Sephardic Jewish Immigrants: The Second Wave

A renewed influx of Sephardic immigrants around the turn of the 20th century.

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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.

Economic Situation

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."

Most of the Near Easterners subsisted as petty traders, however, and were quite poor. Even poorer were the Jews who arrived after the Young Turk Revolu­tion of 1908, those without sufficient funds to buy their way out of Ottoman military service, and others who were caught in the mael­strom of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Some 10,000 of these latter departed for America between 1908 and 1914. After undergoing the even grimmer trauma of World War I, another 15,000 Levantine Jews shared in the westward exodus, between 1920 and 1924. By the end of the decade, the number of Sephardim in the United States approached 30,000.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.