Though the first wave of Jewish immigrants to America were Sephardic–tracing their roots to Spain and Portugal–subsequent waves were dominated by Ashkenazim from Germany and Eastern Europe. As the following article demonstrates, however, the Sephardic influx did not end with the arrival of Ashkenazim. Reprinted with permission from A History of Jews in America, published by Vintage Books.
In the winter of 1916, a group of immigrant Jews in New York’s Lower East Side petitioned the city council to remove the "Turks in our midst," whose drinking, gambling, and carousing were creating havoc "in our respectable neighborhoods." "Who are these strangers," complained the Yiddish-language Jewish Immigration Bulletin that year, "who sit inside coffee houses, smoking strange-looking water pipes, sipping from tiny cups, and playing at backgammon and dice, games we are not familiar with?"
The "Turks"–the "strangers"–were Sephardic Jews. Yet they were Sephardim who bore little resemblance to the ancestors of Jewish settlement in the New World. The original forebears, it is recalled, were Western Sephardim, descendants of former marranos [Jews who, during the Spanish Inquisition, outwardly adopted Christianity but privately retained their Judaism] who returned to Judaism and established émigré communities throughout Western Europe and the West Indies, and eventually on the American mainland. By contrast, these 20th-century carousers belonged to Levantine, or "Eastern," Sephardic communities.
As descendants of Iberian Jews who had settled in the Ottoman Empire–and particularly in Syria, the Balkans, and North Africa–the Levantines in later centuries shared with the surrounding Muslim world a gradual atrophy of economic and cultural resources.
Then, from 1890 on, the Eastern Sephardim joined the stream of Greeks and Lebanese migrating to the Western Hemisphere. By 1908, some 2,700 of them had made their way to the United States. A few did quite well. Their earlier overseas connections enabled Meir Ben-Ghiat, Samuel Coen and the Mayohas brothers to establish lucrative oriental carpet and antique businesses. The Schinasi brothers opened a cigarette factory using "genuine Turkish tobacco."
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