by Sephardim. However, circumstances beyond their control called a stop to this development when the mass movement of Negroes to Harlem began, and when the capable (Sephardi) director of the Center died a sudden death. The Center closed and the Sephardim dispersed. It was then that many moved to the Bronx. Again in the Bronx a “United” Synagogue was established when a number of people hailing from different localities built the Sephardic Jewish Center of the Bronx in 1948.

Due credit should be given to Rabbi Nissim Ovadia, who was the real founder of the Central Sephardic Jewish Community of America. Rabbi Ovadia arrived in New York at the beginning of the Second World War. He had to flee from Paris, where he had an important Sephardi congregation. He united eighteen different Sephardi groups and their leaders into one Community. This organization was developing well under his capable and accepted leadership up to the time of his death in 1942. In 1943 Dr. Isaac Alcalay was chosen spiritual head of the Community. The Community has a number of successes to its credit, especially the founding of a beautiful Sephardic Home for the Aged in Coney Island. . . .

It is not my intention to correct all the inaccuracies in Mr. Plotnik’s article. But I cannot allow to pass unchallenged his statement that the music in the Sephardi service originated in Spanish hymns, or is of Turkish origin. The Sephardim have preserved a number of Spanish ballads and secular songs, and occasionally such a melody has crept into the synagogue (just as Mo-oz Tsur among the Ashkenazim), but this happened before 1492, in Spain, and was severely criticized by the rabbis of the time. Most of the Sephardi melodies have a long Jewish tradition. . . .

(Rabbi) David A. Jessurun Cardozo
Mount Holly, N. J.



Mr. Plotnik writes:

It is apparent from David Politi’s letter, in last month’s issue (“Letters from Readers,” March), that members of the Central Sephardic Jewish Community are disturbed by my article and have misinterpreted my motive in writing it. It was not written to censure or praise the community of New Lots, nor to amuse the readers of COMMENTARY with a piece of exotica.

When I first came to New Lots, six years ago, eager to mobilize the Sephardic community for the support of Israel, I found it fraught with clannish dissension and insulated from the main stream of American Jewish life. I arrived well informed by Sephardic leaders about the obstacles I should have to face. In the course of these six years I have witnessed a development in the Sephardic community that, I venture to say, rivals that of any other Jewish community in New York. During the past five years the sisterhood of the United Sephardim has not only been able to overcome traditional obstacles in obtaining a voice in community affairs, but has become one of the most vigorous adjuncts in the National Jewish Women’s League and has injected a youthful enthusiasm into the United Synagogue movement. Within this same period I also saw the Sephardic Victory Club develop from a coffeehouse type of club into a progressive men’s social and center for communal participation in the philanthropic campaigns of the greater Jewish community. I have already discussed the phenomenon of the United Sephardim of Brooklyn in my original article. Certainly my gratification over these achievements would not predispose me to cynical criticism of the community.

The points of information in my article with which Mr. Politi disagrees are easily verified by historic reference and personal observation. Coffeehouses, cut from Old World patterns, still exist in Brooklyn as well as along Allen Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. However, I did not insinuate that these former centers of the community retained their initial importance to this day.

Clannish feuds between sectional societies, such as the Castoralis and Monastirlis, etc., still exist, although they are gradually disappearing. The recent attempt in the New Lots community to bring both of these bodies under one religious head is encouraging.

Despite the growing trend to subscribe to the “packaged” services offered by funeral establishments, many Sephardim continue to honor orthodox burial traditions. Cemetery directors have also recently imposed restrictions against catering on the grounds, but orthodox Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike continue to serve food at the conclusion of services.

I am not quibbling about what constitutes a cheder type of Hebrew school in contrast to Talmud Torahs duly recognized by the J.E.C. What was implied in my article was the vast difference in educational standards between the present Talmud Torah and the Hebrew school of the past.

As for the Turkish-Moslem influences in Sephardic services, this information was originally brought to my attention by the officers of the synagogue and elucidated for me by a scholarly Sephardic cantor who has extensive archives on modal forms and their origins. In this connection, let me quote a passage from the Jewish Encyclopedia (Vol. VI, p. 290): “. . . It is these chants and in rather later synagogal forms such as the Kerabot, based on similar material, that the musical figuration not infrequently presents points of contact, on the one hand, with the Gregorian music of Catholic tradition . . . or, on the other hand, with the traditional intonations of the Moslems. . . .”

Abraham Galanté, professor at the University of Istanbul and Sephardic historian, in his papers Documents officiels turcs concernant les Juifs de Turquie and Contributions à l’histoire des Juifs de Turquie discusses the great influence of the Jews on Turkish life as scholars, professionals, and officials in the Ottoman Empire. He also mentions the fact that Jewish officials were guests at Moslem services just as Jews and Christians visit each others’ places of worship in this country.

In regard to the decadence of Sephardic cultural life after the 16th century, I refer Mr. Politi to Professor Mair Jose Bernadete’s Hispanic Culture and Character of the Sephardic Jews: “Thereafter the stages of loss, degradation and decay took place, processes of depletion set in, and there were no counter movements to reinvigorate the disintegrating organism.” The exceptions of Joseph Caro, Rabbi Habib, and Joseph Bira, all prominent theologians and scholars, do not alter the general picture which Graetz, Dubnow, and Roth also paint.

Mr. Politi challenges my data on the state of affairs among the early Sephardic immigrants to America; these data come from records in the possession of the Central Sephardic Jewish Community.

As for the status of the Sephardic rabbinate and seminaries in modern times, I refer Mr. Politi to an official statement by Rabbi Hayim Nahum, former Chief Rabbi of Turkey and for many years spiritual leader of the Sephardic community in Cairo. Rabbi Nahum not only deplores the absence of seminaries but the lack of qualified rabbis as well: “. . . comme aussi les aspirants du Rabbinat se font des plus rares. Les études juives qui remissaient un grand nombres d’adeptes du XIXe siècle sont aujourd’hui délaisées et l’intérêt pour notre patrimoine religieux et spirituel risque de disparaître dans quelques années. . . .” I quote Rabbi Nahum with all due respect to the eminent Dr. Isaac Alcalay and other Sephardic rabbis throughout the country, including, of course, the noted American scholar, Dr. David De Sola Pool.

I must also remind Mr. Politi that since the first wave of “mass” Sephardic immigration to this country from the Ottoman Empire began about fifty years ago two adult generations of American-born Sephardim have come into being. Certainly the files of the Central Sephardic Jewish Community can verify this, too.

Mr. Politi further accuses me of crediting HIAS with the sole responsibility for bringing the Sephardic immigrants to this country at the turn of the century. I merely stated that: “. . . The poorer laborers, who could not pay for their own passage, were brought to the United States under the auspices of shipping agencies and philanthropic organizations like HIAS” (my present emphasis).

Referring to the use of “Yudak” and other such terms by Sephardim for Ashkenazic Jews, Mr. Politi insists that they are completely outmoded or “quite unknown.” Again I must disagree with him. They must still be in use since I learned them on the streets of New Lots.

I could continue at length to show that Mr. Politi’s case against my article is based on misunderstanding. In writing objectively about the Sephardic community, I believe that I have served the cause of Jewish unity better than if I had chosen to idealize the reality.

In answer to Rabbi Cardozo, I would simply say that my article was written to prove that being a minority group was not the sole cause of the dilemma of the Sephardic community in American Jewish life. This dilemma was a result of the conflict between clans who persisted in their proud sectionalism until quite recently. Only in New Lots, through the United Sephardim movement of the younger generation, has progress been made toward mobilizing the community into a constructive force in Jewish life.

As to the Harlem group, it may be said that the original settlement of Monastirlis Jews in Rochester, N. Y., or the settlement of Sephardim in Cincinnati, must have carried far more importance for New Lots, which counts among its prominent members former residents of these two cities.

Rabbi Cardozo challenges the Turkish origin of the music in the Sephardic services. I can refer him to S. Duran’s Magen Abot, S. Consolo’s Libro dei Conti d’Israele (Florence, 1892), A. Z. Idelsohn’s Jewish Music, and the article on Jewish music in the Jewish Encyclopedia. One of several examples given in these works is the prayer “Mar li Mar Mar Mar,” which comes from the Turkish “Krodas Yar Yar Yar.” The Turkish word dost (“friend”) ending each line in the modal is translated into the Hebrew dodi. The achot Ketanah (“little sister”), which was composed on the lines of the popular Levantine song “The Little Maid,” is another example.



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